Film 101 is In Reel Deep’s commitment to an in-depth re-examination of cinematic classics — old and new. Learn more about the ongoing series and see others in it on our Film 101 page.
Alfred Hitchcock’s masterful Vertigo is a story about the damaging effect of playing upon someone else’s guilt to get them to act in your interest. This is an interesting thing about which to make a movie, to say nothing of trying to make it suspenseful instead of merely depressing. Viewed another way, it’s one of Hitchcock’s darker works thematically, which feels weird when you have aw-shucks-ing Jimmy Stewart as retired police detective Scottie Ferguson here, and people like, say, Norman Bates, a serial killer with serious mommy issues, in other films.
But, really, what reflects more poorly on the human race than its propensity to use someone else’s deepest, darkest, most haunting regrets for personal gain. Norman Bates can at least be written off as a twisted and rare aberration. The type of sordid manipulation exercised first on Scottie Ferguson and then, unwittingly, by him is, by orders of magnitude, more common, and arguably just as damaging to human life.
Three bodies have piled up by the end of Vertigo, which is quite a tally for a story that isn’t (or at least doesn’t seem) all that preoccupied with death.
The first is the policeman who, stooping to help Scottie as he dangles from a gutter many stories above the pavement, stumbles and tumbles to his death. This is the only death that isn’t the result of and/or directly linked to a guilt complex.
Hitchcock is credited with popularizing the term MacGuffin, and this is one of his most classic implementations. At least superficially, the accident is a part of the plot purely to explain why Scottie makes such a perfect mark for his old college pal Gavin Elster – to give a plausible backstory to the ample free time with which he can investigate the eccentric behavior of Elster’s wife and to explain why Elster can count on him never making it up the steps of the bell tower at Mission San Juan Bautista.
Think about it a little more and you could easily argue that the accident inspires pangs of deep guilt in Scottie before he ever sets eyes on Kim Novak. Indeed, he’s in quite the funk just before he meets with Elster when he visits with Midge at her apartment.
“There’s no losing it and there’s no one to blame,” he tells Midge.
He’s talking about the vertigo that has forced him into retirement from the police force, but he could just as easily be talking about guilt – his or anyone else’s.
The second body is, of course, Madeleine Elster’s – the real Madeleine Elster’s, which is subbed in for Novak as Scottie struggles with the stairs on that bell tower. Gavin Elster’s exploitation of Scottie’s considerable frailties is as comprehensive as it is abhorrent. It occurs in every moment leading up to his failed tower climb and in every moment after, Scottie serving as the unwitting instrument through which her death is falsely ruled a suicide.
He’s been thoroughly duped by his old friend Gavin and his accomplice, Novak’s Judy Barton, serving as a body double for the real Madeleine. But in his own way, he’s responsible for Gavin getting away with a grisly murder – for being taken in by a ghost’s apparent possession of a beautiful blonde. Scottie’s subsequent guilt is such that he ends up in a psychiatric ward for a spell.
The improvement in his mental health brings us to the third body, that of Judy Barton’s. Here, the guilt – running two ways -- is most excruciating of all. There is hers, a consequence of her role in his downfall. And there is his, fueling a pathological drive to bring Madeleine back to life and creating a feedback loop that ends with her leaping from the bell tower in earnest this time around.
Does Scottie know why he’s able to exercise such power over Judy – able to get her to change the color of her hair and dress in Madeleine’s clothes? Surely not, which is what’s so disturbing about the dynamic between them. And that may be the point. His obsession leads to a near-complete objectification of his counterpart. He pushes her and pushes her and pushes her without ever questioning why she’s conceding ground until they find their way back to the bell tower.
Vertigo is a mood film as much as it is a heady thriller. It is established in the opening credits with ocular closeups, sharp colors, most notably red, and those trippy spirals. It is carried throughout via Bernard Hermann’s score. Everything is designed to keep you off balance, to visually and aurally simulate the sensation that torments Scottie.
It’s all a quite ideal pairing for a plot that envelops you even as it warns you not to be taken in by it. Like Scottie, we want to believe that there’s a mysterious supernatural explanation for Madeleine’s suicidal behavior even though we know better.
This is human nature. Of course Madeleine is not the “beautiful and sad Carlotta.” Of course we want to believe that’s why she leaped into San Francisco bay and later from the Mission bell tower.
“You shouldn’t keep souvenirs of a killing,” Scottie tells Judy when he finally pieces together her deceit. “You shouldn’t have been that sentimental.”
Ostensibly, he is admonishing her, but, again, he might as well have been talking to himself.
Vertigo, like its predecessor in this series, Citizen Kane, has enjoyed quite the renaissance over the last few decades. The British Film Institute’s Sight & Sound critics’ poll – taken once every 10 years – named it the best of all-time in 2012. This is in stark contrast to the lukewarm reception it received upon its release in 1958.
To be sure, it takes time for anything to be rightly considered a classic, even for a director as prolific as Hitchcock.
Do I think it’s the best film ever made? No, but I also don’t think I’m qualified to even begin to answer that question. I’m not even sure it’s Hitchcock’s greatest film, which also doesn’t mean it isn’t a masterpiece.
I will say that I don’t think it ages quite as well as Citizen Kane, which is a tale of mythological proportions sent on a thunderbolt from Olympus. Given Vertigo’s growing legend, it appears I may be in a minority that feels that way.