Recently hailed as the ‘Greatest Film of All Time’ by the 2012 Sight & Sound critics poll, Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo maintains a near untouchable status among films. The film possesses undeniably rich visual themes, a dexterous performance by James Stewart and a haunting one by Kim Novak, but truthfully it is not the finest film in Hitchcock’s canon.
Vertigo concerns John ‘Scottie’ Ferguson (James Stewart), a police detective, recently retired due to an incident in which his fear of heights lead to the death of another officer. Ferguson is hired by friend Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore), when Elster suspects that his wife Madeleine (Kim Novak) is obsessed with a dead woman. Scottie begins to follow the woman, but all is not what it seems as Hitch begins to pull the rug from under us… several times.
While Scottie fears that Madeleine may be suffering delusions of a deeply self-destructive nature, he does not recognize the transformation that he himself is undergoing. The film excels at portraying the descent into madness that an ordinary person can suffer; here Jimmy Stewart evokes something truly frightening.
But the film begins to overstay its welcome, particularly considering that Psycho, The Birds and Rear Window clock in around ten to twenty minutes shorter and are considerably more engaging as a result.
As a consequence of its length Vertigo actually feels thematically overloaded. Hitchcock’s masterful visual grasp of the sensation of vertigo is spectacular, but a craven interest in Christianity distracts from the central theme that involves descending physically and mentally.
Morbid it may be, but there is a sense at the end of Vertigo that the fate suffered by Scottie is not explored to its totality: given Hitchcock’s penchant for sadism this is particularly surprising. Also unlike in Psycho where Hitchcock’s icy wit leaves us feeling uneasy, the final scene of Vertigo actually distracts us from the key themes of the film.
Vertigo is certainly an intriguing film, it is a beautiful film, a suspenseful film and, despite its length, an entertaining film. However, contrary to what the critical elite may say, it is not and never will be the greatest film ever made.