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The Seattle Times (15/Jun/2008) - Vertigo is still a dizzying, dazzling display of moviemaking, 50 years later

(c) The Seattle Times (15/Jun/2008)

"Vertigo" is still a dizzying, dazzling display of moviemaking, 50 years later

Watching "Vertigo," Alfred Hitchcock's glorious, intoxicating tale of obsession, is like entering a dream; time slows down in its green-colored light as the world is reduced to a man, a woman, a weary hotel room and a sad, doomed passion. Darkly inviting, it takes over its viewer in the way few movies do. Every time I watch it — and this film is meant to be watched over and over — it sweeps me in with its thick, almost humid atmosphere of yearning. As its final scenes go by, you watch it barely breathing, becoming part of it, knowing the ending is inevitable but wishing it could somehow change.

"Vertigo" celebrates is 50th anniversary this spring with a weeklong run at the Grand Illusion beginning Friday, in a version beautifully restored in 1996. It's a chance to revisit a film that never grows old. Set in a San Francisco whose wet streets and gray fog speak of untold stories, "Vertigo" is both psychological thriller and mournful romance. Scottie (James Stewart), a retired police officer, reluctantly accepts a strange job: An old acquaintance wants his wife shadowed. The wife, Madeleine (Kim Novak), seems so fragile that a gust of Bay Area wind might break her; she's a whispery blonde obsessed with a long-dead ancestor. "Do you believe that someone out of the past, someone dead, can enter and take possession of a living being?" the husband asks. Scottie answers, instantly and firmly, "No."But the character's gee-whiz matter-of-factness (which nobody ever did better than Stewart; just the way he mutters, "I don't want to get mixed up in this darn thing," in the husband's general direction, is classic) quickly dissolves into the fog. The lonely Scottie falls, hard, for the doomed Madeleine, and even the protests of his sensible pal Midge can't stop the force of his unexpected emotion. (Midge, portrayed with delicate wit and sympathy by Barbara Bel Geddes, happens to be quietly in love with Scottie herself; "Vertigo," it turns out, is a journey through a hall of mirrors.) From there, the story swirls into unexpected waters, which I'll let "Vertigo" newcomers discover, deliciously, for themselves.

Based on the novel "D'Entre les Morts" ("From Among the Dead") by the French mystery-writing team of Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, "Vertigo" was adapted for the screen by Alec Coppel and Samuel Taylor. Hitchcock made the film in the middle of a remarkable 1950s run of work, which included "Rear Window," "To Catch a Thief," "Dial M for Murder," "The Man Who Knew Too Much" and "The Wrong Man" shortly before "Vertigo"; "North by Northwest" and "Psycho" followed immediately afterward.

But, splendid as they are, none of these films captures imaginations and haunts dreams the way "Vertigo" can. Part of the reason is Bernard Herrmann's magnificent score — a lush, intricate orchestral work that uses unexpected combinations of instruments to weave a blanket of mood. The hypnotic overture, played over the Saul Bass-designed opening credits, seems to whirl us into a vortex; the music as Stewart follows Novak through the San Francisco streets shimmers with questions; the romantic sweep of sound, as they finally embrace, is achingly, decadently beautiful, yet something in the chords speaks of mournfulness and doom. Herrmann was known to consider the score his best work, though he had reservations about the film at least initially, wondering aloud at one point why it wasn't set in someplace hot and sultry like New Orleans, with Charles Boyer starring.

Stewart's performance, though, is astonishingly good; nothing the actor had done before quite prepared audiences for his work here. Scottie's transformation is thorough and devastating; he changes from laconic everyman to hollow-eyed ghost before our eyes. In the film's final third, he walks the streets like a gaunt shadow. What he's starved for seems gone — until, gazing at the object of his love, he's suddenly fed and desperate for more. And Novak's vulnerable, heartbreaking performance matches his; at times her character almost seems choked by her words, trapped in a cage of secrets.

"Vertigo" is filled with the sort of detail that rewards rewatching: the audaciously wordless 10-minute sequence early on that seems to go by in a heartbeat; the way cinematographer Robert Burks' light catches Stewart's blue eyes, making him look just the tiniest bit otherworldly and menacing; the long, sad hallway shot in which Bel Geddes makes her exit from the film; the way Novak's smile, late in the film, seems entirely drained of happiness. Now 50 years young, its strange beauty deserves celebration. Go walk those streets with Scottie and develop a little "Vertigo" obsession of your own.