Review: ‘Vertigo: Special Edition’

The restored version remains a wonder to behold, heightening the dizzying, obsessive quality of every color, angle and frame in Hitchcock's peerless study of romantic obsession, and rendering each note of Bernard Herrmann's dreamlike score with freshly menacing clarity.

Repackaged under Universal’s Legacy Series label (along with two other late-period Hitchcock masterpieces, “Psycho” and “Rear Window”), this double-disc reissue of “Vertigo” doesn’t improve much on the 1998 collector’s edition in terms of extras. But bonuses are precisely that, when set alongside the meticulous restoration undertaken years ago by preservationists Robert A. Harris and James C. Katz: Restored version remains a wonder to behold, heightening the dizzying quality of every color, angle and frame in Hitchcock’s peerless study of romantic obsession, and rendering each note of Bernard Herrmann’s dreamlike score with freshly menacing clarity.

Now recognized the world over as Alfred Hitchcock’s greatest achievement, “Vertigo” was unenthusiastically received in 1958, for reasons that are still understandable today: Critics and audiences trying to follow the film as a straight detective story were put off by its long, silent stretches, gaping implausibilities and bold indifference to the mechanics of suspense-thriller plotting (the decision to give the game away at the two-thirds mark, considered a folly at the time, now reveals itself as the director’s masterstroke).

Neither as flawlessly constructed as 1954’s “Rear Window,” nor as sublimely effervescent as its 1959 successor, “North by Northwest,” “Vertigo” is something far richer and more troubling: a psychological thriller that unspools with the maddening digressions and hypnotic urgency of a nightmare, and the closest thing to a confession on film Hitchcock ever made.

James Stewart’s doomed quest to remake Kim Novak’s Judy in the image of his dead lover finds its cruel thematic counterpart in the helmer’s own control-freak approach to his perfectly coiffed leading ladies, from Grace Kelly to Tippi Hedren. Yet even without this well-documented subtext, “Vertigo” is indelibly haunting. Obsession is not merely its subject, but its method: In no other Hitchcock film do individual hues, images and motifs take up such permanent residence in your subconscious.

Indeed, it takes a certain degree of fetishism to compile, and appreciate, a film’s wealth of trivia and archival materials, especially when that film is “Vertigo.” A new feature here is the nearly hourlong docu “Partners in Crime,” which highlights in detail the incalculable contributions made by four of Hitchcock’s longtime collaborators: Herrmann, title designer Saul Bass, costume designer Edith Head and his wife, Alma.

An audio snippet from Hitchcock’s celebrated interviews with director Francois Truffaut allows the former to discuss “Vertigo’s” erotic undercurrents with droll frankness. Another fun inclusion is 1955 episode of “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” titled “The Case of Mr. Pelham,” which deals in similar doppelgangers-and-madness territory.

Carryovers from the 1998 DVD include “Obsessed With ‘Vertigo’: New Life for Alfred Hitchcock’s Masterpiece,” which covers the making of the original film as well as the restoration; the execrable alternate ending Hitchcock was forced to shoot at the behest of foreign censors; and a meandering commentary track with Harris, Katz, associate producer Herbert Coleman and others involved with the film.

A superior commentary by director William Friedkin, who sharply analyzes the film in a critical and historical framework, makes a welcome addition to this welcome re-release.

Vertigo: Special Edition

$26.98; Release date: Oct. 7, 2008


Universal Legacy Series


Color, anamorphic widescreen. Dolby Digital. Running time: 130 MIN.


Cast: James Stewart, Kim Novak, Barbara Bel Geddes, Tom Helmore, Henry Jones.
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