In honor of our trip to San Francisco, my Hitchcock aficionado housemate and I settled down for a viewing of Vertigo, one of my favorites of the director's considerable oeuvre. After witnessing his partner fall to his death during a rooftop chase, John "Scottie" Ferguson (Jimmy Stewart) develops acrophobia and retires from the police force. When his old college buddy Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore) calls him up out of the blue asking him to tail his wife Madeleine (Kim Novak), Scottie can't resist the case. The striking Madeleine is apparently possessed by the ghost of her suicidal ancestor, and Elster wants to know more of the details of her mental health before committing her to a hospital. Despite warnings from his close friend Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes), Scottie becomes sucked into a mysterious plot surrounding Madeleine, and eventually he'll be forced to face his greatest fear.
Pardon my language, but this movie is certainly a shining example of the term "mindfuck". The story takes so many turns it begins to resemble the spiral motif employed so effectively in its visuals, and structurally there's little that I could predict the first time I saw it. The major twist happens half-way through the film, and the plot transforms from a complex mystery to a study of a man driven insane by betrayal. Watching it with knowledge of the twist actually makes it a bit more fun, since I can focus on so many of the little hints and details artfully inserted by Hitchcock. It also allows me to take it a little less seriously, and we had some fun times providing commentary for the period-specific sexism and just generally incorrect ideas about mental health.
I always forget how much of this movie I spend wishing Midge was onscreen. This lady is probably the best female Hitchcock character (a statement I'm making with complete abandon, since it's not like I've seen all of his films and it's not like I'm going through the ones I have seen to find comparisons). She is an independent, slightly older woman with a sharp sense of humor and mad artistic skills. Plus she designs brassieres! I would love to be her friend. Sadly she's not actually in the film all that much. Kim Novak and Jimmy Stewart are both very dramatic and big in their performances, which suits the tone of the film, but I appreciate Geddes' easygoing demeanor.
Vertigo is flawed, but that doesn't keep it from easily being called a masterpiece. It is tensely plotted, well-acted, gorgeously shot, and utterly imaginative. While not an overt horror film, it contains some terrifying moments, be it Scottie's trippy dream sequence or the chilling final scene. It also features lovely San Francisco settings (some of which I'll be visiting soon!), a bombastic musical score, and elegant costumes from Edith Head. Seeing it again for the first time in several years, I find myself a bit more critical, but still truly enamored.