Vertigo is a nightmare. It starts with James Stewart recovering from a nightmare only to find himself in another one. Kim Novak finds herself trapped in a similar nightmare. There’s a lot of beauty in the nightmare, but it’s still a nightmare. And nightmares get worse before anyone wakes up. In Vertigo, both Stewart and Novak are trying to wake up from nightmares, only things get so entwined, they can’t.
Hitchcock, composer Bernard Herrmann and photographer Robert Burks spend the first three-quarters of the film dragging the viewer through the nightmare. The screenplay, from Alec Coppel and Samuel A. Taylor, is beautifully dense when it comes to dialogue. There’s so much talking at the start between Stewart and unrequited love interest Barbara Bel Geddes, between Stewart and old friend Tom Helmore. The script hammers in certain facts, certain things to remember, certain things to watch out for. Bel Geddes and Helmore have somewhat thankless roles in the script, mostly serving to anchor Stewart in reality, before he tries to find his way into Novak’s nightmare. She’s Helmore’s troubled wife. Unbeknownst to her, Stewart’s her bodyguard.
As Stewart tries to rationalize Novak’s nightmare from afar, Herrmann’s score booms, full of lush emotion. Stewart’s voyeurism percolates, apparently at a safe temperature, until the nightmare becomes Stewart’s and then it boils over. The film has varying styles, whether it’s Herrmann’s score and San Francisco locations or Novak and Stewart’s tragic courtship, Hitchcock brings them back. The same locations, over and over; at the beginning, it’s to bring stability to Stewart through Bel Geddes, later on, it’s for him to flounder in desperation. Different locations, of course. Bel Geddes, who gives a great performance and does get a few decent moments to herself, isn’t part of the nightmare. She might not be the happiest person, but the nightmare is something different.
Technically, the film’s a marvel. Hitchcock has these wonderful setups for visually tying Stewart and Novak together. It’s not just the locations, it’s the sets. It’s not just the set decorations, it’s how Hitchcock positions them in space. He has this wonderful way of having Stewart and Novak share the same space in a scene, sitting by the same lamp, standing in front of the same mirror, but keeping them apart. They can see each other, but they aren’t together. Different nightmares. Even if they think they’re sharing the same one.
At a certain point, Stewart ceases to be the film’s protagonist. Hitchcock pretends for a little while longer, but eventually Stewart and Novak’s story roles reverse. He becomes antagonist to her protagonist. Both actors do phenomenal work throughout, but during that reversal is when their work gets even better. Novak’s stunning. Stewart’s terrifying. Vertigo is unpleasant. It’s beautiful and it’s unpleasant. Just like a nightmare ought to be.
The film ends hastily. The nightmare is over. The viewer is left to reflect with an uneasy sensation–it’s all too horrible to dwell on. Hitchcock, his screenwriters, Novak, Stewart, Burks, Herrmann, editor George Tomasini–they create this perfectly encapsulated thing. The narrative pacing is great, the way Hitchcock applies various intensities throughout. There’s not a comfortable moment in Vertigo. Visual repetition only signifies things getting worse.
Edith Head’s costumes for Novak are also essential. It fits into the whole visual repetition thing. Hitchcock confronts every idea he implies in Vertigo. He never takes the easy route, making it a troubling, ambitious but constrained experience. It’s wonderful.
Produced and directed by Alfred Hitchcock; screenplay by Alec Coppel and Samuel A. Taylor, based on a novel by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac; director of photography, Robert Burks; edited by George Tomasini; music by Bernard Herrmann; released by Paramount Pictures.
Starring James Stewart (John Ferguson), Kim Novak (Madeleine Elster), Barbara Bel Geddes (Midge Wood), Tom Helmore (Gavin Elster) and Konstantin Shayne (Pop Leibel).