As with many masterpieces, Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo yielded a mostly lukewarm reaction upon its May 1958 release. Variety dismissed it as “basically only a psychological murder mystery.” In 1973, Hitchcock took the film out of circulation; his estate did not re-distribute it until a decade later, around the same time it finally entered Sight & Sound‘s 10-best-films-of-all-time list.
Two years ago, it knocked Citizen Kane from the top slot. The new 4K restoration of Vertigo — which runs at the Film Forum from October 24 through 30 — removes some of the 1996 restoration’s cheesiest blunders (an overkill of seagull cries in the San Francisco Bay scenes, for instance).
The color scheme — the eerie cornflower hue of the dawn sky in the riveting rooftop chase, the funereal grays and browns of the perpetually haunted James Stewart’s suits — is rendered more piercing. But what still makes Vertigo so remarkable isn’t just its frequently copied visual trickery — most notably, the dolly zoom shot, closing up on an object while pulling away from it, to underscore the acrophobia plaguing Stewart’s ex-detective. It’s the dramatization of Hitchcock’s obsession with San Francisco as a phobic’s nightmare, with its craggy, steep streets and winding highways.
Stewart’s sad, stooped aura — his anguished, tongue-wagging face looks too small on his long-legged frame — and his begging blue eyes make you forgive the torment and even sadism he inflicts upon the blonde, then brunette, and then blonde again Kim Novak.
Vertigo — not Hitchcock’s most suspenseful work but certainly his most tragic — remains a parable on not playing God: with the past, with your lover, or even your own impotence.