What a deeply disturbed, horrific, perverse, alarming and thoroughly wonderful film this is! Though it is not my favorite Hitchcock film (that would be Rear Window), I have no problem with the majority of critics, who label this one Hitchcock’s greatest masterpiece. It is. It’s just not a film I will ever have any affection for, sort of like Scorsese’s Raging Bull. Poor Scotty Ferguson is transformed from a decent ex-cop with a debilitating fear of heights into an obsessive, frightening shadow of his former self because he was unable to stop the suicide of the woman he was hired to follow. (In fact, a more accurate but less compelling title here would have been Obsession.) He is raked over the coals—unfairly, I think—at the coroner’s inquest, and soon after that has a complete mental breakdown. That’s not something you see in the middle of a movie every day: your protagonist (Jimmy Stewart) sitting in a chair in the funny farm, unable to even speak.
When he gets out he encounters a woman (the ultimate Hitchcock icy blonde, Kim Novak) who looks very much like the woman (also Kim Novak) who hurled herself off the tower of the mission in the little town of San Juan Bautista. (A tower that, to the shock of Hitch and the crew when they got there for location shooting, didn’t actually exist. So it was painted in by my good friend Albert Whitlock.) He quickly goes all Pygmalion on her ass, molding her with hair dye and clothing into the dead women he obsesses about. It is super creepy.
It is all built up so skillfully, with minute attantion to detail. We travel all over San Francisco with Scotty as he tries to figure out the woman’s obsession. Unlike so many movies, the streets all fit together in the real world map. It is all backed by possibly the most lush musical score I’ve ever heard, by Bernard Herrmann. Scenes are enhanced with color effects. A psychedelic scene when Scotty is losing his mind was designed by the great Saul Bass, long before we even knew the word psychedelic. And there is one special effect, used at the beginning and in the scenes inside the tower, that Vertigo will always be remembered for: the dolly zoom. It is in fact often called the Vertigo Effect. This is done by moving the camera dolly in while at the same time using a zoom lens to pull out. The effect is a profoundly disturbing stretching of reality, which probably mimics real vertigo as well as anything could.
I wasn’t surprised to learn the critics were divided on this one when it came out, with a majority feeling it was a real mess. As years went by, though, that carping has turned into almost unanimous praise. Sometimes a great artist just produces work the world is not ready for. But rejoice, its time always comes.