I watched Vertigo for the first time on one of those long travel days a Californian attending Notre Dame must endure. I was only dreaming of being a film geek at this point, and even though I enjoyed the film, I didn’t see how it was that different from other films in the Hitchcock oeuvre, like Shadow of a Doubt and North By Northwest.
But with the passing of time, I began to understand why Vertigo was such a big deal, why it’s considered by many to be the pinnacle of Hitchcock’s cinema, why it reached second place in Sight and Sound’s 2002 international critics poll, and why it may be ready to topple the consensus “greatest film of all time,” Citizen Kane, by the time the poll is taken again in 2012. However, my changing attitude couldn’t be explained solely by a deepening appreciation for Hitchcock’s craftsmanship. The real change came sometime between the second and third screenings, when I realized that Vertigo was beginning to haunt me.
The film spoke to me in ways that were hard to countenance, though I had a hard time articulating what I had seen in it. I felt overwhelmed by images I had once dismissed as being merely beautiful. No description of the film can replace the film itself, and if you hate having movies spoiled I’d advise you to see it before reading this article; but nearly a year after seeing it for the first time, I’m finally able to describe why this film was such a deeply personal experience for Hitchcock as a director, for me as a viewer, and, hopefully, for generations of movie fans like me.
Vertigo centers around two character types that had deep artistic significance for Hitchcock. Jimmy Stewart is cast as John “Scotty” Ferguson, a police detective who is forced to retire after developing a case of acrophobia during an on-the-job accident. Like many of Hitchcock’s heroes, he is a man of distinction—well-educated with a good professional reputation and “independent means” on which to subsist—thrown into a situation that even he is too small to overcome by himself. He is not so much every man as he is every man’s inner self; Stewart’s emotional openness provides a window into parts of our soul we may not be able to acknowledge ourselves. He stars opposite Kim Novak, cast as Madeline Elster. Madeline is not merely a “Hitchcock blonde,” but the “Hitchcock blonde.” Along with being more photogenic, blondes had innate meaning for Hitchcock; they were icy, ethereal, and inscrutable to the workaday world. Hitchcock went to extremes to emphasize these traits in Madeline—she is a glaring, peroxide blonde, and she often wears a gray suit that clashes with her hair color to stress her alien nature. She is at once alluring and frightening, and we can all share a little bit in Scotty’s apparent fascination with her.
Scotty’s old college chum Gavin Elster hires Scotty to track Madeline because of Gavin’s suspicion that his wife is possessed by the spirit of a distant relative. Gavin arranges for Scotty to see her at a restaurant in San Francisco (the entire movie is set in the acrophobic-unfriendly confines of the Bay Area), and the obsession begins. Madeline wears a black formal gown with a brilliant green scarf to dinner. The color may seem like an arbitrary detail, but it isn’t—color choices are immensely important throughout all of Hitchcock’s color films, and green is the color of obsession and infatuation in Hitchcock’s palette, with connotations of envy and sickness. The restaurant has brilliant red wallpaper, which hints not only at Scotty’s passion but also the imminent danger enveloping him. Hitchcock creates Scotty’s sense of rapture upon seeing Madeline for the first time with close-up, low-angle, profile shots of Madeline, the rapturous swelling of Bernard Herrman’s famous score, and not a word of dialogue—few sequences are as emblematic of Hitch’s ideal of “pure cinema:” stories without words.
The audience then follows Scotty along as he trails Madeline. Scotty’s growing obsession is mostly exposed through visuals—the way Hitchcock only shows Scotty driving down hills and not up them as he “falls” in love, the distinctive green color of Madeline’s Jaguar, the bizarre combination of her hair with the grey suit. The two of them don’t actually meet until Scotty saves Madeline’s life after she attempts suicide in San Francisco Bay and Scotty takes her to his home to rest. A subtle placement of hands as Scotty takes a coffee cup from Madeline speaks volumes about their passion; Hitchcock’s choice of clothing color (Scotty changes into a green sweater after saving Madeline, and gives her a red bathrobe to wear while her clothes dry) and a roaring fire in the background suggest the film’s dark undercurrents.
Eventually, Madeline’s insanity leads to her suicide in the bell tower of Mission San Juan Bautista, but not until after Scotty has declared his love for her and his desire to protect her. He enters a deep melancholia, guilt-ridden that he has now presided over the deaths of two people, and devastated that the only girl he’s ever loved has gone. After a year in a mental institution, he wanders the streets and panics every time he sees a woman who looks vaguely like Madeline, only to be disappointed. These scenes are still painful for me to watch, poignant reminders of all the times I loved and lost, and I suspect that my response is not unique. Finally, Scotty sees Judy, a Midwestern redhead who bears a strange resemblance to Madeline (appropriately, she’s dressed in green). Judy, who is at once frightened by him yet touched by his melancholy, agrees to go to dinner with him.
It’s at this point that Hitchcock almost totally abandons the murder mystery angle of Vertigo. In one of the greatest plot twists in movie history, Judy reveals to the audience, but not to Scotty, that she was Madeline; that Gavin hired her to act as his wife as a ruse for murdering his real wife; and that the only hitch in the plan was that she had fallen in love with Scotty during the proceedings.
Critics like to say that Vertigo is a tale of obsession, but it is important to remember it is also a tale of deception. In an early scene in the apartment of Scotty’s friend Midge, a brassiere with “revolutionary uplift” that she is designing figures prominently when Midge is on camera and constitutes a topic of small talk. This isn’t idle humor, but a foreshadowing of the film’s primary illusion – how Judy deceives Scotty, and how Scotty allows himself to be deceived by Judy in his thirst for love.
The film’s second part, which shows Scotty molding Judy into his fantasy, is almost unbearable. One must sympathize with Scotty a little bit after all he’s been through—like Judy, we take one look at him and gasp, “You’ve got it bad, don’t you?” Yet the indifference with which he treats Judy gives this part of the movie an emotional viciousness that was rare in the studio era—Hitchcock himself called it a “striptease in reverse,” a description I find almost too apt. Yet, somehow, Judy manages to absorb Scotty’s punishment. Her affection is borne out of the selflessness with which he treated her while she was Madeline, which is more than can be said for Scotty, who, as Hitchcock pointed out, is more or less indulging in necrophilia. She tolerates the abuse, partly out of sympathy for what she’s put him through, partly out of love, even though she’s revolted by the prospect of revisiting the murder. She goes through with Scotty’s transformation, and in one of the seminal moments of Hitchcock’s cinema, Judy emerges as Madeline in a misty, green haze (a haze only partially explained by the green light of a sign flooding into the room), her face in a tortuous fight between elation and horror, and the two of them share a long kiss, with Bernard Herrman’s arching score kicked into overdrive and the soft rotation of the camera around the two of them, engulfed in deranged passion.
I have already given too much of a great movie away, so I will omit the details of Vertigo’s finale. Some critics have remarked that it denotes a circular structure, that Scotty is doomed to repeat his mistakes. My opinion is exactly the opposite—I think it signifies release, the end of delusion and obsession, and the triumph of reality. Hitchcock was not a particularly good Catholic, but Vertigo is certainly the most provocative illustration of the principle that “the truth shall make you free” (John 8:28) that I have ever seen. Like all great works of art, Vertigo speaks to us all, challenging us to overcome what is passing and ethereal and discover what is truly human.