Vertigo (1958)

James Stewart and Kim Novak
James Stewart and Kim Novak

'Vertigo' is psychological thriller movie made in 1958 starring James Stewart, Kim Novak and Barbara Bel Geddes and directed by Alfred Hitchcock. It is a compelling and disturbing movie which is now regarded as a masterpiece although on release it was not a box-office success, and received just two Academy Award nominations, for Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, and Best Sound, but won none, most of the awards that year going to 'Gigi.' Nevertheless its reputation has since steadily grown and it is now recognised not just as a classic, but as one of the finest movies ever made.

The screenplay was by Alec Coppel and Samuel A. Taylor, based on a French novel "D'Entre Les Morts" by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac.

The film's score was composed by Bernard Herrmann and has become famous. The melodies are an echo of the Liebestod from 'Tristan and Isolde' by Richard Wagner and reflect Scottie's obsessive and destructive love. At many important moments, the fierce and penetrating melody soars to a crescendo and is an integral part of the whole.

In the American Film Institute's 100 Years... 100 Movies 'Vertigo' is listed at number sixty-one and in their Top Mystery Films category it is listed at number one. In 1989, 'Vertigo' was selected by the Library of Congress for preservation in the United States National Film Registry.

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The plot is complex and is as intricate as it is unlikely. It works on several levels with many twists and turns, telling the story of a detective who meets his dead mistress's look-alike and obsessively tries to mold her into the reincarnation of of his lover. The detective, Scotty Ferguson, played by James Stewart, has a severe fear of heights after seeing a colleague fall to his death after a rooftop chase. He falls in love with Madeleine, played by Kim Novak, the wife of an old college friend, but is prevented by his vertigo from saving her when she jumps to her death from a bell tower.

His loyal ex-fiancée Midge, played by Barbara Bel-Geddes, helps him overcome his guilt and psychological torment, but then he meets another woman who seems the living image of Madeleine. - Judy Barton, again played by Kim Novak. He becomes obsessed with her and we begin to see Scotty in an entirely new light.


Hitchcock had expressed an interest in the previous novel by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, called "Celle qui n'était plus", but he was too late to buy the rights, and it was made instead as 'Les Diaboliques' in 1955 by director Henri-Georges Clouzot.

Due to Hitchcock's interest in the work of Boileau and Narcejac, his studio, Paramount Pictures commissioned a synopsis of their next novel, "D'Entre Les Morts" (From Among the Dead) in 1954, even before it had been translated from French. They paid the authors $25,275 for the movie rights to the novel and assigned the screenplay to author and playwright Maxwell Anderson. His adaptation and his suggested title, 'Illicit Darkening', were not liked and the script was given first to Angus McPhail, then Alec Coppel and finally to Samuel Taylor who spent six weeks rewriting it, for a fee of $120.000. Taylor tried to claim sole credit for the screenplay, Coppel appealed to the Writers Guild who judged that both writers should be credited.

The film was shot in the Vistavision wide screen format which Paramount had developed during the 1950's to compete with similar formats from rival studios such as 20th Century Fox's CinemaScope.

The filming was delayed whilst Hitchcock underwent gallbladder surgery and eventually began on 30 September, 1957, finishing on December 19 1957. 16 days were spent on location in San Francisco and approximately 60 days were spent filming in the Paramount studios in Los Angeles. All of the interiors and some of the exteriors were re-created in the studio on a soundstage.

The role of Madeleine was originally given to Vera Miles, but when she became pregnant, Hitchcock selected Kim Novak who agreed to the role only after Paramount agreed to pay her $250,000 for 'Vertigo' and the next picture she did with James Stewart.

The unusual zooming effect used in the film to convey Scottie's acute vertigo was created by uncredited second-unit cameraman Irmin Roberts with a simultaneous combination of zooming in and tracking backward. It is called the "contra-zoom" or "trombone shot", but is often referred to as the "vertigo effect" because of its use in this film.

Hitchcock himself was responsible to a large degree for the tone and themes of the movie. He uses color and shading cleverly throughout the film, sometimes saturating the screen to create a particular emotion. He experimented with dying some frames in unnaturally bright colors, as with Scottie's nightmare near the middle of the film. Kim Novak, round whom the whole plot revolves is sometimes surrounded by colored light as in the hotel scene where she is bathed in a ghostly green radiance. When the bookshop owner is explaining the sad historical background, the natural light dims to dusk to reflect the sombre tone.

Main Cast

The casting is wonderful and helps make the film what it is.

James Stewart ... Detective John "Scottie" Ferguson
Kim Novak ... Madeleine Elster / Judy Barton
Barbara Bel-Geddes ... Midge Wood
Tom Helmore ... Gavin Elster
Henry Jones ... Coroner
Raymond Bailey ... Scottie's Doctor
Ellen Corby ... Manager of McKittrick Hotel
Konstantin Shayne ... Pop Leibel
Lee Patrick ... Car owner mistaken for Madeleine

James Stewart (1908-97) was a Hitchcock stalwart and his ability to convey a character's inner turmoil under intense psychological pressure is unequalled. What also distinguishes the movie is the way Stewart's 'everyman' persona becomes all the more disconcerting when his long suppressed lustful desires manifest themselves.

After actor Cary Grant, Stewart was the most frequently featured leading man in Hitchcock movies. In addition to Vertigo, Stewart starred in other highly-regarded Hitchcock films such as 'Rope' in 1948, 'Rear Window' in 1954 and 'The Man Who Knew Too Much' in 1956. He was one of the greats of Hollywood's Golden Age, with five Oscar nominations for Best Actor including one win in 1940 for 'The Philadelphia Story'.

Kim Novak (b. 1933) is a typical Hitchcock icy blonde in the mold of Grace Kelly and Tippi Hendren, and her performance in the difficult dual roles of Madeleine Elster and Judy Barton is one of the keys to the movie's success. Hitchcock spent a great deal of time coaching her into the character he wanted, even giving advice on her wardrobe and way of speaking.

Barbara Bel Geddes (1922-2005) established her acting reputation in the theater in productions such as 'Cat on a Hot Tin Roof' in 1955, and 'Mary, Mary' in 1961 which ran for over 1,500 performances. Both roles earned her Tony Award nominations. Her movie career began with a starring role with Henry Fonda in 'The Long Night' in 1947. In 1948, she was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her performance in classic film 'I Remember Mama'. Later in her career she became internationally famous for her role as Miss Ellie, the matriarch of the Southfork ranch in TV's 'Dallas'.


Director ... Alfred Hitchcock
Producer ... Alfred Hitchcock
Associate Producer ... Herbert Coleman
Production Company ... Alfred J. Hitchcock Productions, Inc., Paramount Pictures
Written by ... Pierre Boileau, Thomas Naracejac from their original novel "D'Entre les Morts"
Screenplay ... Samuel A Taylor, Alec Coppel
Format ... Color (Technicolor)
Initial Release ... 9 May, 1958
Running time ... 120 mins

Academy Awards

No Wins:
Two Unsuccessful Nominations:
Best Art Direction/Set Direction ... Hal Pereira, Henry Bumstead/Sam Comer, Frank McKelvy
Best Sound ... Paramount Studio Sound Dept., George Dutton, Sound Director


'Vertigo' is a genuinely wonderful film. There is so much in it, that a single showing is not enough for a complete understanding. Part suspense thriller, part murder mystery, part strange, icily romantic love story, the film is a classic, a powerful examination by a master film maker of the nature of romantic love, voyeurism, duplicity, and murderous criminality. It is a fascinating, multi-layered masterpiece, representing the pinnacle of achievement of Hitchcock's brilliant career.