Double Exposure: ‘Vertigo’ (1958)

In 1958, Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” hypnotized audiences across the globe.

Set against the scenic streets of San Francisco, James Stewart stars as Scotty, a retired detective who suffers from Vertigo after having nearly fallen from a rooftop during a police chase.

One day, Scotty is contacted by an old friend named Gavin Elster, who claims that his wife Madeline (Kim Novak) has been slipping in and out of trances, allegedly under the spell of her deceased great-grandmother Carlotta.

In an effort to prove his suspicions, Gavin calls Scotty out of retirement to tail Madeline across town — while Scotty grows increasingly spellbound by her presence.

In the background, Barbara Bel Geddes plays the witty, down-to-earth Midge, an old flame-turned-friend of Scotty’s whom he often visits, though she gradually begins to exhibit envy toward Scotty’s new infatuation.

Supernatural undertones grace the picture right up to a scene where the “possessed” Madeline throws herself into the bay. The two officially meet after Scotty saves her and they fall in love — but it’s not long before a deadly plot of deception dooms their fate.

Renowned composer Bernard Herrmann provides a hauntingly beautiful score which, at times eerie and tense, often reprises Scotty’s desperate longing for Madeline with poignant, swelling strings.

Saul Bass, a mid-century graphic designer known for his artsy film posters and credits, utilized some of cinema’s first computer-generated images in “Vertigo’s” main titles featuring slow, spinning spirals to complement Herrmann’s foreboding theme music.

Novak’s ethereal presence on the screen is owed in part to her elegant costumes which advance her mystifying character with every scene. Novak excels in her ghostly portrayal of Madeline, and Stewart does justice to his role as an obsessed victim of love.

Toward the end of “Vertigo,” reality is not what it seems as twists and turns abound in this mysterious tale of possession and split-personality.

An enduring classic with all of the right ingredients, “Vertigo” is a dizzying delight.


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Nova Clark is the Arts and Entertainment Editor at the Ebbtide. She covers arts and entertainment while writing a biweekly film and television review column called "Double Exposure." Clark takes daily influence from the style and culture of the 1950's through 1970's.


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