The ‘Greatest Film of All Time’ Explained

vertigo2by Jon N. Hall12/20/16
(WARNING: here lie embedded videos.)  •  The first movie that I ever really studied is now regarded by some film critics as the “greatest film of all time.” I discovered it in the mid-1980s after reading a review by James Loutzenhiser, a Kansas City psychiatrist who moonlighted as a movie critic. The review was intriguing enough that I drove out to Watts Mill to screen the thing at the dollar cinema. And there, in that darkened low-rent little theatre began my long and unwholesome fixation with Madeleine Elster.

With that first screening, I knew I had found something special. And soon after, the film ran on cable, so I taped it. That allowed me to screen it over and over again, until deep engrams were burnt into my young brain, leaving it permanently etched with the director’s dark obsessions.

Mostly I watched my find on the weekends. I’d settle on a chilled libation and then settle in to watch my contraband VHS tape. But viewing was not always orderly, as sometimes I’d fast-forward to certain scenes that are emotionally powerful for me; scenes of “high sentiment.”

Let’s cut the suspense: the film is Alfred Hitchcock’s 1958 masterpiece Vertigo. Although Vertigo is classified as a thriller, it has elements from other genres, too. There’s a bit of crime, mystery, and even the supernatural. But what Vertigo really is, in my estimation, is a love story.

Sounds like a chick flick, right? But I’m not sure if chicks can really understand Vertigo and its protagonist’s psyche. The heart of Vertigo is the obsession that one “Scottie” Ferguson has for the aforementioned Madeleine, and how, after he loses her, he tries to transform another woman, Judy, into Madeleine. Vertigo is about a man’s obsession with a particular “look.” Although feminine allure can come in all manner of packages, our hero will settle for only one. His dilemma is summed up by the lady at Ransohoff’s helping Scottie to find for Judy the exact grey suit that Madeleine wore: “You certainly do know what you want, sir.”

Vertigo did not do very well at the box office in 1958. And for a while it was unavailable in America and regarded as a “lost film.” But in 1982, not long before I saw it at Watts Mill, Vertigo made the Critic’s Top Ten Poll. I refer to the poll to determine the greatest films of all time conducted every ten years since 1952 by Sight & Sound magazine. I was unaware of this when I began my repeated viewing of the film, which was probably a good thing. In any event, my taste in cinema was vindicated in 2012, when Vertigo ascended to the top of the list.

To really appreciate Vertigo, I contend that the viewer must be emotionally strung together in a particular way. Some may just not appreciate the film because the story is rather farfetched and implausible. In fact, Hitchcock was aware of this when he spoke of the “hole in the story,” which I learned of in the excellent documentary Hitchcock/Truffaut (2015) by director Kent Jones. I screened this fascinating film on HBO, which, if you’ve subscribed, you can watch on your computer with HBO GO. It’s also available in DVD and Blu-ray.

Regardless of what one thinks of Hitchcock, true cineastes will love Jones’s film. Having started in the Silent Era, Sir Alfred understood the impact of images better than directors who started after the talkies were introduced. The images from his early career in Britain can be startling, such as the clip of the kidnapping scene in the 1934 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much, which presaged Cocteau.

Jones’s documentary is based in part on the 1966 book by François Truffaut with the very same title, which is still available in revised form with the new title Hitchcock. One can also survey some of the book at Google Books. Truffaut’s book, which became something of a bible for filmmakers, is about an interview he conducted with Hitch. Jones’s documentary contains clips of the filming of that interview as well as clips of his own interviews of today’s movie directors about what they think of the Master of Suspense.

With the possible exception of Psycho, Jones spends more time on Vertigo than any of Hitch’s other films. I’ll let you discover what Jones’s interviewees had to say, but allow me to quote one, director James Gray: “I think Kim Novak coming out of the bathroom is the single greatest moment in the history of movies.”

That’s bold talk for a four-eyed movie director. But what, pray, makes Vertigo so great? None of the auteurs Jones interviews fully answers that question, but I’m gonna show you.

“The Gentleman Seems to Know What He Wants”

When my “thing” for Vertigo really got going, I shared my passion for it with my friends. Feeling expansive one day at work, I announced to my workmate in the cubicle next to mine that Vertigo is really an opera. Of course, it’s not really an opera, as it’s not sung. But, like opera, the flick has a powerful score. In fact, the score operates like Wagner: throughout the film we hear leitmotifs, short themes called “cells,” that recur over and over but with subtle variations.

Due to the good graces of YouTube, I can demonstrate some of what makes Vertigo so great. I’ll use James Conlon’s 1999 recording, as it has of all the original music from the movie, which the 1958 soundtrack does not. I’ve never read Bernard Herrmann’s score, and don’t know what, if anything, he called his motifs, but go to Wikipedia for the breakdown of the music “cues,” as well as to get info on the recordings.

Let’s look at the central motif, what we’ll call the “Love Theme,” and notice how Mr. Herrmann varies it and builds upon it. This little exercise consists of eight videos, and to save time I’ve positioned them to start at the exact moments when the Love Theme emerges. Four of the variations last fewer than 30 seconds each and those videos will stop by themselves. (Be sure each video has stopped playing before clicking on the next one. To stop it playing, simply click in the middle of a video’s screen.) The other variations last for minutes, and in them Herrmann develops the Love Theme about as much as possible, wringing every last drop of sentiment and meaning out of it.

The first time we hear the Love Theme is when Madeleine drives her Jaguar out to the redwoods at Muir Woods, Scottie’s in the passenger seat. Oddly, the original soundtrack doesn’t have this important passage. It’s called “The Outing,” and do notice its serenity.

We next hear the Love Theme in “3 A.M.” In this variation the motif is wistful, plaintive. It accompanies a night shot of San Francisco’s Union Square where Scottie, unable to sleep, is walking. When the theme ends we see Scottie back at his apartment asleep on his sofa still dressed in his street clothes. The doorbell rings and Scottie awakens. It’s Madeleine and she’s just remembered more of her disturbing dream. Scottie is familiar with what she describes; it’s the old Spanish mission in San Juan Bautista.

Later that day our pair takes Madeleine’s Jag to the mission, where things go tragically wrong. The Love Theme here is varied by lengthening the first three notes, especially the first note. I believe this is important because it “grounds” the motif, making it more heartfelt. This is fitting as it accompanies the moment when Scottie first confesses his love for Madeleine, perhaps the most romantic moment in the movie. The scene is called “Farewell.”

So Scottie has lost his love, and is suffering. The next iteration of the Love Theme is at the beginning of “The Nightmare.” Notice how sad the motif has become as Scottie visits Madeleine’s grave. The video will stop before we get into the actual nightmare.



“The Hair Color” variation accompanies one of the most emotionally riveting scenes in the movie. Scottie has just bought new clothes for Judy at Ransohoff’s. But Judy is upset that Scottie is trying to remake her into Madeleine. Rather than using the Conlon recording, let’s view the scene from the movie. The scene has no music until just before Scottie says “the color of your hair.” The insertion of the Love Theme at this exact moment is masterful.

Performed in concert halls as a stand-alone excerpt, the famous “Scene D’Amour” is the penultimate appearance of the Love Theme. It’s the scene that includes the moment that director James Gray thinks is “the greatest moment in the history of movies.” It’s when Judy has been transformed into Madeleine and Scottie once again embraces his lost love. This climax might put one in mind of Wagner, perhaps Tristan. But the part of the “Scene D’Amour” that is the most powerful for me is its very beginning, when Scottie waits for Judy to return from the beauty salon; we hear the Love Theme in its most tender and intimate rendering.

In “Finale” we get the final iteration of the Love Theme. Scottie is now aware of the fraud committed against him, and has dragged Judy to the top of the mission bell tower to confront her. But a nun enters the scene, scaring Judy who falls to her death. The movie ends with Scottie standing on the sheer parapet from which Judy has just fallen, as fortissimo French horns cruelly repeat the Love Theme. Though cured of his vertigo, Scottie has lost his idealized dream of love for a second time.

If these examples of the movie’s main musical motif don’t “do it” for you, as Judy might put it, then I doubt that Vertigo is the movie for you. But if you are moved, know that there are several other powerful motifs in the film, and like the Love Theme, these other motifs recur. There is one bit of music, though, that appears only once in the body of the movie itself, but which we hear in the first three or four seconds of the film and during the opening credits that follow. These simple arpeggios tell us what the film is really about. Your assignment, should you choose to accept it, is to find the one scene where we hear this simple music. To help you in that task, here’s the 1999 recording by James Conlon, complete with playlist.

Despite Hitchcock’s genius, Vertigo wouldn’t work without Bernard Herrmann’s wonderful music; the implausible storyline would be just too off-putting. But with the score, the story recedes in importance and the movie lover can luxuriate in the fusion of two art forms, the visual and the musical. Without Bernard Herrmann’s great score, Vertigo would not be “the greatest film of all time.”

Jon N. Hall is a programmer/analyst from Kansas City. • (819 views)

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2 Responses to The ‘Greatest Film of All Time’ Explained

  1. Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

    The way you describe it, “Vertigo” is something of a “Gesamtkunstwerk” ala Richard Wagner.

  2. Timothy Lane says:

    Generally, the Jimmy Stewart movies are my favorite Hitchcocks, though I enjoy many others a lot too. My favorite is probably The Man Who Knew Too Much (I also like the original version), with Rope and Rear Window (in no particular order) right behind. Of course, I see them purely as movies, not as musical performances. In Vertigo, I’m particularly interested in Ferguson’s relationship with the character played by Barbara Bel Geddes (which may reflect some of my own history).

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