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  • Writer's pictureAbby Brenker

How Vertigo (1958) Pushed Cinema and Horror into Uncharted Territory

Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo hit theaters in 1958. It’s known for its dizzying cinematic sequences, impeccable actors, haunting score and trippy effects. 

Vertigo was based on a novel by Boileau-Narcejac called The Living and The Dead. The novel was released four years before the film, but the English version only two years before. Many of Hitchcock’s films are based on novels, including Rebecca, Psycho, Strangers on a Train, The Birds, and The 39 Steps just to name a few. Hitchcock had tried to obtain the rights to a previous novel by Boileau-Narcejac called She Who Was No More, but was beaten out by Georges Clouzout who turned the story into a film called Les Diaboliques in 1955.

While I don’t think Vertigo is a perfect film, there are some elements that stand out to me in a big way. First and foremost, Vertigo is a perfect example of a story that relies on the use of a Doppelgänger. A storytelling mechanic that is hard to pull off effectively. A mechanic that the twist behind Vertigo relies on.

Another element of Vertigo that stands out is the soundtrack. Many Hitchcock films, and thrillers from this time period in general, have incredible scores. But something about Vertigo stands above the rest. The score was composed by Bernard Herman, who was also responsible for composing the scores of The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), North by Northwest (1959), The Birds (1963), Psycho (1960), The Twilight Zone and Taxi Driver (1976), again just to name a few. Herman was a Juilliard trained composer, born in 1911, who broadly transformed film scoring. He was a long time collaborator with both Hitchcock and Orsen Welles. His expertise is present in Vertigo, the musical backing of the film now known as iconic.

Many credit Vertigo as being the first film to use computer graphics. In the case of Vertigo, the effect appears in the opening credit sequence. Hitchcock also experiments with color and other visual effects throughout the movie.

The Vertigo Effect has become a technique used by many filmmakers since Hitchcock first pioneered it in 1958. The effect results in the subject of the shot remaining stationary, while the background shifts either shrinking or growing. It’s accomplished by using a dolly. And has since been used by Scorcese, Speilberg and Jackson among others. 

Scottie, played by James Stewart, is exceptionally flawed, especially by today’s standards. Though he is the victim in some sense, the pawn in a plot, his obsessive and controlling behavior vilifies him by the end. 

James Stewart and Kim Novak are incredible in the film. One of my favorite fun facts is that the pair actually appeared in a different film together which was released the same year as Vertigo. Bell, Book and Candle is a supernatural romantic comedy, a story totally different in every way from Vertigo. 

Geoffrey Shurlock of the Production Code Administration had pressured Hitchcock to amend the ending of the film, in order to convey to audiences that Gavin Elster was being closed in on by the authorities. Hitchcock did this by filming a scene with Midge, as she listened to the radio coverage of Elster’s whereabouts in her apartment as Scottie entered to join her.

Hitchcock was able to side-step actually including this footage however, and it was rediscovered in the 90s and added as an alternate ending to digital releases. 

Vertigo remains a stand out film, even within Hitchcock’s resume. From the score, to the visual effects, and performances, Vertigo and the talent behind it, helped to push cinema forward into new and uncharted territory. Hitchcock took risks, and they paid off.

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