(Film) Vertigo

By David Nilsen

As announced recently, GPL will soon be starting a new movie program called the Third Floor Film Series. We’ll be starting the series on Friday, February 27, at 7 p.m., with Alfred Hitchcock’s 1958 classic Vertigo. I have the privilege of planning and leading this film series, and today I’d like to take some time to discuss Hitchcock’s beloved classic of psychological (and psychosexual) suspense.

While Vertigo now enjoys its rightful status as one of the greatest films ever made, its initial public and critical reception was not nearly so kind. Reviews were mixed, with the low end of that spread expressing disdain and incredulity over the plot and its improbabilities. Hitchcock himself liked the film and recognized it as one of his best, though he was always a bit disappointed with the finished film due to the casting and performance of Kim Novak, which we’ll look at more in a little while.

Before we go any further in discussing the film, I’ll take a moment to warn you that spoilers are ahead. The movie came out fifty-seven years ago, so I don’t feel bad about including plot spoilers here, but if you’ve never seen Vertigo and you’re planning on watching it for the first time with us on February 27 (in which case – awesome!), you might want to skip this essay (unless spoilers don’t bother you).

Vertigo Scottie Madeleine Robe
Scottie (James Stewart) and Madeleine (Kim Novak) in their first conversation.

The film’s plot concerns John “Scottie” Ferguson (James Stewart), a police detective in San Francisco who retires from the force after an unfortunate accident leads to another cop’s death. While chasing a criminal across rooftops, Scottie discovers at the worst possible moment he has acrophobia (fear of heights). His severe case of vertigo while he is dangling from a rooftop leads to the falling death of the officer trying to save him. Scottie retires but is immediately hired by Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore), an old friend from his school days, to track Elster’s wife Madeleine (Kim Novak). Elster explains Madeleine’s recent strange behavior and confesses to Scottie he believes she has become possessed by the spirit of her grandmother, a tortured young soul who committed suicide at 26 – Madeleine’s age. Scottie doesn’t believe the possession yarn but reluctantly agrees to follow Madeleine, and promptly finds himself rescuing her after she jumps into the waters below Golden Gate Bridge.

Naturally, they fall in love (this is Hollywood logic, after all) and begin an affair. Madeleine continues to exhibit strange behavior. On a trip to the lovely Mission San Juan Bautista, she breaks away from Scottie and runs up the winding staircase to the high bell tower. He tries to follow but his vertigo stops him well before the top. He looks out the window and sees Madeleine jump to her death. The death is ruled a suicide.

And then things get weird.

Vertigo Judy
Kim Novak as Judy.

You see, Madeleine was never actually Madeleine. The woman Scottie knew as Madeleine was really Judy, a woman Gavin Elster had hired to impersonate his wife. When Madeleine/Judy ran up the steps of the mission tower, she never jumped. Elster had been waiting at the top of the tower with the dead body of his real wife, whom he had just murdered. He dressed her exactly as Judy was dressed, and threw the dead body off the tower. He knew of Scottie’s vertigo and knew he would never be able to climb the steps to the top, but he also knew Scottie would see her fall and be the perfect witness to establish her death as a suicide. When Scottie sees Judy by chance at some later date, the plot, as they say, thickens.

Her hair, makeup, and dress are different, and he doesn’t recognize her. He does think she bears a resemblance to his (he thinks) dead lover though, and he begins courting her (one might say harassing her, but that’s a subject for a different essay). They fall in love (again), and he begins to remake her, to try to shape her into the perfect image of the Madeleine he thinks he knew. He becomes manipulative, demanding, abusive even, and she complies with his progressively more demeaning demands upon her appearance and behavior. In the emotional (though not structural) climax of the film, he has her go into the bathroom of her hotel room and change her hair (which he has had her dye blonde like Madeleine’s) to match his fantasy, and when she emerges, looking exactly like the vision in his mind (because she is the vision in his mind and he just doesn’t see it yet), it’s as if he’s seen a ghost. He takes her in his arms and the camera moves around them (a nifty bit of technical work) as he fully takes in the object of his obsession.

Vertigo Reaction
James Stewart as Scottie reacting to Judy’s transformation.

He figures out the deception he’s been a victim of when he catches Judy wearing a necklace he recognizes from earlier in the film, and it’s at this point he realizes his living dress-up doll is, in fact, the Madeleine he knew before. He declares they are going to go for dinner out of town, but in reality, he is driving back to the mission. It’s unclear the point at which Judy realizes he knows. By the time he is pushing her up the steps of the tower, it is too late to matter. He begins unleashing on her a potent mix of rage, embarrassment, shame, and self-loathing masked as moral outrage. It is here he delivers perhaps the most personal (and impassioned) monolog of Hitchcock’s entire filmography, one that touches on themes and, let’s be honest, fetishes the great director exhibited throughout his half-century career:

“You wanted to stop it. why did you scream, since you tricked me so well up to then? You played the wife very well, Judy. He made you over, didn’t he? He made you over just like I made you over. Only better. Not only the clothes and the hair. But the looks and the manner and the words. And those beautiful phony trances. And you jumped into the Bay, didn’t you? I’ll bet you’re a wonderful swimmer, aren’t you? Aren’t you? Aren’t you? And then what did he do? Did he train you? Did he rehearse you? Did he tell you exactly what to do and what to say? You were a very apt pupil, too, weren’t you? You were a very apt pupil. Why did you pick on me? Why me?”

Hitchcock was notorious for his treatment and demanding preparation of his actresses, particularly the blondes he so favored. “Hitchcock blondes” were almost always mistreated on screen in his movies, and were often mistreated on set too. Tippi Hedren, star of Hitchcock classics The Birds and Marnie, accused the director of sexual harassment, verbal abuse, and general mistreatment. A scene he forced Hedren to redo in The Birds over the course of several days left the actress so emotionally and psychologically injured she collapsed on set and was put under medical supervision for a week. After refusing his sexual advances, she claims he effectively ended her career by preventing her from working for two years. While no one else has claimed treatment this severe, it was no secret being one of Hitch’s actresses brought certain burdens with it. The director never wanted Novak cast at Judy/Madeleine (he had wanted Vera Miles), and he made his displeasure known to her, and to anyone else who would listen, even after the movie was released.

Donald Spoto in his book The Dark Side of Genius: The Life of Alfred Hitchcock says this about the place of Vertigo in the director’s life:

“Hitchcock’s objections to casting, however, are minor considerations in understanding Vertigo‘s place in his life. This film was his ultimate disclosure of his romantic impulses and of the attraction-repulsion he felt about the object of the impulses: the idealized blond he thought he desired but really believed to be a fraud.” – page 395

Vertigo Icy Blonde
Kim Novak as the classic Hitchcock icy blonde.

Hitchcock publicly denounced the suggestion that his repeated casting and minute preparation of a certain type of blonde actress revealed a personal sexual fetish for him, though the general presumption is that the lady doth protest too much. His women were always aloof, a bit unattainable, dazzling to the men they shared the screen with (almost all of which has some sort of mental, emotional, or physical impairment), brought some manner of humiliation to these men, proved deceitful, and ended up being humiliated in some way themselves. That Hitchcock was so selective in his casting and so precise in his subsequent requests for these actresses’ hair and wardrobe, combined with his treatment of these actresses on set, seems to confirm the role this type played in his own psychology.

Hitchcock and his screenwriters make an unusual decision with the screenplay for this film. Hitchcock is probably the first director who comes to mind when we think of suspense. He was far more interested in anticipation, anxiety, and tension than he was with action and violence. Action and violence appear in his movies only once the audience has suffered in waiting for them to break the tension and fear pervading his plots. What is odd about Vertigo is that the biggest reveal in the whole story – that Judy and Madeleine are the same woman and that Elster hired her to impersonate his wife, which he then killed and threw from the tower – is revealed to us about halfway through the movie. We know the truth the rest of the film, long before Scottie figures it out. There are no more big revelations or surprises. The suspense of the film springs from wondering when Scottie will find out and how he will react.

James Stewart’s Scottie starts out in Vertigo as affable, reasonable, witty, flirtatious but safe. He is wholly sympathetic. Across the course of the film he slowly comes unhinged, and in the process becomes progressively more manipulative and abusive. By the end, he’s nearly a monster, and our sympathy has shifted to Kim Novak’s character, who had started as deceptive and has now become a victim. Their arcs criss-cross, and they exchange our sympathy as they pass each other. If we didn’t know the details of the plot, if we were waiting in anticipation, wondering what the big twist was going to be, we might be too distracted by the machinations of the story to notice this change, to realize what’s happening to Scottie, to recognize his descent into obsessive madness. With nothing hidden from us in the plot, we’re able to focus on this man who is coming apart, and the woman who is trying to escape the scheme she was a part of and the man who is trying to own her. Hitchcock knew what he was doing, and Vertigo was not only his most personal film (whether or not he was able to acknowledge it), but also his most successful as a psychological exploration.

Please plan on attending Vertigo, the first film in our Third Floor Film Series, on February 27. Snacks and soft drinks will be provided, and I will be facilitating a discussion afterward for anyone interested in sticking around to discuss this timeless classic. I look forward to seeing you there.


Resources used for this essay, all available at the Greenville Public Library, include:

The Dark Side of Genius: The Life of Alfred Hitchcock by Donald Spoto, published by Little, Brown in 1983 (791.43 Spoto).

Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light by Patrick McGilligan, published by Regan in 2003 (791.43 McG).

Hitchcock by George Perry, published by Doubleday in 1975 (791.43092 P).

The Great Movies by Roger Ebert, published by Broadway Books in 2002 (791.437 E).

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