Like a number of films from major directors that received mixed reviews upon their initial releases, Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo has, since its 1958 debut, gone on to become a fixture of countless all-time “best-of” lists, including TIFF’s “Essential 100” programme that opened the Lightbox last fall.
The seminal, San-Francisco-set psychological thriller returns to the Lightbox this week for an encore presentation as part of TIFF’s current retrospective, Icy Fire: The Hitchcock Blonde—a companion programme to the organization’s ongoing Grace Kelly exhibition. Though Kelly herself isn’t on the bill, Vertigo does feature her Rear Window co-star James Stewart in a performance that is among his most memorable, and certainly his most maniacal. Rather than Kelly, Vertigo‘s leading lady honours fall to Kim Novak, who plays both a redhead shopgirl and one of Hitchcock’s ever-present, fair-haired femmes fatale.
As with Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Diabolique, it would do newcomers a disservice to delve too deeply into Vertigo‘s intrigue-laden plot (both films are based on books by French mystery authors Boileau-Narcejac, a duo blessed with a flair for dramatic revelations), but the film’s basic premise sees Stewart’s acrophobic former detective asked to tail the wife of a wealthy acquaintance. Soon, the actor popularly known as an all-American everyman is caught up in a fateful spiral of psychosexual obsession.
If the role was a risqué departure for Stewart, the film was a similarly bold move for Hitchcock, displaying more passion and perversity than was typical of his cool, measured M.O. That said, Vertigo does also amply demonstrate his meticulous control, and features two of the director’s most inspired touches, one technical (an evocatively vertiginous zoom-dolly shot), and one narrative (he lets the audience in on the central mystery mid-way through, lending subsequent events an intriguing and tragic dramatic irony). Even if somewhat belatedly, it’s become an acknowledged classic for good reason.