Even if you find the narrative obtuse, this is one of the most astonishingly beautiful films ever made. Hitchcock was at the peak of his powers when he directed this in 1958, and it is iconic – every shot is stunning. It even features a couple of shots that, if not entirely groundbreaking, had certainly never been pulled off with this degree of sophistication.
The story is convoluted, but Hitchcock has stated more than once that it was his most personal film. It’s essentially a multi-layered metaphor for his relationship with women, which is, unsurprisingly complicated.
This is one of those films that reveals itself with age – that is to say, when I saw it as a young person, I was drawn to the mystery and beauty of the experience without really understanding it. But of course great art is like that – it can draw you in without you fully understanding why.
Jimmy Stewart and Kim Novak are perfect – Kim’s performance is particularly nuanced, even though at first she seems quite remote. By the end you are completely drawn in by her portrayal of this duplicitous yet beguiling woman. Viewed through the lens of today’s culture, it’s very patriarchal, sometimes even misogynistic – but that’s all part of the story.
I recently watched a restoration supervised in part by Martin Scorsese, and it is achingly beautiful. The cinematography by Robert Burks is both dream-like and hyper-real, the colors gorgeously saturated. And the score by Bernard Herrmann is hauntingly beautiful – once heard, never forgotten.
The two ground-breaking camera shots I referred to earlier? One is the “vertigo” scene where Jimmy Stewart is looking down a flight of stairs, apparently achieved by both zooming in and physically pulling the camera back at the same time. It’s a shot seen many times since then, but the first time you see it it’s quite a trick.
The other is a 360 degree closeup of Stewart and Novak embracing that seems continuous but appears to take place in two different locations still the same time.. Like most of this film, I have no idea how it was done, all I know is that it works.
This whole movie appears to take place in some alternate universe, one that Hitchcock invented. This is what great art does.
It transports you to a place you never knew existed.