Most critics–most modern critics, that is–rank Vertigo (1958) as Alfred Hitchcock’s directorial masterpiece. Influential movie critic Roger Ebert called the film “one of the two or three best films Hitchcock ever made.” Subsequent directors ranging from Martin Scorsese to Brian DePalma have reported being influenced by the film. And AFI has listed it in the 100 Years … 100 Movies list twice: #61 in the original incarnation of the list in 1997, and #9 in the 10th anniversary edition of the list in 2007. In fact, AFI has quite the love affair with this movie: it also ranks Vertigo as the #1 film in the “Mystery” genre, #18 in the list of best romantic films of all time, #18 in the list of most thrilling movies of all time, and #12 in the list of best film scores of all time for Bernard Herrmann’s peerless musical composition. The movie has also garnered acclaim for its cinematography, particularly for its use of color (the screen is awash in grays, blues, and greens) and the famed staircase shot, as Stewart stares down dizzily while climbing a long, winding flight of stairs.
But Vertigo, for all its accolades, has its flaws, and these prevent the film from becoming a true master work. This is not to say that the film is not good; the performances of James Stewart and Kim Novak are especially pitch-perfect, with Stewart masterfully demonstrating his character’s slow descent into self-damnation at the hands of Novak’s determinedly icy femme fatale. Still, there are some elements that sometimes make watching this film an exercise in discomfort (or, at the very least, confusion).
Stewart plays Scottie Ferguson, a San Francisco police detective whose vertigo led to the death of a fellow police officer during a rooftop chase. Scottie retires from the force soon afterward, but is contacted by a college friend, Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore), who wants Scottie to follow his wife, Madeleine (Novak). Gavin believes his wife has been possessed by the spirit of her great-grandmother, a suicidal young woman named Carlotta Valdes. As Scottie follows Madeleine, he becomes enamored of the young woman, beginning an affair with her, and he is despondent when his vertigo once again keeps him from preventing disaster–this time, Madeleine’s suicide. Scottie, heartbroken and insane with grief, is institutionalized for a brief time. But while walking down the street soon after, he sees a young woman, Judy, who looks just like his dead sweetheart, and Scottie goes about the business of recreating the girl as his supposedly-dead lover, uncovering secrets about her past–and Gavin’s involvement–along the way.
I don’t suppose, for regular viewers of Hitchcock, that it will come as any shock [SPOILER ALERT] that Judy IS Madeleine, and that the entire suicide situation was a plot orchestrated by Gavin, who killed his wife for some undetermined reason and needed to cover up her death somehow.
This film is a boon for psychoanalysts and film theorists; the obsessive themes in this movie alone are numerous enough to populate a book (several books, in fact). Some of these strike uncomfortably close to home, in particular Scottie’s recreation of “Madeleine” in Judy; Hitchcock himself was responsible for taking many a blonde (Grace Kelly, Novak, Janet Leigh, Vera Miles, Tippi Hedren) and crafting her image very carefully into the ice-cold princess with a molten center. Whether unconsciously or not, the film reflects the director’s own obsession with finding and molding the perfect blond archetype (though, just as Scottie does in the end, Hitchcock always lost his blondes–Kelly to Prince Rainier and retirement; Novak and Leigh to other directors and other roles; Miles–who was initially tapped to play Madeleine/Judy in this film–to pregnancy; Hedren to his own reportedly controlling attitude). For those who have an understanding of Hitchcock’s filmography and his preferred actress type, watching Vertigo can be a squirm-inducing experience–just substitute Stewart’s glazed expression at Judy’s final transformation into Madeleine for Hitchcock’s own, and you’ll see what I mean.
And let’s not even get into a discussion of the necrophilic aspects of Scottie’s recreation of “Madeleine” in Judy; I don’t think I have the stamina for it today.
But Scottie is not alone in his obsession, for Judy shares in it. Why else would she allow herself to be made over in a way that is so obviously discomfiting for her?
Judy: If I let you change me, will that do it? If I do what you tell me, will you love me?
Scottie: Yes. Yes.
Judy: All right. All right, then, I’ll do it. I don’t care anymore about me.
Such a healthy relationship forming between these two. And yet Judy welcomes the chance to transform back into “Madeleine,” because it means securing Scottie’s love once more. Hmm … changing oneself to fit someone else’s ideal. If that’s not obsessive (or just plain pathetic), I don’t know what is. At the very least, Judy knowingly enables Scottie’s delusion, and that alone ratchets up the uncomfortable meter from a “7” to a straight “10.”
Personally, I’m still trying to figure out how this film was ranked #18 in a list of the most romantic movies of all time. Really? How does one figure? Because I don’t see blind obsession as being particularly romantic. Creepy, yes. But romantic? Please.
There are other elements of obsession in the film as well; to a lesser degree, Barbara Bel Geddes, in the thankless role of Midge, flirts with obsessive love as Scottie’s infatuated artist friend, never flagging even in the face of his determined love for Madeleine. And Gavin, obsessed with crafting the perfect crime, makes the monumental mistake of neglecting to tie up loose strings concerning his wife’s murder; he discards mistress Judy once the deed is done, leaving her in San Francisco for Scottie to eventually find (though American film audiences did not see Gavin punished for his crime, British audiences did, sort of; film censors there required a coda added to the end of the film in which Scottie and Midge discover that the authorities are searching for Gavin in Europe).
The brilliance of Hitchcock is that the central themes of the main story reverberate in even the quietest moments. There are tendrils of obsession touching every aspect of this film–it’s quite unsettling, when you sit down to think about it. Ultimately, Hitchcock takes viewers on a journey not just through Scottie’s psyche, but through their own. Watching Scottie’s behavior, witnessing the story unfold, we find ourselves growing somewhat obsessed, too, trying to figure out the complicated goings-on up on the screen. When Judy reveals the truth, well before the ending of the film, we become complicit in her guilt–we know something Scottie doesn’t know, and we must wait to see if he discovers it, too. As in Rear Window, the audience becomes part of the film; the lens of the camera is turned on us, implicating us in the mystery and involving us in its denouement. Weird, and yet strangely fascinating, right? No one could involve viewers in a film quite like Hitchcock could.
Still, the complexities of the story, the almost snail-like pace of the plot (at least in the first half of the film), and the sense of incompletion with which viewers are left at the end of the film (after all that, Scottie has to watch her die AGAIN?) contribute, in my opinion, to an overall unsatisfactory viewing experience. Simply put, it’s just not one of my personal favorites. Unlike other Hitch classics, this is not one of the films I return to again and again. I firmly believe Vertigo pales in comparison to other films in Hitchcock’s repertoire such as Psycho, Rear Window, North by Northwest, and Shadow of a Doubt (the latter of which, I would argue, is Hitchcock’s true masterpiece … but that will wait for a future post).
But it’s hard to deny the impact this movie has had on modern cinema. Along with Psycho, Vertigo helped introduce a more analytical, psychological approach to filmmaking, emphasizing story elements and the development of character behavior over flash and verve. While Psycho handles this combination in a much more electrifying and ultimately satisfying way, Vertigo nonetheless indulges in an interesting study of emotional fixation that still has the potential to shock and surprise more than fifty years (and countless viewings) later.
This post is part of an ongoing countdown of Hitchcock’s twenty greatest films. Vertigo comes in at number seven on that list. For other entries, check out our category devoted to “Hitch.”