Vertigo is the crown jewel in The Alfred Hitchcock Classics Collection. Not only is this impeccably crafted, often mesmerizing study of obsession arguably the Master of Suspense's finest film, it also boasts a stunningly beautiful 4K UHD transfer that eclipses the other video treatments in this set. The twisty story, striking San Francisco locations, riveting performances by James Stewart and Kim Novak, eye-popping cinematography and special effects, haunting music, and Hitchcock's dazzling style all combine to create an unforgettable motion picture. Vertigo is a film to watch and study over and over again, and in the splendor of 4K UHD, it's impossible not to become obsessed with it. Must Own.
Obsession. Transformation. The burning desire to mold another human being into an unattainable ideal and vision of perfection. That's what Vertigo is about. It's also about a vulnerable man's desperate need to alleviate the guilt he feels over the death of a colleague by saving the life of a mysterious, disturbed, suicidal, and oh-so-beautiful woman. And finally, it's about an iconic director and his own obsession with creating, refining, and glorifying a cinematic type that remains an enduring symbol of his work.
That director, of course, is Alfred Hitchcock, and though Vertigo was not a critical or popular success at the time of its release in 1958, this fascinating, artistic, often gripping film is now considered by many to be the Master of Suspense's masterpiece.
It's easy to see why. Provocative themes, shocking twists and turns, impeccable craftsmanship, inventive imagery, finely etched performances, overarching lyricism, and tension that grows ever tauter as the narrative progresses...all those key components of Hitchcock's best works are here. Vertigo, though, ramps them up to the same dizzying heights that force retired police detective John "Scottie" Ferguson (James Stewart) to succumb to the title affliction. Like Scottie, viewers often feel a bit disoriented and imbalanced while watching Vertigo, and that's part of the film's allure, along with the obligatory icy Hitchcock Blonde (portrayed by an aloof, enigmatic, and magnetic Kim Novak), who achieves mythic status in this defining production.
After the accidental death of an officer for which Scottie feels responsible, the guilt-ridden veteran detective retires from the San Francisco police force. He spends a good deal of time with his former fiancée Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes), who still holds a torch for him, but can't shake the crippling acrophobia that he feels contributed to the tragedy. When shipping magnate Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore), an old college friend, asks Scottie to follow his disturbed wife Madeleine (Novak), whose erratic behavior makes him fear she might be possessed by the spirit of a long-dead ancestor, Scottie agrees, not realizing the seemingly mundane assignment will provoke a maniacal fixation on the beautiful, statuesque, and mysterious Madeleine and lead him into a cryptic and ultimately deadly maze of intrigue.
Spellbound is the title of an acclaimed Hitchcock film, but the verb fits Vertigo like one of Madeleine's elegant gloves. The hypnotic opening credits crafted by title maestro Saul Bass instantly lure us into the movie's deceitful web with swirling kaleidoscopic designs juxtaposed against the extreme close-ups of a woman's lips, nose, and eyes. The sequence cultivates the uneasy mood while subliminally telegraphing the story's major themes. A frightening prologue that sets the narrative table and tone follows, then Hitchcock allows us to briefly catch our breath before ever so slowly and methodically raising tension levels once more.
A dream-like quality pervades Vertigo, with the hilly San Francisco landscape mirroring both Scottie's rollercoaster ride through Madeleine's off-kilter world and his own unbalanced mental state. A predominance of green tinting represents envy and lust, and a brilliantly conceived psychedelic sequence that combines animation, special effects, and a barrage of shifting hues takes us into the deep recesses of Scottie's tortured mind. Even Hitchcock's penchant for rear-projection work and processed shots seems appropriate here, as such manipulated gimmickry enhances the nightmarish atmosphere engulfing the characters.
Without question, Vertigo stands as Hitchcock's most visually stunning film, thanks in large part to the breathtaking VistaVision cinematography by Robert Burks, who also shot such Hitchcock classics as Strangers on a Train, I Confess, Dial M for Murder, Rear Window, To Catch a Thief, The Trouble with Harry, The Man Who Knew Too Much, The Wrong Man, North by Northwest, The Birds, and Marnie. Burks and Hitchcock maximize color intensity to showcase the Oscar-nominated art direction-set decoration and produce striking images of such famed Frisco landmarks as the Golden Gate Bridge and The Mark Hotel. Add to that Bernard Herrmann's haunting score, Edith Head's stylish costumes, and a terrific script by Alec Coppel and Samuel A. Taylor, and you've got a movie that stimulates the brain, stokes the senses, and provokes an array of visceral responses.
Stewart, along with Cary Grant, was one of Hitchcock's favorite leading men (they made four films together), but the director reportedly blamed Vertigo's box office failure on the actor's advanced age, which Hitchcock believed diminished the story's sexual tension. Hogwash, I say. Sure, the May-December romance between the 49-year-old Stewart and 24-year-old Novak is a bit jarring at first, but we quickly warm to it, and Stewart's age adds an extra - and essential - note of desperation to his highly charged and effective portrayal. (Interestingly, Hitchcock apparently had no qualms about casting 55-year-old Cary Grant opposite 34-year-old Eva Marie Saint in his next film, North by Northwest.) Just as they do in Rear Window, Stewart's facial expressions and reaction shots speak volumes, and Vertigo, which features long stretches of storytelling without any dialogue, benefits immeasurably from his nuanced work. Like the film, Stewart's performance builds and builds until it reaches a fever pitch at the climax.
Novak doesn't utter a word until about 48 minutes into the 128-minute movIe, but that only intensifies the intoxicating aura of mystery and allure that emanates from her. Gorgeously coiffed, chicly dressed, and exquisitely photographed, she floats across the screen, obsessing us as much as she obsesses Scottie. That's essential to Vertigo's success, but Novak is far more than a pretty, shapely presence. Though I've (wrongly) dismissed Novak's talent in the past, it's impossible not to be impressed by her dual Vertigo portrayals, especially during the film's final, unforgettable act when the tables turn and the femme fatale becomes a vulnerable victim named Judy.
The criminally underrated Bel Geddes plays the quirky Midge with just right the mix of sincerity and cynicism (oh, how I wish Hollywood hadn't spurned Bel Geddes early in her career!), and marvelous character actors Henry Jones and Ellen Corby make the most of their eccentric parts. Classic movie mavens also will appreciate the brief appearance by Lee Patrick, who graced dozens of high-quality films in the 1930s, '40s, and '50s. She only has a couple of lines, but delivers them with customary zing.
In the end, though, it's Hitchcock who defines Vertigo...and in a twist that the Master of Suspense himself would certainly cheer, Vertigo defines Hitchcock, too. The director became notorious for his Svengali tendencies and obsessive attachments to his leading ladies (just ask Tippi Hedren), and he indirectly channels all of that into Vertigo. Just as Scottie exerts control over Judy and strives to mold and shape her image, so did the domineering Hitchcock with his actresses. Watching the two mens' stories converge and intertwine on the screen is just one more fascinating element of an eminently fascinating and superbly constructed film.
Vertigo is one heady movie, and as Hitchcock spins his tangled yarn, he makes us dizzy...with delight.
The Ultra-HD Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
The 4K UHD edition of Vertigo arrives as part of The Alfred Hitchcock Classics Collection, which also includes Rear Window, Psycho, and The Birds. Almost identical to the 2012 Alfred Hitchcock Masterpiece Collection with regard to packaging, the discs are housed in a handsome digibook, which comes in a slipcase with raised lettering. Both 4K UHD and standard Blu-ray discs lie in slots in the "pages" devoted to each film. It's an attractive layout, but the discs fit a little too snugly in their slots, making their retrieval somewhat difficult. A leaflet containing the code to access the digital copies of all four movies is tucked inside the book's back cover. Sadly, no accompanying booklet is included with this collection. Video codec for all four films is 2160p/HEVC H.265 (HDR10) and default audio for Vertigo is DTS:X. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the full-motion menu with music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
Drop dead gorgeous. Those three words certainly call to mind Kim Novak, but more importantly they also describe the staggeringly beautiful 2160p/HEVC H.265 Vertigo transfer. Presented in HDR10 and featuring an eye-popping color palette and razor-sharp clarity, Hitchcock's masterwork fairly jumps off the screen. Never has Vertigo, which was shot in the high-fidelity VistaVision format that enhanced several 1950s films, looked so vivid, dimensional, and lush, and yet still so gloriously film-lIke. Why cinematographer Robert Burks didn't receive an Oscar nomination for his alternately sublime and arresting photography remains a baffling mystery, but this exceptional rendering faithfully honors every picture-perfect frame. From the dizzying designs of Saul Bass' title sequence and Hitchcock's disorienting 'trombone" shots to the psychedelic dream sequence, striking tinting, and panoramic vistas of San Francisco, this transfer continually dazzles the senses and keeps us transfixed for two-plus hours.
Grain is evident (thank goodness!), but it blends seamlessly into the film's fabric, and though its intensity occasionally fluctuates depending on light levels and photographic effects, it never distracts. The superb clarity and contrast are instantly evident and the picture's vibrancy never wanes. Even when Hitchcock employs a gauzy look (the garden scene is a good example), the image still looks well defined. Details in decor, jewelry, wallpaper, rugs, upholstery, and costume fabrics pop, reflections in mirrors are crystal clear, and the San Francisco locations - especially the majestic Golden Gate Bridge - are so crisply rendered, we feel like we're there.
Colors are amazing. Bold, rich reds, verdant greens, and warm yellows predominate, but blues, grays, and purples make statements, too. The bordello red walls of Ernie's restaurant, the red door of Scottie's apartment, Judy's slinky purple dress, the yellow blanket covering a naked Madeleine, the pastel hues in the flower bouquets, and Judy's emerald green sweater are just a few of the eye-catching elements. The tinting, which adds a surreal flavor to several scenes, never bleeds, and its audacious nature adds an extra jolt of voltage to an already electric movie.
Inky blacks anchor the image and provide well-defined shadows and a couple of dazzling silhouettes, while clean whites remain stable and resist blooming. Flesh tones, from Novak's alabaster skin to Stewart's darker complexion, look natural, and all the breathtaking close-ups reveal a host of fine facial features like pores, wrinkles, hair follicles, glistening sweat, and mild blemishes. Finally, only a couple of stray marks dot the pristine source material.
By comparison, the Blu-ray looks as dull as a dishrag. The image lacks vibrancy, the colors look faded, and a flatness keeps the movie at arm's length. Make no mistake, it's a crisp and clean rendering, and if I had never seen the 4K UHD transfer, I'm sure I would be perfectly happy with it. But just like Scottie's life instantly changes when he lays eyes on Madeleine, my perception of Vertigo has forever changed now that I've seen this magnificent ultra-high-def presentation. Quite fittingly, I'm obsessed with it.
After enjoying the immersive sonic effects on the Psycho DTS:X track, I primed myself for a similar aural experience with Vertigo. Though the DTS:X track on the Vertigo disc pumps out robust, contoured sound that nicely complements the stunning visuals, the lack of palpable surround activity somewhat dulls my enthusiasm for the audio presentation.
To be fair, Vertigo is a rather quiet film, so the opportunities for rear speaker activity are slim. The greatest beneficiary is Bernard Herrmann's memorable score, which invisibly enhances mood and suspense. Fantastic fidelity and tonal depth lend the music richness and highlight its deft nuances, while a wide dynamic scale embraces all of its highs and lows without any distortion. Solid bass frequencies supply a bit of heft, and the overall purity of sound is impressive.
Sonic accents like screams and subtleties like footsteps are crisp and distinct, all the dialogue is well prioritized and easy to comprehend, and no age-related hiss, pops, or crackle break the hypnotic spell. Though a greater degree of surround activity would give Vertigo a few more bells and whistles, the film is practically perfect just the way it is, and this superior rendering of the audio shows us why Hitchcock's masterwork received an Oscar nod for Best Sound.
All the supplements from the previous Blu-ray edition have been ported over to this release, and the good news is they all reside on the 4K UHD disc as well as the standard Blu-ray. For a complete review of the supplements, click here.
Documentary: "Obsessed with Vertigo: New Life for Hitchcock's Masterpiece"
Documentary: "Partners in Crime: Hitchcock's Collaborators"
Foreign Censorship Ending
Hitchcock/Truffaut Interview Audio Excerpt
Audio Commentary with director William Friedkin
Restoration Theatrical Trailer
Featurette: "100 Years of Universal: The Lew Wasserman Era"
Film buffs can argue about whether Vertigo ranks as Alfred Hitchcock's finest film, but everyone will agree this haunting study of obsession, transformation, and betrayal is the crown jewel in Universal's Alfred Hitchcock Classics Collection. Eye candy can't begin to describe the breathtakingly beautiful 4K UHD HDR10 presentation that immerses us in the intrigue that engulfs a retired San Francisco police detective when an old college buddy asks him to tail his mentally disturbed wife. James Stewart and Kim Novak ignite the screen, but Hitchcock is the true star of this elegant thriller that celebrates the director's ingenuity and artistry. The new DTS:X track supplies potent audio and all the extras from previous Blu-rays have been ported over to this release. Vertigo is an enduring masterpiece, and though you may have seen it before, you've never seen it like this. Must Own.