Stewart, on camera almost constantly throughout the film’s 126 minutes, comes through with a startlingly fine performance as the lawyer-cop who suffers from acrophobia–that is, vertigo or dizziness in high places.
Miss Novak, shopgirl who involves Stewart in what turns out to be a clear case of murder, is interesting under Hitchcock’s direction and nearer an actress than she was in either “Pal Joey” or “Jeanne Eagles.”
Unbilled, but certainly a prime factor in whatever success film may have, is the city of San Francisco, which has never been photographed so extensively and in such exquisite color as Robert Burks and his crew have here achieved.
Through all of this runs Hitchcock’s directorial hand, cutting, angling and gimmicking with mastery.
Unfortunately, even that mastery is not enough to overcome one major fault, for the plain fact is that the film’s first half is too slow and too long. This may be because: (1) Hitchcock became overly enamored with the vertiginous beauty of Frisco; or (2) the Alec Coppel-Samuel Taylor screenplay (from the novel “D’entre Les Morts” by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac) just takes too long to get off the ground.
Film opens with a rackling scene in which Stewart’s acrophobia is explained: he hangs from top of a building in midst of chasing a robber over rooftops and watches a police buddy plunge to his death.
But for the next hour the action is mainly psychic, with Stewart hired by a rich shipbuilder to watch the shipowner’s wife (Novak) as she loses her mental moorings, attempts suicide and immerses herself in the gloomy maunderings of her mad great-grandmother. Stewart, of course, falls in love with her and eventually is lured to the high belltower of an old mission, San Juan Bautista, where his acrophobia prevents him from climbing high enough to stop the girl’s suicide. Or so he thinks.
Stewart goes off his rocker and winds up in a mental institution. When he comes out, still a trifle unbalanced, he keeps hunting for girl who resembles dead girl, eventually finds her and, in a rip-snorting denouement, discovers he’s been tricked–that this girl is, indeed, his supposedly dead mystery woman who, with the shipbuilder, played on Stewart’s fear of height to allow the shipbuilder to push wife off the mission belltower.
Film’s last minute, in which Stewart fights off acrophobia to drag Miss Novak to top of belltower, finds she still loves him and then sees her totter and fall to her death through mortal fright of an approaching nun, is a spectacular scene, gorgeously conceived.
But by then more than two hours have gone by, and it’s questionable whether that much time should be devoted to what is basically only a psychological murder mystery.
Supporting players are all excellent, with Barbara Bel Geddes, in limited role of Stewart’s down-to-earth girl friend, standout for providing early dashes of humor.
Tom Helmore, as rich shipbuilder, is a convincing heavy, and Henry Jones has one memorable, lifelike scene as the official presiding at a coroner’s inquest. Raymond Bailey, Ellen Corby, Konstantin Shayne and Lee Patrick handle lesser roles competently.
Bernard Herrmann’s music, conducted by Muir Mathieson overseas, is properly atmospheric and Hal Pereira-Henry Bumstead art direction, plus photographic effects of John P. Fulton, Farciot Edouart and Wallace Kelley, superb. Other technical credits, especially Saul Bass titles and John Ferren’s special sequence, are tops, too.
Frisco location scenes – whether of Nob Hill, interior of Ernie’s restaurant, Land’s End, downtown, Muir Woods, Mission Dolores or San Juan Bautista – are absolutely authentic and breathtaking. But these also tend to intrude on story line too heavily, giving a travelogueish effect at times.
Despite this defect, “Vertigo” looks like a winner at the boxoffice as solid entertainment in the Hitchcock tradition.
1958: Nominations: Best Art Direction, Sound