Monday, 5 September 2011


A few weeks ago I bought a 14-disc box set of Alfred Hitchcock movies and last night I began working my way through them. I started with this one because it happened to be the first in the box working from left to right and that's the way I'll continue until, some weeks or months hence, I conclude with The Birds. There's a curious connection between that and Vertigo. Both starred Hitchcock's favoured ice-blondes, in these instances Kim Novak and Tippi Hedren. Both actresses gave up acting in favour of looking after animals.

I like that.

Watching a documentary on the Vertigo disc about how it was restored from faded prints, there is the frequent refrain (repeated by Martin Scorsese who appears) that this is Hitchcock's best movie. Great, I thought, it's all downhill from here. Whether that is the case or not, I'll  let you know some time. Now I have seen Vertigo before and it's not impossible that I saw it on its first release as I'd have been about 10 and my mum and I were regular cinema-goers. I certainly remember the big twist about Novak's identity and what was really going on.

But I don't think that affected my reactions to it. What I did notice is how slow it is. Once the story has actually got into gear -he has vertigo, a friend has hired him to follow his wife- a considerable amount of time is spent with James Stewart driving around San Francisco as he tails Novak. Why does she go to a gallery and sit before one portrait? Why does she rent a room in an hotel and only stay a couple of hours a week? Why does she visit the grave of a woman dead for 60 years? Of course what's really happening is that Stewart himself is becoming obsessed with her, falling in love with this mysterious haunted (?) beautiful woman before he even speaks to her. Not much actually happens by contemporary standards but Hitchcock is slowly weaving his spell.

Once they do get together, things move quickly and end with her death when she runs up a tower where Stewart is unable to follow, or at least not quickly enough, and throws herself off. Some time later he sees her double and the love for the presumably dead woman becomes an obsession as he wants to transform this double into an identical duplicate.

I'm being deliberately vague here in case you don't know the story but honestly, you;'d have to be pretty slow not to work it out before Stewart does. That isn't really the point. To me it's about an obsession for the unknowable. He never understands Novak in either of her incarnations. It's as if he's in love with the mystery of her. This is given emphasis by his lack of romantic interest in an old friend played by Barbara Bel Geddes. This character is pretty and witty, and wise and in love with him but all he can offer her is friendship and she isn't even seen once the film reaches its halfway mark and the obsession completely takes over.

Great work from the three main actors, beautiful photography, and well Hitchcock is Hitchcock, a legend of cinema.

Is this really going to be the best of the 14? Well, it's a good start.

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