Top Fifty Films of the 50s — Number Eighteen


#18 — Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock, 1958)
One of my favorite moviegoing experiences occurred in the fall of 1996, when I saw the restoration of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo in Chicago. Handled by the team that previously provided similar touch-ups to Spartacus and My Fair Lady, the film was playing at a theater down the road from the metropolis’s International Film Festival, which I had the pleasure of attending annually for several years in the late nineties. As I recall, Vertigo wasn’t playing at the Music Box or some other venerated art house theater. Instead, it was at a fairly pedestrian multi-screen outlet. But we sat in an sizable auditorium with nearly every chair filled, as if it were opening night of the latest action blockbuster. The audience was committed to what was flickering in front of them, not rapt but engaged and clearly delighted. There was a round of appreciative applause when Bernard Herrmann’s name arrived in the opening credits. This, I imagined, was exactly what it was like to see classic movies in a city with a robust revival scene. I knew no one else in the audience, except the person seated directly to my right, and yet I felt like I was among my people.

Vertigo has become the canonical choice as Hitchcock’s greatest achievement, the work that serves as a useful compendium of all of the master director’s arguably unparalleled command of the grammar of film as well as a potent condensation of his obsessions. For many years, Hitchcock was one of those directors who had so many different films that individual cineastes might cite as their favorite that no single title emerged as the champion. (Orson Welles, on the other hand, benefited from having one film that clearly towered above the rest, if only because Citizen Kane was the only creation on which he had a totally unrestrained hand.) That changed as it became clear that Vertigo is the one film that’s most handy when it comes to explaining everything about why Hitchcock is important, energizing, and seminal. It’s a tremendous film by just about any measure, but its truly singular achievement is as a film rife with material for cinema scholars to chew on. It’s a think piece catalyst delivered at twenty-four frames per second.

If that invitation to academic pontificating helpfully obscures the film’s minor flaws (a little dated dopiness in its sexual predilections, an overly abrupt ending), it also distracts from the abundant pleasures that don’t fit nicely into the standard thesis. Most plainly (and yet arguably the most difficult to achieve), the film is soundly entertaining, pulling the viewer into a giddy swirl of heated narrative manipulation that’s all the more effective by the presence of beloved movie star everyman James Stewart at the center of the story. Hitchcock was a master button pusher and he played them like a fevered savant pianist here, propelling his protagonist through exhausting emotional dances. The even more undervalued part of the film is the astonishing performance by Kim Novak, in what is essentially a double role. As the woman Stewart’s Scottie Ferguson is enraptured by and then the one he forcibly remakes to fill a void, Novak shows how fierce strength and fragile vulnerability can realistically exist within the same being. In a film that benefits from all things dizzying, nothing deserves that description more than Novak’s shrewd performance, one of the best in all of Hitchcock’s oeuvre. Luckily, I didn’t approach my screening almost twenty years ago with the petrifying need to spot what was heavily important in Vertigo. Instead, I had the luxury of simply enjoying it.

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