Vertigo (1958)

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock 

I identify with the title of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo and the character of Scotty ‘John’ Ferguson (Jimmy Stewart) because I’ve experienced vertigo many times, largely due to my epilepsy (not a serious condition). I’ve lost my sense of balance and fallen as I passed out. But as for the movie itself …

I’ve seen this movie a number of times over the years and, as many have said, it’s the kind of movie that not only holds up to multiple viewings but reveals more of itself with each viewing. On the surface, it’s a murder mystery. But it’s multi-layered.

It’s about obsession and identity and, yes, even love.

The plot? As per IMDb: “A San Francisco detective suffering from acrophobia investigates the strange activities of an old friend’s wife, all the while becoming dangerously obsessed with her.” Of course, there is a great deal more to it than this.

The wife, in this case, is not really the wife but a kind of doppelganger, a woman made up to look like the wife in order to create a situation whereby the real wife is murdered. The wife, Madeleine Elster, is impersonated by Judy Barton (Kim Novak). Judy, as Madeleine, creates a mystery that will draw Scotty in and allow him to be witness to ‘Madeleine’s suicide.’

The false Madeleine has a strange obsession, a psychological problem, but this is a sham – part of the deceit. Things get complicated, however, because Scotty has a psychological problem – acrophobia – and vertigo as a result. His problem is not a sham but the real thing. More than that, he doesn’t get just drawn in to the mystery of Madeleine, he falls in love with her, then becomes obsessed with her, an even larger psychological problem.

Nothing is ever simple in a Hitchcock movie, though on the surface the movies appear that way. In the case of Vertigo, for example, look at the use of names. Both main characters have two. Novak is Madeleine/Judy. Stewart is John/Scotty. In both cases, the further you are from the reality of the person, the more the first name applies (Madeleine and John, or Mr. Ferguson). The closer you get to the real person, the more the other name applies (Judy/Scotty). In a scene where Scotty formally introduces himself to Judy (as Madeleine) he says his name is Mr. Ferguson, or John, but people close to him call him Scotty. The first name is the image, the second name is the real thing.

The movie is about fantasy (or image) and reality and the destructive qualities of the fantasy to the reality.

Hitchcock is famous for his portrayal of women on screen. They are blonde-haired, fashionably bound-up ice queens. They’re his obsession, his fetish. As Roger Ebert says in his review, “Over and over in his films, Hitchcock took delight in literally and figuratively dragging his women through the mud–humiliating them, spoiling their hair and clothes as if lashing at his own fetishes.”

What makes Vertigo interesting is Kim Novak’s Judy character. As Madeleine, she’s the Hitchcock ice queen. As Judy, she is earthier, more approachable, even slatternly. She’s real and as a consequence a sympathetic character. She’s not blonde, but has reddish-brown hair. She’s a real person, not a fantasy, but a real person being destroyed by the fantasy.

The movie is often referred to as Hitchcock’s most personal and this is why. He is taking his obsession with his ice queen image and ripping it apart, dissecting it and studying, not the image, but his own obsession which, as the movie shows us, is ultimately destructive.

Both characters are desperately in love: Judy with Scotty, Scotty with his image of Madeleine. Because she loves Scotty, Judy accedes to his demands to remake her as Madeleine. But as Hitchcock’s directing shows us, the more the obsession controls their lives, the more they fall into a swirling abyss of fantasy and reality that must end badly.

Over 50 years old, Vertigo stands up as an enthralling movie, a magnificent confluence of directing, story, theme and performance. Both Jimmy Stewart and Kim Novak were never better than in their portrayals of Scotty and Judy. And Hitchcock’s performance as director is virtuoso. The movie is littered with clues, hints and meanings. They’re suggested by what he has the camera do, how the sets are designed and how he uses them, by the lighting and through Bernard Herrman’s score.

It’s an incredible orchestration of all the elements of film and what a great movie should be: endlessly rewarding with all it offers up with each viewing.

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