The most-discussed work of the master; despairingly sardonic and demanding of multiple viewings. Hitchcock's intensely personal and frighteningly self-revealing picture, VERTIGO is the story of a man (Stewart as Hitch) who is possessed by the image of a former love (Novak as Vera Miles)
and becomes increasingly compulsive in his attempts to make another woman (Novak as Novak) over in that image. We'll explain.
Stewart is a former San Francisco policeman who suffers from vertigo--a dizzying sensation brought on by his acrophobia. When he gets a call from a former classmate, shipping magnate Gavin Elster (Helmore), he agrees to play detective and shadow the millionaire's wife Madeleine (Novak) whom Elster
fears is going to wind up dead. Elster ominously asks him "Do you believe that someone dead, someone out of the past, can take possession of a living being?" After following Madeleine for a short while Stewart becomes obsessed with her--lost deep in a labyrinthine plot from which he cannot escape.
Based on a novel by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac (who previously supplied the source material for DIABOLIQUE), VERTIGO appealed to Hitchcock for reasons which become clearer the more one knows about the director's personality. VERTIGO is, in fact, nothing less than Hitchcock revealing
himself to his audience--his obsessions and desire to make over women are embodied in Stewart's character and the perfect Hitchcock woman is embodied in Madeleine. VERTIGO is also a masterpiece of filmmaking which includes one of the most important technical discoveries since the dawn of
cinema--the dolly-out, zoom-in shot, which visually represents the dizzying sensation of vertigo. The result is a shot unique to Hitchcock, unlike any other before in film, one which will always bear his stamp.
But more than that, the behind-the-scenes preparation of VERTIGO resembles the story itself. Hitchcock had directed Vera Miles in THE WRONG MAN, and stood poised to make her a star in VERTIGO. This would be, of course, according to Hitchcock tradition: the cool blonde, whose whorish carnality is
hidden beneath sleekly understated clothes and simple hair. But his plan went awry when Miles married after filming was over and soon became pregnant ("I lost interest. I couldn't get the rhythm going with her again," said Hitchcock in an interview, but later he threw her a bone in PSYCHO). He
convinced Novak to take the role; her somnambulistic quality made her very effective in the role, but he and Edith Head had hell convincing her to tone down.
Yet perhaps Novak is the unsung quintessential Hitch-heroine. Hitchcock himself described Stewart's character's obsession with Novak's as a "form of necrophilia"; it's chilling when you think of the director re-creating his dreamgirl again and again. Novak's heroine is degraded by suffusing her
own idenity to become what men want her to be. Did she feel degraded when Hitchcock and Head tried to bury the established Novak? Did it make her feel like a cheap pawn, forced to impersonate a lady, that is in itself an impersonation, within the confines of an acting job (an impersonation
anyway)? And how much of her real self--Marilyn Novik--had fused with the manufactured Kim Novak? The latter was a star persona placed in an impossible-to-please situation in the first place. Groomed as a successor to Hayworth and a threat to Monroe, it's small wonder Novak fled the film industry
to hide in Big Sur. To examine her within the context of VERTIGO is another dizzying vortex--a virtual vertigo in itself.
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