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Boston Globe (23/Dec/1983) - Vertigo




Detective Scottie Ferguson (James Stewart) is pursuing a criminal over the rooftops of San Francisco. Suddenly, his feet slip on the slick tile shingles. At the last second, he grabs a rusty eave trough. A colleague reaches down to help, slips, and screams his way to a crushing death on the concrete alley below.

This opening sequence sets the tone for Alfred Hitchcock's "Vertigo" — a thrilling character study of a man on the brink.

The plot, as it is in most Hitchcock films, acts as a hook on which to hang more consequential matters. In "Vertigo," Stewart's accident results in a terrifying fear of heights that forces him to retire from the police force. As a favor to an old college classmate, a man whose boat business has made him wealthy, Stewart agrees to take on a special case. The shipping magnate believes his beautiful wife is a suicidal neurotic. She mysteriously disappears for hours at a time. Stewart accepts the case after surreptitiously observing the stunning woman in a restaurant. Clearly, his acceptance of the assignment is based on her ethereal beauty.

He follows her on her daily rounds up and down the hills of San Francisco — watching her sit before a portrait and the grave of the late Carlotta Valdes — presumably the object of her neurosis. One day, she drops a flower into San Francisco Bay and jumps in. Stewart rescues her and brings her to his apartment. As he stands watching her sleep, the rational detective falls deeply in love. He's hooked — and so are we.

Although Hitchcock gives away the "ending" 20 minutes before the film concludes, any further plot divulgences might diminish the film's startling impact.

Originally released in 1958, "Vertigo" was heralded as a tour-de-force for Kim Novak in the dual role of Madeleine Elster and Judy Barton. Novak plays both characters with surprising depth. Her Madeleine is the typical Hitchcock woman — blonde, beautiful, cold, detached and inaccessible. Her Judy is streetwise, tough, cynical and available. But, despite Novak's versatility, the picture belongs to Hitchcock and Stewart.

In an early sequence, when Stewart tries to climb a kitchen step stool without getting dizzy, Hitchcock makes the commonplace event so suspenseful that it has more thrills packed into 90 seconds than most thrillers have in two hours.

But the tension only serves as bait to lure us into the voyeuristic, irrational mind of Stewart. He has spent his entire life gathering evidence, pursuing logical leads and presenting hard evidence in courtrooms. For him, there's an answer to everything. Yet, when he's overwhelmed by Novak's sex appeal, all of his training, education and experience evaporate into the misty air of passion.

Bernard Herrmann's pounding musical score, George Tomasini's sharp editing and a superb supporting cast, led by Barbara Bel Geddes, infuse "Vertigo" with the subsidiary craftsmanship that many contemporary releases lack.

Except for a dated dream sequence, "Vertigo" captures the dizzying, irrational nature of love and sex with devilish brilliance and deserves to attract the same audience that made "Rear Window" a hit on its second time around.