Director: Alfred Hitchcock
By Roderick Heath
It’s a long fall into sonorous places, where fetish and film, love and murder, mind and body, disguise and internal truth are all thrown into an ecstatic flux, even as all seems composed with the finest artistic lucidity. It’s a film seemingly situated directly on the nexus at which cinema ultimately converges, in the taunting image with its charge of elusive sensuality, the obsessive hunt for visual perfection, a reconstructed reality filled with trapped moments of time, overwhelming and always intangible. It’s the height of screen romanticism, a swooning vision of emotion as a world-shaping, and world-warping, force, filled with aching emotional immediacy. It’s a bleak and nasty study in varieties of neurosis, misogyny, and folie-a-deux perversity. It’s a triumph of mythopoeic construction and exposition. It’s a thriller and a mystery that subverts most every familiar imperative of those forms. It’s one of the greatest films ever made. It’s Hitchcock, it’s Vertigo.
Hitchcock’s style and persona had begun generating an increasing number of imitators by 1958, and he was working out his black-witted joker side more thoroughly on TV. Many artists would start to feel thinly stretched at such a time, but for Hitchcock, it seemed to liberate something within him. Vertigo followed one of his occasional shifts of gear, with the impressive but compromised realism of The Wrong Man (1957). Vertigo swung to an opposite pole of pure expression, and represented Hitchcock’s entry into one of the most dizzying runs of cinema in history: North by Northwest (1959), Psycho (1960), The Birds (1963), and Marnie (1964) followed. Those four films, alternately playful, ruthless, apocalyptic, and homeopathic, all to a certain extent revisit, revise, and contend with the implications of Vertigo, a work essayed in a state of dream-logic. The film that is probably Hitchcock’s most acclaimed work today, if not at the time of release, was based on the novel D’entre les Morts by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, the bleakly witty duo who had previously provided source material for Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Les Diaboliques (1954), the film rights to which Hitchcock had only been beaten out for by a few hours. Whereas Clouzot had turned their patented narrative style, always cunningly morbid and usually sporting a nasty, head-spinning twist, into one his customarily icy, carefully paced studies in moral rot espoused in material terms, Vertigo embraced the mythical element of the novel’s patterning after the Orpheus and Eurydice myth, as well as transforming it into the tale of a psychological haunting. Hitchcock’s volatile, kinky, romantic streak had always been lurking in his films through the ’40s and early ’50s, where characters chain themselves to people they despise or want to possess so thoroughly that they try to exterminate them, in dances of sadomasochistic emotion.
In Vertigo, Hitchcock left himself and his creative process newly exposed: indeed, “exposed” is the word that constantly flitted through my thoughts in my most recent viewing. Hitch offered up his seminal fetish of the chic, aloof, yet tantalisingly sensual blonde as a constructed, crumbling fantasy, and deliberately hacked off familiar and reassuring resolutions for his tale, leaving only its singular, central matter at hand to be played out to the bitterest end. The feeling of exposure is acutely realised as antiheroine Madeleine/Judy (Kim Novak) awakens stripped nude by a man she doesn’t know in a strange place, an unclothing that precedes a process of creating an artificial version of a presumably real person, a process that rips away a veil and leaves an ugly truth all too visible. The opening, which only sports one superfluous line of dialogue, sees a criminal pursued by two policemen, one in uniform (Fred Graham), the other, Detective John “Scottie” Ferguson (James Stewart), across the rooftops high above San Francisco, a flat plane that soon gives way to chasms over which Scottie finds himself dangling by his fingertips. The pursuit of the criminal is left off; the uniformed cop returns to help but plunges accidentally to his death, leaving Scottie still hanging, how he escaped this fate ever unclear. Instead he has his first attack of vertigo, a delirium where the bottom seems to drop out of the world, leaving Scottie transfixed by the spectacle. The film’s circular structure sees these elements repeat in the finale, and the sensation that Scottie never actually escaped, in a sort of Incident at Owl Creek Bridge variation, is neither specifically suggested nor entirely dispelled. The narrative and visualisation return obsessively to the familiar dream-state terror of falling: Scottie’s semi-crucified pose at the end recreates his dream of plummeting into hell.
Set in a San Francisco rendered as eerie and depopulated as Val Lewton’s New York, splayed out as a sharply relieved topographical map of its hero’s terribly cracked mind, Vertigo provoked audiences of the time, and still does, by shifting from an eerie mystery to a patient study in psychopathology. It reveals the destructive flipside to the romantic-idealising cocoon, essayed in the same high Technicolor terms as the contemporaneous works of Douglas Sirk, Nicholas Ray, and Vincente Minnelli; lush, aestheticized, antirealistic worlds all the better for penetrating the overtaxed 1950s psyche. Working from an uncommonly good script by Alec Coppel and Samuel Taylor with some help from Maxwell Anderson, Hitchcock, by giving his game away early (not that it’s hard to spot), turns the film into the very opposite of the Shyamalan-style twist, as the moment of realisation is dreaded rather than anticipated, and the trap binds both characters and audience, forcing the latter to fear what its protagonist might do when the truth comes out. As a reversal of expectation, it’s as perturbing as those in Psycho, but subtler in method and effect: just as Psycho jars with rapid alternations of protagonist and forced changes in attitude to them, so, too, does Vertigo take his hero from lost Quixote to crucified dupe to vengeful sadist.
Scottie’s early entrance into the realm of the dead leaves him crippled: physically, yes, but he recovers from that, but also mentally, his vertigo now a powerful impediment and one that demands he give up his former life. He has a pally, gregarious, but faintly uneasy relationship with former fiancé Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes), first glimpsed painting ads for brassieres, crouching with pregnant boding over her work as Hitchcock dives in for an electric close-up, redolent of a later deep-focus shot of Suzanne Pleshette in The Birds, where the seemingly blasé quality of the subject is charged with painful interior intensity. The cocktail of emotions within Midge is thus encoded in one precise moment: regret over an opportunity thrown away balanced by a probing, cautious appraisal of whether this was a good or bad move, and awareness that the march of time is rendering alternatives increasingly unlikely. Scottie’s status as middle-aged flunk-out sees him facing a future without apparent purpose. He’s ripe in his phobia for the plots of former college chum Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore), now smoothly ensconced in the plutocracy. Elster wants him to follow his wife Madeleine, who is supposedly haunted by an ancestor, Carlotta Valdez, destroyed by passion and misogyny a century before. Madeleine possess the allure of the unknown, of a kind of unobtainable, ethereal sensuality sheathed in an aura of detachment from the present that a man as fundamentally romantic and isolated as Scottie is cannot resist. She’s also everything that Midge, who, with her gawky glasses, her association with a tawdry, commercialised modern version of sexuality, and her curiously maternal way of holding Scottie when he nearly collapses from a bout of vertigo, is not.
Vertigo has its debts, of course: Hitchcock, a cineaste’s cineaste, was surely keeping Lewton’s films, William Dieterle’s Portrait of Jenny (1945), Luis Buñuel’s El (1953), and possibly even the film that made him want to be a moviemaker, Fritz Lang’s The Weary Death (1921), in mind. In such progenitors, the preternatural forces of psychological desperation and wilfulness warp reality, and symbols of Freudian fluency multiply. Vertigo seems to tease falsely with promises of the supernatural, from the haze of the otherworldly that hovers around Madeleine in her early cemetery visit to the green light that is the chrysalis for the reborn Madeleine in Judy’s hotel room. One of the most strange and disorienting moments comes when Scottie follows Madeleine from a back alley into an unknown building, a brief trip through a shadowy labyrinth that resolves when Scottie opens a door to catch sight of his quarry in the midst of a flower shop, a commercial space transformed into a sea of impressionistic colour outside of reality, with Madeleine a spindle of spectral grey and platinum amidst a wealth of fecundity. This pretext of the unearthly is nominally in place to pull a fast one for a plot involving very corporeal murder and conspiracy, and yet by the end, the uncanny texture has not dissipated, though the film becomes bruising in its immediacy: the motifs of haunting, possession, unseen forces, of the past’s death grip on the present, of romantic period melodramas of tragic ladies and imperious men, are all revealed, far from being remote, unreal, and storybook, as literal and dangerous.
Scottie’s attempts to play the white knight of centred male rationality to save suicidal damsel in distress Madeleine backfires, not simply in leading her to the place where death is predestined to occur, but in his incapacity to discern the way forces beyond the literal and apparent can shape people and events. The notion of individuals acting out not merely parts required for a murder plot but something far more primeval runs into seemingly obvious Freudianisms like Madeleine tracking down Scottie’s apartment thanks to the eternally phallic Coit Tower: just as Madeleine embodies a feminine archetype, so does Scottie as a man—any man, everyman. To learn the truth, Scottie has to repeat the same death-dance that Elster and Madeline, Carlotta and the “rich man” (he has no name: the rich are always with us), and, by implication, a multitude of men and women have repeated over and over, in a tötentanz. Hitchcock’s roots in German Expressionism were showing again, and there’s Wagner in the score, to boot. As the story moves in a circular fashion whilst seeming to move forward, so, too, does time and human identity: both Elster and Scottie step into the role of Carlotta’s husband in their quests, albeit for very different reasons, whilst Carlotta, the real Madeleine, Judy’s false Madeleine and Judy herself all play the maiden dancing before the bulls. When Scottie goes to meet Elster for the first time, the businessman speaks wistfully of an old San Francisco of “color, excitement…power…freedom.” These words sound like the admissions of another romantic nostalgic like Scottie, but they soon turn out to have rather different meanings, as the narrative’s spirit-guide, city folklorist and bookseller Pop Leibel (Konstantin Shayne) specifically defines the kind of power wielded by men like Elster to be the power to kick a woman aside like refuse.
This is precisely what Elster does to his own wife, the most enigmatic figure in the drama, a woman who only exists for Scottie in a purified, ritualised form, through the approximation filled out by Judy. Mirrors recur constantly throughout the film, not simply evoking the interplay of false surfaces and the act of looking, but, as Jean Cocteau also did in his version of the Orpheus myth, lending the mirrors a numinous power as portals. In one vital scene, in which Scottie spies on Madeleine in the flower shop through a slightly opened door, a mirror on the door places his face in darkness and hers surrounded by riotous blossoms, all contained in the same shot, inviting Scottie to leave behind the busy workaday world he’s just come out of and enter a rarefied realm of beauty and decay—or perhaps the opposite, as Madeleine will stumble into Scottie’s personal underworld. Later, again in a shop, as Judy begins to acquiesce to Scottie’s desire to remake her, the duo appear, locked in a twinning image as each now begins a shift in identity. As Scottie begins his pursuit of Madeleine, he is framed creeping through a graveyard, low-angle shots revealing the church steeples over his head: fate is encaging him already, as Madeleine drifts in Vaseline-infused eeriness. On top of everything else, Vertigo, now the quintessential San Francisco movie, is uniquely cunning in the way it sees Hitchcock’s usual device of using famous locales as settings for suspense here carefully rebuilding the city’s tourist-board tropes—the Golden Gate Bridge, the Presidio, Coit Tower, the Palace of the Legion of Honor—into stations of a private mythology, markers in a tale of desperate wanderings and the search for identity.
Everything becomes charged with a significance in this world, from the paintings that enclose secret meanings and reflect essential, half-sensed truths for the attentive, to Madeleine’s subsequent pause before the waters of the Golden Gate to crumble a bouquet into the bay, perhaps the film’s most famous image, possessing an intangible, atavistic power. Of course, in America there is no boatman for the River Styx, but rather a suspension bridge suddenly transmuted into a totem as weightless and fragile as the equally totemic petals that Madeleine casts into the waters, followed by herself. In a sequoia forest, as silent and reverential as any cathedral, Madeleine tries to measure her “past” life as Carlotta upon the rings of a sequoia cross-section upon which other markers of history passing are fixed—the Magna Carta, the Declaration of Independence—triumphs of the official version of history, inimical as that often is to subtler truths. James Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus called history the nightmare from which he was trying to wake up, but in Vertigo, the nightmare is ongoing, inescapable. Scottie’s nightmare, which precipitates his total collapse after Madeleine’s death, ends without a sense of awakening, but rather, as Scottie sits up, grief and fear afire in his eyes, it’s plain that the dream has invaded his life.
Just as individuals create chains of behaviour that result in recurring tragedy, contemporary California rests on a colonial background, an older world transposed onto new shores and almost—but not quite—smothered by the modern, still glimmering through the haze, much like the tell-tale sign that is the necklace which finally enlightens Scottie, and the small, preserved Mission San Juan Bautista becomes the crux of colliding past and present. Such motifs evoke not only the secret, mostly subsumed, yet still lingering hints of a past based in invasion and forcible claiming of a foreign land, something that’s not supposed to haunt America but does, and also of spiritual reckonings, as the ghostly black shape that looms out of the darkness that causes the very last ironic tragedy proves not to be a ghost or a killer, but a nun, incarnation of a judgement that falls on everyone.
Vertigo contains scenes that are near-unbearable to sit through, not because of any overt violence, but rather the sense of interpersonal pain and pathos they provoke. Hitchcock had long possessed the gift for creating such moments, and those here are as acute in their understanding of the potential for masochistic cruelty inherent in exposing one’s self in affection. Hitchock had memorably worked this same note in the wince-provoking scene in Rebecca (1940), when Joan Fontaine’s heroine, expecting to delight with her dress copied from an old painting, is instead the figure of revulsion and rage. Midge’s attempt to goad Scottie by placing herself into the painting of Carlotta, an act of Dadaist satire and emotional revenge in the guise of a joke, clearly resembles that scene from Rebecca, and works similarly like nails on a chalkboard for Scottie. Inserting Midge’s clunky glasses into the lush classicism of the painting violates and desecrates the texture of romanticism and provocative sensuality radiated by the enshrined exotic woman of beauty and calamity. Midge’s self-castigating frenzy after Scottie leaves is dismaying, not simply because it’s so easy to empathise with her sense of losing her last grip on Scottie through a naked, passive-aggressive play for his affection, but also because she had a point: Scottie’s attachment to the ethereal mystery woman will destroy both him and the woman. Whilst Rebecca is often seen as one of Hitchcock’s less personal films because he had producer David Selznick’s foot on his neck, it clearly offered up motifs of inestimable power to Hitchcock. He essays many of them again here—evocative paintings, borrowed apparel, love objects both conflated and tauntingly dissimilar, vertiginous heights, the mysticism of the coast, and the half-maniacal, half-distraught male protagonist. But whereas Rebecca’s Max de Winter fought tooth and nail to prevent his lower-class, young bride from coming to resemble the deceased former idol who still haunts him, Scottie does the opposite, attempting to effect the perfect recreation, as Orpheus becomes Pygmalion. Judy, however, gives in for the same reason that Fontaine’s heroine did, as the allure and promise of transformation seems to guarantee a love that is elusive and painful, evoking in folkloric terms Hans Anderson’s original Little Mermaid, who, giving up her natural state to join the world of men and play the mate, must live with the constant sensation of knives slicing into her feet.
Similarly difficult to sit through is Midge’s final attempt to reach Scottie in the pit of his psychological collapse, and her exit from the film. The crucial last act commences as Scottie begins the process of remaking Judy into Madeleine. The essential similarity of this movement to the process of creating a movie star, and even more specifically to Hitchcock’s own attempts to mould a string of starlets into the “Hitchcock Blonde,” gives it a special pungency, but it’s hard to enough to watch without such meta-narrative concerns, in the precise interplay of Scottie’s obsessiveness and Judy’s masochism.
Jonathan Rosenbaum once persuasively reevaluated Novak’s career to point out how conscientious she was, and through her, the filmmakers who utilised her, that her aura of glamour was false, and that she had a working-class Chicago background. She let the audience glimpse the disparity all the time. Novak told a story about her first screen test where the director said to others watching it, “Don’t listen to her, just look.” It’s hard to think of an anecdote that summarises more precisely the contempt for the actual person behind the façade of beauty fetishized by Hollywood, and the tension of this lies behind Novak’s performance here as Hitchcock explores the process. Hitchcock’s later professed dissatisfaction with Novak only solidifies how apt the casting was, for he could not end up with a new Grace Kelly, but rather an actress who makes the audience conscious of her not being Grace Kelly. Robert Aldrich later used Novak in his even more hysterically self-analytical The Legend of Lylah Clare (1968), in which a film director moulds her character into a precise recreation of a long-dead movie idol. Novak’s performance here is a masterpiece of behavioural acting, most acute when Judy-as-Judy first enters the film. Novak contrasts the floating movements of Judy-as-Madeleine, so apparently blithe that she can vanish when Scottie looks away, with the tigerish way Judy backs off from Scottie when he penetrates her hotel room for the first time. Novak reveals her alertness to the distinct difference between the Brahmin Madeleine and the plebeian Judy, in her physical vulnerability and the entirely different way of moving, feeling, and sensing this entails. The fatal move Judy makes in returning to Madeleine is in surrendering this sovereign force.
When Scottie takes Judy out to dinner for the first time, returning to the restaurant where he first saw Madeleine to more deeply test the accuracy of Judy’s facsimile of his lost love, the way she gauchely drains her liquor shows she is both aware of and signals her gaucheness and communicates a subtle but lethal observation: Judy can no longer be just Judy because it entails another kind of acting, playing up the pretence of being the shopgirl from the remote wastes of the Midwest, even as Judy longs to be loved by Scottie in and for herself. Now, she will always be two people, a fact finally elucidated as she becomes Madeleine again and all her mannerisms shift. Her decision to risk being found out goes beyond simple willingness to risk her life for her love, for her character has been left as permanently fragmented as Scottie’s. The final revelation that Judy is, in a peculiar way, innocent of murder even though she is complicit, gives the finale its last ingredient for tragedy. Her final rush from Scottie’s arms to ascend the fateful church steeple was a last-minute and hopeless tilt at saving them both by saving the “real” Madeleine, who Elster has already killed before he hurls her body away.
Just as Judy is not entirely guilty, Scottie becomes increasingly less innocent in his subjecting her to the ritual of exorcism by again ascending the tower, hauling her up the stairs with a savage exultancy to his anguish. Novak as Judy lets her capacious breasts hang freely under a sweater whilst her face is overly made-up to lend her a cheap and brassy ring that is nonetheless less far more earthy-seeming; Madeleine’s passively blank façade gives way to the lynx-like tilt Judy’s face offers as she wards off Scottie. Whereas in Rebecca, Rope (1948), Strangers on a Train (1951), and later in The Birds and Marnie, Hitchcock was willing to suggest, with differing amplitudes and intentions, a protean sexuality underlying the drama, here, same-sex attractions are kept out of the equation. The tale becomes rather a passion play for the way men see women and women see themselves through men, therefore ironically drawing out even more precisely the element so prized by camp aesthetics—a heightened awareness of the construction of femininity through carefully wrought signifiers.
Stewart’s career-best performance as Scottie is a thing of awful beauty, shifting his character from a neurotic, but avuncular presence in early scenes to an excruciatingly single-minded zombie in the later sequences: even when he’s oppressive and frightening, it’s still all too easy to empathise with Scottie’s sense of howling disillusionment, aggrieved rage, and still-guttering desire for a lost ideal. Like Norman Bates, a much more overtly mad and homicidal antihero, Scottie is an attempt by Hitchcock to explore more deeply a unity of opposites, hero and villain, victim and perpetrator, always constantly lurking under his variations on the “wrong man” tales. Like Norman, the battle sees Scottie reduced to a virtual catatonic, locked like a bodhisattva in a state of profound collapse, personality and perspective in total flux, and like Norman, he engages in an extended act of perverse ventriloquism for a dead woman. Unlike Norman, Scottie emerges from his crisis, but his end is scarcely any better. Perhaps the most heartbreaking moment in Vertigo is the brief window between Judy’s transformation back in Madeleine, and Scottie’s realisation that she was her all along and the hideous joke that’s been played on him. Scottie is at his most relaxed and good-humoured since the start of the film, and Judy is newly joyous. This idyll lasts about 30 seconds, but the pull it exerts is powerful, as it suggests that both of them have actually found the happiness they sought. Yet here Hitchcock is at his most consciously unremitting: the illusion, however gratifying, most immediately crumbles. As Judy realises where Scottie is taking her, her acute discomfort is well-founded (has anyone done a survey of the many scenes in Hitchcock’s films where people have dramatically telling trips in cars together?), and Scottie, in his moment of exorcism and revelation, becomes the animal, wolfish and savage, Judy now cowering like a rabbit until he exhausts himself and gives in to her entreaty, but fate still has its very last card to pull. Unlike his counterpart in Boileau and Narcejac’s novel, Scottie does not murder Judy to close the circle, but instead puts her in the place of the dead woman, and whilst her death is accidental, Scottie is still irredeemably tethered to Judy’s sad end and can only hover on the edge of oblivion, look upon his own works, and tremble.
Vertigo was released right at the cusp of the emergence of the French New Wave directors who would both make his influence on them a matter of international argument and interest, whilst eating away at the fundamental principles he represented in their films. Yet with Vertigo, Hitchcock created something like a new lexicon for filmmakers who would follow him. The delicate dissolves and camera dollies that tether together the stages of Scottie’s pursuit of Madeleine whilst heightening the somnolent mood; the famous zoom-in, pull-back effect that literalises the effect of vertigo; the swirling 360° camera move, complete with an apparent change in setting from Judy’s flat to the stable at San Juan Bautista, as Scottie embraces the reconfigured Madeleine, a flourish that captures the soaring rapture and reality-shattering intensity in finally embracing a lover. All these tricks and more reconfigure the quality in scenes that would usually be expressed through dialogue and performance into the purely expressive imagery, working on both physical and intellectual levels. Thus, Hitchcock finally did something he had tried to achieve throughout his career: he dovetailed narrative interest and the cinematic device into a perfect union. Hitch, for all his brilliance, had often failed to employ such effects within a cohesive whole, one reason why more suspicious and literary-minded viewers had always regarded him as a gimmick-monger. Vertigo, however, is a continent entirely sufficient to itself. Whilst he hit possibly even more powerful heights in Psycho, The Birds, and Marnie, where he wrestles profoundly with the schism between his annihilating and redemptive urges, a schism dispatched with pitch-black sarcasm here, those films are all admittedly patchier and less perfect.
Hitchcock had invaluable aid from the technical team that was working like a crack military outfit at this time, especially costumer Edith Head and cinematographer Robert Burks, whose pictures at once absorb the physical reality of his settings and yet transform them into imagistic haiku. Of course, composer Bernard Herrmann also hit the pinnacle of his cinema career here, and his score is the aspect of the film that has arguably sunk most deeply into the pop-cultural landscape. Whilst writing this review, I was listening to a British TV mystery show where a recurring musical motif was baldly copied from it. And why not, when he created a perfect tone for sustaining a sense of spiraling mystery and all-pervading, oneiric fantasy? The recent hoo-hah about the use of a passage from the score in The Artist (2011) simply highlighted its invasive, iconic power.
I’ve found that Vertigo becomes a different movie when revisited at distinct stages of life. For myself, the movie-happy teenager who first saw it after being converted irrevocably into a Hitchcock fan and proper cinephile by a viewing of North by Northwest, I found it a decent, creepy mystery ruined by a plunge into weird melodrama. Then it became a staggering and grueling study in life’s regrets: just about everyone has been Scottie, Judy, Midge, even Madeleine at some time. It’s still a film for anyone who genuinely loves cinema; it’s also a film for anyone who’s been wrung by life, both in their own expectations of it and the shifting perceptions of time.