It's a long way up, but the view's fantastic

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A contempibly foolish plot; a dawdling pace of exposition (Francois Truffaut charitably called it "contemplative") that will irritate and bore anyone who reasonably expects a breathless, headlong drive from their thrillers; a major twist that is carelessly chucked away about half an hour before the end; at least one disastrous piece of casting (the hero looks a good two decades older than his confidante, supposedly a contemporary from college days); a primitive, semi-animated dream sequence which often provokes titters; a grand finale that is grindingly sadistic if you buy it and plain hokey if you don't. No wonder audiences didn't greatly take to Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo (PG) on first release in 1958. Yet it has, as you probably know, a substantial claim to the title of Greatest Film Ever Made.

In strictest confidence, I'm not sure that it's even the greatest film Alfred Hitchcock ever made. (For one thing it doesn't, unlike Notorious or North by Northwest or Suspicion, star Cary Grant). Still, it's far and away the greatest film to be released this week, in a lovely restoration - by the same team who brought Lawrence of Arabia back from the vaults - that lets you enjoy the highly-wrought luminosity and woozy hazes of its Technicolor: "glorious" is the mot juste. Four decades on, any dolt can gorge on its pictorial delights; and most dolts, including this writer, can now see plainly at least one thing that was invisible to the itchy-bottomed viewers of 1958. For all its manifest silliness, the film aches and groans with passions that are more adult and more perverse than popular entertainment can generally accommodate, and it has two of the most sublimely agonised and - ineluctable adjective - haunting performances yet registered on celluloid: James Stewart is the He, Kim Novak the She.

That silly plot in full: Stewart plays Scottie, an ageing, indeed aged, bachelor (the actor was 50 when the film was shot) forced to resign from the San Francisco police force after a nasty incident during a rooftop chase, straight after the Saul Bass credits, leaves him with a disabling fear of heights. At a loose end, Scottie is hired by an old friend who's worried about the distracted behaviour of his witchily pretty wife Madeleine (Miss Novak). She seems to believe herself the reincarnation of a 19th- century ancestor who committed suicide at the age of 26. Since Madeleine (is her name - in a film preoccupied with the tyranny of memory - a doff of the hat to Proust?) is now 26 herself, and in the habit of absent-mindedly throwing herself into the ocean, Scottie has to move sharpish if he wants to break her obsession before she breaks her neck.

But obsession of a different kind sets in: Scottie and Madeleine fall in love. Their idyll is sweet, unconsummated and cruelly cut short when she races to the top of a bell-tower and, while Scottie sweats and quivers in phobic terror halfway up the stairs, jumps to her death. Then things get really odd. (Readers who plan to see the film for the first time and hate knowing that Hamlet dies in Act V should now skip ahead to the paragraph about The Spiral Staircase.) Scottie goes to pieces, suffers rather picturesque night visions, and only begins to pull himself together when he meets Judy, a sassy Kansas broad who looks eerily similar to the refined Madeleine, and ever more so as he starts to bully her into a morbid makeover, featuring a figure- hugging grey suit and a major peroxide job. (This bit kept feminist critics busy typing away for hours back in the Seventies). All seems well, until an accidental clue makes Scottie tumble to something the audience has already been told: Judy is Madeleine, and Scottie is a stooge. Happy ending? Sorry.

What's it all about, Alfred? So much has been written on the subject, and indeed filmed - one of the best "essays" on Vertigo appears in Chris Marker's documentary Sans Soleil - that reviewing its themes this late in the century feels like being the medium for ancestral voices. Among other things, it's about the everyday insanity we dignify with the name of romantic love, and its frightening proximity to more disreputable forms of madness. One twigs quite early on that the "vertigo" of the title does not really refer to acrophobia. It's about memory and desire (hmm, nice phrase; must use it in a poem), necrophilia and fetishism, mourning and melancholia, and other well-loved double acts, the best of which is Stewart and Novak. Forced to single out one aspect of the film which is wonderful beyond reasonable dispute, I'd opt for the self-torturing agony of his face and the impossible, defeated beauty of hers.

Watching it for the nth time, though, and particularly on a full-size screen, you soon find that your I-Spy Book of Motifs falls from fingers as the old spell takes hold. For, yes, the pioneering critics were right - Vertigo is indeed a self-reflexive film about the fascination of cinema, and Scottie's fixation on Madeleine does enact the viewer's fixation on the moving image. One reason why the tacky dream sequence jars is that the whole film is much like an extended dream sequence, especially in the long, almost dialogue-free scenes in which Scottie trails Madeleine in her somnambulistic pilgrimages around the Bay area to Bernard Hermann's yearning score. And, like a dream, it leaves you with a handful of images that are even harder to forget than to explain.

The second re-release of the week, Robert Siodmak's Old Dark House chiller The Spiral Staircase (PG) of 1945, can't help but look a shade slight in comparison, for all the grimness of its gimmick - a serial killer who, Nazi-style, wants to wipe out anyone who doesn't match his ideals of bodily perfection - or, come to that, its occasional points of similarity to Vertigo: the heroine (Dorothy McGuire) has lost her voice after an emotional trauma, and is thus, like Scottie, rendered impotent at a key point in the action. It's jaunty and spooky enough, however, and may well be the fons et origo of that little killer-on-the-loose convention in which a doomed sap wheels around in terror, sighs with relief, says (to an unseen figure), "Why, it's you, you startled me", and then gets it in the neck. Perhaps the best of all variations on this theme can be found in The Man With Two Brains.

The third re-release of the week, Return of the Jedi (U), begins with one of the most delicious digressions of the Star Wars trilogy - that set in the HQ of the vile gangster Jabba the Hutt who, flanked by all manner of intergalactic monsters, gribleys and disco-dancers, memorably salutes a newcomer as "my kind of scum - fearless and inventive". With Jabba duly blown up about 20 minutes in, everything starts to go pear- shaped, and though the Emperor (Ian McDiarmid) is jolly scary, and the final face-off between Luke and his old man Darth has its moments, all that stuff about small furry animals saving the universe appears more wearisome and pointlessly protracted than ever. The late Richard Marquand, who directed, didn't find the trick of making this old rope rise. No buff in such matters, I could only spot one new sequence in the improved edition: a costly-looking montage of victory celebrations across all the cities of the saga, which is at least a slight improvement on the woodland rave on the moon of Endor.

John Schlesinger's version of Stella Gibbons' reliable old cart-horse Cold Comfort Farm (PG) began life on telly a couple of Christmases ago, and has been given an unpremeditated theatrical airing thanks to its hearty reception at the American box-office. More diverting than outright funny, it has the calm virtues of Schlesinger's best television work, and some quietly enjoyable acting from ... well, just about the whole cast, really, so let's hand out some random sprigs of laurel to Ian McKellen, initially unrecognisable as the fuzz-faced, brimstone-crazed preacher dad, Rufus Sewell as the hyper-sexed Seth, and the engaging Kate Beckinsale as Gibbons' heroine Flora Poste.

Only one film qualifies in the strictest sense as a new release, and it is so feeble you wonder why anyone thought it worth printing posters and so on. Whoopi Goldberg plays Eddie (12), a mouthy basketball fan given the chance to coach her favourite team. They have rows, then they get better, then they win everything, then you can go home. I was so bored that I tried to find some parallel with Vertigo, and actually came up with one; just as Scottie's best female pal Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes) is rather churlishly dropped by the narrative a couple of reels before the end, so Eddie's bosom buddy is denied any narrative resolution. Sidekicks have rights too, you know.

Cinema details: Going Out, page 15.

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