It was a cold dark night in 1990 when I attended a screening of Vertigo was shown at the Dalston Rio Cinema in London. Hitchcock’s tale of death and obsession had not garnered any real interest at the time and was regarded by many as one of his lesser works.
Rio Cinema has always been regarded as a prestigious independent cinema that first opened its doors over a century and is noted for the splendid 1930s art décor.
Back in 1990, the Rio was in desperate need of repair. The atmospheric red lighting and the worn velvet seating still appeared seductive, but the picture house itself had indeed seen better days and so did the print of the film. It did not matter because the audience was only one person. Me.
This was an intimate experience because I was watching an original print in an empty rundown cinema which was older than the film itself, on my own on a cold night in East London, not too far from where Mister Hitchcock himself was born and raised. I was certainly in the mood.
I had watched Vertigo on television many times before, usually on a Sunday evening, but was the first time I had watched it on the big screen. I had missed the revamped version of Vertigo which had been doing the rounds back a few years before, but better late than never. Besides, this print seemed much older than that 1983 re-release.
This hauntingly lovely film stars James Stewart as John “Scotty” Ferguson, a San Francisco detective who develops acrophobia after a police officer falls to his death from a rooftop after trying to rescue Scotty.
Forced to retire from police work, Scotty is asked by an old college friend Tom Elster (Tom Helmore) to work as a private detective so that he can follow his wife, Madeleine (Kim Novak).
Elster is concerned about his wife’s mental health, that she is possessed by the spirit of someone who had lived and who had committed suicide over a century before.
Scotty reluctantly agrees to follow Madeleine and after following her around San Francisco, but he becomes attracted to her.
He follows her to San Francisco Bay where she jumps in what appears to be a suicide attempt. Scotty jumps and rescues her.
To help her with her obsession, Scotty brings Madeleine to the Mission San Juan Bautista, the location featured in one of Madeleine’s dreams.
However, when they arrive at the scene, Madeleine runs up the steep staircase to the bell tower in what appears to be another suicide attempt, but can Scott overcome his acrophobia so that he can follow her up the stairs?
I had always struggled to understand the problem original critics had with Vertigo. I remember passionately arguing that the film is one of Hitchcock’s greatest works and why it is a must for all fans of psychological thrillers. I even wrote to the wonderful BFI, the British Film Institute, in 1990, begging for Vertigo to receive more positive recognition, but this mere fan did not get a reply.
They say that good things sometimes come to those who wait. To the delight of all film lovers and historians, a digitally restored version of Vertigo by Robert A. Harris and James C. Katz was released in 1996 which brought the film to the attention to many film students again.
This version contained newly restored color, DTS digital surround sound and was shown in 70mm, which was quite like the original Vistavision process used for the original film. The film was re-released again in 2014 in 4K but without some of the controversial sound effects.
Vertigo has certainly received huge critical reappraisal since 1996. Some of the very people who rubbished my initial points, now quote the BFI Sight and Sound magazine’s new verdict that Vertigo is the “greatest film ever made”.
Vertigo is an outstanding film, but the “greatest film ever made” tag may be a bit much. The holes in the plot do not help, such as the outrageous Elster plan. There are other silly deficiencies such as why a detective on policeman’s wages could afford frequenting at the prestigious Ernie’s restaurant.
These are minor issues though because Vertigo looks and sounds magnificent. Hitchcock’s masterly direction and use of color is there to see.
The screenplay by Samuel A Taylor and Alec Coppel, which was based on the French novel D’entre les morts by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, is fine but there is so much more to this formerly neglected movie.
Robert Burks’ cinematography is stunning and the haunting score by maestro Bernard Herrmann is magnificent.
The performances are excellent too. James Stewart’s Scotty is vulnerable with a streak of nastiness as he becomes more obsessed with Madeleine. Barbara Bel Geddes is convincing as his sympathetic girlfriend Midge who yearns for Scotty to love her.
If there is one aspect of Vertigo that remains underrated, then it must be Kim Novak’s performance as Madeleine. Novak convincingly portrays Madeleine as a ghostly, tortured soul.
There you have it! Vertigo is great after all. But any real film lover could have told you that long ago.
Too bad they were not able to join me at the Rio Cinema on that cold, dark night back in 1990.
Paul J. Bradley