19 April 2010

Review: "Vertigo"

After being completely underwhelmed by Alfred Hitchcock's 1954 film Dial M For Murder I decided to watch what the American Film Institute considers to be the best mystery film ever made, Alfred Hitchock's 1958 film Vertigo. I have memories of watching the opening scenes and seeing James Stewart's panic attacks. The film is considered to be Kim Novak's crowning achievement, though her performance has not always been reviewed positively. James Stewart is widely considered to be one of the greatest legends in American film history and he gives an inspired performance in the film. James Stewart won the Academy Award for Best Actor in 1940 for his performance in The Philadelphia Story. The film is deservedly ranked on the American Film Institute's list of top ten mystery films ever made, but I would argue that it is undeserving of the top spot. Vertigo It is a top notch thriller with a romantic love story at its core, and the collaboration between James Stewart and Kim Novak help make it a tense and captivating film.

James Stewart plays John "Scottie" Ferguson, a police detective who develops acrophobia (fear of heights) after he witnesses a fellow police officer fall to his death from a San Francisco rooftop. He retires from the police force because he believes that his acrophobia will negatively affect him and he refuses to take a desk job. Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore) hires Scottie to follow his wife Madeleine (Kim Novak) and attempt to decipher her erratic behaviour. He follows Madeleine as she visits the grave of a woman named Carlotta Valdes, a museum with a portrait of the same woman and a hotel that was once the home of the Vales family. He learns that Carlotta is Madeleine's great-grandmother who lived a tragic life that ended in suicide. He witnesses Madeleine jump into San Francisco Bay and jumps in after her. Scottie brings Madeleine back to his home and comforts her and she reveals that she believes she is Carlotta Valdes. The two become increasingly closer and after Madeleine recounts a dream Scottie brings her to Mission San Juan Bautista where Madeleine runs into the bell tower and up the stairs. Scottie, halted by his vertigo, is unable to chase after her and watches Madeleine fall to her death. Scottie becomes depressed after Madeleine's death and begins visiting the same locations as Madeleine. The mystery surrounding Madeleine's death is soon revealed and Vertigo turns into an even more complex and thrilling film.

Watching the first half of Vertigo I kept seeing similarities between Madeleine and her belief that she was Carlotta Valdes with Toni Collette's character on United States of Tara. At first I thought that Vertigo was made before dissociative identity disorder (multiple personality disorder) was popularized on film, but Joanne Woodward's Oscar-winning performance in the film The Three Faces of Eve was released in 1957. I was a little put off by the age difference between James Stewart and Kim Novak in the film, but Hitchcock did a remarkable job of making the emotional relationship between the two characters seem plausible. Kim Novak was mesmerizing as Madeleine and her suffering was evident through her haunting eyes. I most enjoyed the quiet moments of Vertigo, especially at the beginning when Scottie was following Madeleine and the only sound on screen was the film's score. My only complaint is that Barbara Bel Geddes' character, Midge, was underused. I feel that her character's unrequited love for Scottie added an extra dimension that I wanted to remain present throughout the film. Vertigo is an intensely emotional thriller that mixes pain, lust and guilt to create an unexpected and beautifully shot film.

My rating: 4 stars out of 4.

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