Vertigo is a film lauded by critics as one of the greatest films ever made, often jostling for the top-spot with Citizen Kane. But to my untrained eye, its mess of a plot kept me distracted from all of the sharp cuts, smart framing, splashes of color, and beautiful Bernard Hermann music that I’ve come to know and love in a Hitchcock film. I didn’t hate the film; I suppose I was just a bit disappointed by it. I felt like I was ready to assign it 5 stars within the first 30 minutes and then slowly peeled star-after-star away as I became less enthused by the story (I finished around 2.5 stars).
The film starts as a classic mystery. James Stewart’s John Ferguson retires from police work after coming to terms that his vertigo-inducing fear of heights is a risk to the department. Soon after, he’s recruited by old college friend Gavin Elster to follow Elster’s wife Madeleine around. Elster believes she is possessed and a possible suicide risk. It’s up to Ferguson to get to the bottom of the mystery and keep Madeleine safe, but not before he falls in love with…yada yada…. And that’s all I’m going to give you!
I’m choosing to not go further because it would both ruin the Hitchcockian plot twist(s) and because what starts off as a solid premise gets increasingly implausible and lame. It began to feel like a soap opera. The characters were damaged and obsessive in a way that probably felt really artsy in the late ‘50s (and during the film’s ‘80s revival) and yet, by today’s standards, felt particularly dated and uncool.
Of course, the technical filmmaking is top notch, as should be expected. The vistas of a younger San Francisco were a lot of fun and I was both intrigued and impressed by the fact that the California Missions were shoehorned into the story. The film has a lot of (fake) history and that appeals to me. But ultimately, the characters and story had me looking at my watch more than I’m proud to admit.