After a Million Dollars of Restoration, Vertigo Released on DVD
The first time I saw the haunting and beautiful Vertigo, its emotional impact left me numb for days. Since then, I have felt compelled to revisit the film again and again.
One of Hitchcock's favorite leading men, James Stewart, was chosen to portray John "Scottie" Ferguson, a former police detective forced to leave the department after his fear of heights led to the death of a fellow officer. His early retirement is abruptly halted when an old college acquaintance asks him to do a small job. Tom Helmore is Gavin Elster, the college chum who wants Scottie to trail his wife. Kim Novak portrays Elster's wife, Madeleine, who wanders San Francisco as though in a trance. She seems possessed by the spirit of her grandmother, who committed suicide when she was Madeleine's age.
As he tries to prevent Madeleine from becoming a victim of her grandmother's legacy, Scottie finds himself falling in love with this very beautiful, very troubled woman. Despite his best efforts, she falls to her death when his fear of heights and vertigo prevent him from reaching her in time. The blow of losing the woman he loves is devastating.
After a long recuperation, he encounters a woman who reminds him of his lost love. Unlike the sophisticated and icy-blond Madeleine, Judy Barton (Novak again) is a simple, red-headed salesgirl who hasn't quite kicked the Kansas dust from her heels. As Scottie spends more time with her, he can't shake his obsession with Madeleine and begins to remake Judy in her image. She loves Scottie enough to let him change her into a carbon copy of a dead woman, but she's hiding a dark secret that could lead them both to ruin.
Novak was never better than in her dual roles in Vertigo. Her many detractors incorrectly claim she was unable to create two separate personalities for the two women she portrays in the film. Yet Madeleine is always very cool, even when she's with Stewart's character, and Judy had an earthiness about her, even after Scottie transforms her into Madeleine's double. Also, Novak makes it heartbreaking to watch Judy resist Scottie's efforts to change her, hoping that she can make him love her just the way she is.
Universal Home Video's Collector's Edition DVD comes from the film restoration by Robert A. Harris and James C. Katz. After two years' work and over a million dollars spent, Vertigo was brought back from the brink of oblivion. The VistaVision elements were transferred to 65 mm, and the film's glorious Technicolor hues were restored as well as technology would allow. Vertigo looks quite good on DVD, but no one can restore the vivid chromatic palette of the lost IB Technicolor process.
Nevertheless, many sequences on the DVD are beautiful: The colors are intense, and the image has a level of clarity that I doubt anyone has seen since the film was originally released. The letterboxed transfer approximates a 1.85:1 theatrical aspect ratio, and it appears properly balanced with this framing. MPEG-2 compression artifacts are not easily detectable on this well-encoded disc.
Because the soundtrack was remixed from the original stereo recordings of Bernard Herrmann's musical score and includes newly recorded sound effects, many consider this to be a revisionist Vertigo. But necessity forced the restorers' hand, so I say just enjoy the new soundtrack, which allows audiences to appreciate one of Herrmann's best scores at a level of fidelity never before possible.
Much of Vertigo is dependent on the music to underscore the dreamlike quality of the visuals, so this incarnation of the film might be the only time the score has reached its full potential. Some of the newly recorded sound effects are admittedly overdone, but the Dolby Digital 5.1-channel soundtrack enhances Herrmann's music so much that the excesses are easily overlooked.
The DVD includes a documentary and an audio commentary featuring individuals involved with the production and restoration of Vertigo. Another intriguing supplement is the foreign-distribution ending. This alternate conclusion is new to American fans and something of a treat, but all you have to do is look at James Stewart's body posture in the last shot to know that the tacked-on foreign ending makes no sense. Stick to the classic version of this classic film.