The most studied and analyzed film of Alfred Hitchcock’s career, Vertigo is on every level a masterclass in filmmaking. In 1958 Hitchcock worked with legendary actor Jimmy Stewart for the fourth and final time, and just like Rear Window, they succeeded in making a film that would enter the history books. We’re talking about a first-class thriller full of labyrinths and dead-ends, an expertly constructed puzzle suspenseful from the first to the last scene, but at the same time, on an entirely different level, it’s a meta-film of sorts, a film about Hitchcock’s filmmaking, a careful and wonderfully elliptic study of the master’s obsession with his female characters. Jimmy Stewart has perhaps never been this convincing, posing as yet another ordinary man driven by inescapable passion, a victim of his own desires, a pawn in a game we never agreed to play. Kim Novak stars as the object of his obsession and longing, a mysterious blonde who seems ice-cold at the first glance, but a complex woman who magnificently display a wide range of emotions, such as fear, love and child-like vulnerability. Alec Coppel and Samuel Taylor are two writers responsible for this delightful screenplay, playful and innocent at times, dark and unusually deep the very next moment. Bernard Herrman’s music, recorded in Europe due to a musicians’ strike in the US, is subtle and delicate, somehow moving in loops between tranquility and despair. Alongside the aforementioned Rear Window, Vertigo is without any doubt our favorite Hitchcock ever, and considering the unbelievable portfolio of one of the cinema’s greatest, this says quite enough on its own.
In the fall of 1962, whilst The Birds was in post-production, François Truffaut carried out extensive interviews with Alfred Hitchcock at his offices at Universal Studios. The interviews were recorded to audio tape and the content eventually edited down into the ‘Hitchcock/Truffaut’ book. Buy ‘Hitchcock by François Truffaut’ from Amazon. Hitchcock/Truffaut documentary explores the art and influence of Hitchcock through his famed 1962 interview with François Truffaut. Available on HBO NOW and HBO GO.
Vertigo is taken from the Boileau Narcejac novel D’Entre les Morts, which was especially written so that you might do a screen version of it.
No, it wasn’t. The novel was out before we acquired the rights to the property.
Just the same, that book was especially written for you.
Do you really think so? What if I hadn’t bought it?
In that case it would have been bought by some French director, on account of the success of Diabolique. As a matter of fact, Boileau and Narcejac did four or five novels on that theory. When they found out that you had been interested in acquiring the rights to Diabolique, they went to work and wrote D’Entre les Morts, which Paramount bought for you. Can you tell me what it was about this book that specially appealed to you?
I was intrigued by the hero’s attempts to re-create the image of a dead woman through another one who’s alive. As you know, the story is divided into two parts. The first part goes up to Madeleine’s death, when she falls from the steeple, and the second part opens with the hero’s meeting with Judy, a brunette who looks just like adeleine. In the book it’s at the beginning of that second part that the hero meets Judy and tries to get her to look like Madeleine, and it’s only at the very end that both he and the reader discover that Madeleine and Judy are one and the same girl. That’s the final surprise twist. In the screenplay we used a different approach. At the beginning of the second part, when Stewart meets the brunette, the truth about Judy’s identity is disclosed, but only to the viewer. Though Stewart isn’t aware of it yet, the viewers already know that Judy isn’t just a girl who looks like Madeleine, but that she is Madeleine! Everyone around me was against this change; they all felt that the revelation should be saved for the end of the picture. I put myself in the place of a child whose mother is telling him a story. When there’s a pause in her narration, the child always says, “What comes next, Mommy?” Well, I felt that the second part of the novel was written as if nothing came next, whereas in my formula, the little boy, knowing that Madeleine and Judy are the same person, would then ask, “And Stewart doesn’t know it, does he? What will he do when he finds out about it? In other words, we’re back to our usual alternatives: Do we want suspense or surprise? We followed the book up to a certain point. At first Stewart thinks Judy may be Madeleine; then he resigns himself to the fact that she isn’t, on condition that Judy will agree to resemble Madeleine in every respect. But now we give the public the truth about the hoax so that our suspense will hinge around the question of how Stewart is going to react when he discovers that Judy and Madeleine are actually the same person. That’s the main line of thought. But there’s an additional point of interest in the screenplay. You will remember that Judy resisted the idea of being made to look like Madeleine. In the book she was simply reluctant to change her appearance, with no justification for her attitude. Whereas in the film, the girl’s reason for fighting off the changes is that she would eventually be unmasked. So much for the plot. To put it plainly, the man wants to go to bed with a woman who’s dead; he is indulging in a form of necrophilia.
Those scenes in which James Stewart takes Judy to the dress shop to buy a suit just like the one Madeleine wore, and the way in which he makes her tryon shoes, are among the best. He’s like a maniac.
That’s the basic situation in this picture. Cinematically, all of Stewart’s efforts to recreate the dead woman are shown in such a way that he seems to be trying to undress her, instead of the other way around. What I liked best is when the girl came back after having had her hair dyed blond. James Stewart is disappointed because she hasn’t put her hair up in a bun. What this really means is that the girl has almost stripped, but she still won’t take her knickers off. When he insists, she says, “All right!” and goes into the bathroom while he waits outside. What Stewart is really waiting for is for the woman to emerge totally naked this time, and ready for love.
That didn’t occur to me, but the close-up on Stewart’s face as he’s waiting for her to come out of the bathroom is wonderful; he’s almost got tears in his eyes.
At the beginning of the picture, when James Stewart follows Madeleine to the cemetery, we gave her a dreamlike, mysterious quality by shooting through a fog filter. That gave us a green effect, like fog over the bright sunshine. Then, later on, when Stewart first meets Judy, I decided to make her live at the Empire Hotel in Post Street because it has a green neon sign flashing continually outside the window. So when the girl emerges from the bathroom, that green light gives her the same subtle, ghostlike quality. After focusing on Stewart, who’s staring at her, we go back to the girl, but now we slip that soft effect away to indicate that Stewart’s come back to reality. Temporarily dazed by the vision of his beloved Madeleine come back from the dead, Stewart comes to his senses when he spots the locket. In a flash he realizes that Judy’s been tricking him right along.
The whole erotic aspect of the picture is fascinating. I remember another scene, at the beginning, when Stewart hauled Kim Novak out of the water. He takes her to his place, where we find her asleep in his bed. As she gradually comes to, there’s an implication, though it’s not specifically stated, that he’s probably taken the girl’s clothes off and has seen her in the nude. The rest of that scene is superb, as Kim Novak walks around with her toes sticking out of his bathrobe and then settles down by the fire, with Stewart pacing back and forth behind her. Vertigo unfolds at a deliberate pace, with a contemplative rhythm that contrasts sharply with your other pictures, which are mostly based on swift motion and sudden transitions.
That’s perfectly natural since we’re telling the story from the viewpoint of a man who’s in an emotional crisis. Did you notice the distortion when Stewart looks down the tower stairway? Do you know how we did that?
Wasn’t that a track-out combined with a forward zoom?
That’s it. When Joan Fontaine fainted at the inquest in Rebecca, I wanted to show how she felt that everything was moving far away from her before she toppled over. I always remember one night at the Chelsea Arts Ball at Albert Hall in London when I got terribly drunk and I had the sensation that everything was going far away from me. I tried to get that into Rebecca, but they couldn’t do it. The viewpoint must be fixed, you see, while the perspective is changed as it stretches lengthwise. I thought about the problem for fifteen years. By the time we got to Vertigo, we solved it by using the dolly and zoom simultaneously. I asked how much it would cost, and they told me it would cost fifty thousand dollars. When I asked why, they said, “Because to put the camera at the top of the stairs we have to have a big apparatus to lift it, counterweight it, and hold it up in space.” I said, “There are no characters in this scene; it’s simply a viewpoint. Why can’t we make a miniature of the stairway and lay it on its side, then take our shot by pulling away from it? We can use a tracking shot and a zoom flat on the ground.” So that’s the way we did it, and it only cost us nineteen thousand dollars.
As much as that? I feel that you really like Vertigo.
I suppose so. One of our whimsies when a picture isn’t doing too well is to blame it on the faulty exploitation. So let’s live up to the tradition and say they just didn’t handle the sales properly! Do you know that I had Vera Miles in mind for Vertigo, and we had done the whole wardrobe and the final tests with her?
Didn’t Paramount want her?
Paramount was perfectly willing to have her, but she became pregnant just before the part that was going to turn her into a star. After that I lost interest; I couldn’t get the rhythm going with her again.
I take it, from some of your interviews, that you weren’t too happy with Kim Novak, but I thought she was perfect for the picture. There was a passive, animal quality about her that was exactly right for the part.
Miss Novak arrived on the set with all sorts of preconceived notions that I couldn’t possibly go along with. You know, I don’t like to argue with a performer on the set; there’s no reason to bring the electricians in on our troubles. I went to Kim Novak’s dressing room and told her about the dresses and hairdos that I had been planning for several months. I also explained that the story was of less importance to me than the overall visual impact on the screen, once the picture is completed.
It seems to me these unpleasant formalities make you unfair in assessing the whole picture. I can assure you that those who admire Vertigo like Kim Novak in it. Very few American actresses are quite as carnal on the screen. When you see Judy walking on the street, the tawny hair and make-up convey an animal-like sensuality. That quality is accentuated, I suppose, by the fact that she wears no brassiere.
That’s right, she doesn’t wear a brassiere. As a matter of fact, she’s particularly proud of that!
A monumentally important screenplay. Dear every screenwriter/filmmaker, read Alec Coppel & Samuel Taylor’s screenplay for Vertigo [PDF]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The DVD/Blu-ray of the film is available at Amazon and other online retailers. Absolutely our highest recommendation.
Now let’s take a deeper look at this chapter in the career of the screen’s reigning maestro of tension and terror, courtesy of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. This research shot of a redwood was used for Kim Novak’s haunted forest monologue in Vertigo.
This is just one of many concept drawings by Saul Bass which formed the basis for the striking main titles of Vertigo.
Hitchcock and Kim Novak share a light moment on the set while filming the aftermath of her dive into the water in Vertigo.
Art director Henry Bumstead conceptualized this church tower interior for the pivotal “suicide” scene in the middle of Vertigo.
Studio heads disliked the title of Vertigo, instead preferring to call it Face in the Shadow. Alfred Hitchcock begged to differ.
Numerous different titles were proposed by the studio for Vertigo, though the final one always remained Hitchcock’s top choice.
In France the title of the French source novel for Vertigo, D’entre les morts (From the Dead), was discarded in favor of Sueurs froides.
Seen on location in San Francisco, Kim Novak delivered not one but two haunting characters in Vertigo.
In this early Maxwell Anderson draft of Vertigo, James Stewart’s character was named Roger Kilrain instead of Scottie Ferguson.
Screenwriter Alec Coppel drafted the famous opening of Vertigo, in which James Stewart discovers his fear of heights at the worst possible moment.
The various drafts of the script for Vertigo featured different comic banter between James Stewart and Barbara Bel Geddes.
From cult French TV show Cinema Cinemas. Jimmy Stewart discusses his work with Alfred Hitchcock.
William Friedkin on Alfred Hitchcock and Vertigo.
A treasure trove called CineFiles contains scanned images of reviews, press kits, festival and showcase program notes, newspaper articles, interviews, and other documents from the PFA Library’s extensive collection. See also: The Hitchcock Zone.
“Of course, I enjoyed designing the church tower and steps leading up to the bell tower. You know you could never get Hitch to go and look at a set, and the bell tower was completed. So I asked Herbie Coleman [the associate producer] to bring Hitch over. Herbie asked Hitch to come over, and Hitch said, ‘Isn’t Bummy a professional? So why do I have to go look at it?’ Some mornings I was rather nervous because you would be waiting for Hitch to arrive and look at the set. All the driving scenes, for instance, we did in the studio with rear projection. You know how most directors now hate rear projection and want to be in a real car hanging on to the sides! But Bob Burks was such a good cinematographer that he really knew how to make those plates for the process shots. I always work carefully with a cameraman, the set dresser, and with the costume designer, Edith Head. I did about thirty films with her.” —Henry Bumstead, Storyboard for the bell tower scene in Vertigo
Storyboard for the opening scene of Vertigo. Courtesy of Henry Bumstead.
Storyboard of the bridge scene in Vertigo. Courtesy of Henry Bumstead.
A documentary about the making and restoration of Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece, narrated by Roddy McDowall.
THE SOUND OF HITCHCOCK
Join Academy Award-winning sound designers as they reveal how Alfred Hitchcock employed sound to make audience members leap from their seats in fright or crawl under them from excruciating suspense.
PURE CINEMA: THROUGH THE EYES OF HITCHCOCK
Director Martin Scorsese is our guide into the power and mastery of Hitchcock’s visual style, breaking down landmark sequences from Vertigo, The Birds and Psycho.
IN THE MASTER’S SHADOW: HITCHCOCK’S LEGACY
Martin Scorsese, Guillermo del Toro, William Friedkin and many others celebrate the enduring legacy of the man many consider the greatest filmmaker the medium has yet produced. Discover why Alfred Hitchcock’s movies thrill audiences and inspire filmmakers, who continue to employ his cinematic techniques to this day.
SAUL BASS: TITLE CHAMP
Directors Martin Scorsese, Guillermo del Toro and others pay tribute to Saul Bass, who revolutionized the art of movie titles.
BERNARD HERRMANN: HITCHCOCK’S MAESTRO
Bernard Herrmann was perhaps the preeminent film composer of the 20th century. Holding a significant fan base throughout the years, he is one of the most talked about film composers, the subject of many discussions and scholarly papers. He worked with legendary filmmakers such as Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock, Ray Harryhausen, and composed historic films such as Citizen Kane, Vertigo and Psycho. His unique music certainly commanded attention, whether or not you are a serious fan of the music. It certainly was interesting and imaginative music that held substantial dramatic impact. —The Nature of Bernard Herrmann’s Music
An illuminating portrait of one of Alfred Hitchcock’s most important collaborators, film composer Bernard Herrmann.
Here are several photos taken behind-the-scenes during production of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo. Production still photographers: Robert Coburn & G.E. Richardson © Paramount Pictures. Intended for editorial use only. All material for educational and noncommercial purposes only.
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