As with many masterpieces, Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo yielded a mostly lukewarm reaction upon its May 1958 release. Variety dismissed it as "basically only a psychological murder mystery." In 1973, Hitchcock took the film out of circulation; his estate did not re-distribute it until a decade later, around the same time it finally entered Sight & Sound's 10-best-films-of-all-time list. Two years ago, it knocked Citizen Kane from the top slot.
The new 4K restoration of Vertigo removes some of the 1996 restoration's cheesiest blunders (an overkill of seagull cries in the San Francisco Bay scenes, for instance). The color scheme -- the eerie cornflower hue of the dawn sky in the riveting rooftop chase, the funereal grays and browns of the perpetually haunted James Stewart's suits -- is rendered more piercing.
But what still makes Vertigo so remarkable isn't just its frequently copied visual trickery -- most notably, the dolly zoom shot, closing up on an object while pulling away from it, to underscore the acrophobia plaguing Stewart's ex-detective. It's the dramatization of Hitchcock's obsession with San Francisco as a phobic's nightmare, with its craggy, steep streets and winding highways. Stewart's sad, stooped aura -- his anguished, tongue-wagging face looks too small on his long-legged frame -- and his begging blue eyes make you forgive the torment and even sadism he inflicts upon the blonde, then brunette, and then blonde again Kim Novak. Vertigo -- not Hitchcock's most suspenseful work but certainly his most tragic -- remains a parable on not playing God: with the past, with your lover, or even your own impotence.