Distributor: Universal Studios
Release Date: May 06, 2014
Region: Region Free
Video: 1080P (VC-1)
English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 (48kHz, 24-bit)
DTS English Mono
DTS French Mono
DTS Spanish Mono
Subtitles: English SDH, French, Spanish
Bitrate: 29.90 Mbps
Notes: This title has had a number of DVD releases and is also available on Blu-ray as part of a boxed set entitled The Masterpiece Collection. The transfer used for the boxed set is the same one that is included here and the disc includes the same special features. The artwork on the actual disc is the only thing different about this release.
“Cinematically, all of Stewart’s efforts to re-create the dead woman are shown in such a way that he seems to be trying to undress her, instead of the other way around. What I liked best is when the girl came back after having had her hair dyed blonde. James Stewart is disappointed because she hasn’t put her hair up in a bun. What this really means is that the girl has almost stripped, but she still won’t take her knickers off. When he insists, she says, ‘All right!’ and goes into the bathroom while he waits outside. What Stewart is really waiting for is for the woman to emerge totally naked this time, and ready for love.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock/Truffaut)
This dark statement is meant to illustrate the desperate sense of lust inherent in ‘Scottie’ Ferguson during the scene. Scenes like this one have added fuel to many of the myths written about the portly director. People might take issue with my use of the word myth, but the fact remains that there are a lot of myths about the work of Alfred Hitchcock.
In Truffaut’s famous interview with the director, Truffaut claimed that Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac wrote ‘D’entre les morts’ especially for the director after learning of his interest in ‘Celle qui n’était plus.’ Henri-Georges Clouzot had purchased the property and turned it into Les Diaboliques (1955). Hitchcock was surprised by Truffaut’s claim, and denied that this was the case. Truffaut held firm. However, there is more evidence to suggest otherwise. Hitchcock was not the only one to deny this rumor.
“…But according to Thomas Narcejac, one of the book’s authors, this was never the case. He admits that Hitchcock and their writing team shared common interests, but in an interview conducted for this book, he maintained firmly that he and his collaborator never had any intention of writing a book especially for Hitchcock. The genesis of the idea for their second novel actually took place, much more provocatively, in a French cinema. As Narcejac was watching a newsreel, he felt he distinctly recognized a friend he had lost touch with during the war; the idea of discovering a lost acquaintance in such a way stayed with him, and it suggested the outline of a story.” -Dan Auiler (Vertigo: The Making of a Hitchcock Classic)
According to Narcejac, this sort of thing was quite common in Europe after WWII.
“After the war there were many displaced people and families. It was common to have lost a friend. I began to think about the possibilities of recognizing someone like this. Maybe someone who was thought dead… and this is where ‘D’entre les morts’ began to take shape.” -Thomas Narcejac (as quoted in “Vertigo: The Making of a Hitchcock Classic” by Dan Auiler)
It would take a lot of effort and a number of writers to adapt the Boileau-Narcejac novel into a usable screenplay. In this adaptation a number of important changes were made. The most obvious of these changes was the setting. The novel took place in Paris and spans from the early years of WWII to the liberation. This aspect was quickly jettisoned in favor of [then] modern day San Francisco. (Of course, names were also changed and Americanized.) These are only the most obvious changes. A comparison of the book and the film will show that only the basic plot remains.
The book ends with the protagonist accidentally strangling the Madeleine/Renée character (Madeleine/Judy in the final film) after she finally confesses that she and the person he is trying to re-create is one and the same person. He then surrenders himself to the police, giving the dead Renée a tender kiss. Hitchcock and his writers make the protagonist more proactive and intelligent by allowing him to figure out the murder plot after he sees Carlotta’s necklace. This also allows for visual storytelling and a “subjective treatment” of the material.
Maxwell Anderson was the first writer to work on the film (without the benefit of Hitchcock’s help). Alfred Hitchcock was in Africa scouting locations for Flamingo Feather, a production that was abandoned shortly after the trip. When Anderson sent the director a rough draft titled ‘Darkling I Listen,’ it was found to be unusable. Some sources claim that it was incomprehensible, but it is more likely that it was simply not very interesting. Very little of Anderson’s work is evident in the final film, although there are certain locations in this draft that were used in the final film (such as the Golden Gate Bridge and San Juan Bautista).
After Angus MacPhail was unable to help the director work out a treatment, Hitchcock contacted Alec Coppel. On September 21, 1956 Coppel began working very closely with Hitchcock on the film’s construction.
“Hitchcock at once took him on a tour of likely San Francisco locations. Once Coppel had got the feel of the story, there followed a series of script conferences in October and November 1956, the results of which he consolidated into a patchwork document of 50 scenes, completed in early December. This lays out the story without dialogue, but often in great descriptive detail. When this was complete, Coppel spent several more weeks, before other commitments took him away, in developing this script, putting in what Hitchcock described as ‘dummy dialogue,’ most of it purely indicative and functional, a guide for later development.” –Charles Barr (Vertigo: BFI Film Classics)
Alfred Hitchcock was not entirely happy with the outline as it stood, but did feel that the project was finally taking shape. On December 4th, the director would write a letter to Maxwell Anderson requesting that the writer take a look at Coppel’s work and flesh it out into a proper screenplay. The letter was quite long and very detailed.
“…Now, Max, one final thing. I am really anxious to get mood, but not necessarily somber mood, into this love story. I don’t want us to get heavy handed with it. After all, Barrie’s MARY ROSE ha some of the elements of the first part of this story and, as you know, this quality was quite a fey one…
…Please, Max, forgive me for being so long-winded about this, but this construction has taken many weeks of work with Mr. Coppel and myself, and I still wonder that after all the years of one’s experience why construction is such a hard job…” -Alfred Hitchcock (Letter to Maxwell Anderson as printed in “Vertigo: The Making of a Hitchcock Classic” by Dan Auiler)
Anderson declined to work on the script and Alfred Hitchcock finally settled on Samuel Taylor, who would add character dimension to the outline and make several other changes before finally finishing the screenplay.
“We had a talk and I said the first thing we have to do is make these people real. He said, ‘That’s what Jimmy Stewart said.’ The whole story is so unreal and so fantasized and you never touch reality at all. Therefore I have to create somebody who is completely in the real worlk who can test you, the man, so that you can come back to reality and say to the audience, ‘Is this a real world?’” –Samuel Taylor (as quoted in “Vertigo: The Making of a Hitchcock Classic” by Dan Auiler)
Taylor created the character of Midge (played by Barbara Bel Geddes) and began fleshing out the script with Hitchcock.
“It was pure serendipity. We discovered as soon as we met that our minds worked alike and that we had a rapport. It seemed to be a rapport that didn’t have to be announced. So when we worked, especially at his house, we would sit and talk. We would talk about all sorts of things – talk about food, talk about wives, talk about travel. …We’d talk about the picture and there would be a long silence and we’d just sit and contemplate each other and Hitchcock would say, ‘Well, the motor is still running.’ And then all of a sudden we would pick up again and talk some more.” –Samuel Taylor (as quoted in “Vertigo: The Making of a Hitchcock Classic” by Dan Auiler)
There were times when Hitchcock’s health took him away from the project. The director underwent surgery twice. The first surgery was a hernia operation, and the second was due to complications with his gallbladder. When the director returned to the project, a significant change to the film’s construction was made. Up to this point, the murder conspiracy was not revealed until the very end of the film. With Taylor, Hitchcock decided to move this revelation earlier in the story.
“ Now, in the book, they didn’t reveal that she was one and the same woman until the end of the story. I shocked Sam Taylor, who worked on it, when I said, ‘When Stewart comes upon this brunette girl, Sam, this is the time for us to blow the whole truth.’ He said, ‘Good God, why?’ I told him, if we don’t what is the rest of our story until we do reveal the truth. A man has picked up a brunette and sees in her the possibilities of resemblance to the other woman.
Let’s put ourselves in the minds of our audience here: ‘So you’ve got a brunette and you’re going to change her.’ What story are we telling now? A man wants to make a girl over and then, at the very end, finds out it is the same woman. Maybe he kills her, or whatever. Here we are, back in our old situation: surprise or suspense… ‘ If we don’t let them know, they will speculate. They will get a very blurred impression as to what is going on.
‘Now,’ I said, ‘one of the fatal things, Sam, in all suspense is to have a mind that is confused. Otherwise the audience won’t emote. Clarify, clarify, clarify. Don’t let them say, ‘I don’t know which woman that is, who’s that?’ So, I said, ‘we are going to take the bull by the horns and put it all in a flashback, bang! Right then and there – show it’s one and the same woman.’ Then, when Stewart comes to the hotel for her, the audience says, ‘Little does he know.’
Second, the girl’s resistance in the earlier part of the film had no reason. Now you have the reason–she doesn’t want to be uncovered. That’s why she doesn’t want the gray suit, doesn’t want to go blond–because the moment she does, she’s in for it. So now you’ve got extra values working for you.” – Alfred Hitchcock (Interview with Peter Bogdanovich, 1963)
Taylor claims that this alteration was actually his idea.
“That’s a matter of my expertise as a playwright… and I kept saying to Hitchcock that there’s something missing. Then one day I said to him, ‘I know exactly what’s missing’ – I said, ‘It’s really a Hitchcockian thing.’ I was naturally being Hitchcock with him. I said, ‘This is not pure Hitchcock unless the audience knows what has happened,’ and he agreed.” –Samuel Taylor (as quoted in “Vertigo: The Making of a Hitchcock Classic” by Dan Auiler)
Whoever came up with the idea, Hitchcock was not completely confident about the decision. His doubts grew after the screenplay was finished. Taylor made a bid to have Coppel’s name removed from the screen credit and Coppel fought him (and rightly won). When Alec Coppel wrote the director about the dispute, the director’s doubt was solidified.
“…I am conscious of the new dialogue and the new character Midge (who does not amount to anything) – but if Sam Taylor had started with only the book as his guide he couldn’t possibly have arrived at this latest script.
Next time we meet I would like very much to know why you jettisoned the entire mystery of the novel, and our script when I left you, by telling the audience on page 112 the truth about Judy? I’m sure you had reasons – but it seems to me that after that exposé you can reach for your hat…” –Alec Coppel (Letter to Alfred Hitchcock as printed in “Vertigo: The Making of a Hitchcock Classic” by Dan Auiler)
Hitchcock’s uncertainty about the early reveal would last through the film’s post-production. In the late 1990s, Herbert Colman remembered Alfred Hitchcock’s reluctance to give away the murder conspiracy.
“Well, there was quite a controversy… I wanted it in the final cut and so did Sam [Taylor]. Joan Harrison, the producer of his television series, got to Hitch and talked him into running it without the scene, and at that running it started a fight with Hitch and myself…
Hitch and I stood face to face, arguing like hell about the film in front of everybody in the theater. They knew that Hitch was wrong, because Harrison jumped up and said, ‘This is the only way you should show it, Hitch.’ I took Hitch off to one side and continued to argue about it with him. Finally, our voices started rising, and everybody was sitting in the theater in absolute silence. Just the silence alone should have told Hitch it was wrong. We went to great expense to take it out; in the end, though, I won and it was put back in…
…When he released the picture this way [without the confession], I had to call all the prints back that we had sent all over the country and re-cut the scene and redo the music and everything and send those out. In the meantime, Barney Balaban, the president of Paramount, who had seen the picture in its original form with the scene in, had gone back to New York and told everyone it was the greatest Hitchcock film.
Just before the release date, between that time and the actual release date, Balaban, not knowing it was out, had a run-in with the critics in New York. They told him he was crazy — it was the worst Hitchcock film ever made.
He called us up in the studio and I thought we were all going too get fired – I thought the studio was going to get burned down. And he ordered that scene be put back, so I had to call everyone back in again and redo the whole damn thing.” –Herbert Coleman (as quoted in “Vertigo: The Making of a Hitchcock Classic” by Dan Auiler)
The early reveal of the plot’s ‘big secret’ has been the topic of debate, but this isn’t the most interesting aspect of this beautifully layered film. Actually, Vertigo is so rich in its thematic content that putting one’s hand on the ‘most interesting aspect’ of the film would be nearly impossible (and completely arguable). Of course, the film’s merits were not evident to everyone at the time. To the studio suits, the film was simply an incredibly convoluted murder mystery. Of course, sophisticated audiences know that the film is so much more than this.
The production itself wasn’t entirely pleasant and there were a number of reasons for this. Alfred Hitchcock was never completely happy with Kim Novak, but this probably had much more to do with his personal temperament than with any disappointment with Novak’s performance. Disappointment coupled with an extreme dislike of confrontation colored his opinions. Alfred Hitchcock had originally cast someone else in the dual roles of Madeline and Judy.
“Do you know that I had Vera Miles in mind for Vertigo, and we had done the whole wardrobe and the final tests with her? …Paramount was perfectly willing to have her, but she became pregnant just before the part that was going to turn her into a star. After that I lost interest; I couldn’t get the rhythm going with her again.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock/Truffaut)
Alfred Hitchcock wasn’t happy about having spent money on costumes and production design that he would be unable to use. He also knew that he would have to alter his vision in order to continue with the project. However, one could certainly argue that Novak is a more appropriate casting choice, and that this stroke of bad luck was actually fortune smiling upon him. Of course, he may have never realized this.
Novak was Paramount’s first choice. Some scholars even theorize that Hitchcock was already having second thoughts about casting Miles in the role before the actress became pregnant. This could very well be the case. Kim Novak was under contract to Columbia at the time. This meant asking for a loan-out. Since none of the suits in Hollywood were crazy about the script, her loan-out was approved grudgingly (and with the stipulation that James Stewart would do a film for Columbia).
“I was under contract to Columbia. Harry Cohn called me in one day and said, ‘I’m loaning you out. It’s a lousy script but it’s a great director. You’re going to go over to Paramount.’ I can’t remember what I was shooting just before, but anyway that’s how it came about.
You had no choice in the matter. I wasn’t shown the script or anything. It’s their deal. I had no idea what Harry Cohn was paid for making that deal. I think it was maybe a trade, because then Jimmy Stewart did a movie for Columbia. However they worked it out, I know I was still making $750 a week and walking to work. And I had to walk to Paramount which was further [away]…” –Kim Novak (to Henry Sheean, 1996)
When Novak finished reading the script, she was pleasantly surprised.
“…I identified with [the script] right away. I’ve never liked commercial movies, really; I’ve always liked strange movies [laughs]. But to me, that’s just the kind of movie I liked seeing, being part of. Something a little more involved. I like things where you have to work for it, you know what I mean? I like the way an audience has to be pulled in. If I’m going to do something, I would like someone to participate by having to work to try to figure out what’s going on in my mind. What am I thinking? And of course, that’s what Alfred Hitchcock does. He brings you, as an audience, into wanting to get into the characters. His characters are so deep and profound, there are so many layers. That’s what I really loved about it. I loved it because it was expressing exactly what I was living at Columbia Pictures, at the studio.” –Kim Novak (to Henry Sheean, 1996)
Life had prepared Novak for her participation in Vertigo. Galvin Elster’s treatment of Madeline, and Scotties treatment of Judy mirrored Cohn’s treatment of Novak.
“Of course, in a way, that was how Hollywood treated its women in those days. I could really identify with Judy, being pushed and pulled this way and that, being told what dresses to wear, how to walk, how to behave. I think there was a little edge in my performance that I was trying to suggest that I would not allow myself to be pushed beyond a certain point – that I was there, I was me, I insisted on myself.”-Kim Novak (to Roger Ebert, October 22, 1996)
The conflict with Novak has been blown out of proportion, and most of it concerned the incredible costumes that were designed for the character of Madeline.
“…Before shooting started, he sent me over to Edith Head, who showed me a set of drawings. When I saw them, the very first thing I said was, ‘I’m sorry. I don’t wear black shoes.’ When she said, ‘Alfred Hitchcock wants you to wear these shoes,’ I said, ‘I’m sure he doesn’t mind.’ I didn’t think it would matter to him what kind of shoes I wore. I had never had a director who was particular about the costumes, the way they were designed, the specific colors. The two things he wanted the most were those shoes and that gray suit. When Edith Head showed me that gray suit, I said, “Oh, my God, that looks like it would be very hard to act in. It’s very confining.’ Then, when we had the first fitting of the dress, it was even worse and I said, ‘This is so restrictive.’ She said, ‘Well, maybe you’d better talk to Alfred Hitchcock about this…’
…I went in and he said, ‘I understand you don’t like these black shoes.’ He asked me why and I said, ‘I tell you, black shoes always sort of make me feel I’m pulled down. I’ve always felt that your feet should be the same as the top of your head, so that you’re connected. Wearing the black shoes would make me feel as if I were disconnected.’ He heard me out. And then he said, ‘Fine. When you play the role of Judy, you will not have to wear black shoes. When you are playing Madeleine, you will wear them.’ When he put it like that — after all, he’s the director – I said, ‘Okay…’
…I really wanted the chance to express myself and he allowed me that chance. It felt okay because he had heard me out. He felt my reasons weren’t good enough, they weren’t right. I just wanted to be heard as far as what I felt. So, I thought, ‘I’ll live with the grey suit.’ I also thought, ‘I’m going to use this. I can make this work for me. Because it bothers me, I’ll use it and it can help me feel like I’m having to be Madeleine, that I’m being forced to be her. I’ll have it as my energy to play against.’ It worked. That suit and those shoes were a blessing. I was constantly reminded that I was not being myself, which made it right for Madeleine. When I went out of Alfred Hitchcock’s office, I remember his wonderful smile when he said, ‘I’m so glad we had this talk.’ I think he saw that this was going to be good. He didn’t say to me, ‘Now use that,’ he allowed me to arrive at that myself.” -Kim Novak (Interview with Stephen Rebello, 2004)
Edith Head (who had designed the costumes) remembered the conflict, and wrote about it in her autobiography, Edith Head’s Hollywood.
“…I remember [Novak] saying that she would wear any color except gray, and she must have thought that would give me full rein. Either she hadn’t read the script or she had and wanted me to think she hadn’t. I explained to her that Hitch paints a picture in his films, that color is as important to him as it is to any artist…
As soon as she left I was on the phone to Hitch, asking if that damn suit had to be gray and he explained to me the simple gray suit and plain hairstyle were very important and represented the character’s view of herself in the first half of the film. The character would go through a psychological change in the second half of the film and would then wear more colorful clothes to reflect the change. … ‘Handle it, Edith,’ I remember him saying. ‘I don’t care what she wears as long as it’s a gray suit.’
When Kim came in for our next session, I was completely prepared. I had several swatches of gray fabric in various shades, textures, and weights. Before she had the opportunity to complain, I showed her the sketch and the fabrics and suggested that she choose the fabric she thought would be best on her. She immediately had a positive feeling and felt that we were designing together. Of course, I knew that any of the fabrics would work well for the suit silhouette I had designed, so I didn’t care which one she chose.” -Edith Head (as quoted in “Vertigo: The Making of a Hitchcock Classic” by Dan Auiler)
Hitchcock seemed to remember the event during his interview with François Truffaut, but he didn’t go into as much detail.
“Miss Novak arrived on the set with all sorts of preconceived notions that I couldn’t possibly go along with. You know, I don’t like to argue with a performer on the set; there’s no reason to bring the electricians in on our troubles. I went to Kim Novak’s dressing room and told her about the dresses and hairdos that I had been planning for several months. I also explained that the story was of less importance to me than the overall visual impact on the screen, once the picture is completed.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock/Truffaut)
Madeline’s gray suit may have annoyed Novak, but the actress felt differently about Judy’s wardrobe.
“When I played Judy, I never wore a bra. It killed me having to wear a bra as Madeleine but you had to because they had built the suit so that you had to stand very erect or you suddenly were not ‘in position.’ They made that suit very stiff. You constantly had to hold your shoulders back and stand erect. But, oh that was so perfect. That suit helped me find the tools for playing the role. It was wonderful for Judy because then I got to be without a bra and felt so good again. I just felt natural. I had on my own beige shoes and that felt good. Hitchcock said, ‘Does that feel better?’ I said, ‘Oh, yes, thank you so much.’ But then, I had to play ‘Madeleine’ again when Judy had to be made over again by Scottie into what she didn’t want to be. I could use that, again, totally for me, not just being made over into Madeleine but into Madeleine who wore that ghastly gray suit. The clothes alone were so perfect; they were everything I could want as an actress.” -Kim Novak (Interview with Stephen Rebello, 2004)
Hitchcock was also probably also annoyed that the actress delayed the production.
“Kim Novak, who had already delayed production with a summer European vacation, now refused to show up for work on August thirtieth. She was holding out for more money – not from Hitchcock, but from Colombia, her home studio. Columbia immediately put her on suspension. The stakes were high – if the gamble by Novak and her agents didn’t work, she would lose both Vertigo and Bell, Book, and Candle with Stewart.” –Dan Auiler (Vertigo: The Making of a Hitchcock Classic)
This isn’t a stunt that would have appealed to Alfred Hitchcock. One of the reasons for his meticulous planning was to avoid inconveniences. Novak’s stunt likely worried the director a great deal. However, if Hitchcock was annoyed at Novak, he certainly never took it out on the actress during production. They simply did not associate with one another as friends.
“…I don’t know if he ever liked me. I never sat down with him for dinner or tea or anything, except one cast dinner, and I was late to that. It wasn’t my fault, but I think he thought I had delayed to make a star entrance, and he held that against me. During the shooting, he never really told me what he was thinking.” -Kim Novak (to Roger Ebert, October 22, 1996)
The working relationship between Novak and Hitchcock was not dissimilar from the director’s approach with other actors.
“He really gave very, very little direction for your interpretation. He was extremely precise on rhythm and exactly where you moved because of his camera moves. But he really allowed you a lot of freedom as far as your reactions to whatever he set up for you. He wanted that fresh and real…
…He [said], ‘My dear, my dear, I hired you and that’s why I want you to do it. Just do what you feel, and I’ll tell you if it’s not right.’ I wanted to discuss it, but in retrospect I’m kind of glad because again, that was the sort of freedom. I’d go to Jimmy Stewart – because of my insecurity, I’m so insecure all the time – knock on his dressing room door. ‘Come on in!’ I’d say, ‘You know, I really wanted to talk to Mr. Hitchcock about this.’ He’d say, ‘Don’t worry. If he hired you, he likes what you’re bringing to the character; it’s all right.’ Hearing it from him made me feel good, because he is just the most amazing man I’ve ever known…” –Kim Novak (to Henry Sheean, 1996)
It has been written that Alfred Hitchcock tortured Kim Novak by shooting an exorbitant amount of takes. This particular myth is rather ridiculous and completely untrue.
“…As mentioned earlier, a double had done the jump into the real bay some months earlier; Novak was obliged only to float in the tank, waiting for Stewart to save her, for four takes (approximately forty minutes). The first take was ruined because Stewart’s hair looked wrong; in the next, he paused too long on the dive; the third didn’t match the previously shot footage of Scottie lifting her out. And in the fourth take, only camera A ran (there were two cameras covering this shot – one shooting from the top of the dock, looking at Madeline floating in the water, while the second covered Scottie diving into the water). Between the two cameras, the four takes were sufficient to cut together the scene, and Novak returned safely to dry land.” –Dan Auiler (Vertigo: The Making of a Hitchcock Classic)
In a 1996 interview, Novak discussed her difficulty shooting the scene.
“…I don’t know how to swim. And I’m very claustrophobic about not being able to breathe, catch my breath. He had me stand in the water and come up. It was in a tank, but still. There was someone under there, but I still had to put my face underwater. That was the hardest part of the movie for me and if that’s as hard as it gets, hell, that’s not bad.” –Kim Novak (to Henry Sheean, 1996)
The fact of the matter is that four takes is an extremely reasonable number for such a scene. One might even say that is a very considerate number.
Luckily, most of the production challenges were creative in nature. These were challenges that Hitchcock relished. The famous ‘Vertigo effect’ is one case in point. The director had wanted the effect in earlier films, but wasn’t able to achieve it until Vertigo.
“I always remember one night at the Chelsea Arts Ball at Albert Hall in London when I got terribly drunk and I had the sensation that everything was going far away from me. I tried to get that into Rebecca, but they couldn’t do it. The viewpoint must be fixed, you see, wile the perspective is changed as it stretches lengthwise. I thought about the problem for fifteen years. By the time we got to Vertigo, we solved it by using the dolly and zoom simultaneously. I asked how much it would cost, and they told me it would cost fifty thousand dollars. When I asked why, they said, ‘Because to put the camera at the top of the stairs, we have to have a big apparatus to lift it, counterweight it, and hold it up in space.’ I said, ‘There are no characters in this scene; it’s simply a viewpoint. Why can’t we make a miniature of the stairway and lay it on its side, then take our shot by pulling away from it? We can use a tracking shot and a zoom flat on the ground.’ So that’s the way we did it, and it only cost us nineteen thousand dollars.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock/Truffaut)
Today the effect is part of the cinematic language. In Vertigo, the effect was not simply a gimmick. It allowed audiences to identify with Scottie. A lot of modern filmmakers forget that these effects should always have a purpose and attempt to elicit an emotional reaction in the audience. This is what Alfred Hitchcock did best.
The scene where Judy is transformed back into Madeline in the hotel room is a perfect example of Hitchcock’s use of the visual to elicit an emotional reaction. This scene is almost visual poetry.
“Now, as soon as she comes out, he sees a ghost–he sees the other woman. That’s why I played her in a green light. You see, in the earlier part–which is purely in the mind of Stewart–when he is watching this girl go from place to place, when she is really faking, behaving like a woman of the past — in order to get this slightly subtle quality of a dreamlike nature although it was bright sunshine, I shot the film through a fog filter and I got a green effect — fog over bright sunshine. That’s why, when she comes out of the bathroom, I played her in the green light. That’s why I chose the Empire Hotel in Post Street — because it had a green neon sign outside the window. I wanted to establish that green light flashing all the time. So that when we need it, we’ve got it. I slid the soft, fog lens over, and as she came forward, for a moment he got the image of the past. Then as her face came up to him, I slipped the soft effect away, and he came back to reality. She had come back from the dead, and he felt it, and knew it, and probably was even bewildered — until he saw the locket — and then he knew he had been tricked.” – Alfred Hitchcock (Interview with Peter Bogdanovich, 1963)
“‘As I remember, it was all process. We had them on a turntable. The rest was on a transparency,’ [Henry] Bumstead recalls. ‘The turntable can make you dizzy though.’ The footage film in San Juan Bautista faded into a slow pan of Judy’s hotel room to make the final process shot that was projected behind Stewart and Novak; the background resolved into a solid neon green as the shot ended. The impression thus created was that the camera was moving full circle around the lovers, when in reality it was the rear projection and the actors who were turning. The camera’s movement is limited to a gentle track backward, then forward once again.” –Dan Auiler (Vertigo: The Making of a Hitchcock Classic)
The result is quite effective. Scottie not only prefers illusion to reality, he embraces illusion passionately. It seems that every element of the film adds richness and subtext to these themes.
When one looks at the Saul Bass credit sequence (complete with animation designs by John Whitney), it is impossible not to think about the obsessive nature of Scottie’s character and the spirals inherent throughout Vertigo. The visual design of Vertigo is as close to perfect as one could ever imagine. For easy illustration, just look at the spiral motif in the film. They are everywhere!
Spirals are not limited to the most obvious examples of Madeline and Carlotta’s hairstyles, the bouquet of flowers, and the tower’s staircase. They are even evident in many of Hitchcock’s shot compositions (since many shots in Vertigo owe a debt to the golden ratio). Fibonacci would be proud! The structure of the story itself is a spiral. Scottie falls in love with a woman (who is actually another man’s construct) and loses her to death. He then falls in love with the same woman (turning her into this same construct) and once again loses her to death. People who complain about the film’s ending fail to understand the film itself. The abrupt nature of the ending is essential to the very design of the film!
Bernard Herrmann’s brilliant score for the film also seems to have a spiraling sound and this contributes to the film’s effect on its audience. Of course, Herrmann never really held the film in high regard.
“I felt Vertigo made one big mistake. They should have never made it in San Francisco -and not with Jimmy Stewart. I don’t think he was right for the part. I don’t believe that he would be that wild about any woman. It should have had an actor like Charles Boyer, or that kind. It should have been left in New Orleans, or in a hot, sultry climate. When I wrote the picture, I thought of that. When I do a film, if I don’t like it, I go back to the original.” -Bernard Herrmann (Interview with Royal S. Brown, August 1975)
However, Herrmann’s opinions are debatable. The San Francisco location seems to this reviewer preferable to New Orleans. New Orleans is perhaps a more obvious location, but San Francisco offers a haunting aura to the film that avoids the cliché described by Herrmann. What better setting could there be for an acrophobic character than San Francisco?
Of course, the film’s merits were not always appreciated. The film was not an overwhelming critical or commercial success. Critical opinion seemed to cross the entire spectrum. A few critics raved about the film, other reviews were mixed with qualified praise, and some were rather hostile.
Bosley Crowther wrote an overwhelmingly positive review for the New York Times.
“You might say that Alfred Hitchcock’s latest mystery melodrama, Vertigo is all about how a dizzy fellow chases after a dizzy dame, the fellow being a ex-detective; and the dame being — well, you guess. That is as fair a thumbnail digest as we can hastily contrive to give you a gist of this picture without giving the secret away. And, believe us, that secret is so clever, even though it is devilishly far-fetched, that we wouldn’t want to risk at all disturbing your inevitable enjoyment of the film.
If that recommendation is sufficient, read no further. Vertigo opened yesterday at the Capitol…
… What is this thing that invades the moody person of his loved one, the wife of another man? And how can he free her from this demon — and from her husband?
That’s all we will tell you! Now —
Second hint: This fascinating mystery is based upon a tale written by the same fellows, Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, who wrote the story from which was taken that excellent French mystery, “Diabolique.” That film, if you remember, told of a terribly devious plot to simulate a murder that didn’t happen.
There! No more hints! Coming or not?
What more’s to say? Well, nothing, except that Vertigo is performed in the manner expected of all performers in Hitchcock films. Mr. Stewart, as usual, manages to act awfully tense in a casual way, and Miss Novak is really quite amazing in — well, here is a bit of a hint — dual roles. Tom Helmore is sleek as the husband and Barbara Bel Geddes is sweet as the nice girl who loves the detective and has to watch him drifting away.” –Bosley Crowther (New York Times, May, 29 1958)
The London Times also published a review that is quite positive, but terribly condescending. It underestimates the film completely and even goes as far as to complain about James Stewart and Kim Novak in their respective roles.
“Vertigo, which is now at the Odeon Cinema, Leicester Square, is not an important film or even major Hitchcock, but it entertains and is admirably photographed.
For the ingenuity of the story, the authors of the novel ‘D’Entre les Morts,’ on which the film is based, must have a considerable share of the credit; and ingenious, over-ingenious, as some may think. Vertigo certainly is…
… It would not be fair to say more, but the glimpse and feel of the supernatural are resolved at the end into the mechanics of crime, far-fetched though these may be. Mr. Stewart is at his best in his light, offhand moments with the commercial artist Midge (Miss Barbara Bel Geddes), who, with humorous resignation, dotes on him — nervous breakdowns and long, passionate kisses do not suit his casual style. Mr. Hitchcock tries hard to make Miss Novak act and, at moments, succeeds.” –Staff Writer (The Times, April 11, 1958)
Variety’s review was also rather mixed, offering only qualified praise.
“Vertigo is prime though uneven Hitchcock and with the potent marquee combination of James Stewart and Kim Novak should prove to be a highly profitable enterprise at the box-office.
Stewart, on camera almost constantly throughout the film’s 126 minutes, comes through with a startlingly fine performance as the lawyer-cop who suffers from acrophobia–that is, vertigo or dizziness in high places.
Miss Novak, shop girl who involves Stewart in what turns out to be a clear case of murder, is interesting under Hitchcock’s direction and nearer an actress than she was in either Pal Joey or Jeanne Eagles.
Unbilled, but certainly a prime factor in whatever success film may have, is the city of San Francisco, which has never been photographed so extensively and in such exquisite color as Robert Burks and his crew have here achieved.
Through all of this runs Hitchcock’s directorial hand, cutting, angling and gimmicking with mastery.
Unfortunately, even that mastery is not enough to overcome one major fault, for the plain fact is that the film’s first half is too slow and too long. This may be because: (1) Hitchcock became overly enamored with the vertiginous beauty of Frisco; or (2) the Alec Coppel-Samuel Taylor screenplay (from the novel ‘D’entre Les Morts’ by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac) just takes too long to get off the ground.
Film opens with a rackling scene in which Stewart’s acrophobia is explained: he hangs from top of a building in midst of chasing a robber over rooftops and watches a police buddy plunge to his death.
But for the next hour the action is mainly psychic…Film’s last minute, in which Stewart fights off acrophobia to drag Miss Novak to top of bell tower, finds she still loves him and then sees her totter and fall to her death through mortal fright of an approaching nun, is a spectacular scene, gorgeously conceived.
But by then more than two hours have gone by, and it’s questionable whether that much time should be devoted to what is basically only a psychological murder mystery…
…Frisco location scenes – whether of Nob Hill, interior of Ernie’s restaurant, Land’s End, downtown, Muir Woods, Mission Dolores or San Juan Bautista – are absolutely authentic and breathtaking. But these also tend to intrude on story line too heavily, giving a travelogueish effect at times.
Despite this defect, Vertigo looks like a winner at the box-office as solid entertainment in the Hitchcock tradition.” –Variety (May 14, 1958)
Of course, there were also critics that seemed to miss the point entirely. These individuals wrote scathing reviews of the film. The tone of these diatribes can be summed up in a single sentence from a review printed in Time magazine.
“The old master, now a slave to television, has turned out another Hitchcock-and-bull story in which the mystery is not so much who done it as who cares.” -Time (June 16, 1958)
In a 2014 interview, Kim Novak remembered these reviews the most.
“Those things hurt… If I could go back now I would probably not read the reviews. But it’s hard not to because you want to improve. You feel like, well, they must know. Unfortunately, they don’t always know. History has proven they’re not right necessarily.” –Kim Novak (The Telegraph, March 3, 2014)
History has certainly been kind to Vertigo. Robin Wood’s 1965 essay about the film offers concrete proof that opinion can evolve over time.
“Vertigo seems to me of all Hitchcock’s films the one nearest to perfection. Indeed, its profundity is inseparable from the perfection of form: it is a perfect organism.” – Robin Wood (Hitchcock’s Films, 1965)
Donald Spoto was also generous in his praise for Vertigo, calling it “Alfred Hitchcock’s great masterpiece” in his book of essays about the director’s films.
“…But however much Vertigo indicts the tragic and the deadly, it remains a work of authentic beauty and grandeur, a film of astonishing purity and formal perfection in every element. Each line of dialogue, each color, each piece of decoration, each article of wardrobe, each music cue, camera angle and gesture, each glance – everything in this motion picture has an organic relationship contributing to the whole. Never has there been presented so beguilingly the struggle between constant yearning for the ideal and the necessity of living in a world that is far from ideal, with people who are one and all frail and imperfect. Vertigo is a work of uncanny maturity, authorial honesty and spiritual insight, and if its characters are indeed doomed to a tragic end – not one of them able to reach fulfillment of an earthly love – that is not due to Hitchcock’s contempt. It is, in the final analysis, a work of unsentimental yet profound compassion, and a statement of transcendent faith in what cannot be and yet what must, somewhere be true.” –Donald Spoto (The Art of Alfred Hitchcock)
Perhaps the most important documented example of the film’s high esteem is the expensive restoration effort that Vertigo was given by James C Katz and Robert A. Harris. When this beautiful restoration was released theatrically in 1996, critics called the film a masterpiece. One such example is Janet Maslin’s review for the New York Times.
“The revival event of the season is Alfred Hitchcock’s brilliantly schematic, endlessly fascinating Vertigo. Newly restored to its rich, deep hues by Robert A. Harris (who also restored Lawrence of Arabia and Spartacus), this prescient 1958 spellbinder can now be admired as the deepest, darkest masterpiece of Hitchcock’s career…
…Nowhere else did Hitchcock’s perfectionism yield such feverish results, in an eerily perverse exploration of this director’s obsessive themes…
…With less playfulness and much more overt libido than other Hitchcock classics, Vertigo was always anomalous. And it has flaws that actually work to its advantage. Much of Kim Novak’s artificiality may have been unintended, but it suits the plot devilishly and works in stark contrast to Stewart’s great, entranced performance as a man who finds himself falling in every sense. And the appeal of Vertigo in the 1950’s was limited by the film’s perverse, disturbing power. That only makes better sense of it today.” –Janet Maslin (New York Times, October 4, 1996)
Newsweek’s David Ansen was equally impressed.
“When it was released in 1958, few people considered Vertigo Alfred Hitchcock’s best. Other Hitch movies were tauter, scarier, more on-the-surface fun. Vertigo needed time for the audience to rise to its darkly rapturous level. This month it reopens in a glorious 70mm print that’s been painstakingly restored by Robert A. Harris and James C. Katz. Now you can see Hitchcock’s greatest, most personal (and kinkiest) movie afresh, with a new digitalized soundtrack that brings Bernard Herrmann’s spiraling, haunted, ‘Tristan and Isolde’-infected score to the fore.
Why is this movie Hitchcock’s masterpiece? Because no movie plunges us more deeply into the dizzying heart of erotic obsession. Because in Jimmy Stewart’s fetishtic pursuit of mystery woman Kim Novak–whom he transforms into the image of the dead woman he loved–Hitchcock created the cinema’s most indelible metaphor for the objectification of desire. Because Stewart, playing a man free-falling into love, responds with a performance so harrowing in its ferocity it must have surprised even himself. Because Novak, that great slinky cat, imbues her double role with a mesmerizing poignance. Because the impeccable, dreamlike images of this ghostly Liebestod are so eerily beautiful they stay in your head forever. And because the older you get, and the m ore times you see it, the more strange, chillingly romantic thriller pierces your heart.” -David Ansen (Newsweek, October 20, 1996)
Roger Ebert also praised the film in the Chicago Sun-Times.
“‘Did he train you? Did he rehearse you? Did he tell you what to do and what to say?’
This cry from a wounded heart comes at the end of Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Vertigo,’ and by the time it comes we are completely in sympathy. A man has fallen in love with a woman who does not exist, and now he cries out harshly against the real woman who impersonated her. But there is so much more to it than that. The real woman has fallen in love with him. In tricking him, she tricked herself. And the man, by preferring his dream to the woman standing before him, has lost both…
…Vertigo (1958), which is one of the two or three best films Hitchcock ever made, is the most confessional, dealing directly with the themes that controlled his art. It is *about* how Hitchcock used, feared and tried to control women. He is represented by Scottie (James Stewart), a man with physical and mental weaknesses (back problems, fear of heights), who falls obsessively in love with the image of a woman–and not any woman, but the quintessential Hitchcock woman. When he cannot have her, he finds another woman and tries to mold her, dress her, train her, change her makeup and her hair, until she looks like the woman he desires. He cares nothing about the clay he is shaping; he will gladly sacrifice her on the altar of his dreams…
…Alfred Hitchcock took universal emotions, like fear, guilt and lust, placed them in ordinary characters, and developed them in images more than in words. His most frequent character, an innocent man wrongly accused, inspired much deeper identification than the superficial supermen in today’s action movies.
He was a great visual stylist in two ways: He used obvious images and surrounded them with a subtle context. Consider the obvious ways he suggests James Stewart’s vertigo. An opening shot shows him teetering on a ladder, looking down at a street below. Flashbacks show why he left the police force. A bell tower at a mission terrifies him, and Hitchcock creates a famous shot to show his point of view: Using a model of the inside of the tower, and zooming the lens in while at the same time physically pulling the camera back, Hitchcock shows the walls approaching and receding at the same time; the space has the logic of a nightmare. But then notice less obvious ways that the movie sneaks in the concept of falling, as when Scottie drives down San Francisco’s hills, but never up. And note how truly he “falls” in love.
There is another element, rarely commented on, that makes Vertigo a great film. From the moment we are let in on the secret, the movie is equally about Judy: her pain, her loss, the trap she’s in. Hitchcock so cleverly manipulates the story that when the two characters climb up that mission tower, we identify with both of them, and fear for both of them, and in a way Judy is less guilty than Scottie.
The danger is to see Judy, played by Novak, as an object in the same way that Scottie sees her. She is in fact one of the most sympathetic female characters in all of Hitchcock… And Novak, criticized at the time for playing the character too stiffly, has made the correct acting choices: Ask yourself how you would move and speak if you were in unbearable pain, and then look again at Judy.” –Roger Ebert (Chicago Sun-Times, October 13, 1996)
In 2012 critics and filmmakers would vote Vertigo as the #1 ‘Greatest Film of all Time’ in Sight and Sound‘s famous poll. 191 respected critics voted for the film, and 31 directors did likewise. This is perhaps the most obvious illustration of Vertigo’s growing appeal. The film is a rich and rewarding experience that changes over multiple viewings.
4 of 5 MacGuffins
This disc is available as part of The Masterpiece Collection boxed set and as an individual disc.
The Masterpiece Collection is given a tasteful book-style presentation with a page for each film that includes a folder for each disc. Some might prefer that each disc come in its own standard Blu-ray case. These folder style compartments do not always protect the discs and very often cause scratches.
The individual release presents the disc in a standard Blu-ray case with film related artwork (you can see the artwork on the top of this article).
The menu on the disc contains footage from the film accompanied by music in the same style as other Universal Blu-rays.
4 of 5 MacGuffins
Universal’s 1080p transfer of the 1996 restoration print is impressive, but not perfect. Detail is wonderful and reveals textures and lines that weren’t as clearly defined on other home video releases. Clarity is wonderful, with only occasional digressions into slight softness. There is a fine layer of film grain, but this is a good thing. There aren’t any digital anomalies to annoy the viewer. Colors are quite wonderfully rendered (with only a few minor exceptions), and the picture exhibits appropriate contrast. There are moments when blacks feel slightly faded, but this never becomes a distraction. Any complaints one might have tend to be overwhelmed by the transfer’s more positive attributes.
4.5 of 5 MacGuffins
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix wins the award for best soundtrack in Universal’s catalogue of Hitchcock films. The mix was rather controversial upon the release of the film’s wonderful restoration in 1996. Robert A. Harris and James C. Katz were forced to redo much of the soundtrack (based upon Alfred Hitchcock’s meticulous notes). Purists were quite upset. It is a marvelous job. Purists should be pleased to find that Universal has also included the films original mono track. The complaint here might be that it is not lossless. I suppose that one cannot have everything. It is certainly wonderful to see it included here in some form.
4 of 5 MacGuffins
If Universal had included the wonderful restoration commentary with Robert A. Harris and James C. Katz, this would be a near-perfect collection of supplements. In its place, a featurette about the Lew Wasserman era of Universal is included. Unfortunately, it doesn’t amount to much. Fans will want to hold on to their DVD discs for this missing commentary track.
Feature Length Commentary by William Friedkin
One would probably rather have the Robert A. Harris and James C. Katz commentary included on the disc instead of this one. The track included various Vertigo participants (including Samuel Taylor) and was quite interesting. Friedkin offers an interesting enough track, but it is mostly a blow-by-blow of what is happening onscreen. One wonders why they asked him to provide a track for the film in the first place. He has made a few wonderful films, but he isn’t an expert on Vertigo. I would personally prefer the participation of Dan Auiler (who quite literally wrote the book on the making of Vertigo).
Obsessed with Vertigo: New Life for Alfred Hitchcock’s Masterpiece — (29:19)
This ‘original’ American Movie Classic documentary (produced when AMC actually aired classic movies) is narrated by Roddy McDowall and features a number of interviews with Vertigo participants (including Kim Novak, Barbara Bel Geddes, Herbert Coleman, and Patricia Hitchcock, and others). A significant portion of the documentary is dedicated to the wonderful 1996 restoration. Robert A. Harris and James C. Katz discuss (in reasonably comprehensive detail) what was involved in restoring this great classic.
It is a wonderful documentary that is somewhat different to the documentaries on most of Universal’s Hitchcock releases (which were directed by Laurent Bouzereau). Some of the other documentaries were slightly more comprehensive (others weren’t). It is very nice to see this documentary included here. It is one of the two best supplements on this disc.
Partners in Crime: Hitchcock’s Collaborators — (54:49)
This documentary has four chapters. These chapters include; Saul Bass: Title Champ, Edith Head: Dressing the Master’s Movies, Bernard Herrmann: Hitchcock’s Maestro, and Alma: The Master’s Muse. Each of these chapters is informative and entertaining. They are exceptional additions to this disc.
Foreign Censorship Ending — (02:09)
This is an ending that was tagged on to the film for its foreign release, and was probably never intended to be the film’s proper ending (though it was included in the shooting script). It is incredibly interesting and one of the most welcome additions to the disc.
Excerpts from François Truffaut’s Interview with Alfred Hitchcock — (14:17)
These interview clips may sound familiar to those who have read Truffaut’s book length interview with Hitchcock, but it should remain interesting regardless. It is always a treat to hear Hitchcock discuss his films.
100 Years of Universal Lew Wasserman Era — (09:00)
This featurette about Universal Studios during Lew Wasserman’s reign is an appropriate extra for a Hitchcock film (and even includes a clip of Alfred Hitchcock promoting the Universal tour). It certainly isn’t the best supplement here, but it is welcome.
Original Theatrical Trailer — (02:30)
The ‘Original’ Theatrical Trailer was created with the intention of making the audience understand the meaning of the film’s title, while also exploiting the more sensational aspects of the film. It is an interesting artifact and fans should be grateful to have it included here.
Restoration Theatrical Trailer — (01:23) –
The 1996 Restoration Re-release trailer is included and is a welcome addition to the disc.
The Vertigo Archives
‘The Vertigo Archives’ is essentially am extensive photo gallery that includes production photographs, stills, posters, advertisements, and production design drawings. Many of these are quite interesting.
Vertigo is a brilliant work that demands to be revisited. Universal’s transfer of the film’s 1996 restoration is not perfect, but it is quite good and improves upon previous releases. Do yourself a favor and take the plunge.
Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac (D’entre les morts)
Review (The Times, April 11, 1958)
Review (Variety, May 14, 1958)
Review by Bosley Crowther (New York Times, May, 29 1958)
Review (Time, June 16, 1958)
Variety (July 30, 1958)
Alfred Hitchcock (Interview with Peter Bogdanovich, 1963)
Robin Wood (Hitchcock’s Films, 1965)
Bernard Herrmann (Interview with Royal S. Brown, August 1975)
Donald Spoto (The Art of Alfred Hitchcock)
Kim Novak (Interview with Henry Sheean, 1996)
Review by Janet Maslin (New York Times, October 4, 1996)
Review by Roger Ebert (Chicago Sun-Times, October 13, 1996)
Review by David Ansen (Newsweek, October 20, 1996)
Kim Novak (Interview with Roger Ebert, October 22, 1996)
Dan Auiler (Vertigo: The Making of a Hitchcock Classic)
Charles Barr (Vertigo: BFI Film Classics)
Kim Novak (Larry King Live, January 5, 2004)
Kim Novak (Interview with Stephen Rebello, 2004)
Kim Novak (Save Hitchcock, August 31, 2012)
Kim Novak (Washington Post)
Kim Novak (Daily Mail, September, 2013)
Kim Novak (Orlando Sentinel, September 4, 2013)
Kim Novak (The Telegraph, March 3, 2014)