VERTIGO (1958)

Dismissed when first released, later heralded as one of director Alfred Hitchcock’s finest films (and, according to Hitchcock, his most personal one), this adaptation of the French novel D’entre les morts weaves an intricate web of obsession and deceit. It opens as Scottie Ferguson (James Stewart) realizes he has vertigo, a condition resulting in a fear of heights, when a police officer is killed trying to rescue him from falling off a building. Scottie then retires from his position as a private investigator, only to be lured into another case by his old college friend, Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore). Elster’s wife, Madeleine (Kim Novak), has been possessed by a spirit, and Elster wants Scottie to follow her. He hesitantly agrees, and thus begins the film’s wordless montage as Scottie follows the beautiful yet enigmatic Madeleine through 1950s San Francisco (accompanied by Bernard Herrmann’s hypnotic score). Why is this movie Hitchcock’s masterpiece? Because no movie plunges us more deeply into the dizzying heart of erotic obsession. Costume designer Edith Head and director Alfred Hitchcock worked together to give Madeleine’s clothing an eerie appearance. Her trademark grey suit was chosen for its colour because they thought it seemed odd for a blonde woman to be wearing all grey. Also, they added the black scarf to her white coat because of the odd contrast. San Juan Batista, the Spanish mission which features in key scenes in the movie doesn’t actually have a bell tower – it was added with trick photography. The mission originally had a steeple but it was demolished following a fire. Uncredited second-unit cameraman Irmin Roberts invented the famous “zoom out and track in” shot (now sometimes called “contra-zoom” or “trombone shot”) to convey the sense of vertigo to the audience. The view down the mission stairwell cost $19,000 for just a couple of seconds of screen time. The Empire Hotel where James Stewart eventually finds Kim Novak is (as of 2009) the Hotel Vertigo (formerly the York) located at 940 Sutter St. in the heart of San Francisco. Novak’s character lived in Room 501, which still retains many of its aspects captured in the film. The film was unavailable for decades because its rights (together with four other pictures of the same period) were bought back by Alfred Hitchcock and left as part of his legacy to his daughter. They’ve been known for long as the infamous “Five Lost Hitchcocks” amongst film buffs, and were re-released in theatres around 1984 after a 30-year absence. The others are The Man Who Knew Too Much, Rear Window, Rope, and The Trouble with Harry. Poorly received by U.S. critics on its release, this film is now hailed as Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece. The film is based upon the novel “D’Entre les Morts” (From Among the Dead) which was written specifically for Alfred Hitchcock by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac after they heard that he had tried to buy the rights to their previous novel “Celle qui n’était plus” (She Who Was No More), which had been filmed as Diabolique. Both the interiors and exteriors of “Ernie’s” restaurant were filmed on sets, although the restaurant was a San Francisco landmark which closed its doors in 1999. Was voted the 19th Greatest Film of all time by Entertainment Weekly. Alfred Hitchcock was embittered at the critical and commercial failure of the film in 1958. He blamed this on James Stewart for “looking too old” to attract audiences any more. Hitchcock never worked with Stewart, previously one of his favorite collaborators, again. Voted #2 in Total Film’s 100 Greatest Movies Of All Time list (November 2005). In 2002, named by “Positif” (France) as one of the 50 best films of the last 50 years (critics’ choice: #2, readers’ choice: #4). Ranked #1 on the American Film Institute’s list of the 10 greatest films in the genre “Mystery” in June 2008. Ransohoff’s of San Francisco was a famous and trendy high-end boutique. It closed in 1976.

 

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