Hello, hello (hola)
I’m at a place called Vertigo (¿dónde está?)
It’s everything I wish I didn’t know
Except you give me something
I can feel, feel
Sorry, not the U2 version of Vertigo. The Alfred Hitchcock, Vertigo. A highly regarded film if you have some free time this weekend. This 1958 psychological thriller is often considered Hitchcock’s greatest work, and it’s a great detective story.
The movie features James Stewart (more on him later) and Kim Novak. Stewart’s character is San Francisco Detective John “Scottie” Ferguson. After a traumatic incident involving a line of duty death, Ferguson develops a crippling fear of heights. He decides to retire and is later asked by a friend, Gavin Elster, to do some PI work. This involves following Elster’s wife, Madeleine Elster (Kim Novak). Madeleine is having some apparent psychological issues and Elster wants to find out if there is more to her story.
What ensues is some deeply disturbing mental anguish. In Stewart’s portrayal of Ferguson, he embodies mental trauma that may affect cops after a critical incident or just a long career of policing. Ferguson tries to ignore his mental disabilities and of course, tragedy ensues. He is a broken man in many ways throughout the film. Perhaps that is a takeaway that most people don’t get from the film, but cops may. There is a lesson here, get help if you need it before things get out of control.
The film develops into a murder mystery and Ferguson is more along for the ride than solving the case. Essentially, his PTSD is blinding him and he is not analyzing facts as he may have before his disability caused him to retire. The relationship between Ferguson and Madeleine is intense and heart wrenching. In many ways it is a sad, and ultimately tragic, romance between damaged people.
The film contains Hitchcock’s typically genius plot twists and emotional drama. The camera work is innovative for its time, and film locations around San Francisco merge perfectly with the plot. As in some of our other recommendations, the city is an integral part of the movie. The 1950’s feel comes through strongly in the background and the dialogue. Ferguson’s ride is a classic 1956 DeSoto Firedome Hardtop and Madeleine cruises in a 1958 Jaguar Mark VIII. You could watch the movie just to check out the classic cars.
James Stewart is a fantastic actor and a truly great American, but to us, he comes off a little flat as a hardened, battle-scarred detective. Definitely some good acting, but you are not getting the gritty tough guy that you may expect from cop portrayals of the 1970’s and later. A little more Dragnet than Dirty Harry.
Vertigo is often considered one of the greatest movies of all time. It is available to rent on most streaming service for $4 or $5, or you could buy a hard copy on Amazon for $14.99. I couldn’t find it on TV or a free stream, although it has been on Netflix in the past.
We also wanted to take a minute to talk about James Stewart. Although maybe not a perfect fit for this character, Stewart is clearly one of film’s most talented actors. He was also a great American. By 1941, Stewart was a well-established actor. When World War 2 was on America’s horizon, Stewart was the first major Hollywood start to enlist in the Army. He leveraged his flying experience to get a front-line position in the Army Air Corp as a bomber pilot in the skies over Europe. He rose to the rank of Major and won the Distinguished Flying Cross. After the war he continued to serve in the reserves until his 60th birthday and rose to the rank of General. He was quoted as saying, “What’s wrong with wanting to fight for your country? Why are people reluctant to use the word patriotism?” His postwar movie contracts contained a clause that prevented studios from capitalizing on his military and war records.
He never seemed to take his fame too seriously. He often returned to his hometown of Indiana PA, where his father owned a hardware store. He was occasionally found working behind the counter, and his Oscar for best actor was proudly displayed in the store. On May 23, 1985, President Ronald Reagan awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom. James Stewart was a truly exemplary citizen of our country.