Voted Sight & Sound best film of all time back in 2012 after years of Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941) lingering at the top unchallenged, this year Alfred Hitchcock’s seminal thriller Vertigo celebrates its 60th anniversary in style with a new 4K restoration which will present fans and newcomers with a chance to explore the master’s signature style on the big screen once again. First released in 1958, and set in San Fransisco, the film creates a dreamlike suspense surrounding a series of mistaken identities and personal anguish for its protagonists using a deliciously dense and playful plot which may well be Hitchcock’s best and finest works of all time.
Former police detective John “Scottie” Ferguson (James Stewart) quit the force when he was struck down with a case of vertigo which saw one of his uniformed colleagues plunge to their death whilst trying to rescue him from certain death whilst on a rooftop police chase. Now semi retired, Scottie admits to his close friend and confidant Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes) that he feels ready to get back on the horse despite not being cured from his fear of heights. Things take a bizarre turn when Scottie is hired by a former college friend to follow his wife Madeleine (Kim Novak) and find out where she goes when he’s not around to supervised her. Matters are further complicated when Scottie finds himself instantly attracted to mysterious blonde who believes that she is being haunted by a woman who has been dead for over two centuries, believing that she should be better off dead than alive.
While much has been written, discussed and even deconstructed by film writers and students alike for decades, there is always more scope to further analyse a film which is thought to have singlehandedly re-written the rule book on suspense and thriller, and which inadvertently gave birth to thousands of copycats overnight, making it one of the most iconic productions of all time.
Using, now largely recognisable narrative devices and signifiers, Vertigo not only broke the mould in filmmaking, but also managed to make most of us into hugely astute film-goers. While the devices might seem rather primitive to some nowadays, it is important to remember that before Hitchcock, most thrillers relied heavily on overly expositional narratives which felt the need to spell out every aspect of the movie without ever involving its audiences or trusting them to find out for themselves what’s to come next. What Hitchcock realised very early on, is that by involving viewers in the getting to the big reveal, is what made people want to come back for more every time. Hitchcock understood more than anyone the pleasure that could be achieved from the penny finally dropping, this made audiences feel complicit in the discovery and therefore felt more engaged and in on the secret.
Vertigo will be showing IN 4K at the BFI Southbank and across the country from Friday July 13th