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vertigo Vertigo
Reviewer: Richard Tara
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Cast: James Stewart, Kim Novak, Barbara Bel Geddes, Tom Helmore, Henry Jones, Raymond Bailey

A rather complicated story and one of Hitchcock’s best. Unlike Psycho, which relied on the horror factor, this is an adult story that should be watched rather intently. John Ferguson (James Stewart) also known as Scottie by his associates is an Ex San Francisco detective. Scottie has lost a friend during a chase on the rooftops of San Francisco and ever since is suffering from Acrophobia -deathly fear of heights. He has an easy relationship with an artist, Midge Wood (Barbara Bel Geddes) but nothing serious or too close. As he is marking time, an old buddy Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore) who has made it big in the postwar boom asks him for help. He wants Scottie to follow his wife Madeleine (Kim Novak.) Gavin is concerned with the mental health of his wife and thinks a spirit from the past has possessed her. Scottie reluctantly accepts the job. In the process, he and Madeleine get acquainted and fall in love. She tries to commit suicide once but is saved by Scottie. The second time around she runs up the bell tower of an old Spanish mission (Mission San Juan Bautista 70 miles south of San Francisco) and jumps to her death. Scottie, with his Acrophobia, is too scared to follow and stop her. Scottie has a nervous breakdown and blames himself because he was frozen by acrophobia and too scared to follow her up the tall tower to save her.

Sometime later, Scottie meets a woman Judy Barton (Also played by Kim Novak) who bears a strong resemblance to Madeleine. The two become friends and fall in love. However, Scottie has his suspicions about Judy and feels that he was set up by Gavin and Judy while they may have murdered the real Mrs. Elster. He smells a conspiracy and to prove his point and cure himself of the madness and guilt that is gnawing at him he takes Judy to Mission San Juan Bautista to reenact the death scene.

Alfred Hitchcock adopted this story from a French novel and transferred the locale to San Francisco. His first choice for the role of Judy Barton/Madeleine Elster was Vera Miles who apparently became pregnant before shooting. Kim Novak was the second choice and the movie established her as an international star.

Hitchcock did not spare any expense or effort in capturing the image of the San Francisco of the 1950’s. It casts a nostalgic look back on a way of life long gone by. If you watch as many old movies as I do, you will notice that the City had not changed that much since the 1930’s. Then starting in 1980, everything changed in San Francisco, California and the World! Gone are the great cozy mom and pop diners, cheap South of the Market Hotels, Christie Airfield and the famous Bay Meadows racetrack just south of the city. Colorless omnipresent Starbucks, Peet’s Coffee and high priced chain stores have replaced them all. Gone are the commuter trains that looked as if they had come from the 1800’s (and they actually had!) with toilets open to the track below and open platform at each end of the car. Even in 1980’s, riding on those trains was like travelling back 100 years to the old West. Even Mission San Juan Bautista has changed.

Henry Fonda once enviously said that James Stewart was a lucky actor. While Henry Fonda and other young actors pounded the streets and burnt shoe leather trying to get little role, James never wanted for work. It probably had to do with his looks, the way he spoke and moved. It never changed. James Stewart of Vertigo is the same James Stewart of “The FBI Story” or “Shenandoah.” He had that all American reassuring take-charge way about him and people loved it. In some ways, he was like Gary Cooper of a generation earlier. Kim Novak, had a short career in the movies and then retired. She always seemed rather insipid in most of her movies. Relying on her wonderful looks but missing the spark of personality.

As was usual with Alfred Hitchcock, he took an ordinary murder story of people assuming a different identity, laced it with love, murder and location and turned it into a masterpiece. This movie was rated the best movie ever made by the BFI.Org’s Sight and Sound Poll for 2012, ending the monopoly of Citizen Kane as the best movie ever made.

To really appreciate and enjoy this movie, you should watch it twice. There are many subtle clues that you will miss the first time around. Four stars.

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