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In 1982, Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958) appeared as the seventh best film of all time on Sight and Sound's every-ten-year survey of international film critics. By 2002 it rose to second place below Citizen Kane (1941), which has held the top position since 1962. Quite an achievement for a movie dismissed by the New Yorker on its release as "farfetched nonsense" and by Time magazine as "another Hitchcock-and-bull story."
Vertigo, concerning a retired detective who becomes possessive of a young woman, was partially inspired by another film's success. Two French novelists, Thomas Narcejac and Pierre Boileau, had written the source novel for Henri-Georges Clouzot's Les Diaboliques (1955), a very successful international thriller and a little too close to Hitchcock's style for the director's comfort. When Narcejac and Boileau published their next novel, D'Entre les Morts (From Among the Dead), Hitchcock made sure Paramount bought the rights for him before someone else made it into a Hitchcock-style thriller.
Hitchcock's first alteration from the original story was to change the locale from Paris to San Francisco, sending the detective, suffering from a fear of heights, up and down the steep inclines of that California city's streets. The second, and most controversial, change was to reveal the novel's twist ending two-thirds of the way through the movie. Hitchcock later explained to director Francois Truffaut that the change was made to highlight suspense over surprise. What will the detective do when he finally discovers the truth we already know?
Hitchcock went through several screenwriters before finally accepting a script by Samuel Taylor under the title, supplied by Hitchcock, "From the Dead, or There'll Never Be Another You." For the cast, Hitchcock wanted James Stewart as the detective from the beginning of the project. Vertigo would be the fourth Stewart film directed by Hitchcock; it would also be the last. Hitchcock would later complain that Stewart, at 49, may have been too old for the role. Kim Novak, as the object of the detective's obsession, was a late addition. Vera Miles, later to play Janet Leigh's sister in Psycho (1960), was to have played the role but bowed out after she became pregnant.
Principal photography began in San Francisco in September 1957 and the movie would ultimately make landmarks of many of its locations: Ernie's Restaurant where Stewart first sees Novak, The Palace of the Legion of Honor where he follows her, and Fort Point where Stewart rescues Novak from the waters below Golden Gate Bridge. Those fans who travel 90 miles south of San Francisco to see the bell tower at the mission at San Juan Bautista, where Vertigo's stunning ending takes place, will find the mission but not the tower; it was only a model matted onto the image of the original building.
Vertigo was not as successful at the box office as the three Hitchcock films that followed, North by Northwest (1959), Psycho and The Birds (1963) but, as Hitchcock's reputation as an artist increased over the 1960's, Vertigo was often given by Hitchcock's champions as his most artistic work. Just as Hitchcock's standing reached its peak in the early 1970's, Vertigo was pulled from release. The combination of the reputation of this now highly regarded film and a lack of access whipped up enthusiasm among movie lovers for the masterpiece they were denied. This could have led to disaster when Vertigo was finally re-released in 1984 but, for once, expectations of greatness were confirmed on the screen. In 1996 the film was extensively restored, given a new Dolby Surround soundtrack, and re-released to even greater acclaim.
Perhaps Alfred Hitchcock was only a showman; certainly that's always how he saw himself. However, Vertigo, of all his movies, makes the greatest case that a showman can sometimes reach heights rarely achieved by even the loftiest artists.
Director and producer: Alfred Hitchcock
Screenplay: Samuel A. Taylor and Alec Coppel, based on the novel D'Entre Les Morts by Thomas Narcejac and Pierre Boileau
Cinematography: Robert Burks
Editor: George Tomasini
Music: Bernard Herrmann
Cast: James Stewart (Det. John 'Scottie' Ferguson), Kim Novak (Madeleine Elster/Judy Barton), Barbara Bel Geddes (Midge Wood), Tom Helmore (Gavin Elster), Henry Jones (Coroner).
C-130m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning.
by Brian Cady