Vertigo premiered in San Francisco on May 9, 1958 at the Stage Door Theater at Mason and Geary (now the Ruby Skye nightclub). While Vertigo did break even upon its original release, earning $2.8 million in gross rental in the United States alone against its $2,479,000 cost, it earned significantly less than other Hitchcock productions. Reviews were mixed. Variety said the film showed Hitchcock's "mastery", but was too long and slow for "what is basically only a psychological murder mystery". Similarly, the Los Angeles Times admired the scenery, but found the plot "too long" and felt it "bogs down" in "a maze of detail"; scholar Dan Auiler says that this review "sounded the tone that most popular critics would take with the film". However, the Los Angeles Examiner loved it, admiring the "excitement, action, romance, glamor and [the] crazy, off-beat love story". As well, New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther also gave Vertigo a positive review by explaining that "[the] secret [of the film] is so clever, even though it is devilishly far-fetched."
Additional reasons for the mixed response initially were that Hitchcock fans were not pleased with his departure from the romantic-thriller territory of earlier films and that the mystery was solved with one-third of the film left to go. Orson Welles disliked the film, telling his friend the director Henry Jaglom that the movie was "worse" than Rear Window, another film that was not a favorite of Welles. In an interview with François Truffaut, Hitchcock stated that Vertigo was one of his favourite films, with some reservations. Hitchcock blamed the film's failure on the 50-year-old Stewart looking too old to play a convincing love interest for the 25-year-old Kim Novak.
Hitchcock and Stewart received awards at the San Sebastián International Film Festival, including a Silver Seashell for Best Director (tied with Mario Monicelli for I soliti ignoti (Big Deal on Madonna Street aka Persons Unknown) and Best Actor (also tied, with Kirk Douglas in The Vikings). The film was nominated for two Academy Awards, in the technical categories Best Art Direction - Black-and-White or Color (Hal Pereira, Henry Bumstead, Samuel M. Comer, Frank McKelvy) and Best Sound (George Dutton).
In the 1950s, the French Cahiers du cinéma critics began re-evaluating Hitchcock as a serious artist rather than just a populist showman. However, even François Truffaut's important 1962 book of interviews with Hitchcock (not published in English until 1967) devotes only a few pages to Vertigo. Dan Auiler has suggested that the real beginning of Vertigo's rise in adulation was the British-Canadian scholar Robin Wood's Hitchcock's Films (1968), which calls the film, "...Hitchcock's masterpiece to date and one of the four or five most profound and beautiful films the cinema has yet given us."
Adding to its mystique was the fact that Vertigo was one of five Hitchcock-owned films removed from circulation in 1973. When Vertigo was re-released in theaters in October 1983, and then on home video in October 1984, it achieved an impressive commercial success and laudatory reviews. Similarly adulatory reviews were written for the October 1996 showing of a restored print in 70mm and DTS sound at the Castro Theater in San Francisco.
In 1989, Vertigo was recognized as a "culturally, historically and aesthetically significant" film by the United States Library of Congress and selected for preservation in the National Film Registry in the first year of the registry's voting. As of 2016, on Rotten Tomatoes the film has a "certified fresh" rating of 97%.
Among international film critics, the film has experienced a similar re-evaluation. Every ten years since 1952, the British Film Institute's film magazine Sight & Sound has asked the world's leading film critics to compile a list of the 10 best films of all time. Not until 1982 did Vertigo enter the list, and then in 7th place. By 1992 it had advanced to 4th place, by 2002 to 2nd. Vertigo was voted in first place in Sight & Sound's 2012 poll of the greatest films of all time, both in the crime genre and in general, displacing Orson Welles' Citizen Kane from the position it had occupied since 1962. Commenting upon the 2012 results, the magazine's editor Nick James said that Vertigo was "the ultimate critics' film. It is a dream-like film about people who are not sure who they are but who are busy reconstructing themselves and each other to fit a kind of cinema ideal of the ideal soul-mate." In recent years, critics have noted that the featuring of James Stewart as a character who becomes obsessive and disturbed was a daring choice of casting that enhances the film's unconventionality and effectiveness as suspense, since Stewart had been known to audiences as an actor of warmhearted and relatable roles.
In his 2004 book Blockbuster, however, British film critic Tom Shone suggested that Vertigo's critical re-evaluation has led to excessive praise, and argued for a more measured response. Faulting Sight & Sound for "perennially" putting the film on the list of best-ever films, he wrote that, "Hitchcock is a director who delights in getting his plot mechanisms buffed up to a nice humming shine, and so the Sight and Sound team praise the one film of his in which this is not the case – it's all loose ends and lopsided angles, its plumbing out on display for the critic to pick over at his leisure."
In 2005, Vertigo came in second (to Goodfellas) in British magazine Total Film's book 100 Greatest Movies of All Time. In 2008, an Empire poll of readers, actors, and critics named it the 40th greatest movie ever made.
American Film Institute recognition
- AFI's 100 Years...100 Movies #61
- AFI's 100 Years...100 Thrills #18
- AFI's 100 Years of Film Scores #12
- AFI's 100 Years...100 Passions #18
- AFI's 100 Years...100 Movies (10th Anniversary Edition) #9
- AFI's 10 Top 10 #1 Mystery
The San Francisco locations have become celebrated amongst the film's fans, with organised tours across the area. In March 1997, the cultural French magazine Les Inrockuptibles published a special issue titled Vertigo's about the film locations in San Francisco, Dans le décor, which lists and describes all actual locations. In October 1996, the restored print of Vertigo debuted at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco with a live on-stage introduction by Kim Novak, providing the city a chance to celebrate itself.
Director Martin Scorsese has listed Vertigo as one of his favorite films of all time.