It's hard to get all the accolades that "Vertigo" has built up over the years out of your head when you start to watch the movie. Though it was only nominated for a measly two Oscars, the revere with which the film is held is daunting to say the least.
Sights and Sounds recently bumped "Citizen Kane" out of the heralded "best movie of all time" place and inserted "Vertigo" where it was. The film also landed in Roger Ebert's top 10 films and is generally considered to be Hitchcock's undying masterpiece.
For what reason?
"Vertigo" tells a riveting story and it tells it in such a way that it can be brand new to any viewer. The crazy, hallucinatory effects have long since become archaic, but the gist of the film remains powerful.
Out chasing down a criminal one night, a policeman and a detective follow the suspect onto rooftops where he tries to make a getaway. He bounds across a large gap and scrambles to safety, so does the policeman, but the detective slides down the roof and saves himself from plummeting to his death by gripping the gutter with fingertips. When the policeman returns to help him back up, he trips and is sent sailing through the air to his demise.
Now, months later, the detective, John Ferguson (James Stewart), is still haunted by the death of his colleague. He suffers from acrophobia which in turn gives him unhelpful spells of uncontrollable vertigo.
He decides that once he's fit to return to detective duties, he will take some time off. He doesn't plan on returning to work anytime soon...that is, until he hears from an old friend of his, Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore). Gavin is in a rut, mainly because he thinks his wife is possessed by an old spirit.
Yes, Gavin tells John of his wife and her common lapses of consciousness. She will zone out, go out driving, and become catatonic to the whole world. He is convinced that something is wrong in her brain, but he wants to know more before he sends her to a sanitarium. Naturally, he thinks that any friend will help a friend out by spying on a woman possessed by a ghost...naturally.
John rejects the idea very strongly, but has nothing better to do with his time so it doesn't take long speeches for him to agree to tail the wife. What he turns up is a woman caught with the past, obsession, and just plain insanity.
Perhaps the biggest achievement that "Vertigo" can claim as its own is the feeling of falling. For the entire movie, you feel slightly uneasy, like you are falling through the air—unaware of it until you pick up speed. Near the end of the movie it's a breakneck speed with which you careen towards the ground...and yes, you do hit the bottom...hard.
Still, when you go into a film hearing that it's the best movie ever made, you do turn yourself off to the idea. Certainly you've seen something better than this—at least, that's how my mind works. So when going into "Vertigo" I would suggest viewing it, instead, like any other Hitchcock movie, with glee and a little smidgen of hesitation.
"Vertigo" is unafraid of long shots. It's one of Hitchcock's longer movies; but this is what makes it great. John follows the wife around San Francisco, getting to see her routines and her madness for himself. There are shots of him in his car, staying close behind her...for much of the first part of "Vertigo", this is the movie.
Yet there is something intrinsically fascinating about watching James Stewart follow Kim Novak around. It's this idea of stalking that Christopher Nolan would later tap into for his film "Following" which attempts to define why we people-watch.
Instead of the story maneuvering from one plot device to the next, "Vertigo" embraces the dream-like way a film can be shot. It's a very abrupt movie and very self-assure.
Do I think it's the best movie ever made? No. But it is one powerful film.
You feel like you're walking down a flight of stairs as you watch "Vertigo", ever descending into the depths of the mind.