Unseating Citizen Kane from the top of spot of Sight & Sound’s ten yearly poll of greatest films of all time is no mean feat. It’s a testament to Hitchcock’s virtuosity as a director that Vertigo continues to strengthen its critical appeal and inspire countless literary texts plundering all aspects of its production. Jimmy Stewart is acrophobic ex-policeman John ‘Scottie’ Ferguson, who in a favour for an old friend, agrees to follow his wife. Inevitably, John commits the primary sin of detective work: he falls in love. Vertigo is a story of obsession, greed and guilt; at its core, a thrilling mystery that loses none of its intrigue over repeat viewings.
The screening was preceded with a talk by Professor Currie and hosted by Cafe Philosophique. Vertigo is only their second event, in which professors from the University of Nottingham try to infuse cinema with interesting philosophical debates. Vertigo was discussed in regard to its place in the Hitchcock canon; offering his thoughts on its poor critical and audience reception at the time of release and finally the ethical debates around film restoration. The latter was the main focus of Currie’s presentation and for me the most insightful and thought provoking, for example, I was surprised to learn that all the sound effects had been re-recorded during the 1996 restoration. Currie opened by comparing Hitchcock’s prolificacy, critical and audience appeal with that of Shakespeare.
Vertigo is the definitive Hitchcock film, all his passions and preoccupations in his five decade career come together here to form his most comprehensive study in the dark side of human emotion. The tendency to give Hitchcock all the credit is to overlook the career-defining work of many of his collaborators, beginning with a mesmerising opening credit sequence by Saul Bass; Jimmy Stewart putting in a believable performance to what is undoubtedly his most complex role; Kim Novak flourishing in her dual performance as enchanting temptress Madeleine Elster and the vulnerable Judy Barton; and Bernard Herrmann’s low key score supplying a supernatural ambiguity to central mystery. An often overlooked character in Vertigo is John’s friend and confidant, Midge. The stable, voice of reason in John’s otherwise tumultuous life, played endearingly by Barbara Bel Geddes, is for me the truly tragic figure of the story, and her struggle with unrequited love the most relatable.
Hitchcock followed Vertigo with North By Northwest in 1959 and Psycho in 1960; one of the greatest creative outputs of a filmmaker in such a short period of time. While Vertigo is not my favourite of his works, its richness and complexity make it one of the more satisfying to revisit. It’s undoubtedly a classic and a must watch for film fans.