My ten great movies #6: Vertigo
Like many great works of art, Vertigo lingers in the imagination—perhaps more than any other movie I’ve ever seen—because it oscillates so nervously between its surface pleasures and its darkest depths. It’s both the ultimate Hitchcock entertainment, with its flawless cinematography, iconic Edith Head costumes, and lush Bernard Herrmann score, and the most psychologically complex film ever produced in America. In many respects, it’s the most mysterious movie ever made, but whenever I watch it again, I’m struck by how much of it is grounded in specifics: the mundane details of Scotty’s life, the beautiful but realistic San Francisco settings, and the way his obsession for Madeline manifests itself in trips to salons and department stores. Early on, it can come off as routine, even banal, which leaves us even less prepared for its climax, a sick joke or sucker punch that also breaks the heart. There’s no greater ending in all of movies, and it works because it’s so cruel, arbitrary, and unfair.
Vertigo takes so many insane, unjustifiable risks that it inevitably feels flawed in places, despite long stretches of icy perfection: the plot sometimes creaks, especially in the first half, and the dialogue scenes often feel like part of a lesser film. But all these concerns are swept away by the extraordinary third act, which may be my favorite in any work of art. I’ve noted before how the original novel keeps the big revelation for the very end, while the film puts it almost forty minutes earlier, shifting points of view and dividing the viewer’s loyalties in the process. It’s a brilliant change—arguably no other creative decision in any movie adaptation has had a greater impact—and it turns the movie from an elegant curiosity into something indescribably beautiful and painful. When Judy turns to the camera and the image is flooded with red, we’re as close to the heart of movies as we’ll ever get. As David Thomson writes: “It’s a test case. If you are moved by this film, you are a creature of cinema. But if you are alarmed by its implausibility, its hysteria, its cruelty—well, there are novels.”
Next week: The most enduring of all Hollywood films, and a bittersweet reminder of what might have been.