Although it got at best mixed reviews when first released, Vertigo is now considered one of Alfred Hitchcock’s classic films. A tribute to the players, the director, and the composer of that haunting musical score that will stay with you forever.
The music is probably more important here than in most films, let alone most Hitchcock films. Because for most of the first half of the film and a great deal of the second half, it is without dialogue. In fact Kim Novak does not have a spoken line until about 48 minutes into the little more than 2 hour feature. She’s under James Stewart’s surveillance and the whole story of his growing obsession with her is told through his facial expressions and through Bernard Herrmann’s music.
Stewart is a cop retired on disability who is hired by an old college friend Tom Helmore to follow his wife. Helmore tells Stewart a tale about his wife falling under the spirit of her dead great grandmother who committed suicide. The wife he’s following is played by Kim Novak. Novak in fact makes a suicide attempt and by jumping into San Francisco bay and Stewart jumps in and saves her.
In a brief prologue the reason for Stewart’s disability is told. While on the police force, he lost a man while pursuing the suspect in a rooftop chase. Another cop was killed trying to save Stewart who had slipped and was hanging on to a roof gutter for his dear life. After that Stewart acquired an understandable fear of heights with accompanying dizziness, vertigo.
Later on at an old mission which has significance for Novak’s family, Novak runs up to the top of the bell tower and Stewart because of his Vertigo can’t pursue her to prevent her from jumping off and taking her life.
Later on he spots Kim Novak again with a different color hair and this time essentially stalks her until they meet. By now he’s totally obsessed with the dead Novak who he fell in love with.
Alfred Hitchcock is plumbing some depths of the human psyche in Vertigo. Certainly good old all American Jimmy Stewart would not be one you would think of casting as a voyeur and a stalker. But he pulls off the performance in probably the film with the least dialogue Alfred Hitchcock ever made since sound came in.
Kim Novak is hauntingly beautiful in Vertigo, she has to be or the whole plot would make no sense. Barbara Bel Geddes is in this also as Stewart’s girl friend who finds herself losing him to an obsession with a ghost. She also serves as a sounding board for Stewart as he expresses some of his feelings to her.
This was the first of two films Stewart and Novak made together. Ironically enough the second one, Bell Book and Candle, is about a witch played by Novak who actually uses witchcraft to ensnare Stewart. Given Stewart’s obsession with Novak in Vertigo, if Hitchcock had thrown in witchcraft into the plot, the audience would certainly have believed it.
Of course this is an Alfred Hitchcock film and therefore not all is as it seems. I can’t sat any more, but there are no happy endings for anyone in this haunting film.