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The Telegraph (12/Dec/2003) - Must-have movies: Vertigo (1958)

(c) Telegraph (12/Dec/2003)

Must-have movies: Vertigo (1958)

There's no film quite like Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo - and no viewing of it is quite like any other. Its deliriously spiralling credits suck you in, inviting you to get lost again and again in the vortex of its plot, and it seems to mesmerise you each time into forgetting the way out.

It flopped on its release, which isn't surprising, as it is easily the most psychologically ambitious, disturbing and unclassifiable of Hitchcock's films. I like to think of it as a romance reflected in a dark mirror: the second half replays the events of the first in a way that freezes the blood.

James Stewart's stalking of Kim Novak starts out as a professional endeavour; after her apparent death and then reappearance, it becomes pathological. No other film uses the actor's Everyman geniality only to pervert it into something so close to dementia, revealing the neurosis and damage buried so near the surface of iconic American ordinariness.

One reason Vertigo is held in such high regard now - it was second only to Citizen Kane on Sight and Sound's poll last year of the greatest films ever made - is that it's recognised as its director's most self-reflexive movie. Stewart's quest to make over his new love in the image of the old - herself modelled on a dead woman in a painting - ties in fascinatingly with the director's own obsession with casting the perfect blonde in film after film.

Novak, a virtual unknown cast for her proximity to this ideal, is as much subject to Hitchcock's manipulations as she is to Stewart's.

Since we're drawn into the story by the same inexorable process that Stewart is, it's also a brilliant commentary on the way we watch films. But there aren't many others out there as intense, hallucinatory and deathless as this one.