Everything has pretty much already been said, written and thought of about Vertigo, Alfred Hitchcock's 1958 film that was rated a mild disappointment upon release to become one of the "master of suspense"'s most-loved and most-acclaimed works, especially after returning to circulation in the mid-1980s after being withdrawn due to legal issues for over 20 years. Time has uncovered many of the secrets and sophistications surrounding this hyper-glossy melodrama of love and obsession about a retired San Francisco detective (James Stewart) hired by a college acquaintance (Tom Helmore) to find out the reason behind his wife's (Kim Novak) strange behaviours. The sleight-of-hand structure suggests a mirror effect between the narrative and cinema itself, as the film resolves itself into the desire of a man to fashion a woman in someone else's image, performance becoming the key to truth and reality as seen through a specific (directorial?) point of view.

     Though based on an original novel written specifically for Mr. Hitchcock by French novelists Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac (whose Diabolique as shot by Henri-Georges Clouzot had become a huge success), Vertigo was entirely rewritten at the director's request. There's no doubt that Mr. Hitchcock was here essaying some of the experiments in narration that would come to fruition in later movies: the constant movement around a hollow centre of North by Northwest, the abrupt narrative switch of Psycho. The central mystery of Vertigo is actually solved halfway through - when the real identity of Ms. Novak's character is revealed to the audience - and the narrative thrust comes from the fact that the audience is one step ahead of Mr. Stewart and is now asking when he will find out the truth.

     But it's also striking just how risqué Vertigo was for its time, with Mr. Stewart's amiable bachelor falling head over heels in love to the point of mania and obsession, a broken hero who will never be able to overcome that broken self. The film does approach the bitterness of film noir without following that genre's codes - not least in cinematographer Robert Burks' strong colours. But, as Bernard Herrmann's sweepingly romantic score underlines, Vertigo is closer in mind and spirit to earlier, generally underestimated works in Mr. Hitchcock's career such as Under Capricorn or Spellbound: atypically uneasy melodramas of romantic obsession toying with Pandora's box of deep emotions that the propriety and the affluent ethos of 1950s American society still kept locked inside.

Cast: James Stewart, Kim Novak, Barbara Bel Geddes, Tom Helmore, Henry Jones, Raymond Bailey, Ellen Corby, Konstantin Shayne, Lee Patrick

Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Screenplay: Alec Coppel, Samuel Taylor, from the novel D'entre les morts by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac
Cinematography: Robert Burks (colour by Technicolor, Vistavision)
Art directors: Hal Pereira, Henry Bumstead
Costumes: Edith Head
Editor: George Tomasini
Special effects: John P. Fulton, Farciot Edouart, W. Wallace Kelley, John Ferren
Production: Alfred J. Hitchcock Productions
USA, 1958, 127 minutes

Screened: distributor advance press screening, UCI El Corte Inglés 12 (Lisbon), November 30th 2012


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