V ertigo was filmed in 1957 on location in Northern California and on the stages at Paramount Studios. Those who were on the set recall that Hitchcock's famous attention to detail was heightened more than ever on this film. The color, the visuals, the performances - everything had to be absolutely perfect.
Kim Novak recalls the director employing a metronome "to try to get the right rhythms for certain scenes, like going up the spiral staircase, to get that staccato feel. And it had to be exactly so."
Screenwriter Samuel Taylor later said, "Hitchcock knew exactly what he wanted to do with this film, exactly what he wanted to say, and how it should be seen and told ... and anyone who saw him during the making of the film could see, as I did, that he felt it very deeply indeed."
The reasons why Vertigo touched Hitchcock so deeply have been debated in endless books and articles, but there is no doubt that the themes of the film - the fallibility of romantic love, the power of transforming reality into make believe, the temptation of molding women into unattainable beauties, the parallel fear of and attraction to dark impulses, the paralyzing effects of moral ambiguity - were all near and dear to Hitchcock's psyche.
Whatever it was, something in Vertigo spurred him to the heights of inventiveness. The film established many of the hallmarks audiences have come to expect in the suspense thriller. For starters, Hitchcock chose, in a move that was revolutionary for its time, to reveal the shocking dramatic twist involving Madeleine and Judy to the audience before the final act. His choice broke every known dramatic rule - yet it worked and set a precedent for what Hitchcock called "creating suspense not surprise." In today's most exciting features, the audience almost always knows who the bad guy is before the hero does.
Vertigo also revealed that innovative use of visual effects could set the audience so much on edge they would feel the film, not just watch it. For many film fans, the shot of Scottie gazing into the depths below is among the most skillful and gripping ever seen. By zooming in and tracking out simultaneously, a move Hitchcock himself invented , he dares moviegoers to try to keep their equilibrium as they move back and forth between anticipating a fall and fearing it.
Later, when Scottie finally kisses Judy, the couple appear to fade back into the stables where Scottie first kissed Madeleine. Here, Hitchcock put his actors on a turntable and performed a 360-degree tracking movement with the camera. The effect is to give the audience the sudden terror that even they don't quite have a grip on where reality stops and illusion begins.
Today, the most popular action and suspense films continue to rely on tricky camera work almost as much as plot and performance to keep the audience on the edges of their seats.
In addition to the superlative performances, Vertigo offered the world one of the most emotionally affecting musical scores ever written for the screen, a score that would reveal how music can get to the very innermost source of anxiety and emotion in suspense and psychological thrillers.
Hitchcock left the score almost entirely in the hands of one of his favorite collaborators, Bernard Herrmann, who also wrote the score for Citizen Kane as well as most of Hitchcock's later films, including North by Northwest and Psycho . (Later, Herrmann was to score Brian DePalma's Obsession , widely regarded as the contemporary director's homage to Vertigo .) In fact, Hitchcock so trusted Herrmann's musical instincts that in his meticulous sound notes he follows his description of the opening rooftop chase with the addendum "all of this will naturally depend upon what music Mr. Herrmann puts over the sequence."
Despite working on his own, Herrmann seemed to know exactly where Hitchcock was going with the film. While Hitchcock's visuals revealed swirling graphics and spiraling patterns, Herrmann's score churns with the crescendoing strings of anxiety and the sustained chords of desire. The score features strains of Wagner, Mozart, and an Andalusian fandango, but the overwhelming result is a sweeping dreaminess and longing.
When Scottie looks down with paralyzing terror as he hangs from the rooftop, his frenzied disorientation is echoed by the glissandos of harps. As he follows the bewitching Madeleine, Herrmann heightens the atmosphere of mystery and sadness with high-range violins and deep bass clarinets.
Perhaps the score's most memorable moment comes when Scotty first embraces Judy and is transported in his head into the dead Madeleine's arms. Hitchcock decided to shoot the scene -- all five minutes of it -- without dialogue. "It will be just the camera and you," he told Herrmann. Herrmann came through with his insatiably passionate love theme, which harks back to Wagner's Liebestod from "Tristan und Isolde" as it soars from uncertainty to ecstasy.