Say you’ve never seen an Alfred Hitchcock movie — yes, you’ve finally emerged blinking from that Skinner box. Which film makes the best introduction to this master of guilt and entertainment? Psycho, perhaps, ground zero for every slasher movie to come, or North By Northwest, the ultimate lighter-than-air chase confection, or Notorious, the most erotic of suspense melodramas.
But not Vertigo. No, that’s the graduate course. Deliriously rich, daringly slow, uncommercially morbid, it’s the least ”fun” yet most revealing of Hitchcock films. And never more so than in the newly restored version that played in theaters last fall and comes to video this week in all its letterboxed, wide-screen glory. The best place to see this cinematic fever dream is in a theater, of course, but the improved colors and newly pumped-up sound make the refurbished Vertigo a disquieting revelation even with the limitations of VHS tape and a TV screen.
The men responsible for the restoration, Robert A. Harris and James C. Katz, are spotlighted in a half-hour documentary (to be aired on cable’s American Movie Classics channel) that follows the movie on the tape. Next to such chatty celebrity talking heads as Martin Scorsese and Vertigo costar Kim Novak, the film-repair duo have the unglamorous pallor of monks. And surely it takes religious devotion to hole up in editing rooms to create the cineast’s equivalent of an illuminated manuscript.
The comparison isn’t overstated, since the new Vertigo seems lit from within. I remember seeing the film during its last rerelease in 1984 and thinking that, heresy of heresies, there was less here than met the eye. The film seemed to meander, especially during the sequences in which retired detective John ”Scottie” Ferguson (James Stewart) tails distraught Madeleine Elster (Novak) through what seems like every neighborhood in San Francisco. Vertigo’s last act, in which Scottie meets tarty Judy Barton (Novak again) and makes her over into Madeleine’s double, had a melodramatic hysteria that bloomed into the absurdity of a sudden, bum-out ending. Fascinating, yes; compelling…almost.
What we saw in 1984, though — and on subsequent videocassettes and laserdiscs that this new version instantly renders moot — was a nightmare related rather than lived. Vertigo, as Hitchcock created it, really does have the qualities of a dream — a languid pace, a plot that feints in odd directions, a sense of slowly enclosing doom — and color and sound are essential to its power. It’s now clear that the film is not unrealistic so much as hyperreal, dripping with saturated hues and emotions. When Scottie first spies Madeleine in a restaurant, for instance, she turns profile, and the red velvet wall behind her now glows lambently. It’s a David Lynch moment, three decades early.
Sonically, too, Vertigo is renewed. Even through TV speakers, the gunshots in the opening chase punch the viewer in the chest. Bernard Herrmann’s score, cleaned up and boosted (especially in Dolby Surround, if you’ve got the right home equipment), takes its rightful place as the film’s third most important character: Tormented and inexorable, it stakes out the terrain of Scottie’s obsession early on, while the detective still possesses the aw-shucks decency of the Jimmy Stewart we know. Speaking of which, Vertigo offers one of the actor’s harshest yet most moving performances. After Madeleine’s death and Scottie’s nervous breakdown, Stewart gives us a man so gutted by obsession that he can force another woman to become his dead beloved — and like it.
But Vertigo is ultimately Hitchcock’s confession, not Stewart’s. In this cassette edition, the movie’s last third seems more than ever a metaphor for the dark pleasures of manipulating actresses. In the documentary, Novak recalls Hitchcock telling her that he expected her to ”stand where I want you to, wear what I want you to, and speak in the rhythm that I want you to,” and how far is that from Scottie’s fetishistic attention to Madeleine’s clothes and hairstyle? Is it careless plotting that makes Hitchcock resolve the murder mystery early on, freeing the rest of Vertigo to be the portrait of a pathology? Is it happenstance that the frosty sexuality embodied in Madeleine appears again and again in Hitchcock movies, only to be thawed by a resourceful hero? In Vertigo, for once, the ideal woman remains unobtainable, and Scottie Ferguson is stuck on the precipice, looking down at his guilty, empty hands. It is the subtlest of Hitchcock’s cameo appearances, and the most pained.