A review requested by Matthew Blackwell, with thanks for contributing to the Second Quinquennial Antagony & Ecstasy ACS Fundraiser.

One doesn't get too many chances to write about the reigning Best Movie Ever Made, as 1958's Vertigo was anointed by the 2012 Sight & Sound critics' poll, the closest thing we have to the official definition of that title. And it's all the more daunting when one comes within a few notches of agreeing with that assessment. But we're all here now, so let's just dive right into the most complex film made by Alfred Hitchcock, one of the most terrifyingly gifted men to ever direct a movie.

Vertigo being the kind of film that plainly invites superlatives and hyperbole, let me give you some more of it: it is perhaps the single film in existence that most interestingly uses subjectivity. For it is a profoundly subjective movie, as it should be given its role in the auteur's career: this is closest that Hitchcock ever came to a personal confession of his sins on celluloid. Those sins being an obsession with blondes and a tyrannical disposition towards abusing them emotionally and, every so often, physically, in order to get them to be exactly what he demanded to make his movies as perfectly as possible (one of the cruelest of those abuses took place in the filming of this very movie: he forced lead actress Kim Novak to jump into the freezing San Francisco Bay for take after take, to no genuine purpose).

And it's not just that Vertigo is subjective; it uses that subjectivity to fuck with us. Which of course it would, being a Hitchcock picture - eight years earlier, he'd directed Stage Fright, a movie whose entire purpose in life was to smack the viewer around a little bit for daring to assume that movies always take place in the third person, and for much of the following decade, his films were all about finding ways to use the audience's expectations about how movies worked against us, causing us untold torments (this would, of course, culminate in his dauntingly modernist Psycho two years after Vertigo). Like a great many people, the first time I saw Vertigo, I was baffled by its odd decision to reveal its twist ending at the three-quarter mark, apparently robbing it of an entire act's worth of tricks and surprises (there are indications that Hitchcock himself had misgivings about including the reveal, and was overruled by producers). The director's famous image of a bomb exploding under a table in his interview with Franรงois Truffaut - shock is blowing up the bomb, suspense is showing the audience the bomb and then having people converse for ten minutes while they sit at the table - explains one reason for placing the reveal where it is, but it only leads to a deeper wrinkle. For the suspense we feel isn't on behalf of the protagonist we've been following for an hour and a half, but on the character hiding a secret from him, who has been totally deprived of any interiority for that same hour and a half. What's really unsettling about the Vertigo plot reveal isn't simply that it confounds our expectations for how thrillers should be structured, but that it spontaneously breaks the thread of absolute subjectivity that the film has, till that point, thrived on. From that point onward, in fact, Vertigo becomes a tug-of-war between two POVs, putting us inside the mind of the controlling erotically obsessed antihero while also letting us look at the dreadful impact of his obsession on the object of his desire. It's some of the most psychologically acute cinema I am aware of, and it's entirely situated within the realm of polished Hollywood genre fare. Not a bad trick.

But since there is a full three-quarters of a movie leading to that point, and not everybody has seen Vertigo, let me back up. The situation: Det. John "Scottie" Ferguson (James Stewart) has retired from the San Francisco police department following an unfortunate incident where a sudden flare-up of his previously unsuspected acrophobia leaves him incapacitated while another cop falls off a roof to his death. Looking to toss him some work, an old college friend, Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore) offers him a curious job: Gavin's wife Madeleine (Novak) has been wandering around town every day in an apparent trance, and Gavin is convinced that she's being possessed by a ghost. But he needs someone to track her movements before he can do anything to help her, either through parapsychological or psychiatric means. And so Scottie follows Madeleine, eventually discovering that she's grown obsessed with the portrait and legend of Carlotta Valdes, a woman who killed herself after her child was stolen away from her about a century prior. Scottie's urge to save Madeleine from the influence of the past quickly goes beyond professional courtesy; he's falling desperately in love with her, in fact, and it's doing a real number on his ability to do his job objectively.

It's a fine story - novelists Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac wrote their D'entre les morts primarily so that Hitchcock would be able to adapt it into a movie, after he lost the chance to make Les diaboliques to Henri-Georges Clouzot - but not in and of itself the stuff of Best Movie Ever Made territory. Really, what it is it but a paranormal riff on the film noir classic Laura? But on this fine, not tremendously unique story, Hitchcock and his immensely gifted crew hang some of the most portent visuals ever committed. Vertigo is, among other things, one of the cleverest color films ever made: the director, costume designer Edith Head, and art directors Henry Bumstead and Hal Pereira (with an enormous assist from cinematographer Robert Burks) rely on a controlled color palette to do a stunning amount of work for them. It's not as simple as color-coding the film, as Hitchcock would do six years later in Marnie (where, by all means, it works wonderfully). It's a much subtler way of using color in a relative way: what matters is not, inherently, that this scene is red and that scene is green, but that this scene is redder than the scene preceding it, that scene is greener. The film idles in a very plain, moderately saturated mode, with Scottie's world - especially the apartment of his best friend and solitary anchor, Midge Wood (Barbara Bel Geddes) - decked out in calm browns and greys, with the colors that show up having that soft, pastel look of '50s color film stock. But when he first encounters Madeleine, she drags in a whole range of aggressive colors: lush red walls bright blue sky, harsh pink flowers, vibrant blonde hair, shiny green cars, and the orange grandeur of the Golden Gate Bridge.

Color, in Vertigo is clearly linked to dream states, whether they're actual, literal dreams (Scottie's nightmare at the three-quarter mark is triggered by garish filters bathing the whole image in solid sheets of color), or simply the dazed state that following Madeleine for the first time puts him in. Their first encounter is one of Vertigo's signature gestures for a lot of reasons, in fact: besides representing only the second time (following the blue-soaked opening scene) that the film has boasted rich, vividly saturated colors, it also does away with dialogue for almost ten straight minutes, in favor of Bernard Herrmann's gorgeous score, circle round and round on the soundtrack. It's mesmerising and dreamy itself, the most subjective sequence in the whole enormously subjective feature, keying us in to Scottie's dazzled mind by means of deliberately leeching all the realism from the filmmaking and replacing it with intense, heightened style.

And yet, through all of this, Madeleine herself is the most emphatically grey thing in the movie, thanks to the suit that Head provided for her, on the logic that it boasted a particular shade of grey that no blonde woman would ever wear. I can't speak to that, but there's no denying that centering all of the lavish, luscious color around a woman in grey feels distinctly "off", and the way Novak wears the uniform stiffly, moving in studied, inorganic lines ends up serving as the best kind of foreshadowing, since it doesn't feel like foreshadowing - it's easy to read the color and movement as signs of Madeleine's mental detachment, since our understanding is connected to Scottie's limited, obsessed appreciation of her.

The first three-quarters of Vertigo do an extraordinary job of portraying that obsessive state through everything from Stewart's fearless performance - the most uncharacteristic of his career, full of sweat and dagger-like stares and feverish line deliveries - to its constantly limited camera angles to its unspoken emphasis on the titular state. The word "vertigo" is stated only once - acrophobia gives Scottie vertigo, and the vertigo is what makes hims cease to function, as he explains to Midge in the film's second scene - but a vertiginous state saturates the movie, right from its opening credits, with their iconic spiral shapes devised by John Whitney, Sr. Much of the aesthetic of Vertigo is centered on spirals, on going round and round in circles: Madeleine's characteristic whorl of hair, spiral staircases, the twists and turns and ups and downs of San Francisco itself. Herrmann's score keeps looping around into itself, presenting a swoony state that could be read as Romanticism - his music owes a clear debt to the "love and death" themes in Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, which the score openly quotes at points - but could just as easily identify the increasingly insular, mad mental state of the main character.

Everything that goes into making the first three-quarters of Vertigo such an excellent marriage of our perspective to that of the increasingly frazzled lead makes it that much more startling when it breaks from it: every time that Midge asserts herself and lets us see the inner life of the woman who could be all the stable, sane, pleasant things Scottie is willfully and needlessly rejecting (Bel Geddes is truly amazing with not much screentime, portraying a good friend and smart sparring partner who is aware of the hopelessness of her own erotic fixations and willing to give up on them when necessary, thus making her the healthy counterpoint to Scottie, while being an interesting character in her own right: her sadly upbeat reading of "I don't think Mozart's going to help at all", her final line, edges out Stewart's angry, self-lacerating "You shouldn't have been that sentimental" as my favorite line reading in the movie), for example, or of course when it enters its final quarter and becomes a totally different movie. There's an easy Vertigo to imagine, in which the blunt-talking brunette Judy Barton (Novak), with her clunky outfits and garish eyebrows, is just the accidental victim of Scottie's fixations, but the Vertigo we get is far more interesting, since it gives us a whole new film's worth of character details in Judy's relationship to her terrible, immoral behavior, and allows us a much more complex counterpoint to Scottie's descent into mad desire than the simply decent Midge. The enormous shift in focus precipitated by the unexpected twist pre-ending makes Vertigo not a film about one man going nuts from obsession; it makes it into a much more challenging, interesting film about different ways of being broken by desire, of trying to ignore one's mistakes or committing to them so fully that they no longer even register as behavior (Midge, who owns her mistakes, is indifferently ushered out of the movie - there's no room for decent people in Vertigo's final half-hour).

In short, there is a Vertigo that's a great psychological thriller about obsession, and for the most part, that's how we like to talk about the Vertigo that exists. But really, Vertigo is more complicated and slippery than that, demanding far more of us as viewers than any other Hitchcock film, more than any other Hollywood film broadly located in the realm of genre. This is, undoubtedly, why it limped through the box office in 1958 while receiving detached, unhappy reviews. He is a great and endlessly important filmmaker, but Hitchcock was still primarily an entertainer; Vertigo is less of a simple entertainment than anything else he directed. That's not the reason it's also his best film, but it's only because he was willing to do something challenging and upsetting that he could reach the depth and subtlety which does make Vertigo a masterpiece among masterpieces.