Though afforded a lukewarm reception by public and critics alike in 1958, VERTIGO is today regarded not only as Alfred Hitchcock's greatest film, but as one of the major masterworks in cinema history. It's an extraordinarily dense portrait of obsession and betrayal, and the extent to which such qualities may lie buried in the soul of the common man.
The film is filled with some of Hitchcock's most powerful imagery, often from an omniscient point of view that suggests either a fall from grace (people have a habit of falling off buildings in VERTIGO) or the character's subconscious fears (such as the famous "zoom-dolly" effect employed when looking down into the stairwell of a church spire). Composer Bernard Herrmann was of the opinion that Hitchcock should have set the film in a steamy, sensual city such as New Orleans, and that the leading character should have been played by an actor with greater sexual magnetism than James Stewart. Herrmann was wrong, in that the film's San Francisco setting was portrayed by Hitchcock as ironically chaste and appropriately hazy (and what better location for a film about vertigo than a city full of hills?), whereas Stewart's everyman persona is all the more off-putting when he can no longer control his long-suppressed lustful desires. It's a brilliant performance, as Stewart conveys his obsessions with nuanced subtlety beneath a refined exterior. Kim Novak is equally strong; never before or since was she afforded a role that demanded so much of her talent, and she was more than up to the challenge. In both conception and execution, VERTIGO is one of the most daring and personal films ever made. - JL