The Top Five Movies of All Time – Number Five – Vertigo

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So given that the Academy Awards is coming a week from Sunday, and I have to upstage the Academy Awards because Trump, or some such nonsense, I decided that I would put together my list of top five films of all time.  Therefore, I am going to steal from myself.  Gasp!  Horror!  Shock!  Awe!  (No, this is not the shock and awe of Iraq, or even the shock and awe of Irwindale.)  I had originally created a blog, last August.  This goes along with the many first failures I have had in life, which every blogger knows all too well.  Whether it’s the scrapes from riding a bike, the bruises from roller skating, or the sucking in chlorinated water while swimming, we all learn through failure.  And so my original idea in blogging was for a movie blog.  Sorry to those of you who loved that blog.  (And for everyone else, don’t worry that this site is turning into a movie blog.  It’s not, despite covering films the last couple of days.)  But if you are writing about something that you love, and you feel like you have done some good writing in the past, it doesn’t hurt to plagiarize yourself.  And if it does, for you copyright holders out there, I live in Siberia Alaska.

So I figured I would give you an intro, do some massive editing to the posts to make them perfect (or not), and let you know about my schedule for dropping the posts for the next week and a half.  So my schedule is as follows:

February 15th – 5th Ranked film

February 19th – 4th Ranked film

February 21st – 3rd Ranked film

February 23rd – 2nd Ranked film

February 26th – 1st Ranked film

Yes, these are my selections of great films and not yours.  You can pick your own list.  So now onto my plagiarized blogs of myself.  The Top 5 Movies of All Time (According to the Toasty Critic.)

Number Five – Vertigo

Thanks for reading the top five list of favorite films.  (Wait . . . that’s right, I wrote this blog going from one to five.  What was I thinking?!?! Of course you haven’t read this yet.  And if you have, maybe I can get you counseling later.)  Obviously every critic and every person has their own top five list.  There is no magical thing that makes your list better than any others, as each person has their own set of standards.  But for those who consider Keanu Reeves to be a top five actor, all I can say to them is: “I hate you!  I hate you! I hate you!” We all have reasons for why we choose one picture to be better than another.  We have the sci/fi geeks who insist that 2001 : A Space Odyssey is one the best films of all time.  While I think it is an amazing film, it lacks the ability to maintain its brilliance across platforms, and the acting in a good deal of it, in my humble, or not so humble opinion, is really dull.  To be honest, with some rare exceptions, many of Kubrick’s films seem to have characters that walk around lifeless.  2001 exists as an extreme example of lifeless characterizations for me.  There are those who will argue with my last pick, insisting that Hitchcock has directed better films.  Others would argue that if I am going to pick brilliant directors of the last century, I should be picking a film of Howard Hawks because he seemed to be able to adapt to whatever genre he was directing, putting together a compendium of work that was amazing in every single genre and not merely in one.  And if we were discussing my top five favorite directors of all time I might see the point of that argument.  (Whew!  A whole paragraph and I’ve said absolutely nothing of interest.  I’m on a roll!)

But I am looking at my top five films.  Some of you may say that the films on my list are skewed towards the classic genre.  Well, I grew up a huge classic movie fan, so: “duh!”  (My daughter’s favorite word) Classic films existed in a time where less was more (Something todays Hollywood directors should take into consideration, because they will all read this list and listen to me . . . right!).  They knew how to tell a story and infer things for much greater impact.  Modern cinema is all about experience and very little to do with story.  It’s sad that the best stories in film now are often cartoons because they exist with the same limitations that the Hayes code placed on cinema in working with that medium. (If you have ever seen the first 20 minutes of the movie Up and you weren’t brought to tears, what’s wrong with you???) People who make cartoons have to develop their stories.  But that doesn’t mean that you have to believe that. (Of course you have to believe that because I’m right!)  I am totally ok with all of the disagreement.  (Not really.)  In fact, I encourage it.  (Maybe)

Given these reasons, I culminate my list of top five films with a Hitchcock classic: Vertigo.  (Yup! I’m finished.  You can go home now.  Mic dropped!  You mean you wanted ten?  Greedy!)  Hitchcock ranks up there as one of the best directors of all time.  He is an auteur.  His films had a uniqueness about them that made them distinctly Hitchcock.  When anyone watches a Hitchcock film, they know that they are watching one of his masterpieces. (Or maybe not masterpieces if you are watching Family Plot.  What were they thinking???)   Given my affinity for Hitchcock and feeling like one of his films had to be up here on the list, I started thinking about what was the quintessential Hitchcock film.  He had his suspense movies like Rear Window, Rebecca and North by Northwest.  He had his horror films like Frenzy and Psycho.  And then he had his forays into comedy like The Trouble with Harry.  So I had to make a rational choice.  (Purely rational.  Now look at the swinging watch and believe me!  Believe Me!  Believe Me!)  I eliminated the comedies; because while fun, they were generally not what one would think of when they thought of Hitchcock.  Hitchcock is the master of suspense.  I could have chosen one of his earlier suspense films, but I landed on Vertigo because I think it perfectly blended elements of horror which would be a hallmark of his later films, with that which was merely suspenseful.

Vertigo begins with a detective named Jimmy (James Stewart), up on the rooftops of San Francisco, chasing after a criminal.  (Rooftops?  Criminal Chasing?  What could go wrong?)  While up there he doesn’t quite make the leap to a ledge and ends up holding on to the edge of a building for dear life.  When a fellow police officer tries to help him out, the police officer falls to his death.  This shock sends Jimmy into a panic and makes him realize that he has acrophobia.  This phobia produces in him vertigo, or a dizziness, that is produced by the heights to which he has a hard time handling.  As a result, he is forced to retire from the police force because of his condition, and tries to figure out what to do with his life.  His ex-fiancée tries to help him out, but fears that only another shock would produce the kind of circumstances to conquer his fear.  (Ex fiancée helps out former flame.  I’ve heard suspension of disbelief but . . . really?)

At this point an old friend steps in, Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore), asks him to tail his wife because he is concerned that she is going to do something drastic to herself, because she is being haunted by some distant family member called Carlotta Valdes.  (Too bad they didn’t have ghost hunters back then.) While skeptical, Jimmy tails Madeleine Elster (Kim Novak) to make sure that she does not do anything drastic to herself.  But he cannot help but get involved.  The more he tails her, the more he is entranced, and they end up making a connection.  (Detective and close friends wife . . . nothing wrong to see here.  Everyone move along.)  But Madeleine appears driven to do something outrageous to herself, and she climbs to the highest tower of mission San Juan Batista and jumps to her death.  Jimmy tried to follow her to the top of the tower but his acrophobia and vertigo prevent him from reaching there and stopping her.  He walks away from the incident in a daze, not even calling the police.  The investigation rules it as a suicide, although with some culpability making its way to Jimmy.  (Detective tails friend’s wife and falls for her; then, he cannot save her from herself; and the friend tells him it’s not his fault. Suspicious maybe?)

Jimmy goes into a tailspin and enters a psych ward because he is unable to cope with the loss of Madeleine.  We enter his world of vertigo, wherein he constantly feels like he spirals to his death.  His ex-fiancée tries to help him through this once again but she is rebuffed.  (I think this woman is the one with problems.  Still helping her unstable and irrational ex fiancée.)  When Jimmy exits the mental hospital, he roams about the city listlessly.  He was unable to do his job as a policeman; and he couldn’t even do work as a detective.  His life seems to be a spiral downwards when he runs into Judy Barton, also played terrifically by Kim Novak.  In her he sees the image of the woman he had loved and lost.  Jimmy feels like this is some form of redemption for him; but, slowly the realization creeps in about the true depths to which his mind has sunk.  All one can do is sit back in horror as Jimmy transforms this beautiful woman into the image of Madeleine.  (I told you this was half suspense and half horror.  Didn’t I?  Didn’t I?)  First there is the clothes, then the eyes and makeup, followed by the hair.  A long 360 degree pan by the camera and kiss transforms the beautiful Judy Barton, into the image of Madeleine Elster.  Jimmy sits and stares with a wild look in his eye as his masterpiece in transformation is complete. (From here on in, you are on your own.)  Nothing good can come from this, and there is the inevitable tragic result, which I will not divulge here if you haven’t seen the movie yet.

There were key aspects to all of Hitchcock films that make them unmistakably his.  The first is the MacGuffin.  Hitchcock meant that this was some form of plot device that would drive the story forward.  In this instance we have Jimmy’s Vertigo that makes him seek other work, which makes him incapable of helping Madeleine, and which he was driven to fixing by the end of the film.  The second is the use of the innocent man.  In his early work there was always some innocent man who was sucked into some plot that he couldn’t escape until he worked it all out by the end.  The thing that makes Vertigo so unique in the Hitchcock cannon is that we do have the innocent man, although as the film goes on, we are less and less convinced of his innocence.  He seems to be more warped than any other person that is around him.  His maniacal glances in mirrors; his drive to change Judy into something she was not; and the ultimate conclusion to the madness does not indicate that Jimmy is innocent at all.  One cannot be sure what to think of him by the final frame in the film.  And while things do resolve themselves for Jimmy, we are not necessarily able to wrap up everything in a nice package by the end.  It’s classic Hitchcock, with a twist.

Vertigo was made as Hitchcock was considering how cinema was changing. After making The Wrong Man, when considering his next film, he saw the movie Les Diaboliques. As a result, Hitchcock was keen on filming something that was written by the French writing team of Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac.  He made sure that he got an option on the work D’entre les morts (From Among the Dead).  From there, he took it to four different writers, although the final credits were given to Alec Coppel and Samuel Taylor. In each of the instances, he had to be familiar with whoever the writer was, because despite whatever they put down in a screenplay, Hitchcock was going to make something that was quintessentially him.  He storyboarded every shot that he was going to take and would be intimately involved with every detail of the shooting.  Hitchcock had to approve whatever was being written, and the first draft of the screenplay Hitchcock felt was so bad that he requested that it be burned.  Whoever got final credit for the film or not, every frame of Vertigo screams Hitchcock.

As far as the acting in the piece, we have the incomparable James Stewart.  Some actors hated Hitchcock because they felt like he would treat them like cattle.  James Stewart did not seem to be among them.  This is one of four pieces he would make with Hitchcock, including Rope, Rear Window and a remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much. While he was not necessarily the first actor that would be considered for the role (some believe that Cary Grant was Hitchcock’s first choice), one cannot envisage another person playing the role of Jimmy.

James Stewart, when he began his career in the Hollywood system would be found in mostly comedies and romances, with the occasional forays into drama.  Although for those of you who remember his brief but humorous take as a murderer in After the Thin Man with William Powell and Myrna Loy, I applaud your dedication to film history.  Even in a movie like Destry Rides Again, an early western, we see Stewart as a kind of everyman who we can relate to.  By the time he had come back from being involved in World War II, his films would take a decidedly darker turn.  After the war, with maybe the exception of It’s a Wonderful Life, Stewart wanted to broaden the roles he would take.  He had his first Hitchcock film, Rope (1948), loosely based on a famous murder case.  And beginning in 1950 with Winchester 73, Stewart did a series of westerns where he was hardnosed and world weary. So by the time Vertigo came along in the late 50s, Stewart had broadened the roles and his appeal as an actor.

With Vertigo, Stewart was going to have to take all of that one step further.  For this film, he had to straddle the line between light and dark.  The audience had to relate to him in some way, because he needed to be Hitchcock’s everyman who was sucked into the darkness.  But this was different.  He not only needed to be sucked into the darkness, but the darkness needed to transform him.  He could love and lose.   Afterwards, the character needed to be brought right over the edge of sanity, and the audience needed to walk there with him.  (As you can see, a really light movie. Take your kids.  OK, take your twenty-five-year-old kids.) The audience needed to sense the character’s profound loss and the transforming effect that it would have on him.   So that when Jimmy meets Judy and begins to transform her, there needs to be the sense of understanding, and yet revulsion, all at the same time.  It is this descent into madness that Hitchcock would fully explore two years later in his classic horror masterpiece, Psycho.  (Another light film.  Vince Vaughn would play in the remake so it had to be funny.  Right?)  Stewart’s sensitive portrayal of Jimmy brings us just that, from connection to disconnect, right until the very last frame.

The other essential role in the film is played by Kim Novak.  Novak had begun her career earlier in the 50s, successfully playing opposite some older men.  Her breakout role would come in 1955’s Picnic, opposite William Holden.  As Madge Owens, Novak would play an innocent woman who would be taken in by the charms of a drifter.  She exuded both and innocence and a sexuality that would be prominently featured in Vertigo.  As a result of the success of Picnic, Hitchcock and Stewart felt like she would be a big draw for the film.  There are rumors that Hitchcock preferred Grace Kelly for the role, who he had worked with to great success in To Catch a Thief and Rear Window.  Ultimately, they cast Vera Miles in the role but film delays, and possibly not feeling like she was right for the role, made it so they needed to recast.  They chose Novak and the rest is history.

Novak brilliantly navigates the dual roles that she plays.  In Madeleine Elster, Novak plays the young wife of the older ship owner, who we could believe that Jimmy’s character could fall for.  While Jimmy was friends with the husband, it is obviously a friendship from an earlier time.  Madeleine is a trophy wife for the shipping magnet.  Novak excellently plays the wife caught up in the whirlwind of the ghost who would drive her to the edge, yet a woman of sophistication and charm.  She would then have to take on the role as Judy, the carefree shop girl who would be dragged into the darker machinations of Jimmy’s mental illness.  She is obviously in love, and obviously conflicted and in pain by it all.  She is innocence and charm, with a touch of manipulation buried within.

While there are several character actors of note, there is nothing that drives a Hitchcock film more than Hitchcock himself.  The script may hint at a Hitchcock picture, but I think that it is better seen in the visuals, and in the choice in shot selection.  Robert Berks was the cinematographer of the movie and definitely followed the dictates of a classic Hitchcock piece.  One big difference in cinematography for Hitchcock, with Vertigo, was the otherworldly nature of the pictures.  Everything seems to exist in an dream state.  Once the character of Jimmy has been reduced to an acrophobic, things descend into a dreamlike quality.  The sumptuous beautiful settings in San Francisco, the dreamy Sequoia forest with all of the huge trees, and the haunting nightmare of the mission are shot in all in soft focus such that one can question whether or not his escape from that terribly tragedy was merely an escape into a nightmare of his own personal making.  It is done to beautiful effect.

But the piece itself, as previously described, exemplifies everything Hitchcock.  From the MacGuffin to the everyman, the audience is drawn into the story.  And Hitchcock always adds a little flare with a scene where he is somewhere in the background.  But the camera angles and individual shot selection is where one cannot escape his mastery.  From his use of wide angle lens to create visual asymmetry to his over the shoulder shots that give a distorted viewpoint to his amazing 360 degree kiss where we are sucked into both the transformation of Judy in Madeleine and nightmarishly drawn into Jimmy’s distorted psyche, Vertigo displays Hitchcock’s masterful ability to tell a story.  And every moment is a sumptuous delight.

Why do I love Vertigo?  I love it because it is a masterpiece of filmmaking.  (And a horrific nightmare.  Don’t we all love nightmares?)  I love the visuals; and despite being disturbed by the story, I am equally moved by the portrayal of the characters drawn into this dark situation.  The audience is in for a treat all along the way.  Is the ending happy?  Is it sad?  Is it triumphant?  Who is to say?  But it’s worth the watch, again and again.  You can pick out something new every time you watch it.  This is what makes Vertigo such a great movie and why it rounds out my top five.  (Because you have read the rest of the reviews of course.  Or not.)

What should be the order of my top 5?  Who is to say?  It changes from day to day.  But I keep landing on these films and wanting to revisit them like they are old friends.  If you haven’t seen any of them, or the conversation makes you feel like you need to take another look, please do.  Hope you enjoyed the top five list and please comment.  (Or in this case I hope for you to continue to enjoy my top five movie list.) I would love to hear what you thought about the review.  And if you watched it share your own experience with it.

Vertigo – This film is perfectly Toasty  (Oh yeah . . . my tag line for my old blog.  Cute right?)

So that is my number five movie in my best films list.  Hope to hear about yours.  This is me, signing off.

David Elliott, The Single Dad’s Guide to Life

*UPDATE**

Other Top Ranked Films

Number 4 : Gone with the Wind

Number 3 : Casablanca

Number 2 : Glory

Number 1 : Shawshank Redemption

17 thoughts on “The Top Five Movies of All Time – Number Five – Vertigo

    1. Yeah I definitely would not watch that with her around. My daughter is ten and that would still be too shocking. I may have been ten watching it the first time, and I was disturbed. Hope you get the chance to.

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  1. Haven’t seen this yet – as embarrassed as I am to say it. Hitchcock is fascinating, though I’m not much for this genre. Needless to say, I’ll have to add it to my potential must-see list for future reference.

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    1. That’s cool. He can be pretty intense. And to be honest, I’m really not into his horror stuff at all. But if you want to watch Hitchcock do a black comedy, try watch The Trouble With Harry. It’s with Shirley Maclaine. It’s a lot of fun.

      Liked by 1 person

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