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Vertigo: Collector's Edition

Universal Home Video

Starring James Stewart and Kim Novak

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

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"I'm not mad! I don't want to die. There's someone within me, and she says that I must die."

— Madeleine Elster, Vertigo

The easiest way to identify a master filmmaker is to observe how well his or her work holds up to multiple viewings. All too often a story's luster fades quickly, and even a movie beloved during the initial screening can feel stale and formulaic the second time around. Therefore, a film that actually demands more attention on subsequent viewings is to be cherished indeed.

Vertigo may or may not be Alfred Hitchcock's best film (depending on who you're talking to), but it's probably his richest — the one that keeps calling us back for further analysis, the one hardest to release from our minds after the end credits roll. The story, adapted from the French novel D'Entre Les Morts (From Among the Dead), is certainly one of cinema's most compelling, as famous for its magnificent construction as its actual entertainment value. A rich masterpiece of macabre obsession, Vertigo is not so much a movie as a web that entangles and ensnares both the characters and audience.

John "Scottie" Ferguson (played by Hitchcock regular James Stewart, in the last film they would make together) is a detective who leaves the force after a near-fatal misstep during a rooftop chase that leaves him with an incapacitating fear of heights. Having little to occupy his time, Scottie accepts a plea for help from an old college friend, Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore). Elster confides to Scottie that his wife, Madeleine, may be in danger:

Gavin: "I'm afraid some harm may come to her."
Scottie: "From whom?"
Gavin: "Someone dead."

Elster suspects that Madeleine (Kim Novak) may be possessed by the spirit of her great-grandmother, Carlotta. Madeleine frequently slips into strange trances, during which she seems to become another person; when she awakens, she's unaware that anything peculiar has happened. While entranced, Madeleine often goes to a local art gallery and stares for hours at a painting of Carlotta, and she has begun collecting possessions that once belonged to her dead relative as well. Scottie suggests Madeleine may simply be smitten with her family history, but it appears to be more complicated: the "real" Madeleine denies ever having heard of her great-grandmother. But these transformations are becoming increasingly frequent, and Elster fears for his wife's life: Carlotta committed suicide when she was 26 years old — Madeleine's present age. As a favor to his friend, Scottie agrees to keep an eye on her, hoping to unearth some clues about her condition along the way.

This setup implies a conventional (if fascinating) thriller, but don't be fooled: the above synopsis barely scratches the film's surface. Vertigo is much more than a tale of the supernatural: it's a story of passion and intrigue, obsession and objectification. When Madeleine commits suicide 90 minutes into the film (trust me, I'm not giving anything away by telling you this), Scottie becomes almost comatose with grief — he's haunted by images of Madeleine everywhere he looks: one woman has the same hairstyle, another the same outfit, another the same smile.

It's not until he meets Judy Barton (Novak, in a dual role) that Scottie comes alive again. The brunette Judy bears an amazing resemblance to the blond Madeleine, but it's not enough: Scottie insists on shaping her into an exact replica. His attempts to re-cretate the dead Madeline eventually destroy the relationship — but not in the way you'd think.

While much of Hitchcock's work revolves around obsession, Vertigo is the only film that's actually about it. Scottie sees Judy not merely as a substitute for his lost Madeleine, but as a penance: he reasons that if he can make Judy into Madeleine, he can protect her, thereby ending his feelings of guilt over her death. But Scottie doesn't really care about Judy — she could be anyone, as long as she's willing to be sculpted into the vision carried in his memory. In this respect, Scottie is somewhat like Victor Frankenstein: both are intent on bringing a dead form back to life, and they have little regard for the raw materials they use to achieve their goal.

The pace of Vertigo is deliberate and methodical; indeed, the second-billed Kim Novak doesn't speak her first line of dialogue until 46 minutes into the story. It could even be argued that the first two-thirds of Vertigo is little more than an extended prologue for Scottie and Judy's relationship, which occupies a scant 38 minutes of screen time. However, the tempo never drags, thanks to Hitch's technical genius and tremendous performances (and Novak is particularly good — you'll realize just how incredible she is on the second viewing, after a key plot twist is revealed. Her fine work is even more remarkable considering Hitchcock didn't want to use her; actress Vera Mills was his first choice for the part).

Very few directors know how to use the camera as well as Hitchcock did, and the lens in Vertigo becomes part of the story. The photography is as distant and aloof as Scottie's own feelings for Judy: medium and long shots are the norm, with close-ups rarely used to emphasize people. Conversely, Hitchcock often employs tight close-ups to heighten the importance of inanimate objects (the zoom-in on Madeleine's necklace, for example). By using this technique consistently throughout the film, Hitchcock strikes a disquieting, off-balance note from the first frame of the story, which adds immeasurably (albeit subtly) to the noir atmosphere.

The choice of lighting proves insightful as well. During one pivotal scene near the film's conclusion, Judy is seen only in shadowy profile as Scottie offers to love her if, and only if, she'll be Madeleine for him. She resists, trying to retain her identity. As her protests fall on Scottie's increasingly unreceptive ears, Hitchcock shows less and less of Judy — the shadows appear to swallow her up, much as Scottie's demands are destroying her own personality and individuality. Eventually, she can no longer resist:

Judy: "If I let you change me, will that do it? If I do what you tell me, will you love me?"
Scottie: "Yes."

...and she's forever lost in darkness. It's a chilling concept, and Hitchcock pulls it off brilliantly, making us feel the pain of both Judy and Scottie.

And there's so much more to Vertigo than just these details — I haven't even mentioned Barbara Bel Geddes' enchanting performance as Scottie's friend Midge, or the astonishing set design, or Bernard Herrmann's justly famous musical score. I leave these for you to discover yourself. And discover them you should, over and over again. I've seen Vertigo six times, and the more I watch it, the more I realize just how much there is to marvel at. The film is a like cinematic onion; with each screening, another layer is peeled away. But rest assured, you're still a long way from the center.

Vertigo, newly restored by James Katz and his film-preservation team for the movie's recent theatrical re-release, has never looked or sounded better. Universal's DVD transfer (1.85:1) is absolutely stunning, revealing every nuance of the original VistaVision photography. Capping off the package is a generous amount of bonus features, including an audio commentary track by the restoration team, a 30-minute documentary on both the making and the restoration of the film, several theatrical trailers, and numerous other goodies. Keep case.

— Joe Barlow

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