“If I let you change me, will that do it?
If I do what you tell me, will you love me?”
As cinema’s reigning “Master of Suspense”, Alfred Hitchcock usually made a point of keeping his audience in the loop. He believed that information and tension went hand in hand, and that by telling us what was going to happen, we would grip to our seats tighter, and fear more intensely for the characters. Films like Rope, Strangers on a Train, and Rear Window validated this practice, as they turned potboiler pulp stories into masterful displays of showmanship. “I’ll make this dip a little deeper, that will make them scream”, Hitchcock once said, coining a much-copied roller-coaster analogy. It’s the greatest tactic he ever contributed to the medium.
That said, the film we’re discussing today, Vertigo, is a bit different. It has the bizarre distinction of being both Hitchcock’s most celebrated effort, and the one in which he least relies on his beloved “roller-coaster” tactics. It eschews every tradition and glossy trope he previously set in favor of an abstract, at times terrifying descent into the psyche of its main character. It’s stylish, yes, but it’s also intimate, and personal in ways that Hitchcock rarely allowed himself to be.
The film stars James Stewart as Scottie Ferguson, a police detective forced to retire when a rooftop chase leads to the death of a colleague and a diagnosis of vertigo. Racked with guilt, Scottie sees a chance at redemption when an old college chum, Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore), asks him to tail his wife Madeleine (Kim Novak). You see, Madeleine has developed an obsession with a dead relative of hers, Carlotta Valdes, and Elster fears that she may be urged to kill herself as Carlotta did. Scottie is predictably skeptical, but as the investigation wears on, his willingness to believe, and his own growing obsession with Madeleine, obscures what’s really going on.
Vertigo makes no attempt to conceal Scottie’s personal reasons for taking the case. His skepticism melts away the moment he lays eyes on Madeleine, and his wholesome, upright demeanor turns carnal. He must be near her, he must possess her. The tailing scenes that follow add fuel to this erotic flame as Scottie becomes a veritable stalker– albeit, one with a license and an hourly rate. He tails Madeleine through a maze of San Francisco’s various landmarks, enacting a geographical tango that grows in intensity with her increasingly erratic behavior. (As an SF native, I can confidently say that no film better reflects the city’s romantic notion of the past.) Scottie makes contact with Madeleine after she attempts to drown herself, and the two immediately begin a torrid affair.
Hitchcock introduces the mystery of Carlotta Valdes as the film’s central conflict, the threat that Scottie and Madeleine must overcome on their way to a happy ending. He neither tells us nor shows us anything that suggests otherwise, so we forge ahead, confident in our surroundings. The couple journey to an old Spanish mission, San Juan Bautista, hoping it’ll solve a piece of the mystery, but Madeleine (and the director) suddenly pull the rug out from under us. Madeleine scrambles up the mission bell tower, knowing that Scottie’s vertigo will render him useless, and jumps to her death, mirroring Carlotta’s untimely fate. The death is ruled a suicide, and Scottie, our supposed hero, is placed in a mental institution, unable to cope with the loss of the woman he loved. If Vertigo were a play, this is where the mid-act curtain would come down, and the silence in the audience would be deafening.
Stewart’s performance, and the film as a whole, explores the trauma of this loss in the second act. Whereas the Scottie we initially meet has warmth and charm, the Scottie who gets released from the institution has an emotional anguish that he can barely repress. He breaks ties with his friend Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes, adding to the film’s roster of lovelorn losers). He wanders the streets, every so often seeing a blonde woman or a dress that reminds him of Madeline. Hitchcock stages these scenes with surprising tenderness, one of the rare instances where he puts himself on level emotional ground with his characters, rather than above them, pulling their strings.
Scottie is eventually shaken out of his stupor when he meets Judy (also played by Novak), a spitting image of Madeline with dark hair. Scottie seduces Judy with the intent of remaking her in Madeline’s image, but what he doesn’t know is that Judy is the woman he previously fell in love with, and that she and Elster were in cahoots to murder the real Madeline all along.
From a critical (and monthly column) standpoint, Vertigo is only marginally film noir. It has a detective, a mystery, and the backdrop of San Francisco, one of the genre’s capital cities, but to call it noir would be like calling Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band a rock album. It’s technically correct, but the sheer magnitude of its artistry transcends. It’s bigger than any one genre. That said, the instances where Hitchcock uses (or more accurately, “twists”) noir to his advantage rank among the strongest in the film. The opening chase is blanketed in almost complete darkness, obscuring our vision to such an extent that we feel as vulnerable as the dangling Scottie. The film takes a lengthy detour into daylight with the fuzzy, dreamlike Madeleine scenes, but scenes with Judy, after she agrees to indulge Scottie’s obsession, return us to the darkness permanently.
The scene where Judy returns from the beauty salon, hair bleached and looking exactly as she did when she was Madeleine, is the film’s creative apex. Scottie gazes at her, basking in the joy of having recreated the dead woman he once loved. Hitchcock takes the neon sign outside the window and shines it on Judy, turning noir’s greatest emblem of grittiness into a ghostly effect. The couple embrace, and space and time seem to come crashing down around them. The backdrop shifts between the room and the earlier scene at San Juan Bautista, while Bernard Herrmann’s score, among the most lush ever written, reaches a blaring orchestral (and metaphorically suggestive) climax.
While there’s an air of triumph to the scene, the interesting thing is that Scottie seems to acknowledge the artificiality of it all. He momentarily breaks his embrace of Judy to look around the room, suggesting that he too sees time falling in on itself. Is he breaking the fourth wall? Is it all happening in his mind? Is it… real? The questions fade before they can be answered, and Scottie embraces Judy once more, but I’ve always found this moment to be most important because of what Hitchcock is saying.
Much has been said over the years about Hitchcock’s obsession with creating the perfect blonde, or, in the case of Grace Kelly (the first choice to play Madeleine), hanging onto the perfect blonde. Vertigo has been cited as his coming to grips with this on film, and rightfully so, but not enough has been said about how cleverly he manages to convey it. Hitchcock knew the film was perverse, and rather than attempt to hide it, he uses it to explore the tragic nature of these perversions. He doesn’t let us condemn Scottie from afar, he forces us experience the entire film through his compromised point-of-view. The storytelling is so fluid, the command of style and emotion so intoxicating, that we start to understand, and in some instances, empathize with Scottie’s plight. We share in his grotesque nightmares, his inability to tell fantasy from reality. By the time he stops to realize what he’s done, we too have become obsessed.
Scottie eventually discovers Judy’s betrayal, and takes her back to the bell tower where she “died” to confront her. As he delivers his heartbroken tirade, however, Judy accidentally trips and falls. Scottie attempts to grab her, but he is too late. Judy is dead, like Madeleine and Carlotta Valdes before her. Scottie stumbles out onto the ledge and into the night, struggling to process the guilt. His vertigo, the very reason he was chosen as a patsy, is seemingly cured. The dream is over.
Long after the blunt-force trauma of Psycho has dulled and the cozy paranoia of Rear Window has settled in, Vertigo remains Hitchcock’s most disturbing film. Its visceral depictions of love and obsession (and where the two overlap) are troubling to watch, as they fail to provide concrete solutions or feel-good outcomes. The same can be said for the layered performances given by Stewart and Novak. The former has never been more tragically inept, while the latter is heartbreaking as a woman who endlessly compromises herself for approval. Their importance to the film cannot be overstated. They provide a soft, melancholy spell that, were it not there, would greatly weaken Hitchcock’s vision.
It’s the only time in Hitchcock’s oeuvre where he doesn’t rely on corrupt organizations or unstable loners for dramatic conflict. In this case, the conflict, like the titular affliction, comes from within. It comes from our universal desire to be loved, and the desperate measures we would take to maintain that love. Hitchcock will always be the “Master of Suspense”, but with Vertigo, he toned down the trickery and allowed himself to simply be masterful. It remains his finest hour behind the camera, and one of cinema’s finest hours ever. A+
TRIVIA: Vertigo was unavailable for decades, until Hitchcock’s daughter, Patricia, restored the film as part of Universal’s home release collection.
–Danilo Castro for Classic Movie Hub
Danilo Castro is a film noir specialist and Contributing Writer for Classic Movie Hub. You can read more of Danilo’s articles and reviews at the Film Noir Archive, or you can follow Danilo on Twitter @DaniloSCastro.