Mark D Cassar
October 31, 2022

VERTIGO … The joke was on me

If you’ve ever been taken for a ride, suckered in or felt like you had just been conned you might have an inkling of how I feel watching this cinematic shiny jewel in perverse seduction for once you go down into that rabbit hole… beware.

Hitchcock was a prankster, a past master in male manipulation this being his “masterpiece”, or was it just mental masturbation? ‘Vertigo'(1958) is one of those films that has perplexed me over the years. Because of all the plaudits from prominent people I just didn’t trust my own judgment. In 2012, eight hundred and forty-six critics, curators and programmers from all over the globe trumpeted in their once in a decade poll of ‘Sight & Sound’, a BFi publication, “the greatest film of all time” … of all time? Think about that for a second.

I feel as if I have been transported into the middle of a Bee Gee’s song, ‘I started a joke’. Taking a leaf out of Hitchcock’s book, to forget about the plot because this is tantamount to pathological titillation. The synopsis is a retired San Francisco detective Scottie played with over-acting zeal of a miscast Jimmy Stewart who has a massive boner for Madeleine (Kim Novak) is the quintessence of the movie. That is basically what the film revolves around, his cock.

Novak is the object of desire. Who cares what her character’s name is or where she is from or who she is, these things are irrelevant. Her one-dimensional lack of character is summed up by the duplicity in a crime therefore the sin has to be abated. You lie you die. After all Scottie is a law abiding, innocent man, not a deranged nut job who stalked a woman.

It’s too simple to say I don’t like it because that is not the full picture and to be fair let’s break it down. The opening iconic title sequence by Saul Bass is troublesome. Why use panning close ups of an unidentified female’s face, because that is not Novack. Is it to point out it doesn’t matter who it is? James Stewart is the star yet what we see is the panning down to her mouth as his name pops up above her top lip immediately objectifying her before the male gaze. The woman’s eyes look anxious, uncomfortable, and coupled with Bernard Herrmann’s unsettling music score, it’s a hypnotic thrill enhanced by the fascinating spirographic images by the uncredited John Whitney, a pioneer of computer animation. A whirlpool into a mind’s eye.

The voyeuristic nature of Scotties obvious back projection tailing of Madeleine quickly becomes farcical. Then she sneaks into a florist via an unmarked door in an alleyway for no other reason than to add suspense and another excuse for Hitchcock to show us Scottie spying on her through a crack in a door, you could drive a bus through, which begs the question, why can’t Madeline see him? Aha-ha, but she can, that’s the twist in this rotten tale. Even if I’m buying this it makes him a really crap detective.

Moving on to the script, cast and the not so convincing acting. Within the first eleven minutes I’m already laughing out loud at Stewart’s twitchy cow of a performance. He can’t jump or fall without over-selling it. The introduction of his platonic sidekick Midge, (Barbara Bel Geddes) as Scottie tries to prove to her that he is over his fear of heights by warbling the ditty, “I look up, I look down, I look up, I look d…”. and then faint so laughably bad I’m filled with derision.

Fifteen seconds later, after Hitchcock’s perfunctory cameo, we witness the horrendously stiff set up with Scottie and Gavin (Tom Helmore). “I’m afraid some harm may come to her,” camera dolly’s in as Scottie asks, “from whom?” Close up on Gavin. “Someone dead”. I thought he was commenting on his own performance, another unintentional comedic moment.

The dreamlike cinematography of Robert Burks is sumptuous in places but then there is the trademark dolly shot while pulling focus, known as the ‘Vertigo effect’ creating the illusion of Scottie’s acrophobia, which apart from being gimmicky, only serves to highlight Stewart’s over-acting eyebrow.

Overall, Stewart is out of his depth resulting in a performance of comical overtures if it wasn’t so bloody irritating. Poor Kim Novak whose frumpiness is neither sexy nor mysterious. Doing nothing on screen is one of the most difficult things for actors to do. Novak is called upon to perform this task way too much for her meagre talent to deal with. Looking awkward, ill at ease, as if she had been told to react to the flowers in a store or a painting in the Legion of Honor or opening the blind whatever it is it looks labored lacking conviction. I know it’s meant to be sardonic, but I can’t be hoodwinked by this Hitchcock hokum.

The coroner’s (Henry Jones) sarcastic account of Scotties competency is funny but not as outrageously ludicrous as Scotties disembodied head or his over the top awakening from his nightmare. I could go on, but I’ll refrain just to add that by the time Kim Novak’s character has morphed into Judy I’m at the point where all interest and sympathy are lost. Then there is that ending that is quite frankly one hell of a way to cure your acrophobia. Whether it be the loud intrusive melodramatic music, the piss poor acting, or the production design fakery it all just adds up to feeling absurd, and just plain bad.

This is “one of the greatest films of all time”, according to “whom?”. An inert alarm rang within me for it takes one to know one. It has to be bunch of frustrated middle age white men… Hmmm.“… the joke was on me.”

Mark D Cassar

Mark D.Cassar was a freelance film and video editor in New York, having worked for HBO and Warner Bros Pictures. Follow him on Facebook and Instagram.