-This review pertains to the Vertigo: Special Edition DVD-
WARNING: This review contains spoilers!
The 1958 film Vertigo may very well be one of Alfred Hitchcock's most unusual thrillers. Both convoluted and implausible, the film's screenplay was written by Alec Coppel and Samuel Taylor, and was based upon the French novel D'Entre les Morts by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac. More so than any other Hitchcock film, Vertigo has a surreal dreamlike quality which will haunt its viewers long after the film is over. Despite the numerous plot holes in the improbable script, Vertigo has become a classic. Interestingly enough the film was not well received by critics and was too confusing for your average audience member. Yet, since its original release it has been revealed to be Hitchcock's most personal film. Vertigo is far from perfect, in fact the last quarter of the film feels terrible disjointed and mechanical, but the film's flaws are outweighed by its strengths. As the story descends into a fog of obsession, Hitchcock cleverly manipulates his audiences to an almost hypnotic effect. As viewers, we are so absorbed by the emotional conflicts of the characters that we can overlook the illogical mystery at the story's center.
Another aspect of the film that makes it unique was the opening credit sequence designed by the brilliant graphic designer, Saul Bass, who plays with imagery much in the same way that Hitchcock plays with our expectations. Stylistically, Vertigo is somewhat a departure from Hitchcock's earlier films, being more colorful and contemporary. Vertigo also features a phenomenal score composed by Bernard Herrmann, who conjures up a lulling melody that perfectly enhances the obsessions in the story.
Starring James Stewart as John "Scottie" Ferguson, and Kim Novak as both Madeleine Elster and Judy Barton, the film bursts off the screen with star power. While James Stewart feels slightly out of place in the role of a neurotic detective, Kim Novak gives the performance of her career or rather the performances of her career. With nuance, complexity, and sincerity Novak manages to slip from one persona to the next with grace.
During a rooftop pursuit of a criminal, Detective John Ferguson discovers that he suffers from acute acrophobia, an uncommonly severe fear of heights. It's this fear that leaves him paralyzed during the chase, resulting in the tragic death of a fellow officer. After weeks of therapy John quits the police force, believing that he's more of a liability than an asset. But his detective days are far from over. When an old college friend named Gavin Elster requests that John use his detective skills to uncover his wife's strange double life, John is at first reluctant... until he sees the beautiful Madeleine Elster. Apparently, Madeleine is possessed by the spirit of a woman, who committed suicide. She often goes into a trance and follows in the footsteps of a dead ancestor. Fearful that Madeleine might attempt suicide, Galvin assigns John the task of following her to protect her from her self-destructive impulses. After Madeleine jumps into San Francisco Bay and john has to rescue her from drowning, the two fall madly in love. But John is torn between his loyalty to Gavin and his passion for Madeleine, who grows more and more dissociative. One day John and Madeleine visit an old Spanish mission called San Juan Bautista and there Madeleine is consumed by emotion. She runs up the stairs of the bell tower and before John can overcome his acrophobia, she leaps to her death. This second tragedy, which John also feels responsible for, only depends his fear of heights. Overwhelmed with guilt and regret, John spends his days lost in a fugue state within the confines of a mental institution. When John finally recovers enough to be released from the institution, he starts to have episodes of déjà vu. Everywhere he goes, everyone he sees reminds him of Madeleine. John is haunted by his obsession, which reaches its climax when he meets Judy Barton. Judy resembles Madeleine a great deal and after becoming intrigued with John, they develop a relationship. But John is fixated and determined to remold Judy into Madeleine, which he manages to do after convincing her to change her wardrobe and her hair. Soon their strange passion dissolves when John uncovers the shocking truth about what really happened at San Juan Bautista. Though he is cured of his fear of heights, he is subjected to one final trauma from which he will never recover.
This obsessively good DVD includes an audio commentary with Associate Producer Herbert Coleman, Restoration Team Robert A. Harris and James C. Katz and others, an audio commentary with filmmaker William Friedkin, "Obsessed with Vertigo: New Life for Hitchcock's Masterpiece" documentary, "Partners in Crime: Hitchcock's Collaborators" documentary, Alfred Hitchcock Presents: "The Case of Mr. Pelham" episode, Alfred Hitchcock / Francois Truffaut interview, foreign censorship ending, The Vertigo Archives image gallery, production notes, and trailers.