Cary Grant. Robert Mitchem. Henry Fonda. Burt Lancaster. Kirk Douglas. Film icons of the 1950’s and 60’s. Amazing actors, each with tremendous bodies of work. But from that generation of actors my favorite has always been Jimmy Stewart. Tall, lanky, with an easy-going manner and bright blue eyes, he was a favorite of Alfred Hitchcock’s, appearing in 4 of the master’s films: Rope (1948), Rear Window (1954), The Man Who
Knew Too Much (1956) and Vertigo (1958). While Rear Window is my favorite Hitchcock film, I recently watched Vertigo for the umpteenth time and found myself as engrossed as I was the first time I saw it. Yes, the
cars, the clothes (women do not wear pants!) and the hair styles are dated but the story is truly timeless.
A former police detective (Stewart as Scottie) is hired by an old friend, Gavin (Tom Elmore) to follow Gavin’s wife. This is not about an affair, rather Gavin is concerned that his wife has been taken over by Carlotta, a woman who committed suicide 100 years earlier. Scottie accepts the offer and soon becomes obsessed Madeleine (Kim Novak) then finds himself drawn into a tragic dark psychological drama. To add to an already complex character, Scottie suffers from acrophobia, a fear of heights, even little ones, leading to the opening tragedy and why we find the now retired police detective using a cane. He also has vertigo, a feeling of dizziness or seeing things spinning. Hitchcock puts these maladies to brilliant use in Vertigo. In fact, I still feel my stomach turning every time I watch the film. (I get the same feeing with Regal Cinema’s opening roller!) But the story’s main focus is what happens to Madeleine and how the grieving Scottie copes; let’s just say, not very well.
My favorite character though is Midge (a perfect Barbara Bel Geddes), a close friend of Scotties who is a lady’s intimates’ designer and dabbles as a painter. I’ve always felt that her character is perfect for Scottie but that is
not why her character is there. Madeleine is pure femininity, beautiful, slim, coy, vulnerable and always seems to wearing a tight-fitting two-piece jacket and skirt. Midge is smart, talented, independent, strong, and wears a
dress that flares out and looks like she should be at a dance, and we see her as the opposite of Madeleine. Just to let us know how different Midge is, she wears glasses to highlight that she may be smarter but she certainly is
not as attractive. Midge sees Madeleine as her adversary and paints a self-portrait that turns off Scottie while serving to make us pity Midge, actually to be embarrassed for her. I found myself rooting for her but to my
disappointment she is absent in the last third of the film. Vertigo does feed a sometimes-male fantasy about control over women, but that is not so much an indictment as an observation and does not detract from the brilliance of the film. (In other films, Hitchcock will tell a story though the eyes of a female character, as he does in The Birds.) No cinephile can leave Vertigo out of their lexicon of films to watch and learn from.
Fun Fact: This is first film to ever use the dolly zoom, invented by Irmin Roberts, one of cinematographers Robert Burks cameramen, and now is commonly referred to as the ‘Vertigo Effect’.
For a look at the evolution of the Dolly Zoom there is a great YouTube video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WIpMtL68G8w
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