Last week Vertigo was voted the Greatest Movie of All Time, ending the 50-year reign of Orson Welles’ masterpiece Citizen Kane at the top of the BFI poll. Run by Sight and Sound every ten years since 1962, this year’s poll was conducted by a panel of 846 critics, programmers, distributors and academics. With a staggering 191 votes, Vertigo trumped Kane, which took 157. While this honorary distinction for one of Hitchcock’s big financial failures hardly surprises me – I’m well aware of the esteem it is held in amongst film critics and academics – it does irk me; I think Vertigo is a mess – a interesting one, with many great elements and memorable moments – but not worthy of its place amongst the greatest films of all time.
The Opening Scene
This is the first aspect of Vertigo that I find disappointing. Let me qualify what I mean by ‘disappointed’ before I go any further. If you watch a man run one hundred metres in your local park in twelve seconds you would be amazed. However, if you saw Usain Bolt do this at the Olympics, you would be disappointed. When you watch a film that is said to be the greatest of all time, such as Vertigo now is, disappointment comes very easily.
I find the opening scene of Vertigo simplistic – far too simplistic for a film which is anything but simple. While this scene manage to suck us straight into action with a frenetic chase across the rooftops of San Francisco and establishes the key plot point – how Scottie develops his fear of heights and thus the reason he has to quit the police force – it tells us very little else about his character.
Other than the fact he is played by the beloved Jimmy Stewart and he is a police office, we learn very little about him and are given little other reason to care about him. I can’t help but feel if we had seen the start of that chase and had learned some fine details about Scottie I would feel more for him when he is dangling from the ledge. A moment of character through action where he does something for the police officer who falls to his death would surely have made the difference. Perhaps create a bond between Scottie and the police officer so we have an added emotional element in the scene?
The second scene of Vertigo begins in a manner that reveals so much story before a single word has been spoken. The tranquil studio apartment of Scottie’s artist friend and former lover Midge provides a calming contrast to the perilous rooftops. Light floods into the spacious apartment where Scottie now sits in good humour with a walking stick.
From here, however, it descends into a scene of clunky, unnatural and expositional dialogue, detailing the present and the past. Some of the lines are almost laughable: “well what are you going to do tomorrow, once you quit the police force?”; “You were the bright young lawyer who decided he was going to be chief of police someday”; “we were engaged once though, weren’t we?”
The ending of the scene with Scottie climbing onto the high chair to test his Vertigo only to suffer from an attack of nerves is equally difficult to watch. The way in which it is executed is far too melodramatic and it’s here where Stewart’s performance descends into theatrical.
I don’t care for her as a character, and I’m not entirely sure what function she has in the movie other than being a sounding board for Scottie and a means of establishing his past. Barbara Bel Geddes’ on screen relationship with Stewart comes across too similar to that of Stewart and Grace Kelly in Hitchcock’s earlier Rear Window, and in addition to being indistinct lacks the charisma and charm.
I’m sure one could talk much about how there is deeper meaning to their relationship and draw on the parallels with Midge’s possible obsession with Scottie – their lost love/ the loss of the young, idealistic Scottie – and how this mirrors Scottie’s obsession with Madeline, but it seems like an unnecessary layer to the film to me that isn’t successfully exploited or satisfactorily concluded. It feels abandoned.
Click “next” below to read part 2…