Though it was a box office dud upon its release, in the 57 years since its premiere, Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo has slowly become one of the director’s most revered films. (In 2012, it even managed to snag the title of Greatest Film of All Time from Citizen Kane, which had boasted the accolade for more than 50 years.)
Starring Jimmy Stewart and Kim Novak, the thriller tells the story of an injured cop (Stewart) suffering extreme acrophobia who’s hired by an acquaintance to investigate his distant wife (Novak). What ensues is a twisted tale of death and romantic delusion that would make any on-the-fence Hitchcock fan a true believer. If that’s you, let us feed your frenzy: here are a few things you might not know about Vertigo.
1. ALFRED HITCHCOCK BLAMED JIMMY STEWART FOR VERTIGO’S FAILURE.
Marred by mixed reviews, the $2.5 million Vertigo did comparatively less than Hitchcock’s previous movies, and was widely recognized as a failure. Frustrated with its reception, Hitchcock partly blamed star Jimmy Stewart’s aging appearance. At the time of filming, Stewart—who had starred in Hitchcock’s three previous films—was 50 years old which, according to the director, was too old to convincingly play then-25-year-old Kim Novak’s love interest.
2. EDITH HEAD USED COLOR TO HIGHLIGHT THE CHARACTERS’ STATE OF MIND.
When having costume disagreements with Kim Novak about her famous gray suit, Head “explained to her that Hitch paints a picture in his films, that color is as important to him as any artist,” the costume designer says in Vertigo: The Making of a Hitchcock Classic. After a discussion with the director when Head wouldn’t relent, Novak finally understood their creative choices, telling The Telegraph, “I thought, ‘He knows my point of view, he must see a reason why that would work. He wants me to feel that discomfort as Madeleine. And, of course, she should feel that way because she’s actually Judy, playing the part of somebody, so that edge of discomfort will help me.’”
3. KIM NOVAK WAS ALREADY BEING CONSIDERED TO REPLACE VERA MILES, HITCHCOCK’S FIRST-CHOICE LEADING LADY, BEFORE MILES DROPPED OUT DUE TO A PREGNANCY.
According to Vertigo: The Making of a Hitchcock Classic, Hitchcock began to have doubts about Miles’s ability to be a breakout star when she showed signs of reluctance to be shaped by the director. Thus, Hitchcock sought a possible substitute. Author Dan Aulier writes, “A few weeks before Miles reported to Stage 5 at Paramount for hair, costume, and makeup tests, Hitchcock screened The Eddy Duchin Story, a biopic featuring an actress [Kim Novak] who was being molded by one of Hitchcock's crosstown rivals [Harry Cohn].”
4. HITCHCOCK EXPLORED NECROPHILIA WHILE SHOOTING THE FILM.
In a series of 1962 interviews between Hitchcock and Truffaut, restored by director Kent Jones for his 2015 documentary Hitchcock/Truffaut, Hitchcock elaborated on the most perverse scene of Vertigo: the part in which Novak’s Judy dresses up as the dead woman with whom Stewart’s Scottie is obsessed. “I indulged in a form of necrophilia,” said Hitchcock. In the scene, Scottie can’t bring himself to have sex with Judy until every detail matches his former lover, Madeleine.
5. AN UNCREDITED CAMERAMAN CAME UP WITH THE FAMOUS "VERTIGO EFFECT."
According to associate producer Herbert Coleman, it wasn’t Hitchcock who came up with the film’s famous camera technique (which essentially involves zooming forward while pulling the camera backward); rather, it was an uncredited second unit cameraman, Irwin Roberts. “He didn’t get screen credit on Vertigo because they gave the screen credit to another close friend of ours [Wallace Kelley] who did all the process work on the stage,” Coleman said.
6. THE PRODUCTION CODE ADMINISTRATION POLICED THE MORALS OF THE FILM’S CHARACTERS.
Considering this was the 1950s, any kind of sexual activity was scrutinized. According to Auiler’s book on the making of Vertigo, the Production Code Administration, under the leadership of Geoffrey Shurlock, wanted to eliminate several scenes that contained illicit sex. This included, but was not limited to, discussions between Scottie and Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes) about her bra and her love life, and any underwear pictured during Madeleine’s suicide attempt.
7. THE FILM WENT THROUGH SEVERAL TITLE OPTIONS.
While the source novel’s literal translation was From Among the Dead, which is the title under which the film was cast and shot, it didn’t stick. According to Auiler, a few Paramount execs weighed in with their suggestions, which included A Matter of Fact, The Mad Carlotta, Face in the Shadow, and Possessed by a Stranger. As a title for the first draft of the script, original writer Maxwell Anderson submitted Darkling I Listen.
8. A MUSICIANS GUILD STRIKE AFFECTED THE FINAL CUT.
In 1958, the same year Vertigo was in post-production, Hollywood's musical status quo changed drastically. Studios were dissolving their in-house music departments, so the industry’s composers, orchestra members, and musicians had to start working freelance or were out of jobs. According to a 1996 interview with Hitchcock’s daughter, Patricia, the union had a lot of things working against them: a leader who didn't look out for them, Hollywood using cheaper old recordings from Europe, and a tense intra-union split amongst members.
“Bernard Herrmann didn’t conduct himself,” said Patricia. “It couldn’t be done in Hollywood, so it was taken to London with Muir Mathieson conducting, and they did about a day and a half there, then the London orchestra went out in sympathy with the Los Angeles musicians. And the entire unit had to move to Vienna.” During the film’s restoration in the 1990s, each country’s recording ultimately aged differently, leaving the folks at Universal to remaster its sound.
9. ALFRED HITCHCOCK CHANGED THE SETTING FROM PARIS TO SAN FRANCISCO.
The French source novel, D'entre les Morts, was set in Paris, but Hitchcock believed that San Francisco was more interesting. As noted by Auiler, with the city's vertiginous streets and hilly landscape, the location perfectly matched the film’s themes. In a city where there were such extreme physical highs and lows, awful for anyone with acrophobia, Scottie’s vertigo became a character in and of itself.
10. THE INFAMOUS BELL TOWER HAD TO BE RECONSTRUCTED BECAUSE THE ORIGINAL ONE WAS IN RUINS.
The iconic scene where Madeleine falls from the tower was filmed at Mission San Juan Bautista, which was a Spanish mission in California. It was associate producer Herbert Coleman’s daughter who suggested the beautiful bell tower. However, the steeple, which was added after the original construction of the mission, had burned down in a fire.
According to Auiler, Hitchcock had no choice but to add a bell tower using scale models, matte paintings, and trick photography, all within the Paramount studio lot in Los Angeles. The real tower was smaller than the film's version, and the staircase was also built inside a studio, where Hitchcock preferred to film. He shot only what was necessary on location, then recreated things in the studio so that he could totally control the environment.
11. DESPITE HITCHCOCK’S TASKMASTER REPUTATION, KIM NOVAK GOT ALONG WITH HER DIRECTOR.
Happy to be on loan from Columbia, the Harry Cohn-run studio under which Novak was contracted, Novak reveled in her experience with Hitchcock. “I didn’t find him controlling whatsoever,” she told The Telegraph. “I found him a joy.” In a 2003 interview with MacGuffin, she elaborated saying, “[Hitchcock] didn’t make me feel ‘less than.’ He never said, ‘You’re not doing it right…’ What I would do after a take is to look in Jimmy Stewart’s eyes … I used Jimmy to give me what I needed to keep going and to know that I was on the right path with it … So, Hitchcock wouldn’t say anything about my work in the movie but, on the other hand, he wouldn’t complain, either.”