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54. EMPIRE MAGAZINE GREATEST: Vertigo

June 12, 2018

Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Screenplay: Alec Coppel, Samuel Taylor
Starring: James Stewart, Kim Novak, Barbara Bel Geddes, Tom Helmore, Henry Jones
Runtime: 128 Minutes

 

Original UK Release: 1958

 

★★★★★

 

Vertigo navigates its absurd premise through a balance of theme and misdirection, developing into a metaphor for falling into a hopeless love affair.

 

Alec Coppel and Samuel Taylor’s screenplay stresses an implausible and intentionally difficult to consume narrative within its beautiful San Francisco setting. This is a world of figures haunted by their crippling anxieties, the fears and ghosts of the past that are stalking them, and Hitchcock wrings this conceit for all its worth. The atmosphere of the film is so overpowering in its musk of mystery, lust and threat that’s edge-of-your-seat craftsmanship, and Hitchcock at the height of his cinematic power.

 

The tensions between James Stewart’s “Scottie” and Kim Novak’s Madeleine lie in their chemistry and the discomfort at their characters, as we spiral down into the web that Scottie is drawing himself into. Scottie’s increasingly uncomfortable character sees all of Stewart’s traditional mannerisms crumble away in the face of a genuinely frightening obsession, and he’s never been more deeply brilliant or intensely watchable on screen – the same is to be said of Barbara Bel Geddes and Novak in their matching of genreric ideals, as the emotional wreckage of his worrying drama with Judy Barton (also Novak) reaches its climax.

 

Robert Burks’ work here as cinematographer gives us Hitchcock’s most attractive and alarming visual work. The techniques on display are extraordinary and often imitated pieces of art. In a world of bold Technicolor streaks and sharp edges, the emotions of the characters are far more distorted and twisted than that. Bernard Herrmann score captures the sensation of falling deeper into our darkest recesses, and the paths that we are compelled to follow.

 

Death, dreams, identity, family and sexual dysfunction are laid bare with breath-taking scope and grandeur – handled against so much convention as both a thriller and a romance.

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