AFI Top 100 Ranking: 9
Writer: Alec Coppel, Samuel Taylor (screenplay), Pierre Boileau, Thomas Narcejac (novel)
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Star: James Stewart, Kim Novak, Barbara Bel Geddes
If “Rear Window” (my favorite Hitchcock film) tells us the most about Alfred Hitchcock as a director and “Notorious” (the best Hitchcock film) tells us the most about Hitchcock as a craftsman, then “Vertigo” tells us the most about Hitchcock as a man. If you have any familiarity with his body of work or his personal life, you’ll feel much insight into his personal obsessions and emotions after finishing the movie. Whereas so many of his other films are so polished, with every “i” dotted and “t” crossed, “Vertigo” is unafraid to be messy…to leave questions unanswered and emotional journeys unfinished. In an odd way, it’s the ultimate Hitchcock film but also his most atypical.
The story opens with a riveting chase sequence over the roofs of San Francisco. Scottie Ferguson (James Stewart) almost tumbles over the edge of a building and, because he is so crippled with vertigo, accidentally allows his partner to fall to his death. This is the first time we see the much-imitated vertigo effect that has been used countless of times since whenever someone’s world goes wonky in a film or on television. It still works.
We fade to the future, and Scottie is shown about as emasculated as possible. His next scene is with his best friend Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes), and he’s wearing a corset (yes, you read that right) and faints after stepping up on a chair. There’s also some implication that he’s impotent, but that’s the only subtle thing in the scene. The rest of the long-winded scene is bad-exposition central. “Here, let me tell you what happened with me retiring from the police force, who I am, what vertigo is and why we aren’t married” isn’t explicitly stated by Scottie, but it might as well be dialogue.
The next scene isn’t much better, with Scottie’s old college friend Elster (Tom Helmore) explaining how he wants Scottie to follow his wife Madeline (Kim Novak), because she disappears for hours at a time, both physically and mentally. Lots and lots of talking, but then Scottie begins his investigation and things pick up immediately. There are undertones that Madeline is being possessed by the ghost of an ancestor who committed suicide when she was young, and this “how realistically should we take this situation?” permeates the first hour of the film. Scottie becomes obsessed with Madeline, making fewer and fewer phone calls to Elster and they seem to fall for each other…until she “kills herself.”
Up until this point, “Vertigo” could be like any other Hitchcock movie, but then the really interesting stuff starts to happen. Scottie has a nervous break and, after recovering enough to be let out of an asylum, spies a woman named Judy (Novak again), and the obsession begins again. Judy seems almost identical to Madeline, and we quickly find out that’s because she is the same person. Instead of saving the twist for the final reel, screenwriters Alec Coppel and Samuel Taylor reveal that Judy was impersonating Madeline for Scottie so that Elster could get away with murdering his wife. It’s such a surprising place to make the reveal, but in doing so it gives the final act of the film added power. Judy really did fall in love with Scottie, you see, so things get complicated fast.
Because of this, we sympathize with Judy more than Scottie in the final act. Scottie becomes an animal, only interested in Judy because he wants to make her into Madeline, and Judy allows this to happen because she loves him so much. We sympathize somewhat with Scottie, knowing that the truth must be revealed and that it will break him once more, but watching him almost use every mental manipulation and abuse to get Judy to become Madeline just feels…wrong. There’s a scene in a dress shop that is particularly cringe inducing…in a good way.
You can’t watch these scenes without thinking of Hitchcock’s blondes. Grace Kelly was his ultimate blonde, and in a way every other actress who came after (Novak, Barbara Harris, Tippi Hedren, Eva Marie Saint, Vera Miles, Doris Day…phew, I’m sure I forgot someone) was groomed specifically to be some version of Kelly. Scottie’s devastated lines to Judy in the final scene seem especially apt:
“Did he train you!? Did he rehearse you!? Did he tell you what to do and what to say!?”
If that line works on a macro level concerning the Master director’s obsessions, it is also perhaps the most emotionally raw and unhinged we see any hero in one of his films (I write “perhaps” because of Ingrid Bergman’s drunken tirade at the opening of “Notorious”). Scottie screams these lines, but he might as well be screaming them at himself—he has, in essence, become the same monster he demeans. As dark as the ending is (Judy commits suicide after mistaking a nun for a ghost) and as close as the writers allow Scottie to get to the edge, they still give us the smallest glimmer of hope in the final seconds. After Judy falls, Scottie follows her out on the ledge of the belltower—not to kill himself but to look out over the edge at his fallen love. His vertigo is cured.
“Vertigo” is one of those movies that has great ideas and emotional depth, but is imperfect. As excellent as Stewart is here diving into his obsession, he’s really just not that good of a match with Novak in the love scenes. The lazy writing at the beginning grates, but the atypical, powerful third act more than makes up for it.
Speaking of obsession, when I was in grade school I became obsessed with Hitchcock and his films. I would go to the library on weekends and rent ten movies, then watch them in bulk over the course of the week. At some point after I had gotten through all the library’s movies multiple times, I came across an old VHS copy of Hitchcock’s AFI Lifetime Achievement Award Ceremony. When I watched the ceremony I was swept away by the idea of the American Film Institute…and at one point Hitchcock turned to a selected group of Fellows from the Conservatory to impart knowledge on them. One of the clearest memories I have from childhood is running into the kitchen and telling her that one day soon I would be studying film at AFI. You want to know the best part about having dreams? Sometimes they come true.
My Score (out of 5): *****