Director Alfred Hitchcock and James Stewart made four films together. Hitchcock first cast Stewart as the professor who finally figures out what the two murderers are up to in Rope (1948). It’s an experimental film that should be praised for trying something new, but Hitchcock’s one-long-shot drawing room mystery doesn’t quite hit the mark.
They struck gold with Rear Window (1954), which paired Grace Kelly and Stewart in a timeless thriller of voyeurism. They followed it up with the equally wonderful The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), which paired Stewart with Doris Day and gave us Day’s signature song, Que Sera, Sera.
And in 1958, Hitchcock cast the forty-nine-year-old old Stewart opposite twenty-five year old Kim Novak (sadly, no relation) in Vertigo.
Stewart plays Scottie, a police officer who is forced to retire after developing a severe fear of heights. While figuring out what to do next, he agrees to take a case as a private investigator tailing an old friend’s wife. He follows Madeleine Elster (Novak), not because her husband thinks she’s having an affair, but because he believes her to be possessed by the spirit of Carlotta, who committed suicide in the early 19th Century.
Scottie and Madeleine meet and begin their own affair, which ends with Madeleine’s tragic death.
Then things start to get weird. Okay, weirder. By chance, Scottie runs into Judy, a woman who is the spitting image of Madeleine. They too begin a love affair, and Scottie becomes obsessed, slowly turning her into Madeleine.
We learn that Judy and Madeleine are one in the same, that Judy was hired to play Madeleine. Her husband had murdered his real wife, and Judy faked her death in front of Scottie so that he would serve as a witness.
Shall I spoil the ending, if you don’t already know it?
Hitchcock felt that Vertigo was his masterpiece, and today’s critics agree. The twisted tale of obsession is currently #9 on the American Film Institute’s list of 100 greatest films. Some critics even proclaim it the greatest American film ever made, pushing the consensus pick Citizen Kane (1941) out of its customary spot at the top.
But critics in 1958 disagreed. Most reviews were lukewarm at best. Vertigo was a box office flop, and audiences were mystified by the film and didn’t like seeing All-American Stewart playing such a dark character. The cool reception broke Hitchcock’s heart, and he blamed the failure of the film on James Stewart. Hitchcock regretted casting him, as he felt Stewart was too old to play a convincing love interest to the much younger Kim Novak.
But the difference in their ages wasn’t really the problem—it was common practice in the 1950s to cast leading men who were much older than their leading ladies. In Sabrina (1954), Humphrey Bogart is 30 years older than Audrey Hepburn. Ditto Cary Grant and Sophia Loren in The Pride and the Passion (1957). And Bing Crosby was 26 years older than Grace Kelly in High Society (1954).
Here’s the thing—and I’m aware that what I’m about to say is pure heresy:
Vertigo didn’t fail because of Jimmy Stewart’s age or the lack of sophistication of the 1958 audience.
Vertigo failed because it’s boring.
It was boring in 1958, and it’s boring in 2023.
[Pause to wait for the movie gods to strike me dead.]
[Since I’m still here, let’s keep going…]
Vertigo takes too long to get where it’s going. Things don’t get interesting until Judy is introduced, and by then the viewer has likely taken at least one cat nap through the long stretches of Scottie tailing Madeleine.
And the chemistry is lacking between Stewart and Novak. Hitch wasn’t wrong about that.
The whole thing feels bloodless—Stewart and Novak don’t sizzle. Scottie’s actions are supposedly driven by a lust that drives him mad, but we don’t feel it. Kim Novak plays an ice queen who never seems to thaw.
The film is dour and lacks the sexiness and perverse humor laced in Hitchcock’s best movies.
The film only comes to life when Scottie’s platonic (to her dismay) friend Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes) is onscreen, and she’s shuttled off the stage completely halfway through the film.
I love Hitchcock. I love James Stewart.
I never got Vertigo.
So it’s with mixed feelings that I’ve read recent reports that Robert Downey Jr. is involved with a potential Vertigo remake.
It’s blasphemy to tinker with such a highly regarded film, but wouldn’t you like to see a younger Scottie? Wouldn’t you like to see a more passionate, modern retelling? One that preserves what’s good and brings something fresh?
I would too.
But I’ve been burned before.
I highly anticipated the 2020 remake of Rebecca.
I’ve always loved the novel, and still feel that Rebecca is one of Hitchcock’s best—and most underappreciated—films. But I felt—and still feel—that Rebecca is ripe for a remake, one that explores the relationship between Maxim and the second Mrs. DeWinter without the constraints of the production code that Hitchcock had to deal with in 1940.
I thought Lily James would make a wonderful lead.
But the remake didn’t trust that the source material would be enough to sustain the audience’s attention, and added a weird supernatural element before turning Mrs. DeWinter into Nancy Drew in the final act and ruining any hope of redemption for that mess of a film.
That’s when I realized that perhaps it’s folly to try to improve Hitchcock.
Despite its faults, trying to better Vertigo is probably a fool’s errand.
Better filmmakers go out and make the next Vertigo instead.