Hyperbole is great for journalism, terrible for art. Granted, the above headline might draw attention, clicks and (hopefully) puts asses in the seats, but it can also raise expectations too high, inadvertently encouraging the audience to approach the movie with a chip on their shoulders and defiance in their hearts. Few can live up to the hype; fewer still can surpass it.
Upon first viewing, Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo doesn’t seem like much, just a melodramatic ghost story. That’s because the movie contains secrets, layers upon layers of secrets that only reveal themselves with subsequent viewings. It is said, if you’ve seen Vertigo once, you’ve never really seen Vertigo. That’s because two-thirds through the movie, Hitchcock gives the audience a bold revelation, one that casts the film in an entirely different light. Once you know this, everything in Vertigo takes on a new meaning.
Vertigo centers on Scottie (Jimmy Stewart in one of his finest performances), a former San Francisco detective who suffers from the titular aversion to heights. An old friend calls him out of the blue and asks him to tail his wife; he fears a suicidal ancestor has possessed her. She is Madeline (Kim Novak), a cool blond with beauty so profound Scottie is struck with a thunderbolt and falls instantly under her spell. Lust gives way to love, and love gives way to obsession.
Madeline falls for Scottie in return, but something won’t let her go. Scottie believes he can save her from herself, but he can’t. She dies, throwing herself from a bell tower, and Scottie falls into a deep depression. Then, one day he meets another beautiful woman, this time a brunette: Judy, played by, you guessed it, Kim Novak.
And so Vertigo folds back on itself. Scottie and Judy fall for each other, but his love quickly turns into a need to mold Judy in Madeline’s image. If only he can save Judy the way he couldn’t save Madeline. Judy plays along, at first to please him, then to appease him. Maybe if she loves him enough, she wonders. But she can’t and she won’t; she’s too busy being crushed under the heel of the domineering male while Bernard Herrmann’s score swirls and swoons, circling the drain and dragging Judy down with it.
Good movies have all the answers; the great ones still have a few secrets up their sleeves. Vertigo is that movie. It throws back the curtain and lets light into the dark and dingy corners of the human mind, airing out all that dirty laundry for everyone to see.
If a picture is worth a thousand words, and cinema is 24 pictures a second, then there are an unfathomable number of words that could be used to describe, explain and muse about Hitchcock’s masterpiece. But Vertigo is not a movie to be explained; Vertigo is to be experienced. It should be watched over and over again with obsessive fetish until you start to see yourself in Scottie’s control and Judy’s compliance. Watch it enough times, and you’ll begin to feel dizzy, disordered and a little giddy. You know what that feeling’s called? Vertigo.
On the Bill: Vertigo 60th Anniversary. 2 and 7 p.m. March 18 and March 21, Century Theater, 1700 29th St., Boulder.