“Vertigo” was released in 1958 and was the fourth and final collaboration between Jimmy Stewart and famed director Alfred Hitchcock. A few years ago, the British Film Institute named this as their #1 Greatest Film of All Time. I wholeheartedly disagree.
Firstly, based on the Hitchcock movies I’ve seen (“Rear Window,” “North by Northwest,” and “Psycho”), I simply don’t understand why he’s so acclaimed. He’s looked up to as some sort of mythic being, somehow up there with filmmakers like Spielberg, Kubrick, and Kurosawa. But he’s just not. His films were undoubtedly gorgeous and visually distinct, but with the possible exception of “Psycho,” he seemed to have trouble investing the audience in the characters, and thereby the story. Without compelling characters, we’re not going to care about the narrative as much as we should, and besides Norman Bates in “Psycho,” I find none of Hitchcock’s characters intriguing. They’re all sort of the same guy (it’s almost always someone with detective skills and a traumatic past experience) and never stand out. Plus, most of Hitchcock’s films lack smooth pacing. Their runtimes are way too long for the amount of story and I can only be distracted by the visuals for so long before I notice that the film lacks satisfying depth.
The movie’s main problem is its convoluted plot. In some cases, films like “Chinatown” can pull off complex narratives because the story and characters are so compelling and the narrative has unexpected twists and turns. However, “Vertigo” doesn’t provide such mystique. Instead of being a psychological thriller about a man haunted by his past and his debilitating fear of heights, the film goes for a bland yet unbelievably convoluted story.
I’ll do my best to summarize it: an ex-police officer named Scottie (Jimmy Stewart) struggling with vertigo has a friend with a scheme to murder his wife Madeleine by using an actress (named Judy) who looks like her to fool Scottie (who’s hired to track the wife, not knowing he was following an actress) into believing that the real wife was going crazy while also simultaneously falling in love with him. Then Judy/fake Madeleine lured Scottie into a bell tower in which she ran up to the roof while Scottie was stuck on the the stairs due to his vertigo, prohibiting him from seeing that there were actually two Madeleines on the rooftop. The husband then throws the real Madeleine off, killing her, and then makes his escape alongside Judy/fake Madeleine From the stairs, Scottie looks out the window and sees the real Madeleine die but still doesn’t know that the woman he was following was actually an actress. Due to this, he can then be used as a witness for the murder to be ruled a suicide in court and then… I mean come on! Is there no simpler way?
Also, to make matters worse, the writers and Hitchcock decided to craft a long, indulgent FIFTEEN minute sequence of Scottie following Judy/fake Madeleine. The film has criminally slow parts to it, and it only really picks up in the last 45 minutes when all the convoluted elements are finished.
Harping back to the love story between Scottie and Judy/fake Madeleine, it needs to be mentioned how rushed it is. After about two scenes, they instantly fall deliriously in love with each other despite the actors’ massive age gap and lack of chemistry. Additionally, the film, for some reason, has this useless side romance between Scottie and a character named Midge which has no impact on the plot. She’s just another character there for the sake of having another character in the movie, but she really doesn’t do anything meaningful besides swooning over Scottie. Midge just adds to the runtime and almost all of her scenes could be cut from the film with no impact on the narrative.
Despite all my gripes with “Vertigo,” it still has plenty of good qualities, namely the visuals and the brilliant use of color. Cinematographer Roger Berks was fantastic at consistently ensuring that there was something gorgeous or unique about each shot. Also, the dream sequences are fun and trippy, although a bit dated. Without some of these stunning visuals, the film wouldn’t be nearly as interesting to me. Another aspect of the film which makes it more engaging was Bernard Hermann’s exciting yet haunting score which was integral in setting the tone of the film.
Additionally, Kim Novak gave a terrific performance. Her job was extremely demanding, as she had to play two different characters, one of whom pretending to be the other. She excelled at this, providing a performance that always draws the audience to her whenever she’s on screen. Novak added some much needed depth to her characters that wouldn’t be there without her. Of course, Hitchcock once said in an interview that he thought Novak was miscast, which is utterly ridiculous. She should have been nominated for an Oscar for this performance.
“Vertigo” is the perfect example of an overrated film. It has clear, objective flaws such as poor pacing and a messy script but is somehow thought of as an all-time classic by filmmakers and critics. The stunning visuals, powerful score, and masterclass performance from Kim Novak give “Vertigo” some legitimate entertainment value, but the movie is largely disappointing. It takes an interesting premise and underutilizes it, instead concentrating on a convoluted and bloated romantic mystery. I really, really wanted to like this movie and I’m disappointed in myself for not enjoying it, but I have to be honest. “Vertigo” certainly isn’t bad, but it’s a weak film — at least in my opinion.