Vertigo portrays how people discussed sex in the 1950s – carefully, cautiously, squeamishly. Sex is bad, evil, crude. In Vertigo, desire leads to death. It’s poison to society when out of wedlock.
Hitchcock famously utilized sexuality in his thrillers, rarely directly. Vertigo defines the director’s methodology, a story of murder and control, but more so, a two hour euphemism for lust. Luridly plotted, Jimmy Stewart chases after a woman he’s told to track down. Sympathy for her mental status soon erodes, becoming obsession, even perversion and control.
It’s comical to consider the ‘50s era censor board viewing this, believing the film an innocent deception. So many shots peer through Stewart’s windshield, locked on his eyes as they track Kim Novak. This isn’t a private investigation – it’s total infatuation, twisted to look like empathy. Stewart’s unmarried and lonely, missing the signals from a friend Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes) who’s helpless to stall this growing madness.
Vertigo defines the director’s methodology
Vertigo defines the director’s methodology
Without the erotic undertones, Vertigo isn’t even the same movie. Shots appear to linger, overlong and dull. In considering their lurid qualities, Vertigo catches fire though. Those trips down San Francisco’s streets draw Stewart as desperate and longing. His eyes won’t leave Novak because in his devolving condition, they can’t. He’s helpless, whether by animal instinct or something more sinister.
Vertigo is about a man (or any men) who thinks he can fix a woman. Stewart’s attracted to Novak because she’s cracked, and by fixing her, he can fix himself. This isn’t about a hero or knight saving a damsel; Vertigo defines itself through selfishness, the undoing of every character in the story. No single person leaves this film unbroken, and they torture themselves to get there.
If there’s a friendly face in this movie, it’s Midge. When Stewart offers to take her along, she dashes from her studio before Stewart even takes a sip of his drink. It’s clear she’s waited to hear those words, probably for years, and it’s innocent flirtation; Midge never makes the necessary move or speaks openly, oppressed, likely, by ‘50s era standards.
In drawing contrast, Vertigo looks beautiful. Every frame is dazzling, and San Francisco’s skylines convey an exotic big city as captured by the lens. Redwoods, museums, and restaurants fill the screen, overpowering an A-list cast, an unorthodox method, and suggesting how minuscule these problems are when part of such a major coastal city. No one cares if Stewart and Novak or Stewart and Geddes hook up. The worry someone will though, that drives everyone insane.
When at its sharpest and clearest, Vertigo’s 4K master is akin to 70mm productions, yet only shot on 35mm Vistavision. It’s marvelous work, pushing against greats like Lawrence of Arabia in fidelity terms. To see vintage San Francisco as it was, totally untouched by visual effects, Vertigo is the way to do so. The skylines, the sights, Golden Gate – everything is here, and totally, utterly pure.
Cinematography toys with style though, so Vertigo often sways between precision and intentional softening, even haziness. There’s nothing here that isn’t gorgeous since Universal’s spacious encode is given room to resolve the natural grain structure. In fact, grain is barely noticeable, but thankfully not due to processing.
Argue whether HDR makes a difference to classic cinema, but Vertigo makes a definitive statement that it does. Glistening chrome on cars adds some razzle dazzle. In shadows, HDR makes a stellar difference. Look during the bookstore scene, where low light pushes heavy darkness, yet Stewart’s deep red suit softly drifts toward pure black. No crush, detail maintained. Imagine the same during the night-draped finale, making its stars practically invisible. Added delineation makes a tremendous change from previous presentations.
Then the color. So much color. Immense color. Immaculate color. Obscenely rich saturation brings out flowers, signs, and neon lights. Bright clothing and gorgeous vistas stick out. Impressively, Vertigo doesn’t look overdone or too much. The Golden Gate doesn’t look THAT red in reality, yet deep color won’t allow primaries to stretch past their limits.
A bump to DTS:X is excessive (mono is offered in standard DTS) although in fairness, the score never stretched so faultlessly throughout the soundstage. Superb richness and fidelity spread to every channel. Sound effects/dialog remain centered.
There’s a moment of range in the music too, a booming drum that rattles the low-end a little. So yes, every speaker is accounted for.
A look into how Vertigo was saved and restored runs nearly 30-minutes. It’s an older bonus so this doesn’t cover a modern touch-up, if still relevant for the story behind the print. Four individual featurettes explore Hitchcock’s collaborators, running a bit over 50-minutes together. Foreign censors required a tacked on ending, included here. Relevant sections from the Hitchcock/Truffaut interview run 14-minutes. Created for Universal’s 100th anniversary, there’s a short nine-minute clip about studio head Lew Wasserman.
Director William Friedkin produces the commentary.
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Vertigo belies its ’50s era origin through a devious story of lust, obsession, and desperation, leading to an engrossing thriller.
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The following six screen shots serve as samples for our subscription-exclusive set of 49 full resolution uncompressed 4K screen shots grabbed directly from the UHD: