In the late 1950s, Alfred Hitchcock began a string of four features that would rank at the top of his list of great works: Vertigo (1958), North by Northwest (1959), Psycho (1960), and The Birds (1963). These films, along with The 39 Steps (1939), Notorious (1946), and Strangers on a Train (1951) are his greatest achievements. The four later masterpieces starting with Vertigo are all strangely wonderful – delirious expressionistic nightmares haunted by Hitchcock’s own personal demons, though they were passed off to the public as conventional action/adventure thrillers. A key element to most of those films was Bernard Herrmann’s riveting musical scores, which added another layer of emotional tension to the viewing experience. The expressionistic flamboyance dazzled audiences, but confused critics looking for standard suspense-film theatrics. Those films also featured, for the most part, Hitchcock’s unique and innovative narrative structures which, despite the mainstream status of the films, differed from the conventional narrative formats of Hollywood films. North by Northwest revived the concatenated mini-story scheme of The Man Who Knew Too Much and The 39 Steps, while on the other hand, Vertigo and Psycho both featured two virtually complete stories, back-to-back.
Vertigo stars, James Stewart and Kim Novak, in the two signature Hitchcock role models that dominated much of his oeuvre. Stewart plays the ordinary unassuming man whose middle-class existence is turned upside down by an intrusive and unexpected chain of events. Novak, who at that time was a rival to Marilyn Monroe’s status as the iconic Hollywood romantic superstar, plays the beautiful, but remote and seemingly unattainable, blonde that often populated Hitchcock’s films. There is also commonly a third, supporting, role in Hitchcock’s films – that of the somewhat dowdy motherly figure who represents the polar opposite to the glamorous blonde. In Vertigo that third role is filled by Barbara Bel Geddes, who plays Scottie’s down-to-earth and secretly enamored friend, Midge Wood.
The story of Vertigo concerns recently retired police detective, John 'Scottie' Ferguson (Stewart), who is asked by a now-wealthy former college chum, Gavin Elster, to find our more about his wife’s mysterious and perhaps suicidal behaviour. Scottie’s retirement from the force was caused by his harrowing participation in a rooftop police chase that led to a colleague’s fatal fall and nearly his own. Now he suffers from a debilitating fear of heights (acrophobia). With free time on his hands, Scottie agrees to shadow his friend’s young wife, Madeleine Elster (Novak), and learn more about her mysterious wanderings about the city. Madeleine, he soon learns, is obsessed with the suicide of her great-grandmother, Carlotta Valdez. Her obsession entails occasionally falling into a trance and wandering about San Francisco to visit sites associated with Carlotta’s past. Eventually Scottie rescues Madeleine from a suicide attempt and becomes romantically involved with her. On the occasion of another suicide attempt, this time at a Spanish mission south of San Francisco, though, Scottie’s acrophobia prevents him from stopping Madeleine from climbing a tower and leaping to her death. A year later and still trying to recover himself, Scottie sees an ordinary shopgirl, Judy Barton (also played by Novak), who reminds him of Madeleine. The focalizaton now shifts to Judy, as she has a quick mental flashback that reveals the key subterfuge in the film: she really is the same girl that Scottie had met earlier, but she is not the real Madeleine, only a lookalike as part of Gavin Elster’s elaborate scheme to murder his real wife and cover up the evidence. Judy and Scottie now begin dating, but Scottie stubbornly compels the reluctant Judy to make herself over to look like Madeleine, and the stage is set for a tragic ending.
What makes the narrative of Vertigo interesting is that the film really has two almost distinct, but linked, narratives that are concatenated together: the Madeleine Elster (ME) narrative and the Judy Barton (JB) narrative. They are linked by the central theme surrounding Scottie: self-possession and control in a dangerous and uncertain world. Those who have acrophobia know that the dread of heights is not centered around the possibility that one might accidentally fall. The basis of the fear is that one might impulsively jump on one’s own accord. This is in some sense the ultimate fear: the fear of one’s own self-destructive impulses, the fear of losing one’s mind. After Scottie’s harrowing career-ending experience on the police force, he sets about trying to recover his sense of control and normalcy. As a hard-headed rationalist and empiricist, he feels that he can achieve this in a logical fashion. He will simply subject himself, cautiously, little by little, to overlooking greater and greater heights and getting accustomed to the situation at each stage until his acrophobia is cured. Ah, if only it were that simple! (Unfortunately, many psychologists today still operate according to that naive notion.) Anyway, this is the way Scottie operates, and we have reason to suspect that Scottie’s habitual cautious rationalism may have even stalled his romantic relationship years ago with his friend, Midge. When he meets the mysteriously troubled Madeleine, her ethereal beauty overwhelms his inhibitions. Scottie, the rationalist, reasserts himself to rid Madeleine of the demon “possessing” her. But his own personal demon, his acrophobia, thwarts his efforts and leaves him shattered as the ME narrative comes to a close. Although Scottie had finally surrendered to the irrational temptations of love, his tragic flaw was his inability to master his self-doubts and save his beloved from self-destruction.
At about eighty minutes, the ME narrative provides enough material for a film on its own. But there’s more to come: the JB narrative is another story in its own right. This time Scottie, again the rationalist, tries to reconstruct the mysterious allure of his lost love. Consider now the narrative structure of Vertigo that leads through the ME and JB stories.
1. Introduction and Background (14 minutes).
The event that led to Scottie’s disabling fear of heights is covered. We are also introduced to Scottie’s loyal companion, Midge Wood. Scottie is then hired to follow the wife of an old college friend of his, Gavin Elster.
2. The Madeleine Elster Narrative (65 minutes)
- The 1st Encounter (23 minutes). Scottie tracks Madeleine as she visits sites around San Francisco associated with her great-grandmother, Carlotta Valdez. This includes a museum that features a painting of Carlotta, a cemetery with Carlotta’s tombstone, and a hotel that was once Carlotta’s homestead. Afterwards, Scottie talks to Midge and Gavin Elster and learns more about Madeleine.
- The 2nd Encounter (14 minutes). The next day Scottie shadows Madeleine again. When she attempts suicide by jumping into San Francisco Bay, Scottie leaps in after her to pull her out. He takes her to his place and they become friends, to the consternation of the jealous Midge.
- The 3rd Encounter (16 minutes). Scottie now wants to help Madeleine recover her sanity, and the two of them discuss her psychological affliction at a redwood park and by the seaside. In the process they become more intimate, and eventually they embrace passionately. Scottie has surrendered and plunged into the irrationality of love and passion.
- The 4th Encounter (10 minutes). Madeleine tells Scottie of her nightmare about an old Spanish mission, and Scottie recognizes that she is dreaming of a historic monument south of the city. Scottie, the rationalist again, insists on taking her there in order to familiarize her with that site and thereby render it mundane enough to cure her of her psychosis. When they arrive, Madeleine rushes up the steep bell tower steps, with Scottie unable to pursue her quickly because of his acrophobia. Halfway up the steps, he sees her fall to her death.
- Background (10 minutes). Although a local court case clears Scottie of any malfeasance in Madeleine’s death, he suffers a nervous breakdown and is institutionalized. Midge tries to comfort him in the mental ward, but Scottie is virtually catatonic.
- Scottie meets Judy (13 minutes). One year later, Scottie is on the outside, but he is still haunted by images that remind him of Madeleine. Finally, he sees Judy, who reminds him of Madeleine, and after following her back to her hotel, he invites her out for dinner for later that night. After he departs, Judy has the flashback, which reveals that she had been the "Madeleine" that Scottie had met earlier, but not the real Madeleine. The real Madeleine has been murdered by Elster, and Judy had been used by Elster in a ruse to sucker Scottie into testifying in court that Madeleine had committed suicide. But counter to plans, Judy had truly fallen in love with Scottie on that earlier occasion. She now resolves not to run away but to follow her heart in the hopes that he will fall in love with her again – but hoping that this time he will fall in love with the real Judy and not the role she played.
- The Makeover (15 minutes). Scottie is now bent this time, not on curing someone else, but on curing himself. He begins to make Judy over to look more and more like the Madeline that he remembers. Judy is reluctant, but she submits in order to please Scottie. Eventually Judy is coerced into reproducing Madeleine’s appearance exactly as before, and Scottie is enraptured. By recreating “Madeleine”, Scottie has apparently undone, in his own mind at least, the personal weakness that led him to lose his beloved. Scottie, the rationalist, has now recovered himself and his fragile sense of control over his surroundings.
- The Final Fall (11 minutes). On one of the dates, Scottie observes the transformed Judy wearing a necklace that could only have belonged to the original Madeleine, and it is a revelation for him. He now realizes that the original “Madeleine” he had fallen in love with had actually been Judy. In fact Judy had been Gavin Elster’s mistress and accomplice in his diabolical plan to murder scheme. Scottie’s rationality has finally triumphed in a way: he has figured everything out. But in the process his rationality has destroyed his dream of love. Judy is now seen as merely the castoff mistress of a murderer. Even Scottie’s makeover of Judy into “Madeleine” wasn’t as accomplished as Elster’s more perfect makeover of the same girl. Rather than redeeming him, Scottie’s rationality has shattered his sense of mastery and self-possession. And yet Judy really does passionately love him, just the same. His only salvation would be to abandon his calculations and to surrender completely to Judy’s love. This he seems to do in the end, but it is too late.
Another issue, besides dread, is that of personal authenticity, and the acting (often under-appreciated in Hitchcock’s films) is effective in this regard. The customarily straightforward and guileless James Stewart is well-suited for the role of Scottie. Kim Novak is outstanding in her dual roles, as she expresses her unspoken longing for an authentic union with Scottie. In this connection one should also mention Barbara Gel Geddes’s role as Midge, which is more important than it may seem at first. She not only represents “safety” for Scottie, but also authenticity. Her frustration over her inability to connect with him is both touching and memorable. The fact that Midge disappears from the second part of the film (the JB narrative) is an indication of Scottie’s further dislocation from his moorings.
Some viewers of the film are disappointed that the secret behind the ruse and the mistaken identity is given away well before the climax of the film. But the film is not really about Gavin Elster’s crime. Fundamentally, Vertigo is about irrational fear and desire – essentially our universal fear of madness and the uncontrollable impulses that may drive us to our destruction. But the film’s appeal is not just what is told, but the way it is told. Vertigo has grown in the esteem of critics and audiences alike over the years, and this is due to its slow-paced dreamy expressionism that floods the screen. Some of the expressive techniques employed to achieve this effect include:
- The lush color cinematography. This was the heyday of technicolor, with colors brighter and more saturated than in real life. Some critics have expressed concern about recent color enhancements to the fading print, suggesting that such “corrections” might damage the “realism” of the original. But such adjustments are only likely to contribute to the desired outcome.
- The bizarre camera angles and compositions – often low-angle camera shots with San Francisco’s iconic landmarks looming in the background.
- Bernard Herrmann’s relentlessly ominous and foreboding soundtrack.
- The slow, hypnotic driving sequences with Scottie tailing Madeleine in extended sequences of driving, always in the downward direction (into the maelstrom) on San Francisco's steeply inclined streets and turning (evoking vertigo).
- Scottie’s breakdown at the beginning of the JB narrative (or you could say separating the ME and JB narratives). This is a phantasmagoric abstract expressionistic sequence reminiscent of Fritz Lang’s Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler (1922).