The Critical Transformation Of Alfred Hitchcock’s VERTIGO

How the film often called the best of all time was once a critical dud.

Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo is the greatest film of all time.

At least, that is, according to the critics that voted in the British Film Institute's 2012 Sight & Sound poll. The survey, which is compiled once a decade, saw Hitchcock bumping Orson Welles' Citizen Kane, which had held the spot for 50 years.

By any standards, that would be an astonishing achievement. It's even more remarkable when you look back at what critics thought of Vertigo when it was released in the spring of 1958.

Hitchcock's film, adapted by Samuel Taylor and Alec Coppel from the Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac novel "D'Entre les Morts (From Among the Dead)," follows retired detective Scotty Ferguson (James Stewart) -- who suffers from a paralyzing fear of heights -- as he becomes obsessed with Madeleine Elster (Kim Novak), the woman he's been assigned to watch. When Madeleine meets an untimely death, Scotty is devastated, until he runs into Judy Barton, a young woman who bears an eerie resemblence to the late Mrs. Elster.

"Alfred Hitchcock, who produced and directed this thing, has never before indulged in such farfetched nonsense," snapped John McCarten of The New Yorker. "(A)nother Hitchcock and bull story," snapped the critic for Time magazine. "The story line is not easy to follow," noted the reviewer for The Los Angeles Citizen-News. "... Vertigo is not his best picture."

The general consensus was that the movie was much too drawn-out, glacially paced and extremely far-fetched. The Variety staff critic identified only as "Stef" deemed it to be "prime though uneven Hitchcock," singling out Stewart's "startlingly fine performance" but complaining that "the plain fact is that the film’s first half is too slow and too long."

There were a few raves. " Vertigo is one of the most fascinating love stories ever filmed." declared Jack Moffitt of The Hollywood Reporter, while Bosley Crowther of The New York Times called it a "fascinating mystery" and praised Nowak as "really quite amazing."

Despite his misgivings about the movie, Variety's "Stef" confidently proclaimed, " Vertigo looks like a winner at the box office as solid entertainment in the Hitchcock tradition."

"Stef" turned out to be no prophet when it came to profits: instead of being a blockbuster, Vertigo barely broke even, making back its $2.5 million budget but bringing in far less than other Hitchcock films of the period, such as Rear Window, To Catch A Thief and North By Northwest.

Vertigo was re-released theatrically in 1963 and shown on TV for the next 10 years. Then, just like Madeleine Elster, it vanished. Ownership of the film rights had been transferred from Paramount, which originally released the picture, to Hitchcock, who locked it away for a full decade.

Absence truly made the heart grow fonder, at least where film critics were concerned. Vertigo 's reputation steadily skyrocketed once no one could actually see it. While many "lost" films that are recovered from the vaults lose their prestige once they're brought back, that was certainly not the case when Vertigo was finally reissued in 1984.

Vertigo dissolves the actual San Francisco into the heavy symbolic density and visual intricacy of a voluptuous dream: the tempo is slow; the dominant motifs are steep hills, tall trees, towers, a bouquet of pink roses. We succumb with almost masochistic pleasure," David Denby wrote in The New Yorker last year.

"The story's formula, a twist on Hollywood staple, was ironically summed up by Hitchcock as 'boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy meets girl again, boy loses girl again,'" commented Rhik Samadder of London's The Guardian newspaper. "... Ultimately the beauty of Vertigo cannot be so captured and pinned; it is more akin to the butterfly garden, in which we all wave our own nets. Everyone's catch will be different, and different each time."

And therein lies one of the key reasons Vertigo plays better 57 years later than it did when it was new. If ever there was a movie that rewarded multiple viewings, it's this one. The 1958 critics who had to cook up their reviews immediately after seeing the film once seem to have zeroed in on the implausibilities of the plot and the leisurely pace of the storytelling; like Stewart's Scotty Ferguson, who is determined to refashion shop-girl Judy Barton into his elegant, ephemeral Madeleine, journalists denounced Vertigo for not being what they wanted it to be, i.e. a typical Hitchcock thriller.

We know better than to expect that. Vertigo is a mystery, but only in the mildest sense. While numerous writers in 1958 lambasted Hitchcock for letting us in on the truth about Judy a full 20 minutes before Scotty figures it out, that revelation is almost beside the point. What must have captivated Hitchcock was the movie's take on the futility of "perfect love" and how you can destroy what you supposedly adore by continually, relentlessly gilding the lily, touching up each perceived flaw, until you completely lose sight of what's underneath.

That concept has also made Vertigo one of the few films of its era that feels relevant and resonant today, because six decades later men and women still try to make over the people to whom they are attracted. As most of us have learned over time, our idea of perfection and our partner's are rarely in sync; we see flaws within ourselves that they don't, while they detect faults in our character or habits that we don't or won't acknowledge.

In most relationships, there will be some degree of compromise or give-and-take. Not so in Vertigo. Fueled by a potent cocktail of guilt, shame and desperation for love, Judy acquiesces, overhauling her wardrobe, changing her makeup, dyeing her hair and scrubbing away her own identity as he reshapes her into his dreamgirl. As she does, Hitchcock turns Vertigo into an acidic commentary on the sexual politics of the 1950s, which dictated that a woman should do whatever it took to land and hold on to a man. Judy blindly follows that course and, in doing so, gradually self-destructs before our eyes.
So, of course, does Scotty, as the movie slowly and slyly unveils the true nature of his condition: not only does he suffer from a fear of heights in terms of the physical world, he is also terrified of the emotional high that would come if he really resurrected Madeleine. In his rush to create the ultimate lover, he loses the qualities that would make him lovable: his humor, his gentle nature, his charm. He becomes an increasingly demanding, micro-managing puppet master, using the excuse of imperfection as a reason to hold off passion.

To one degree or another, illusion plays a part in every love story, and in Vertigo it's the unseen villain, hanging in the air and blinding everyone like a thick San Francisco fog.

This was originally published in the March issue of Birth.Movies.Death.  VERTIGO screens at the Alamo Drafthouse this month