When I was about 8 years old, my parents introduced me to the great Alfred Hitchcock by scaring the pants off my little brother and I with The Birds. Following that, they continued to show us some classics, and we begged for more: watching North by Northwest, Notorious, Rope, and more. We loved them all (although we thought Rope was boring), and I forever considered Hitchcock one of my favorite filmmakers and Vertigo one of my favorite films. I revisited it years later, early in our relationship, having agreed vigorously that it was excellent, a wonderful thriller. Little did I know that I remembered only half of the riches that awaited me. When I was young, I only really processed and somewhat understood the thrilling, suspenseful first half, completely forgetting that anything happened after that pivotal scene at midway. I was thrilled to discover that not only was Vertigo a well-crafted suspense film, but also an incredible exploration into obsession and one man’s psyche.
Featuring an excellent lead performance from Jimmy Stewart, Alfred weaves together a tale that consistently plays on expectations. It follows an ex-cop (Stewart) who is hired as a private investigator by a man who wants him to track his wife, believing she is possessed. As Stewart follows her around, he becomes entranced by her and falls in love. Hitchcock creates a mood throughout that seems as if everyone, including the viewer, is under a spell. As the plot twists and turns, Hitchcock then examines the psyche of this man under a spell, allowing us to question what, exactly, this man really loves. It’s thoroughly engrossing and feels extremely personal. It’s one of the most human films Hitchcock ever made, and its ability to be both suspenseful and intimate so perfectly is why it’s one of the best films of all time.
Unlike Chelsea, I did not see Vertigo until I was an adult (okay, young adult). I had, however, seen other Hitchcock films and knew something about his aesthetic. He made a name for himself as a filmmaker by telling stories that engaged on multiple levels. Most enjoy his works as well-crafted visual feasts and simply appreciate his impressive ability to grab viewers and guide them on the edge of their seat through convoluted mysteries and adventures, but for those who wanted something deeper, Hitchcock many times provided more meaningful themes. Such themes were sociological (Rear Window, Strangers on a Train, Rope) or political (Notorious, Saboteur, The Lady Vanishes), but their success (and failures) would always rest on the psyches of their characters. At his best, Hitch always captured something innately human in his films, no matter how ridiculous the plot. This is why I think his films resonate with a wide range of viewers – they are populist tales, but his successes were always crafted with an attention to the characters they involved rather than a simple reliance on plot.
What impresses me about Vertigo, and why I think it is his best film, is that rather than doing what most of his films do in capturing what a person does in response to circumstance, it follows a character who creates a circumstance and explores the compulsions behind this. This is a very different tale for Hitchcock to tell, and as such it stands out from the rest of his works. The plot flows from the mind of its deeply troubled protagonist Scottie Ferguson, and its mystery does not reveal anything more interesting than his own psychoses. It economically dispenses of its salacious intrigue by the end of its first half and turns its attention to the depths of Ferguson’s obsession and misplaced hope. Indeed, when the film’s secrets are revealed, it is not an “a-ha” moment for viewers, but rather a moment for introspection and lament. In other words, this film had some serious depth and could not be discarded as a simple amusement. It is also, perhaps, why despite the film’s initial commercial failure, it continues to resonate today when many of his other box-office successes have quietly faded.
Vertigo comes in at #8 on David's Top Ten and is the answer to this mystery film.