'Vertigo' raised eyebrows to dizzying heights Review: Novak's makeup mesmerizing, Stewart dark in vivid restoration.

November 01, 1996|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,SUN FILM CRITIC

Key question for our time now answered!

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Yes, folks, the answer you've been waiting for, and I'm proud to bring it to you. Where did the Nike Swoosh come from?

Go on, admit it. This one has bugged you! It has annoyed you! It's gotten under your skin!

Well, here's the answer. It came from Kim Novak's eyebrow in "Vertigo." No kidding. There it is, on the giant blond face on a giant screen: an 18-foot eyebrow almost exactly in the form of the Nike Swoosh.

Understand, we are not talking nature. Miss Novak's eyebrows did not naturally takethat configuration. No, we are talking some '50s weirdness that our heroic feminists have managed to finally stamp out (thank god for that!) where women were forced to shave their eyebrows and Nike Swooshes were drawn on their faces with grease pencils!

There's your Miss Kim Novak, movie star, big as a president carved on a mountainside, and there's her Swoosh-like eyebrow. She's blond! Her face is white! The eyebrow is black! It's grease pencil! It makes her look like Yeltsin just took a big handful of some lush Novak bulge and gave it a greedy, iron-gripped, sex-charged, Russian power squeeze!

Anyway, those historic eyebrows, along with the brilliant movie that happens to sustain them as one of its reasons for being, has been restored to the 1958 blush of newness and is now being blasted on the screen at the Senator: the eyebrow that launched a 100 million shoes.

As you can see, I could not tear my eyeballs from the cursed eyebrow. It has haunted my dreams, much in the way that Miss Novak haunted Jimmy Stewart's dreams in one of Hitchcock's cleverest artifices.

Now, on to the "film critic" part of the review.

At once Hitchcock's slickest yet darkest film, the movie is one of those devilishly clever, highly polished fables of intrigue, folly and hopelessness. At its center is the death of love, the pointlessness of romantic aspiration! Happy, happy! Its surprise, however, isn't really the "trick" ending, which it gives up too soon and too casually, but its star's willingness to follow the director's lead into complete ugliness. Stewart, of course, was one of the great American actors of his generation, the original gangling boy, then guy, next door. Nearly sexless, but exquisitely decent and honorable, he was an icon in '50s America, as well he deserved to be, a specialist in heroic biography. (He once played the entire FBI!) But in "Vertigo," it's no more Mr. Nice Guy: rigid, domineering, misogynistic, vile, totally committed to the idea of the woman as sexual object. He's Pygmalion as psychopath. But the joke is that even as he plays this game frighteningly, someone smarter is playing a subtler, meaner game on him.

Stewart doesn't hang back. His John "Scotty" Ferguson, retired detective, gets darker and darker. Hired by a sleek college chum (budget-basement Ronald Coleman look-alike Tom Helmore) to watch his suicidal aristocratic wife, Stewart falls desperately in love with the wife. But, suffering from the disease of the title, he cannot make it up a steeple stairway to save her from throwing herself off.

Destroyed psychologically, he simply wanders San Francisco. One day he spies a working-class shop girl with the right bone structure under her cheap makeup, picks her up with crude willfulness and literally sets out to re-create the first woman in the second. She whines but he bullies ahead. Hmmm, since both women are played by Novak, maybe he should have noticed something was up.

I saw this film some years back in an earlier re-release and found it unsettling, powerful, deeply disturbing, maybe Hitchcock's greatest. This time through, however, I couldn't quite get with the program. Maybe it's the special quality of the restoration, which is so soft and vibrant and immediate it makes you feel as if you just finished reading "I Call on Jimmy Stewart" by Pete Martin in the brand-new Saturday Evening Post. Maybe it's the pounding clarity of the newly mastered Bernard Herrmann score, which brutalizes you. Maybe it's the hugeness on that screen. But all those '50s tropes seemed pretty ridiculous. I kept thinking, get a load of that! Look at Jimmy Stewart's DeSoto! That mutt is soaked in chrome! The hood ornament isn't on the car, it is the car! Or his hat? He always puts on a hat! Jimmy, what, you think that makes you grown up? You led bombing missions in WWII: You are grown up!

Still, the '50s aside, anyone who doesn't feel the clammy bind of narrative power as Madeline heads up the stairs to dive to her own beloved doom as poor Scotty starts sweating artillery shells and his knees go shaky as Jell-O in a Force Five twister is probably not technically alive.

'Vertigo' (1958)

Stars Jimmy Stewart, Kim Novak

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

Released by Universal


Sun score: ****

Pub Date: 11/01/96

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