Luke McCarthy’s review published on Letterboxd:
Film review written for class, hence the slightly different style/format. Has been submitted and graded now, so thought I may as well post it here.
Vertigo, one of the most popular and acclaimed films in director Alfred Hitchcock’s now towering filmography, explores the many ways past and present dreamily intertwine through the story of one man’s obsessive reaction to a fated tragedy. James Stewart plays the recently retired police detective ‘Scottie’, a man whose past traumas have left him with a stifling case of vertigo, but someone who is suddenly drawn back into the world of investigation after being offered a case as interesting as it is mystifying. Asked to investigate a woman known simply as Madeline (who inexplicably seems to be imitating a figure from her ancient past), he soon finds himself trapped within an intangible web of both tragedy and illusion.
The narrative here plays out in ways which almost register as oneiric, the central mystery of the film’s first half merely an excuse for Hitchcock to revel in all his most personal and unnerving cinematic obsessions - a barrage of voyeuristic set-pieces which position our femme-fatale as an elegant, unattainable vision. In these moments, what might read on paper as expository and repetitive transforms itself into something resembling an extended mood-piece; all anchored by Hitchcock’s masterful, assured sense of rhythm (and Hermann’s lush score).
Although the idea of a women being haunted by an unknown past is immediately thrilling as a concept, Hitchcock isn’t content to let the words themselves do all the speaking. Throughout the film, he imbues the elusive Madeline with a certain intangible aura, elucidated through his distant, painterly compositions which continually replicate Stewart’s warped point of view (there is a chilling stillness to these moments, a stillness which contributes to the many dream-like qualities this seems to possess). For much of the film she is seen only at the edges of the frame, shot from behind, exiting the composition before we as an audience can truly process her as anything but an enigma. The precision of Hitchcock's formal approach gives the film a rigorous sense of purpose, key images reverberating with a multitude of different meanings and implications throughout.
In many ways, Vertigo acts as Hitchcock’s most pure and personal work, pushing his formalist tendencies to their expressionistic extremes whilst singling in on a narrative that directly addresses the way in which his unique brand of cinema toys with the male gaze. One gets the sense that although Hitchcock is most definitely aware of this aspect to his work, his romanticized fascination with the female form is something which he simply can’t shed - rather than reading that as a negative, I feel as if this actively complicates the film’s subtext, making it a work which is much more interesting to wrestle with on a thematic level. The work of a man who both indulges in yet questions his own deep-seated fascinations.
A film equal parts beautiful, subversive and self-critical, and one of Hitchcock’s many opuses.