Originally opening in the US in May 1958, Vertigo, which, in those pre-global release days was still finding its way onto European screens at the beginning of the following year, is considered by many to be Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece. A febrile, lurid psycho-drama, the film has a haunting, intangible quality that continues to beguile and baffle audiences in equal measure to this day, and which contains many of the director’s obsessions and trademark moments of intrigue and suspense.
Based on the novel D’Entre Les Morts by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, the contrived plot centres around John ‘Scottie’ Ferguson (James Stewart), a San Francisco detective who acquires a crippling fear of heights after witnessing a colleague fall to his death during a rooftop pursuit. Unable even to stand on a stool without collapsing, Ferguson is forced into retirement, useless to the police.
A call from an old friend, Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore) gives him a chance at a little private work. Elster wants Scottie to follow his wife, Madeleine, who he claims is acting strangely. And indeed she is – wandering around town as if in a trance, visiting gravestones and staring obsessively at a portrait of a mysterious woman in the museum.
It seems Madeleine is somehow possessed by the spirit of Carlotta Valdes, the woman in the picture and a distant relative. When Elster confides that his wife may have suicidal tendencies, those fears appear to be founded after Madeleine plunges into San Francisco Bay, only to be saved by Scottie.
Upon rescuing Madeleine, Scottie begins to show signs of an obsessive love interest. She appears to reciprocate, but upon visiting San Juan Bautista, an old Spanish mission that haunts her dreams, Madeleine suddenly rushes into the church and begins to climb the bell tower. Unable to follow because of his fear of heights, Scottie is powerless to prevent Madeleine from throwing herself to her death.
The shock of this tragic event sends Scottie into therapy, where he lives in a mute, catatonic state. Following his release from care, he is still showing signs of obsession. He drifts around the places that Madeleine used to frequent, believing he sees her everywhere, only to be mistaken each time – until, that is, he spies Judy Barton, a redhead, who in every other way is a doppelganger for his dead love.
After Scottie follows her to her room, and asking her some questions, he persuades Judy to have dinner with him. Things, however, are not so simple, and in a dramatic flashback we learn that Judy and Madeleine are, in fact, one and the same – it’s all part of an elaborate plot to disguise the fact that Elster in actuality killed his wife, who was then impersonated by Judy.
Scottie is oblivious to this, and begins to see Judy on a regular basis. This would be fine, except his obsessions won’t abate. He makes Judy over in Madeleine’s image; the same clothes, the same make-up, the same icy blonde hair.
But then Judy slips up. Fastening a necklace that had belonged to Madeleine, Scottie suddenly realises they are the same person. Driving her to San Juan Bautista, he is shaken out of his phobia, as he forces her to climb the bell tower with him, confessing the plot as she does so. Tragedy once more strikes, however, when a figure emerges from the darkness…
Vertigo has been interpreted as a study of obsession, a psychological love story, a melodrama and a thriller, and can indeed be viewed on each of those levels. What remains a curious factor in a somewhat curious film, however, is that the underlying pathology of the central character goes deeper than mere obsession, and instead appears to stem from a fragmented psyche of which obsession is just one part. Furthermore, for a film that concerns itself with the study of psychoses (acrophobia, obsession, infantile sexuality), Vertigo presents a particularly dismissive view of both the conditions and their analgesic, therapy.
Although signalled by the film’s title, Scottie’s fear of heights (acrophobia, sometimes, inaccurately, referred to as vertigo) remains secondary to his other flaws; it fuels the plot, certainly, but seems curiously removed from the fabric of the character, as if tacked-on as a specific narrative device.
The film opens on a dramatic rooftop chase, as a man, followed by Scottie and a uniformed officer, leaps from building to building in an effort to evade capture. On one particular jump, Scottie miscalculates his leap, and almost falls to his death, clinging on to a gutter for support. When his fellow officer attempts to pull him to safety, he stumbles and falls. The audience doesn’t see the consequence, but Scottie, looking down, does. His fears begin.
We next see Scottie after he has left the force, at the apartment of his best friend, bespectacled, tomboyish Marjorie ‘Midge’ Wood (Barbara Bel Geddes), an artist taken to designing women’s underwear for a living.
Scottie is uneasy, unhappy that his fears have reduced him to retirement from the LAPD. Seemingly taking his cue from the surrounding underwear, he describes his vertigo as ‘a corset’ that needs to come off. Not that he really knows about such items. “What’s this doohicky?” he enquires of a particular undergarment. “Surely you know about those things,” replies Midge. “You’re a big boy now.”
Perhaps not. Despite “three whole weeks” engaged to Midge, he has seemingly remained isolated from women his entire life, and it’s not surprising that once he spies Madeleine, played with cool detachment by Kim Novak, he flips his lid.
Following her around town at the behest of her husband, he is slowly drawn into her somnambulant world, and increasingly towards her glacial beauty. All the time, however, he watches from a distance, unable to get close.
When his opportunity finally comes, it is under dramatic circumstances, pulling her out of the bay after an apparent suicide attempt. He takes her back to his place, where she recovers in bed. The camera suggestively pans past her clothes, hanging in the kitchen to dry, as Scottie observes her voyeuristically from over the rim of a coffee cup. “Oh, you want this,” says Scottie guiltily as he hands her a robe when she wakes up, before adding “I had to dry your hair as best I could.” This is getting creepy. “Was it embarrassing?” asks Madeleine. “No, I enjoyed it,” replies Scottie, a touch too enthusiastically.
“Was it fun?” asks Midge to herself with a knowing smile upon seeing Madeleine leave Scottie’s bachelor pad. ‘Fun’ is perhaps not the word.
No sooner has he become involved with Madeleine, than Scottie is constantly badgering her with rapid-fire questions, trying to find out about her compulsions, about her. These obsessions grow ever stronger after his meeting with Judy. Indeed, his instincts materialize immediately upon their first conversation, as he machine-guns questions at her, desperate to know all about her.
What he doesn’t find out is that Judy and Madeleine are the same person and, although she still carries a torch for Scottie, he is more hooked on an idealised vision from the past, and without that image he cannot function socially or sexually – they eat dinner in silence, walk, not touching, while other couples kiss openly, and pass their time together at an old-fashioned dance.
It’s obvious things aren’t going well, but Scottie has a solution; he will make Judy over in the image of Madeleine. He aggressively takes action, demanding the right clothes from bullied staff (“the gentleman seems to know what he wants”), instructing beauticians on hair and make-up, and even picking out specific flowers.
Why Judy hasn’t bolted by this stage is anyone’s guess, but the makeover seems to have worked, for a short time at least. As they relax, apparently post-coital, and discuss their evening plans, Judy reveals the mistake that undoes the plot; she puts on an old necklace she has kept from her days impersonating Madeleine. Working the whole thing out quick-smart, Scottie takes Judy to the San Juan Bauptista bell tower, where she meets with her own tragic end.
So, acrophobia, obsession, retarded sexuality, melancholia and guilt, that’s quite a cracked psyche. Vertigo, however, is not a film that favours therapy, and instead treats psychological disorders as either inventions ore nothing that can’t be self cured.
Not that Scottie doesn’t try the therapeutic route himself. Intrigued by Madeleine’s reveries, he tries to get to the core of the problem. “What was it inside you that made you want to jump?”, he asks, alluding to an inner compulsion, to which Madeleine can only explain through vague dreams in which she is walking down a mirrored corridor. But Scottie persists. “We have to find the key,” he says, taking on the psychiatrist’s role. But this approach is doomed to failure, Madeleine is merely play-acting. In Vertigo, pathology is a fraud, and psychiatry for charlatans.
When a genuine psychiatrist does appear in the film, he fares no better than the amateur Scottie. Following the apparent death of Madeleine, Scottie falls into a catatonic state, and is placed in the hands of a therapist. We see no interaction between doctor and patient; instead it is Midge, another amateur, who carries out the therapeutic role, playing classical music to cure his myriad problems. While the doctor may be able to explain the problem through big words (“acute melancholia, coupled with a guilt complex”), his methods seem glib and ineffective, laughable even.
When Scottie eventually emerges from therapy, there are no actual signs of a cure. As soon as he sets eyes on Judy, he is immediately thrust back into his old, obsessive ways, peppering her with all sorts of questions, making her over, unable to consummate the relationship until the past is allowed to invade.
At this point, it should be noted that the vertigo of the title has long-since disappeared from the plotline. Lucky, then, that Scottie has the bright idea to bring Judy back to the bell tower one last time in order for him to exorcise things. “There’s one final thing I have to do,” he insists, “then I’ll be free of the past.” Continuing in the language of the therapist, he expresses a desire to “go back into the past…I want to stop being haunted”. But Scottie, of course, is not a therapist, just a very practical man. Instead of prescribing concertos to aid his recovery, his doctor should have just let Scottie get on with his own cure.
Literally dragging Judy up the bell tower steps, Scottie confronts the scene of the tragedy that still haunts him. This time, he does not falter. Empowered by his rage, shaken out of his vertigo by the stark realisation of what has gone before, he makes it to the top, all without the aid of Mozart.
Judy, on the other hand, has been involved in a murder plot. If Scottie’s weaknesses are internal, then Judy’s are external, criminal, and for these she must be punished. But Scottie is not in a position to do it. He may be the one to have solved the crime, but the movie stops short of making him a vigilante. He is abdicated of this particular responsibility by divine intervention, or, more accurately, retribution, by the sudden appearance of a nun from out of the darkness, who causes a startled Judy to fall to her death.
Vertigo, ultimately, is a conservative film in which therapy is bogus and the bad pay the fatal price. Judy has to die for her part in the murder plot (although, oddly, Hitchcock rejected an alternative ending in which Elster is apprehended in Europe) and, while Scottie could cure his own vertigo, the film ensures punishment, in that he loses the woman he loves, is meted out for his unconventional behaviour.
Written by Cillian Donnelly. This is an edited version of an article that first appeared on Picturenose.com.