By the 1950s Alfred Hitchcock’s reputation as ‘Master of Suspense’ was based on a large body of work produced in both the UK and the US, stretching back to the early 1920s. His films were popular with both critics and the general public alike and his iconic public persona was unique for a film director. However, as the decade progressed his work became more complex; often thematically darker, featuring confusing narratives and flawed protagonists.
In 1958 Vertigo was released to mixed reviews and box office indifference, alongside complaints that the narrative was too long and complicated. Despite the initial disappointing reaction the film was critically reappraised in the 1960s by the French critics of the Cahier du Cinema and it went on to become widely regarded as Hitchcock’s masterpiece (Hitchcock himself regarded it as his best work ).
On the surface the film is a complex mystery-suspense about an acrophobic retired policeman (James Stewart) who whilst being deceived into acting as an accomplice in a murder, falls in love with a mysterious woman (Kim Novak) and on discovering the hoax, unravels the threads of the murder plot. On a psychological level the film perversely traces a man’s obsession with a dead woman which leads him to an attempt to craft a woman in her image. With strong hints of psychosis and necrophilia, Vertigo is a film that ties together Hitchcock’s thematic obsessions between sex and death. So why has the BBFC rated the film PG on DVD?
On the film’s 1958 release the BBFC passed the film uncut at the A category, regarded as an ‘adult’ category, but one which allowed minors to be accompanied by an adult with the caution that the content may be unsuitable for the very young. Although no BBFC records exist that relate to this decision, it is likely that it was felt that despite the film’s perverse themes, there was little on the screen to warrant raising the category up to an X - an adult only category usually reserved for horror films and works that included scenes of sexual nature.
On the film’s cinema re-release in 1983 and home video release in 1984, Vertigo was awarded a PG certificate; a decision which can be broadly compared with the original 1958 A classification.
The BBFC examiners argued that whilst some of the themes of the movie may be darkly morbid they are communicated to the audience through subtle cinematic conventions that would not be fully understood by a young audience. The on-screen detail – two scenes of implied suicide and sexual references – were clear PG moments (as opposed to being acceptable under BBFC Guidelines at U) and it was noted that there was an absence of “nasty, violent and sadistic scenes”.
However, one examiner did comment that if the film was being submitted for the first time, hours may have been spent probing the Freudian undertones of the work and the vaguely 'kinky' implications of dressing up a woman to resemble a dead person in order to achieve sexual stimulation. It was commented that such ponderings may have resulted in a 15 decision – a category that did not exist in 1958. It is worth noting that in 1983 the 12 category was yet to be introduced and if it had been, it may have provided a compromise between the two categories.
Since 1983 the film has been released five more times on video and DVD – each time resulting in a PG classification. The last DVD release was in 2005 and was classified under the current BBFC PG Guidelines, which state that ‘a PG film should not disturb a child aged around eight or older. However, parents are advised to consider whether the content may upset younger or more sensitive children’. This consistent classification decision can be seen as a testament to the genius of Hitchcock in his ability to visually convey adult themes within the enforced restraints of the period.