It’s hard to believe the American Film Institute (AFI) named Vertigo as number 61 on its list of the 100 Greatest Films of All Time. What a disappointment! Whenever someone asks me to name my favorite films the answer changes a bit depending on my mood. But one movie always makes it to the top five: Vertigo, released in 1958. I never get tired of watching Jimmy Stewart’s riveting obsession with Kim Novak in Hitchcock’s haunting psychological thriller about an acrophobic police detective who falls in love with two women. When the first one apparently dies, he becomes obsessed with turning the second woman, a lookalike, into a carbon copy of his first love – (SPOILER ALERT) only to find out later they were the same person.
Although I enjoy films mostly for their escapist entertainment qualities, I also love being enchanted by cinematic artistry, enlightened by a great story, and inspired by memorable performances. Vertigo excels in each of these areas. Film critic Richard Jack Smith captures my feelings about this terrific film in the following quote from his excellent review.
The world of “Vertigo” unfolds at a lovely pace with rhythms and cadences which seem brave by today's standards. During the first hour, the camera holds on some beautifully imagined details, capturing Novak's hair at a certain angle and building suspense through a balance of Bernard Herrmann's mesmerizing music and George Tomasini's cutting. Some may wish the vertigo perspectives were longer, but the abrupt editing serves the larger design and puts us on edge.
Of course, a good thriller needs more than delicious eye-candy. An excessive amount of it always keeps me from suspending disbelief and becoming emotionally involved in the movie. Hitchcock understood this concept --- which is why Vertigo includes a delicate balance of style and substance.
For me, no other movie comes close to Vertigo in showing what happens when a person becomes consumed by obsession. No matter how many times I watch this film, Jimmy Stewart always makes me believe his character is truly under the control of a powerful feeling that the beautiful woman he loved can be resurrected if he makes a lookalike change her hair color and style, wear the same kind of clothes his loved one wore, and so forth. Watching Stewart and Novak interact as this transformation unfolds is a fascinating and poignant pleasure for movie buffs like me. Their marvelous performances are etched in my mind. I can’t imagine anyone else in these key roles.
According to Oscar Wilde, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. No wonder a number of movies appear to be influenced by Vertigo. For example, Wicker Park, The Face of Love and The Salesman come to mind.
Wicker Park, starring Josh Hartnett, deals with similar material but fails to measure up, mostly because of its reliance on too many coincidences and confusing flashbacks. But Hartnett gives a strong performance as a man recovering from a broken heart. When he thinks he sees his former lover in a restaurant, he drops everything to find her again. By everything, I mean his job, his new girlfriend, a scheduled flight to China -- and even his sense of reason. Diane Kruger portrays the professional dancer with whom Hartnett falls deeply in love. When she disappears from his life, he’s devastated.
The Face of Love, a romantic drama co-starring Annette Bening and Ed Harris, adds a touch of Vertigo while exploring the depths of grief over the death of a beloved spouse. Bening is heartbreaking in the role of a widow who meets her husband’s doppelganger about five years after his passing, and Harris excels as the divorced lookalike who’s in the dark about this resemblance. I’m also impressed by the movie’s exquisite suspense surrounding the developing romance between these two walking wounded and about what will happen when the truth comes out.
The Salesman deals with a brutal attack on a wife and her husband’s obsession with revenge. Shahab Hosseini and Taraneh Alidoosti are mesmerizing in these lead roles. As Emad, the husband, Hosseini reminds me of James Stewart in Vertigo. Like Stewart’s character, Emad is consumed by obsession. His whole spirit appears infected. And like Vertigo, The Salesman also reveals the dangers of such extreme behavior.
A poem to close:
Vertigo named in the top five.
A worthy goal for which I strive.
Suspense, romance, and mystery
that can’t be beat; not just for me.
Haunting music in the background,
captivates us with each rich sound.
Stewart and Novak at their best
in this amazing Hitchcock fest.
Reward the art and artists too.
Give true genius what it is due.
Grand Cinema lives on display
in Vertigo still to this day.
(Vertigo was released by Paramount Pictures and rated “PG” by MPAA.)