5 Things You Might Not Know About Alfred Hitchcock's Masterpiece 'Vertigo'

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by Oliver Lyttelton
May 9, 2012 9:56 AM
7 Comments
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Voting is currently underway on the Sight & Sound poll for the greatest film ever made, which takes place every ten years, and is generally seen as one of the most definitive of such polls. And one film that's near-certain to place in the top ten, given that it's been there in every poll since 1982 (and placed second in 2002) is Alfred Hitchcock's "Vertigo." The film was relatively poorly received on release, and indeed, remained unseen for twenty years, one of the five films to which Hitchcock bought back the rights to leave to his daughter (the so-called Five Lost Hitchcocks, which also include "The Man Who Knew Too Much," "Rear Window," "Rope" and "The Trouble With Harry"). But since its re-release in 1984, the film has grown into the great director's most acclaimed masterpiece, and is now one of the most examined, deconstructed and written about films in the history of the medium.

The film, which examines an ex-cop with a fear of heights (James Stewart) who becomes embroiled in the mysterious case of a woman (Kim Novak) who may be possessed and kills herself, only for him to fall for a woman who looks nearly identical to his target, was released on this day, May 9th 1958, and to celebrate the occasion, we've rounded up five facts you might not know about what is arguably Hitchcock's greatest achievement. Check them out below.

1. The film is based on a novel by "Les Diaboliques" authors Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac
Did you ever watch Henri-Georges Clouzot's classic thriller "Les Diaboliques" and wonder what Alfred Hitchcock's take on the material would have been? Well, so did Hitchcock. He had tried to buy the rights to "Celle qui n'etait plus," the source material novel by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, but Clouzot got in there first. As a result, Hitchcock kept a close eye on any new material from the writers, and when follow-up "D'entres les morts" was published, he got Paramount to commission a synopsis before the book had even been officially translated into English. It passed muster, and the studio soon snapped up the rights, with playwright Maxwell Anderson ("Key Largo," "Anne Of The Thousand Days," "The Bad Seed") hired to write the adaptation. He turned in a script called "Darkling, I Listen" but Hitchcock hated it, and replaced the writer with Alec Coppel ("The Captain's Paradise," "Mr. Denning Drives North"). His take didn't wash for Hitch either, and Samuel A. Taylor ("Sabrina," "Avanti!") was brought in, but despite having started from scratch, the latter was forced to share credit with Coppel after the earlier writer took it to WGA arbitration.

2. Kim Novak's part was originally intended for future "Psycho" star Vera Miles
Hitchcock's propensity for favoring certain actresses is well documented, and it's no surprise that Kim Novak wasn't his first choice to play Judy/Madeleine. After his favorite lead actress Grace Kelly married Prince Rainier of Monaco in 1956 and retired from acting, Hitchcock had picked up on "The Searchers" star Vera Miles, and signed the 25-year-old actress to a five-year contract. After trying her out in "Revenge," the pilot for his new TV series "Alfred Hitchcock Presents," Hitchcock was duly impressed, and cast her opposite Henry Fonda in 1956's "The Wrong Man," which won her acclaim. The lead in "Vertigo" was intended to fall to Miles, but she became pregnant not long before filming was due to begin, and Hitchcock elected to go with Novak instead. In fact, by the time Novak had finished other commitments, Miles was available again, but Hitchcock, perhaps a little prideful, stuck with his new ingenue. He later told Francois Truffaut in "Hitchcock/Truffaut" that "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." Despite that, the director did show a little loyalty, casting Miles in her best-remembered role, Lila Crane in "Psycho" in 1960.

3. Both the crucial reveal and the ending were nearly changed in post-production.
Despite having a novel to work from, several crucial aspects of the story remained in flux until very close to release. Perhaps most importantly was the revelation of Judy's role in Madeleine's death. Hitchcock had decided when the script was being written that it should be revealed two-thirds of the way through the film, through the scene where Judy writes a confession to Scottie, only to rip it up, in order to give the audience better insight into her state of mind. However, after the first test screening, the director got nervous that he was giving the game away too early, and decided to excise the scene. James Stewart sided with Hitchcock, associate producer Herbert Coleman disagreed, but it was only when Paramount boss Barney Balaban told the director to "Put the picture back the way it was" that the scene was restored. Meanwhile, had the film followed the book's ending it would have been much darker, with Stewart's character strangling Novak's for her deception. It was softened, but even then it wasn't enough for the Production Code Adminstration, who demanded that Madeleine's husband Gavin Elster was seen to be punished for her murder. Hitchcock did shoot such a scene, where Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes) listens to a radio report regarding Gavin's capture in Europe, but he managed to fight the censorship demands, and got to keep his original ending. As a result, it's the only one of Hitchcock's films where the killer gets away scott free.

4. The bell tower that's so crucial to the plot had to be added in through matte painting after the real version was demolished before filming began.
"Vertigo" displays some of Hitchcock's most memorable location photography, with one of cinema's most indelible portraits of San Francisco, and cinephiles often hit the tourist trail to visit locations (indeed, the Empire Hotel, where Scottie tracks down Judy, was renamed the Hotel Vertigo in 2009). But don't go looking for the bell tower of the Mission San Juan Bautista, from which Madeleine and Judy fall. The mission is real, and it did once have a bell tower, but in between scouting the location and filming the scene, the tower was torn down because of dry rot. Hitchcock was forced to add a new tower, taller than the real one, via matte paintings. Don't look for the grave of Madeleine's great-grandmother Carlotta Valdes either: it was left after filming at the Mission Dolores, but then removed for fear that a tourist attraction grave for a fictional character (and one who committed suicide, no less) would be disrespectful to the dead.

5. The film saw the creation of one of the most famous effects in cinema history.
Few films are important enough to have a particular kind of shot named after them, but "Vertigo" was responsible for the popularization of the so-called "Vertigo effect" -- the trademark shot that creates the effect of Scottie's acrophobia (falling away from yourself). Hitchcock had originally had the idea as far back as "Rebecca," but couldn't work how to do it, and it took second-unit cameraman Irmin Roberts to crack it. It's created by adjusting the zoom lens while dollying towards (or sometimes away from) the subject (see the staircase shots in the clip below). Hitchcock would use the technique again in "Marnie," and Steven Spielberg paid tribute in "Jaws," before using it again for "E.T." and "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade." Other films which feature the effect include "Goodfellas," "La Haine," the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy and "The Lion King."

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7 Comments

  • brian | May 21, 2013 3:44 PMReply

    This writer of this article makes the same mistake that virtually every other writer has made when referring to the 5 "lost for decades" Hitchcock films, as being brought back to theatrical release in 1984. The films began being re-released in the fall of 1983, not 1984. Rear Window's comeback release in Los Angeles was on Oct. 6, 1983, with Vertigo following on November 16th. It's true that the comeback releases of the 5 in total weren't completed until early '84, but the releases started in '83.

  • Dan | May 16, 2012 4:53 PMReply

    Great film. Just last week Movie Morlocks had a cool video about the locations he filmed at -- then and today:

    http://moviemorlocks.com/2012/05/10/on-location-with-alfred-hitchcocks-vertigo/

  • Aurora | May 14, 2012 2:58 PMReply

    Great piece on an endlessly fascinating film. Find it so although I don't regard Vertigo as Hitchcock's best. As you note about its continued popularity, I am in the minority there.

    Aurora

  • JayeL | May 13, 2012 9:24 PMReply

    One of my all time favorite movies. I never knew the 5 points mentioned or that the film wasn't a success when originally released.

  • Mark Hughes | May 11, 2012 7:19 PMReply

    One other thing you might not notice about "Vertigo" is that it's one of the earliest "was any of it real?" movies. After Scottie is institutionalized and basically unresponsive, we then cut to the future where he's out again and suddenly discovers all the bad things that happened were a conspiracy, where his guilt is resolved and the dead woman is alive again but was responsible for "her" own apparent demise, and so it all seems to be the possible imaginings of the mind of a man still locked up in an asylum trying to cope with his tragic life by inventing a fantasy that absolves him and casts the whole episode as itself a fantasy of sorts.

    Watch the film again closely, and you'll notice many things that lend credence to this interpretation. It's definitely a fun alternate way to view the movie and find something new to explore and discuss!

  • Scotty | May 14, 2012 9:58 AM

    The only problem with this reading is the end--where Scotty is not absolved at all, but rather loses his true love a second time. If this is an "Inception" type scenario, Scotty is deep in limbo at the end.

  • Todd | May 10, 2012 7:59 AMReply

    Killer getting away "scott free".

    Nice.

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