VERTIGO — WORTH THE DVD UPGRADE?

Published April 27, 2009

Any discussion regarding Alfred Hitchcock’s greatest films is going to include Vertigo. Is that 1958 film Hitch’s masterpiece? Some would say yes — others would say Psycho, or Rear Window, or North By Northwest, or … well, you get the idea. Rereleased last year on DVD as part of Universal’s Legacy Series, the 2-disc Special Edition of Vertigo is a shining upgrade for one of the most important films ever committed to celluloid.
Vertigo
Neurosis (not to mention psychosis) have long been part of The Master’s favorite plot devices (see Rope, Psycho, Marnie) — and Vertigo is perhaps the quintessential example. San Francisco Police Detective John “Scotty” Ferguson (James Stewart) hasn’t been the same since he almost fell to his death after a rooftop chase. Another officer, while trying to help him, did make that unfortunate plunge. Retired from the force, plagued with guilt, and crippled by a very bad case of acrophobia, Scotty now spends his days “wandering about.” When an old colleague asks Scotty to trail his wife, who seems to be haunted by (perhaps even possessed by) a dead woman, Scotty is reluctant … but when he finally sees “Madeleine” (Kim Novak) for himself, he is intrigued (perhaps even smitten). What ensues is one of the greatest mysteries of our time.

Never fully appreciated in its day, Vertigo had a slow build of appreciation as filmmakers, critics, and fans began to refer to it more and more often as on of Hitch’s most involving and suspenseful films. Great chunks of screentime go by without one word of dialogue, as Scotty trails Madeleine through museums, cemeteries and the San Francisco bay area. Bernard Hermann’s haunting score is one of his best. This is Hitchcock firing on all cylinders.

In the mid-nineties, Vertigo, in danger of being lost forever since the original negative was in such bad shape, was painstakingly restored, frame by frame, by Robert Harris and James Katz. It was rereleased to great acclaim (although some purists have taken exception to some of the sound changes made).

Previously released on DVD in 1998 (and again in 2005 as part of the 14-film Alfred Hitchcock Masterpiece Collection), Universal has recently given major upgrades to Vertigo, Rear Window, and Psycho as part of its Legacy Series. So … is it worth the double dip? While much of the bonus material is carried forward from the 1998 disc (I’ve been told the 2005 release was identical), this 2-disc special edition is a wonder to behold. The film is finally available in an anamorphic ratio which lets the viewer see the whole thing in all its gorgeous Technicolor/Vistavision glory — also available is the original 2.0 mono sound track (for those who thought Harris and Katz took too many liberties with their stereo mix).

Among the bonus features carried over are:

– audio commentary featuring Harris, Katz, and associate producer Herbert Coleman.
– Foreign censorship ending
– The Vertigo Archives (production drawings, storyboards, publicity photos, lobby cards, posters, etc …)
– Production Notes
– Original and restoration trailer
Obsessed with Vertigo: New Life for Hitchcock’s Masterpiece: The original documentary on the film’s legacy and restoration. The half-hour program was produced by American Movie Classics (obviously back in the days when that cable station still broadcast widescreen classics, and not the pan-and-scanned shite they offer today).

New bonus features include:

– Feature commentary with film director William Friedkin (Mr. Friedkin hardly takes a breath during his interesting commentary, even if he does sometimes state the obvious).

Partners in Crime: Hitchcock’s Collaborators — This hour-long doc is divided into four parts, regarding Saul Bass’s titles, Edith Head’s costumes, Bernard Hermann’s music, and Hitchcock’s wife, Alma Reville (who was indeed his most trusted collaborator). Informative and entertaining — very well done.

– Hitchcock/Truffaut Interview Excerpts (dealing specifically with Vertigo)

Alfred Hitchcock Presents: The Case of Mr. Pelham

So, again, is it worth the double dip? If you are a Hitchcock aficionado, absolutely. If you are a casual fan who is content with your old DVD, you’ll probably be fine without the upgrade. For newbies, I recommend this new 2-disc special edition most enthusiastically. In fact, I am almost jealous of those who will get to see this film for the first time in this format. A great DVD for a great film.

See my review of the Universal Legacy Series 2-disc Special Edition of Psycho (article includes much more, including reviews of all the Psycho sequels).

Coming soon: my review of Universal Legacy Series 2-disc Special Edition of Rear Window.