“The old master, now a slave to television, has turned out another Hitchcock-and-bull story in which the mystery is not so much who done it as who cares.”
– Time (16 June 1958)
“Brilliant but despicably cynical view of human obsession… The bleakness is perhaps a little hard to swallow, but there’s no denying that this is the director at the very peak of his powers, while Novak is a revelation. Slow but totally compelling.” – Time Out
I will win no friends with this review.
Vertigo is technically brilliant. Hitchcock has consummate command of his mise-en-scene and knows how to fill a wide screen, with San Francisco artfully rendered using a fresh and elegant palette. Bernard Herrmann’s score is brilliantly moody and asynchronous.
But the contrived and far-fetched plot, heavy-handed symbolism, and Hitchcock’s signature detachment-cum-contempt for his protagonists, make the whole affair rather bleak and alienating. The first half is so slow it undermines the mystery of the strange woman portrayed by Kim Novak. This shot of James Stewart after having followed her car around the same city block more than once, expresses my impatience precisely.
Hitchcock wallpapers the inside of a restaurant so garishly red in Stewart’s first encounter with the young woman he has been asked to tail, that it comes across as ham-fisted: danger danger alarm alarm sex sex. Then there is the atrocious portrait of a dead woman that inexplicably has pride of place in a public art gallery.
The cartoon nightmare sequence that is the immediate prelude to Stewart’s descent into catatonia feels imposed and artificial, as does the inexplicable flashing of a blue light over him as he slips into his disturbed dream. We then move to a scene in an institution where his mental breakdown is confirmed, and then a fast-forward in a jump cut to a released and supposedly ‘recovered’ Stewart wandering the streets manically obsessed with the specter of a dead woman. Towards the end the proceedings start to fall apart. An unbelievably chance encounter on the streets of San Francisco between Stewart and a young sales assistant stretches credulity past a reasonable limit.
The movie has a gothic noir look and feel, so it is no surprise that some writers see Vertigo as a film noir. I suppose you could say that there is a femme-fatale and the themes of obsession, betrayal, and criminality support this view. Andrew Spicer in his book Film Noir (2002) sees Vertigo as “the most profound of noir’s exploration of psycho-sexual dislocation”. Personally, I think Joseph H. Lewis’s The Big Combo (1955) is a better picture where these motifs are rendered with more economy, elegance, wit, and empathy.