The Directors’ Chair: Vertigo

The Directors’ Chair: Vertigo (1958)



kim novak vertigo

VERTIGO is my favorite movie. Hands down, this is my favorite Alfred Hitchcock movie. In fact, caveat emptor…if you fall in love in Hitchcock’s world, straight up, you will be put through the ringer, no doubt about it. To make any good soufflé you need ingredients:

* Use a man’s illness against him to make the perfect foil

  * Add a dash of accomplice who’ll never be able to testify against you

Voila! The Soufflé ~ The Perfect Crime.

james stewart and tom helmore vertigo
Gavin Elster (actor Tom Helmore) wants his wife followed

Gavin Elster doesn’t need to win The Movie Villain Award for Egotistical Self-Satisfaction by explaining and showing off HOW smart and clever he is. (That always trips them up; watch any James Bond movie ). The entire movie hides his crime in plain sight. We don’t even know what we’ve seen until later in the movie. And when we bite into that soufflé we get a tasty twisty tangy little love story. Who better than Alfred Hitchcock to hide a love story inside a crime. Oh, I can see you scrunching up your little face now:

“Love story?! What kind of sick, twisted  thing are you calling a love story? Next you’ll be calling ‘Vertigo’ a film noir.”

I’ll get to THAT later.  Don’t forget what I told you last time… Hitchcock subverts themes (court rooms, confessionals, Mother Nature). You’re in Hitchcock’s world and when he speaks of Love he’s not going to bring you flowers and candy and put a ring on it. Love is messy and fraught with bargains, bartering, missed cues… things unsaid. Hitch looks at love and deconstructs what it means to fall in love, be in love. And as with Psycho he changes the movie’s trajectory half-way through leaving you totally bolloxed.

james stewart vertigo
Scottie and the Streets of San Francisco

The plot’s a deceptively simple one. Shipping magnate Gavin Elster wants old school chum now ex-detective Scottie Ferguson (James Stewart) to follow his wife; he suspects she might harm herself and wants Scottie to tell him where she goes…what she does. In tailing her, Scottie falls in love with her. But because of his vertigo, he can only follow her but so far and is unable to save her when she goes up the church tower TO harm herself.

james stewart vertigo
Head over heels
film noir films

Maybe I have a soft spot for movie detectives…poor schmoes. They deal in blood and guts, murder and mayhem and “…just the facts, ma’am.”  Their job is to put together pieces of the puzzle, solve mysteries, come up with solutions. When they get tripped up by their emotions, they fall like a ton of bricks. And boy does Scottie fall.

james stewart and kim novak in vertigo
Come ona my house

James Stewart and Kim Novak are star-crossed lovers in Vertigo. Hitch really has the usually affable Stewart play against type (even more so than in an Anthony Mann western) as an obsessive stalker. I know I know…you think he’s a monster. You hate him. He was controlling. But I can’t be mad at him. Sorry. He drains any animus I might feel with this:

james stewart vertigo
Why did you have to pick on me? Why me?!!!
working girl barbara bel geddes and james stewart vertigo
Working girl Bel Geddes
mystery woman kim novak vertigo
Mystery woman Kim Novak

You can’t get better than Barbara Bel Geddes, ever the good smart actress. She plays the good, smart, wry, stable, woman of common sense. She’d be supportive. Isn’t that what a man needs as a partner in life? But then Hitchcock gives us the dream, the impossible, the other-worldly. He gives us Kim Novak

kim novak vertigo

He introduces her by having her walk up to the camera, (supposedly) not paying any attention to us. He lets us look at her. He has her stand there, giving us ample, unblinking, unself-conscious time to gaze. Objectification? C’mon! Bring it down a notch. I’d say we look at her as we would art in a museum; or as she would look at Carlotta. Yeah…I’m justifying staring. That first shot of her on camera is simply devastating. You fall as Scottie falls. And if you do your part right as the audience, you’ll feel that. We see what ‘Scottie’ sees. We are Scottie, for the moment. (Take it easy…don’t panic! You’re still the you that’s you!) She is photographed by Academy Award-winning Director of Photography Robert Burks. (He won for To Catch A Thief.) Novak gives a poignant performance as a woman desperate to be loved. She gives the performance of her career.


Who we love…how we love…why we love…what IS love. WHO loves US…Does who and how we love say more about us than the person we love? Hitchcock looks into all that and pretzels us into a pickle. 

Walking out of a dream

You know what I think: The real villain in all this is Hitchcock collaborator: Bernard Hermann. It is physically and humanly impossible to fight against the dizzying, lyrical, romanticism of Hermann’s score; at turns it opens like flower petals. It climbs higher and higher. Then drops you into an abyss. I dare you. I dare you not to fall for the music which informs the action on screen. If you can do that, you’re a better man than I, Gunga Din. 

Hitchcock explores all this in Vertigo. He does this with romance. He does this with suspense. He does this with style. He does this with love. Love with a twist.


— Theresa Brown for Classic Movie Hub

You can read all of Theresa’s Directors’ Chair articles here.

Theresa Brown is a native New Yorker, a Capricorn and a biker chick (rider as well as passenger). When she’s not on her motorcycle, you can find her on her couch blogging about classic films for CineMaven’s Essays from the Couch. Classic films are her passion. You can find her on Twitter at @CineMava.

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2 Responses to The Directors’ Chair: Vertigo

  1. Tim says:

    One of my favorites as well. There’s something compelling to come back and visit this film time and time again. Love the score too. It’s very powerful. I love how this film opens with putting you right into the action too. Then it slows down to explain things as well. It’s time for another watch!!

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