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Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” is a masterpiece of obsession and betrayal

Starring James Stewart, Kim Novak, Barbara Bel Geddes, Tom Helmore, Henry Jones, Raymond Bailey and Ellen Corby. Written by Samuel A. Taylor and Alec Coppel. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Streaming on YouTube, Amazon Prime and Google Play. 128 minutes. G


⭐⭐⭐⭐ (out of 4)

Peter Howell

Movie Critic

The 1958 spellbinder “Vertigo,” Alfred Hitchcock's greatest masterpiece, was voted the best movie of all time in a 2012 poll of international critics, and with good reason.

This haunted mystery of obsession and betrayal serves up new insights with each viewing, with Jimmy Stewart's vertiginous detective seeming ever more creepy in his pursuit of a woman, played by Kim Novak, who may or may not exist.

At the 2013 Cannes Film Festival, I had the pleasure of watching a restored version of “Vertigo,” an occasion that caused me to briefly doubt my own eyes.

When the house lights came up following the screening, I turned to look at the woman standing close behind my back-row seat and saw it was Kim Novak.

She returned an enigmatic smile to my look of surprise and I felt for a moment like James Stewart’s “Vertigo” character John “Scottie” Ferguson, the former San Francisco police detective turned private eye who becomes obsessed with Novak’s character Madeleine, a suicidal enigma.

Scottie suffers from the titular dizziness, the result of a rooftop chase of a crook that felled a fellow officer; Scottie blamed his fear of heights for his colleague’s death.

This is not the homespun Jimmy Stewart of “It’s a Wonderful Life” or the playful Hitchcock of “North by Northwest.” There’s scant humour or compassion to leaven the unreal sense of foreboding that seeps into every fraught moment of “Vertigo,” which is not only Hitchcock’s best but the best film ever, according to a 2012 poll of critics (I’m one of them) by Britain’s influential Sight & Sound magazine. The No. 1 ranking for “Vertigo” unseated “Citizen Kane” from its decade-long perch at the top of the S & S poll, and rightly so.

Novak’s ethereal beauty and unearthly poise makes it seem as if she was painted onto each of the film’s impeccably composed images, and when a lookalike character named Judy enters the narrative, our grip on reality becomes every more tenuous — as it does for Scottie, whose obsession with Madeleine/Judy threatens to drive him mad. And what, exactly, are we to make of Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes), Scottie’s closest confidante and former fiancé, who carries a torch but also a kind heart and curious mind.

Bernard Herrmann’s sinister score steadily raises the pulse, but it’s almost unnecessary. Right from the start, Hitchcock pushes us to the edge along with Stewart. Hitch won’t be happy until we all topple over it, never quite sure of our footing or our senses.

Another strange Novak encounter: I did an interview with her in a limo ride into Toronto from Pearson Airport during the Toronto International Film Festival a few years ago. The interview was proceeding quite well until at one point she simply stopped talking for the rest of the ride, staring blankly past me. So unnerving, and so "Vertigo."

(From “Movies I Can’t Live Without, by Peter Howell.)

Twitter: @peterhowellfilm

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