Vertigo

AFI Rank: #61
Year Released: 1958
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Actors: James Stewart, Kim Novak

Released in 1968, Vertigo has claimed the #61 spot on the AFI Top 100 listing.

My first part of this review will be fully spoiler-free, since this is a Hitchcock mystery film. If you haven't seen the movie yet, I'll warn you where to stop reading. If you have seen the film before, and are curious about all of my thoughts, I provide those as well.

So, to begin with the spoiler-free part. Vertigo is one of Hitchcock's darker films. James Stewart is a police detective who has to retire because he realizes he has vertigo - a fear of heights. Soon an old college friend of his has a task to keep him busy. The friend's wife has been acting very oddly, and the friend hesitantly mentions that she might be possessed by the spirit of a suicidal relative. Stewart of course scoffs at the idea - but soon he's getting intriguing clues from her behavior. She does in fact seem obsessed with this long-dead relative. She isn't aware of many of the things she's doing.

Stewart quickly falls in love with her, and wants to get to the bottom of what's going on.

There are only a few characters in play here, and each one is well portrayed. You get a sense of Stewart's intrigue and of the wife's confusion. The locations are great, as you explore the landscapes around San Francisco. You quickly get sucked in, wanting to know what happens next. The twists and turns catch you off guard. So it's definitely a movie I recommend watching - and watching, if at all possible, without knowing what the end will be.

The movie is great in terms of male-female roles. Stewart and Novak are both equally strong here, both have characters with depths and histories. In terms of the Bedschel test, though, we fail. There are only two females in the entire story and they never get near each other. They are the two different parts of Stewart's life - his romantic love, and his caring friend.

SPOILER ALERT - STOP READING

I greatly appreciate Vertigo as a well crafted movie, and certainly I like how you never know what is going to happen next. When Novak dies, but clearly the movie has a way to go, you wonder just what is going on.

At that point I was rooting for Barbara Bel Geddes to then become the girl in his life. She stood by him the entire time and she was there at the hospital. It was therefore fairly depressing to have her just vanish from the rest of the movie, never to be seen again. Clearly she adored him. He made a mild quip about being available for her early in the movie - and she seemed almost embarrassed by it. It made me wonder just why they had broken up. Had she sensed that he wasn't really in love with her? It certainly seems that she cared for him during the movie period, even going to the extent of painting herself into his obsessive scene in order to catch his attention. It only served to upset him. And then he's off again, chasing ghosts.

But not only chasing ghosts - Stewart wants to remake this "new" woman completely in the form of the previous one. At first I thought he knew who she was and was trying to force her to admit it. But no - he was just being obsessive and wanting to squish down the present woman and make her into a doll of the previous one. She even asks him if he'll love her if she looks like his old lover, and he says yes. That's upsetting.

And really, when one looks at it, just why did he love the first woman? Novak was pretty. She needed help. That's about all he knew about her. He didn't know her interests or hobbies, or anything else. He just wanted her pretty form near him and a sense that he could help her. And he seemed to fall for her in about two weeks.

Finally, with the way the movie ended, his witness that the husband was a murderer just died. I suppose he could try to tell police the story, but how could they believe him, what proof would there be? It would be a hard sell. So now two women were dead and the killer gets away.

The male character was flawed and someone I didn't approve of. The female character was a flawed murderer. To me the only good character is the female friend, and she gets abandoned partway through the movie. If she came back and integrated into the ending I would have liked it more. As it was, it felt like a tragedy where nobody is ever really punished, and people just hurt each other. While I appreciate the idea of a tragedy, I greatly prefer those by Shakespeare, like Romeo and Juliet, to this.

So I'll give it 4/5 for great cinematography and acting, but minus a star for not being a story I'd enjoy seeing again.

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AFI Top 100 Film Listing
Male vs Female Actors in the AFI Top 100
The Bechdel Test in the AFI Top 100