To horror fans, Alfred Hitchcock is best known as the director of Psycho, one of the pioneering movies of the slasher genre. But to cinema geeks, he is better known for what many consider to be his masterpiece – the 1958 classic Vertigo.
Vertigo stars Hitchcock favorite James Stewart (Rear Window, Rope) as John “Scottie” Ferguson, a police detective who was removed from the force when his fear of heights resulted in the death of another officer. An old college friend named Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore from The Time Machine) asks Scottie to trail his wife, Madeleine (The Mirror Crack’d’s Kim Novak), and find out what she does with her days. Scottie discovers that Madeleine visits the grave of a woman named Carlotta Valdes who died in the 1800s. She also goes to a museum, where she sits and stares at a painting of Carlotta. After Scottie saves Madeleine’s life, he begins to suspect that she is becoming possessed with the spirit of Carlotta Valdes. He begins to fear for her safety, since Carlotta committed suicide at the age of 26 – and Madeleine is 26. Things get further complicated as Scottie gets too close to his client and begins to fall in love with Madeleine.
Giving any more of a synopsis than that would be spoiling Vertigo. Saying too much about the performances of Jimmy Stewart and Kim Novak would be, too. Shot from a script adapted by Alec Coppel (To Catch a Thief) and Samuel Taylor (Sabrina) from the novel D’entre les morts by Boileau-Narcejac (the same pair who wrote Eyes Without a Face), Vertigo is Hitchcock being Hitchcock, crafting a suspenseful mystery that offers twists and turns at every corner, so much so that it feels as if the movie is actually going to end in a few places, only to pick back up with another brilliant surprise that keeps it going. It’s not as horrifying as Psycho, but the story is built around a tale of ghostly possession, so the film is surrounded by an air of the occult.
While most of the indoor scenes in Vertigo were shot on soundstages, the exteriors were shot on location in San Francisco and the surrounding areas, and the city is an important visual aspect of the story. Whether it’s the backdrop of the Golden Gate Bridge over the bay or the windy, hilly roads down which Scottie trails Madeleine, the recognizable terrain and landmarks of San Francisco are everywhere. There’s even a panning shot of the entire skyline at one point. The City by the Bay is a co-starring character in Vertigo, and one that, thankfully, is allowed to play itself.
To shoot Vertigo, Alfred Hitchcock used his favorite cinematographer, Robert Burks (who shot everything from Strangers on a Train to Marnie), who contributed as much to the later Hitchcock “look” as the master himself did. The movie was shot in beautiful Technicolor, and Burks uses the bright reds and greens to give the picture a striking, otherworldly look that still manages to stay based in reality. Hitchcock and Burks frame up each shot as if the entire scene could (and should) be captured in a single take (with a bit of camera motion to follow the action), with cutaway coverage added in as each scene sees fit, so the photography lets the actors work their magic without sacrificing any story elements. Burks’ cinematography in Vertigo is some of the most striking imagery in film history.
However, the most influential element of the photography wasn’t done by Robert Burks. Vertigo is widely considered to be the first movie to use what is known as a “dolly zoom,” an effect which is accomplished by the camera operator moving the camera towards the subject while simultaneously zooming out (or vice-versa). This keeps the main subject in the middle of the frame and in focus, but warps the outside of the image. The effect, performed by second unit director of photography Irmin Roberts (The War of the Worlds, Conquest of Space), is used to illustrate the vertigo that Scottie feels when he is hit with a bout of his acrophobia. Today, it’s a recognizable camera trick that has been used in every movie from Jaws to Josie and the Pussycats, but Vertigo did it first. It’s even been nicknamed the “Vertigo Shot.”
The other most-notable element of Vertigo is a nightmarish dream sequence that appears in the second half of the film. The sequence is exactly what that description makes it sound like; it’s a nightmare that Scottie has about his past, recent events, and Madeleine that is a surreal combination of pulsing imagery, seizure-inducing effects, and bright colors. It’s akin to a drug trip to hell. The segment was designed by visual artist John Ferrin, whose credit was originally “special sequence by” in order to avoid spoilers during the film’s initial run, but has since been changed in subsequent versions of the movie to “dream sequence designed by.” Whether its “special” or a “dream,” Ferrin’s work is possibly the second most memorable moment in Vertigo, playing second fiddle only to the “Vertigo Shot.”
Like many of the later Hitchcock films, Vertigo features a stirring score by renowned composer Bernard Herrmann (Taxi Driver, It’s Alive). The music is both melodic and dynamic, full of memorable themes that still serve to reinforce the film’s visuals instead of distract from them. Vertigo was made during an American musician’s union strike, so the soundtrack had to be recorded in London with the London Symphony, conducted by Scottish conductor Muir Mathieson instead of by Herrmann himself. When the London Symphony caught wind of their breaking of the picket line, they decided to support the Americans and not play, so the recording had to be finished in Vienna. But, by hook or by crook, Hitchcock and Herrmann got the score to Vertigo recorded, and the resulting soundtrack is one of the peaks of Herrmann’s very distinguished career.
After Vertigo, Hitchcock would go on to make North by Northwest (another of his masterpieces) before changing the game with Psycho and solidifying his place in horror history with The Birds. As for Vertigo, it recently supplanted Citizen Kane as the greatest film of all time in a Sight & Sound magazine critic’s poll (Psycho clocked in at number 35). It may not be a traditional fright flick, but Vertigo is an important movie in the career of possibly the most influential director in horror history.