Sunday, 21 April 2013


Hitchcock's classic thriller/romance about a man with a fear of heights has recently been labelled 'the greatest film ever made'. Vertigo is everything Hitchcock did best; a rollercoaster ride of suspense and surprise, an absolutely engrossing film.

The nice thing about Hitchcock's masterpiece is that, despite its incredible plot twists, it's a hard movie to spoil. I could tell you what one or two of the revelations are, but they wouldn't make sense without a fair bit of context first. I'll give you some context, but I won't spoil the film here.

James Stewart (one of my favourite actors ever) plays John "Scottie" Ferguson, a detective who retires after an incident in which, while on a chase, a police officer falls to his death trying to save Scottie from hanging off a building. The doctors diagnose Scottie with acrophobia; a fear of heights (often confused with the dizzy sensation known as vertigo). He encounters an old school friend, who asks him to follow his wife Madeline, concerned for her welfare. It seems Madeline believes that she is possessed by someone from the past; a mysterious figure named Carlotta.

As I said, one of the most enjoyable aspects of Vertigo is its unpredictability. As the story unfolded, I had no idea where it was going, but I could certainly feel it heading somewhere. It puts you right in the shoes of Scottie, trying to figure out what the deal is with Madeline. Is there something supernatural going on? We don't see evidence for it, but she sure does disappear a lot...

Perhaps some of the unpredictability comes from the outlandish, even absurd plot developments that occur later on. These are forgivable though, because the story is told in such a brilliant way. Scottie and Madeline do eventually interact, then fall in love, then some crazy things happen. The film is constantly transforming itself from a mystery, to a romance, to a thriller, to a drama. It deals with madness, murder, obsession, regret, longing for the past, fear and pain and the idealization of women. Ultimately, I suppose, it would have to be called a tragedy, but its a tragedy of such depth and complexity, it seems condescending to try and wrangle it into any particular label.

There's so much one could say about Vertigo. I wrote an essay in which I claimed that the entire thing is in fact a nightmare had by Scottie. Roger Ebert wrote a fascinating piece about the way Hitchcock expresses his own relationship to women in the film (contains spoilers). It's utterly deserving of the label it's been given precisely because there's so much you can get out of it.

On the other hand, Hitchcock was also a popular director, and if you just want to sit back for 2 hours and be thrilled, this movie still delivers on that front, surprising audiences like myself even today.