Vertigo (1958)

Vertigo (1958) one of the greatest and best known of Alfred Hitchcock's films is also at its heart in the classic film noir tradition.

This psychological fantasy in full colour is probably one of the greatest and more ravishing Technicolor films ever produced, and so it does not perhaps fit the full film noir bill with its vibrant shades of rose and green.

The paranoia is real as is the preposterous fantasy elements, which if anything work against Vertigo because full-on colour like this, and most especially in its many splendid exteriors, are suggestive of a more real milieu.

The story is one of murder and madness, of weakness and psychological manipulation, and as often with Hitchcock, the ongoing manipulation and cruelty to women, who are judged poorly by men - - and it is all wrapped up in suspenseful storytelling and mystery.

The full whack of the psychological thriller film directed and produced by Alfred Hitchcock has become immortal in this picture. 

The story is based on the 1954 novel D'entre les morts (From Among the Dead) by Boileau-Narcejac. The film stars James Stewart as former police detective John "Scottie" Ferguson, a bit of a lame-ass and aged cop type of guy who should not really be allowed near women, with Stewart at the age of 49 and his lead Kim Novak being 22.

Scottie has retired because an incident in the line of duty has caused him to develop acrophobia (an extreme fear of heights) and vertigo, a false sense of rotational movement. Scottie is hired by an acquaintance, Gavin Elster, as a private investigator to follow Gavin's wife, Madeleine (Kim Novak), who is behaving strangely. The scene in which Scottie comes to grief, at the start of the movie, is a rare Hitchcock action sequence, and even begs the question as to what that movie would have been like. 

Two mitigating factors in presenting Vertigo as evidence for anything in discussing classic film noir are Hitchcock himself and the Vistavision process in which Vertigo flies.

To watch and enjoy Vertigo it is not necessary in the slightest to have the conversation around whether it is film noir or not. On the infamous list known as They Shoot Pictures Don't They, Vertigo falls into second place after Citizen Kane. Both films are central to discussion of film noir, but don't contain an entirety of film noir elements. This as an aside is proof that when it comes to the best of the best, genre is not the easiest lens through which to view a movie.

These lists are updated constantly and obsessively, as comment and category are the immediate entry points towards sharing perhaps not the love of the movies themselves, but the love of the soporific and magical escapism instilled. It's always surprising how immersive the escape into two dimensions can be.

However, with its strong psychological thrust and questions of identity, and deceit within relationships, as well as a murder which strangely for the era, goes unpunished, Vertigo has to be included as film noir.

There are so many intentionally confusing relationships and set ups in Vertigo. The set ups and asks of the audience are supremely unbelievable, and taken at face value it would be hard for anyone of any intelligence to fall for a half of what Scottie does. At the same time everything about Vertigo is different and if you don't know this already, the credit sequence  - - the first to ever be created with the help of a computer - - will let you know that the normal rules are not going to apply. Instead expect a strange episodic time, and that includes James Stewart's uncomfortable and groovy nightmare which evokes exactly what may be playing in his mind that does not sit right.

If that was uncomfortable then it's nothing compared to Scottie's obsession. Scottie's obsession is so strong it is difficult to see exactly what he is obsessed with - - if it is the woman Madeleine, or the woman she has become, or the story, or the locations. When Scottie does see a woman who looks exactly like Madeleine, who turns out to be called Judy Barton, he begins to stalk her.

At this point, he does not suspect that this woman is in fact Madeleine, but instead somebody who looks like her - - and he still feels - - presumably because he is police  - - that this is all right. That's pure film  noir - - noir of the first water - - and it is scary, not just in its portrayal of a man's inability to move on from one's past, but to be utterly wrapped in it. There are men that become fixated like this, and it happens often enough to make this frightening.

The question as to why Judy lets this all happen is another question. There is nothing that ever tips the viewer off that Scottie has found an actress and not the dead wife of his fantasy this is in large down to how well Kim Novak plays both characters. Kim Novak plays Judy and Madeleine as entirely separate and seriously so. 

Still, the movie ends with Scottie forcing this poor woman up the same stairs where the earlier murder took place. There are other readings of these same situations, although none work from the female point of view. Either way in Vertigo, a woman is being harassed and psychotically abused by two men, but for different reasons. On the other hand Vertigo (1958) can be read as a story of guilt, and if guilt is Scottie's driver we have a different set of circumstances. The tale indeed could be showing what happens to people facing psychological damage caused by love, or loss.

If it's guilt that is driving Scottie, we have an exculpation in evidence, of the two people that have died from rooftops on his watch. The end of this film noir is sad and strange. It's a daring ending because there is no happiness, and we don't know if the murderer Gavin is caught, or indeed what happens to Scottie.

There are so many times in Vertigo when characters say the same lines - - "I look up, I look down, I look up, I look down," - - and similarly there are mirrors and other dualities. In some degree Vertigo is trying to show people failing to realise they are being horrible to each other, because of past relationships carrying behaviours into future relationships. 

Such themes juxtapose. Consider the question posed by murderer Gavin, as to whether a person can become obsessed with a dead person - - this is Madeleine - - or his fake rendering - - and then Scottie himself.


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