Opened (in SF): October 18, 1996 | Rated: PG
The restored print of "Vertigo" currently making its way around the art house circuit is a masterpiece of the restorer's art and a labor of love.
Film preservationists Robert Harris and James Katz spent a couple years and over $1 million carefully bringing this classic back to life -- even digitizing the famous Bernard Herrmann score for the best sound on modern sound equipment.
The results are breathtaking, to say the least. With the exception of a grainy 30-second patch late in the film, this classic of deception and murder looks and sounds crisp and new. A fine honor for what is certainly one of the classiest suspense thrillers in the history of the movies.
Shot in and around San Francisco in 1957, "Vertigo" stars James Stewart as a retired cop hired to follow a friend's disturbed wife who is obsessed with a dead figure from San Francisco's history, a woman who committed suicide.
Kim Novak plays the wife who, after making Stewart fall in love with her, kills herself...or so it seems.
Alfred Hitchcock's control of the audience is most complete in "Vertigo." He was a master filmmaker, even to the extent that the projected backgrounds, which he used in place of shooting dialogue on location, seem otherworldly rather than counterfeit. His use of them was as much intentional as it was a technical necessity due to primitive sound equipment.
But parts of "Vertigo" haven't weathered the changing times well, and seeing these things that tie the film down to the late '50s are amplified on the big screen:
The love scenes, while wrought with the tension of infidelity, ring with cliches of the day: The girl's head cradled in man's arms. Her eyes closed, mouth upturned, open and panting in anticipation. Man's eyes darting around her face as he makes an impassioned, staccato speech -- usually beginning with the word "Oh" followed by her name. The music swells and he plants one on her.
Even though it's James Stewart and Kim Novak, both of whom are incapable of anything less than stunning performances, it really is impossible not to roll your eyes.
Then there's the makeup. Poor Kim Novak, buried under that mess of a face she wears when she shows up in the second half of the movie as a dead ringer for the dead girl. I mean, you can see her real eye brows drowning in the middle of the wide brown swaths of paint. She looks positively Ringling Brothers.
And then there's Herrmann's score. A fantastic, hypnotizing work that does its part to keep the audience riveted, but there aren't two minutes together not inundated with orchestra.
"Vertigo" hasn't lost much -- and even with these nagging, modern perspective fallacies it's still a thriller that any film buff should see on the big screen come hell or high water -- but don't see it expecting to be wowed. In 1996, some of its authenticity has faded, even if the film itself has been restored.