Vertigo (1958)

Vertigo (1958)

Obsession and grief come dangerously into play in one of the greatest films ever made

Director: Alfred Hitchcock

Cast: James Stewart (John “Scottie” Ferguson), Kim Novak (Madeline Elster/Judy Barton), Barbara Bel Geddes (Midge Wood), Tom Helmore (Gavin Elster), Henry John (Coroner), Raymond Bailey (Doctor), Ellen Corby (Hotel manager), Konstantin Shayne (Pop Leibel), Lee Patrick (Car owner)

Spoilers: Vertigo was controversial at the time for revealing its twist, three quarters of the way through the film. I might well do the same in the review – although this is possibly a richer film if you know the twist going in

In 2012 Vertigo dislodged Citizen Kane at the top of Sight and Sound’s decadal “Greatest Film” poll, after 50 uninterrupted years for Welles’ classic. It’s an astonishing turn-around for a film which was a box-office disappointment and first met with reviews that called it “long and slow” and complained that Hitchcock had “indulged in such farfetched nonsense”. (Welles also hated the film – bet he’s even more pissed off at it now.) This is partly because Vertigo is a fiercely, almost defiantly, complex and cold film that defies easy characterisation and flies in the face of the fast-paced watchability of most of Hitchcock’s popular films. But it’s still a haunting and fascinating masterpiece, which has its greatest impact when you reflect on it days after it has finished.

Its plot is both complex and slight. John “Scottie” Ferguson (James Stewart) is an ex-police detective, his career ended by crippling acrophobia bought on by powerlessly watching a fellow officer fall to his death. He’s hired by old college friend Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore) to follow Elster’s wife Madeline (Kim Novak). Madeline is in the grip of an idée fix that she is an incarnation of Carlotta Valdes, a woman who committed suicide in 1857. Scottie follows her – and develops an idée fix of his own for the beautiful Madeline. When his acrophobia prevents Scottie from saving Madeline from jumping to her death from a bell tower, he suffers a near-breakdown. Then he catches sight of Judy Barton (Kim Novak again) who has a chilling resemblance to Madeline. And Scottie tries to turn her into just that.

Vertigo is a dizzying film of monomania and obsession, something you are immediately plugged into with its beautiful Saul Bass opening (swirling spirals, reflecting the circular nature of the obsessive) and its hauntingly mesmeric and off-beat romantic theme from Bernard Herrmann (possibly his greatest work – and he also scored Kane!). More than any other Hitchcock film, Vertigo places us firmly into the POV of its lead character, who is in all but three scenes and whose perceptions and observations we not only share but which totally guide our understanding of everything we see in the film (until that twist, when suddenly we shift to knowing more than he does).

Hitchcock’s technique is truly masterful here. There isn’t the flash of something like North by Northwest, but the sort of chilling control that builds tension and unease that also marks out films like The Birds or, to a degree, Psycho (although that’s much more of a black joke, where Vertigo is terrifyingly serious). Hitchcock uses a huge number of POV shots, alternating with shots of Stewart’s reactions (at times these are disturbing in their fixed intensity) building a subtle momentum that reflects the character’s obsession and further filters everything we experience from his perspective.

That would be the perspective of an ever-more obsessed man tipping steadily into stalkerish territory. Few films have so clearly drawn the link between the private eye and the voyeur. As Scottie silently prowls the streets of San Francisco, observing every inch of Madeline’s actions – and Vertigo has long, worldless stretches of what Hitchcock called “pure cinema” – the disturbing pleasure and control that following brings you becomes more and more clear. It’s certainly giving a sense of masculinity back to Scottie, introduced to us hanging helplessly from a ledge and then so hamstrung by his condition he can’t even climb a step ladder without collapsing.

Judged from this perspective, Scottie is one of the most darkly disturbing characters in film. Rescuing Madeline from the Golden Gate (where she has jumped in) he takes her home, undresses her and puts her in his bed – hardly normal behaviour. It’s not long from there before he surrenders to his romantic obsession (feelings Madeline perhaps returns), that eventually leads him again to be a powerless witness as Madeline plunges to her death right in front of him.

Catatonia and mental collapse follow – but really it’s perhaps just a continuation of the same obsession in another form. Because after a stay in a sanatorium, Scottie is back on the streets again, prowling for something – anything – that could make him feel closer to Madeline again. Which is how he spots Judy, the woman who reminds him of the woman he’s lost. Scottie doesn’t so much woo Judy as seemingly browbeat her into a bizarre (joyless and sexless) relationship and undertake a terrifyingly grotesque remodelling exercise, designed to make her into a carbon copy of Madeline.

This sequence is probably partly at the heart of the film’s fascination for critics and film historians – even more so since we’ve learned about Hitchcock’s manipulative, controlling relationship with his blonde female stars. Here we have Scottie instructing his love interest how to dress, walk and cut her hair – all while telling her it’s for her own good and she’ll like it – his voice with the breathless longing of a closeted pervert (that is when Scottie manages any sexual yearning to Judy, who he treats more like a treasured exhibit). This is Hitchcock dramatizing his own hang-ups, presenting them as creepy and dangerous, making Vertigo partly as well a fascinating psychological study of its director. Did Hitchcock know that his controlling relationship with women was wrong? And, in real life, could he not help himself or did he not care?

Vertigo is a perfect exploration of obsession. But it also pulls the rug out from us – and rewards constant reviewing as a result – because the film reveals there was a whole other level going on. Scottie may seem the Hitchcock substitute, but the in-film Hitch figure is actually the amiable Gavin Elster. Because the entire action of the film is carefully stage-managed by Elster to manipulate Scottie (and us!): Judy and Madeline (as Scottie has met her) are in fact the same woman, a doppelgänger for Elster’s wife. The real Madeline – who Scottie never sees or meets – is murdered by Elster at the top of that tower, and Judy/Madeline was helping build a backstory to have this murder written off as suicide, with Scottie’s acrophobia perfect to make him a powerless witness.

Here comes that pleasure for rewatching: because now when Scottie rescues “Madeline” from the river, then spends the next day with her, we thought at first he knew more than she. Now however, we understand he’s always been a patsy who knew less than anyone else. We’ve been manipulated by Elster, the master director, pulling the strings and building horrors for us. That’s Hitchcock.

The film reveals this in one of the few scenes told from Judy/Madeline’s perspective – and means we then watch Scottie actually craft a woman who actually is the woman he’s obsessed with into his memory of that very same woman. (Get your head around that!) And she allows it, because she seems as desperate as he to recapture the passion of those brief days together – but cannot tell him the thing that would help to do that. It all leads, of course, to Scottie’s destructive obsession leaving him once again to being a helpless witness as another victim plummets to their death.

Vertigo is effectively a two-hander, and most of the focus usually lands on Stewart. He is chillingly dead-eyed in this, his crazed hunting after something he doesn’t even understand capturing the controlling horror behind some romance. In many ways though, Kim Novak has the more complex part. She doesn’t speak for almost 45 minutes – she spends it mostly in long shot performing Elster’s play for Scottie (and us) of the mentally disturbed wife. But when Novak does take centre stage, this is a complex multi-layered performance, carefully modulated throughout to communicate (in advance) Judy’s vulnerability and love for Scottie, without ever letting us realise she is anything but the death-fixated “Madeline”. Novak marries two contradictory characters into one with a simple and convincing aplomb. Equally good is Barbara bel Geddes, in almost the only other named role, as Scottie’s one-time fiancée now best friend, all too aware that her feelings are not returned.

Vertigo will never match the likes of Casablanca or North By Northwest – on a list of films truly popular with audiences. It’s been described as the ultimate critic’s film: a cool, chilling, brilliantly filmed, psychological thriller that quietly exposes the mechanics of film, the manipulation of story-telling and the dark psyche of its director. In many ways initial reviews were right: on first impression, the film is cold and slow, with characters it’s hard to relate to. But it has a truly haunting quality few others can match. And it constantly presents us with a clear image, while never allowing us to guess we are seeing only part of the overall picture. It can leave us as dizzy as Scottie is, hanging from that ledge and staring down at doom, the camera zooming inside his head and showing us his terrifying POV. You need to work at it, but this is a film to value.

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