Vertigo: From box-office flop to ‘greatest film of all time’

Vertigo, re-released this week for its 60th anniversary, is now regarded as a masterpiece

Kim Novak was unhappy with the colour of the iconic grey suit by costume designer Edith Head

Kim Novak was unhappy with the colour of the iconic grey suit by costume designer Edith Head

 

Vertigo is re-released this week to mark the film’s 60th anniversary. Although now regarded as a masterpiece, it has taken a long time for the 1958 picture to reach appropriately vertiginous heights.

Once every decade, Sight & Sound magazine polls critics and film practitioners to determine the greatest films of all time. In 2012, Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo hit the top spot, dislodging Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane from its 50-year reign as the best film ever made.

Writing in the same magazine in 1959, Penelope Houston noted that the plot of Vertigo was “of egg-shell thinness” and “reminiscent of things Hitchcock has done before, and generally done with more verve”. Various contemporaneous critics found nice things to say. Just about.

Bosley Crowther at the New York Times enjoyed the film’s big reveal, even though it was “devilishly far-fetched”. Writing in The Sunday Times, Dilys Powell praised the “vitality” of the supporting performances. The Los Angeles Times praised the scenery.

The mixed reviews almost certainly hurt Vertigo at the box office and the film was widely regarded as a failure. Hitchcock pointed an accusatory finger at Jimmy Stewart. At 50-years-old, Stewart was, according to the director, too old to convincingly play then-25-year-old Kim Novak’s love interest.

More likely, audiences didn’t like seeing Jimmy Stewart in such a dark place, having cheered him on in Rear Window (1954) and The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956).

Stewart’s character Scottie is definitely problematic. Scottie is an injured cop who is hired by a friend to follow his aloof wife, Madeleine. Scottie becomes obsessed with her, but his extreme agoraphobia prevents him from rescuing her when she jumps to her death. He ends up in a sanatorium in a near-catatonic state. Upon release, he notices a woman who reminds him of Madeleine. She introduces herself as Judy from Kansas and Scottie creepily sets about remodelling her in Madeleine’s image.

In a series of 1962 interviews between Hitchcock and Truffaut, the British director spoke about the sequence wherein Scottie dresses Judy as her dead predecessor as “a form of necrophilia”.

Today, at a time when we’re accustomed to such concepts as gaslighting and stalking, Scottie looks more deranged than ever, a psychological state amplified by Saul Bass’s discombobulating credits and the camera technique devised by an uncredited second-unit cameraman, Irwin Roberts, and now named for the film, which requires zooming forward while pulling the camera backward.

As with most of the movieverse’s canon, there’s an intriguing counterfactual history. Vera Miles was Hitchcock’s first choice to play Madeleine/Judy, but had to drop out when she became pregnant. Novak was unhappy with the colour of the iconic grey suit that costume designer Edith Head had originally made for Miles. Head talked her around with swathes of different grey fabrics.

The film went through multiple name changes, including A Matter of Fact, The Mad Carlotta, Darkling I Listen, Face in the Shadow and Possessed by a Stranger. The original 1954 source novel D’Entre les Morts (Among the Dead) by French crime-writing team Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac – who also wrote the novel Les Diaboliques and penned the screenplay for Georges Franju’s classic horror movie Eyes Without a Face – was set in Paris not San Francisco.

Bernard Herrmann didn’t conduct his own score due to a musician’s guild strike. The Production Code Administration were appalled by the film’s illicit sexual content, including a conversation between Scottie and his sensible ex-girlfriend Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes) about her bra.

They initially demanded an alternate ending, emphasising the capture of the film’s villain. Happily, Hitchcock talked them down, although the other coda did surface in 1983 and was later added as an extra on BluRay and DVD editions.

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