We all have personal movie; “Favorite” is too timid a word. Mine is Vertigo, the best movie ever made about romantic obsession. Hitchcock, gone since 1980, obsessed over sex, betrayal, madness, death and movies. The fat man was spooked by them all, except for movies. So he used the camera to wrestle his fears and created a hypnotic and haunting work of art. First released in 1958, Vertigo can hook you no matter when or where you see it. But I urge you to see it now, restored frame by frame to gleaming, big-screen, digital-sound splendor by James Katz and Robert Harris, who also rescued Lawrence of Arabia. Vertigo is the high point of Hitchcock’s brilliant career. Its re-release is an unmissable movie event.
Jimmy Stewart plays Scottie, a detective who’s scared of heights but not afraid to follow a client’s blond, suicidal wife, Madeleine (Kim Novak), on a twisted odyssey around San Francisco. The real twists are in Hitchcock’s head. Vertigo is about what movies are about: being swallowed up. Hitchcock, abetted by Robert Burks’ serpentine camera and Bernard Herrmann’s peerlessly seductive score, puts Scottie and the viewer in a trance. Scottie focuses only on Madeleine, whom he never even speaks to until he saves her from drowning near the Golden Gate Bridge.
Later, Madeleine climbs a church tower and leaps to her death. Or so it seems. Scottie suffers a breakdown and rallies only after spotting Judy (also Novak), a brunet store clerk who resembles the dead woman. Scottie barges into Judy’s life and fetishistically makes her over as Madeleine.
Most Hitchcock studies, notably Donald Spoto’s The Dark Side of Genius, see Scottie parallels in the director’s mania for making over actresses as the blonde ideal he found in Grace Kelly, who stopped making his movies to become a princess. Spoto views Hitchcock as a sick, obese puppy who lived chastely with his wife in his last 30 years and worked out his sexual kinks on film. But Hitchcock transcends private fantasy in Vertigo to strike a universal chord about the role of manipulation in love. Scottie’s initial failure at transforming Judy into Madeleine is the face of Hitchcock in agony. The effect of his success is near orgasmic.
Hitchcock’s wicked game is to make us secretly share in his obsession. Casting genial Stewart, the Tom Hanks of his day, was an inspiration. Audience identification with this film hero allows Hitchcock to lead us into the perverse psyche of a man who’d rather love a fantasy than a real woman. Stewart never gave a riskier, more riveting performance.
For heart, look to Novak, who is breathtaking in her dual role. “If I become her, will you love me?” asks Judy, who knows the price is losing her identity. Novak, a ’50s sex goddess, is rarely credited for the depth she brings to Vertigo, which predated the women’s movement. It’s a fierce, feeling piece of work and one of the great film performances. Her alchemy with the camera goes beyond the reach of actresses whose technique wins them Oscars but rarely a lingering place in the memory.
The naked emotions in Vertigo may reduce detached ’90s audiences to nervous laughter. But in the words of Orson Welles, whose Touch of Evil joined Vertigo as the other 1958 classic ignored for Gigi at the Oscars: “The best movies are always out of step.” This dizzyingly intricate film reveals new facets each time you see it. We leave Vertigo unsettled, like Scottie, who ends up on the edge of a precipice. Hitchcock is daring us to leap. He has prepared the ultimate fix for a cinema junkie: a movie to get lost in.