It’s nice to see critics accepting Alfred Hitchcock’s 1958 commercial flop as a masterpiece; when I first saw it more than 30 years ago it was a neglected film cited by Pauline Kael as a junky Hitchcock demonstrating the absurdity of auteurism. But masterpiece it is: I can think of no film that makes romance more palpable and affecting. As Scottie Ferguson (James Stewart) follows Madeleine (Kim Novak), the wife of a wealthy acquaintance who has hired him to help unravel the mystery of her wanderings around San Francisco, the city’s hilly topography, a redwood forest, and the seacoast all become metaphors for the illusion of romantic infatuation. Scottie’s obsession moves from seeing women as unattainable ideals to wanting to control them completely, a progression that gives the film, which is mostly made from Scottie’s point of view, a certain creepy unpredictability. The compositions and colors are profoundly alluring–never has Hitchcock’s famously preplanned imagery been more sensual and seductive. But every image is also undermined by a deep instability: sensuous colors, shifting camera angles, and the inward-directed camera movements all create an imbalance that denies the viewer any film ground. The “vertigo” shots–in which Scottie and his view seems to recede and advance at once–make explicit the push-pull that undermines every composition. This restoration, correcting a botched 1984 job, does well at coaxing colors from a fast-fading camera negative. Though the image doesn’t quite match the vibrancy of the original Technicolor release prints, it comes close. The new sound track, however, is a serious mistake. Wishing to use original stereo music tracks, though the film was released in mono, the restorers had to rerecord all the sound effects: how can remaking the sound be called “restoration”? The new footsteps are too loud, and the sounds of car doors closing in stereo have an almost pornographic realism that disrupts the dreamlike mood that the original, quieter sound track helped foster. Still, I was able to tune out most of these moments, and this is the best version we’re likely to see of a film whose compositional subtlety does not translate to video. McClurg Court.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Vertigo film still.