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American Cinematographer (1996) - Hitchcock's Acrophobic Vision




Sir Alfred and director of photography Robert Burks, ASC carried suspense to new heights in Vertigo.

Detective Scottie Ferguson (James Stewart) develops a fear of heights at a most inopportune moment ‑ hanging from a rain gutter high above a San Francisco alley. The film's opening chase sequence was pieced together with actual location footage, shots done on rooftops in Hollywood, and (as seen here) on a rear projection stage. (Actual 70mm film clip.)

Witty, rotund and very British, Alfred J. Hitchcock was one of fewer than a handful of movie directors whose name actually meant something to the public. Besides specializing in suspense, a typical Hitchcock picture offered beautiful women, Puckish humor, a prolonged chase and some strategically placed shocks. There were also Hitchcock pictures that were not typical. In the forefront of these is Vertigo.

Hitchcock earned his title of "Master of Suspense" in England during the Thirties. His pictures were well liked in the United States even then, when British films in general were poison at the box office. After coming to America in 1939, the director became increasingly more popular. However, long before 1957, when Hitchcock made Vertigo, his virtual immunity from criticism had dissipated. A picture in the familiar Hitchcock style brought accusations of producing "the same old stuff," but with any deviation the same cynics advised him that "the shoemaker should stick to his last." Caught in a no‑win situation, Hitchcock alternated his traditional thrillers with some daring departures, such as the 1949 costume drama Under Capricorn, the "real‑time" experiment Rope, the all‑in‑fun The Trouble With Harry (1956) and the all‑grim and no‑fun The Wrong Man (1957). That he had lately become a popular TV personality further eroded his position with critics even as it firmed his hold on the public.

Vertigo is definitely off the beaten track for Hitchcock or anyone else, but like most of his pictures it uses one of his many phobias to induce terror. Its basis was a French novel, D'entre les Morts, by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, whose earlier Les Diaboliques had become a hit movie directed by Henri‑Georges Clouzot. Preproduction work began in October 1956 at Paramount's Hollywood studios. Playwright Maxwell Anderson, author of Winterset and Key Largo, had been secured to write the adaptation. Before the end...

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Information for this article was supplied by Robert Boyle, Henry Bumstead, Robert A. Harris, James C. Katz, Leonard J. South, James Stewart, and the late Farciot Edouart, John P. Fulton, Loyal Griggs and Paul Lerpae.