#9 Vertigo (1958)

by Trey Hock on July 2, 2011

in 1 Year, 100 Movies,Columns

For 1 Year, 100 Movies, contributor/filmmaker Trey Hock is watching all of AFI’s 100 Years, 100 Movies list (compiled in 2007) in one year. His reactions to each film are recorded here twice a week until the year (and list) is up!

What a weird and wonderfully perfect film for AFI to choose as the final and most highly regarded of Alfred Hitchcock’s work. #9 “Vertigo” could be the greatest film from an absolute legend, who has already dominated the list with three prior appearances. Hitchcock’s previous listed films, “North by Northwest,” “Rear Window,” and “Psycho,” have all, at least in part, focused on his obsession with control.

Whether you’re a charming young psychotic or a suave older silver fox, Hitchcock is going to put the screws to you. Each of Hitchcock’s protagonists is subjected to an immobilizing lack of control, whether it is from a lack of knowledge, a physical injury, or a psychological condition. Each of his men acts out against their helplessness in differing ways, with heroic or frightening results. In all cases, there is a sexual bent to the man’s actions, and it’s always aimed at a stoic, and stiff blonde beauty.

Hitchcock uses “Vertigo” to continue his exploration of the physical and emotional impotence of his male characters, as well as their desire to control the women that are closest to them. Hitchcock gives us perhaps his most multifaceted character, John Ferguson (James Stewart), a detective forced to give up police work when he develops acrophobia (the fear of heights) after a traumatic event.

Hitchcock again shows us that the most fascinating characters are often the most flawed. Ferguson is an active lawman until he’s out on a job, misses a jump while chasing a ne’er-do-well, and watches as his fellow officer plummets to his death.

John Hangs from the Guttering

After this brief setup, Hitchcock begins the story in earnest. John has mended except for his newly acquired fear of heights accompanied by vertigo, and we catch back up with him as he spends an afternoon in his friend Midge’s (Barbara Bel Geddes) apartment. There is an obvious comfort and tension between the two, and we soon find out that Midge and John we’re once engaged.

The effortless complexity contained within “Vertigo” gives this film the ability to stand up to endless viewings. I’ll use a short conversation between Midge and John as an example. Midge playfully states that there is only one man for her, and John replies that it’s him. He then reveals that the pair was once engaged, and it was Midge that broke it off.

Maybe two or three lines of dialogue are used and yet we could now speculate endlessly about what the relationship between these two consists of. Is it a deep friendship, a fizzled love affair, or something else? Maybe John couldn’t commit, but then why did Midge break it off? If it ended badly, then why is John sitting on her couch and sharing a pleasant conversation with her? The relationship between Midge and John isn’t even at the heart of “Vertigo,” and yet even here Hitchcock creates layer upon layer of story.

Because of his acrophobia, John takes early retirement from the police force, but an old friend, Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore), asks John for a favor. It seems that Gavin’s wife, Madeline (Kim Novak), has been acting strangely. She seems to have been possessed by a malevolent spirit, and Gavin believes that while in one of her trances, Madeline may hurt herself. Gavin wants John to follow Madeline to accumulate evidence, so that Gavin may be able to commit her to an institution.

John follows Madeline to a florist where she purchases a small arrangement. From there she visits an old grave at the Mission Dolores, before going to the Legion of Honor, where she sits and stares at a large portrait.

Madeline Stares at the Painting

John finds out that the woman in both the painting and the grave are the same, Carlotta Valdes. She was a tragic figure. The discarded mistress of a wealthy businessman, Carlotta took her own life when she was the same age as Madeline.

Gavin tells John that Madeline was related to Carlotta and that he fears she may try to take her own life. As if on cue, Madeline jumps into San Francisco Bay. John, who has become enamored of Madeline, rushes to pull her from the watery depths.

John Pulls Madeline from the Bay

John rushes the unconscious Madeline back to his apartment, and puts her to bed. When she wakes, they have an awkward, but pleasant chat by John’s fire. John’s growing obsession with Madeline is becoming manifest. She seems to share his affections, if not his obsession, but then again she is not the one who gazes, she is the object that is gazed upon.

As the two wander the city together, it seems only a matter of time before something like this happens.

The Oceanside Kiss

Hitchcock’s use of compositing is overt and brilliant. This is how you get the ocean waves to hit at exactly the right moment. In less confident hands the scene would have fallen apart, but as it stands it pushes the viewer emotionally. This scene, like most of Hitchcock’s work, has been parodied many times over, but the original still maintains its power.

Madeline continues to fall into her trances, but John has hope that with encouragement, Madeline might shake the spirit that seems to have taken hold.

Meanwhile, Midge has discovered what John has been up to, and, in order to get his attention, she paints a portrait for him as a gift.

Midge’s Replica of Carlotta’s Portrait

This moment doesn’t last for very long, since John doesn’t find Midge’s joke very funny, but this single image of the pained Midge sitting next to her wonderful and awkward self-portrait tells us all we need to know. That Midge still holds a flame for John is apparent, and in his eyes she will never measure up to his idealized image of Madeline.

Madeline continues having her visions, in them she sees a Spanish mission, which John identifies as Mission San Juan Bautista. They plan a day trip, but everything seems to be unraveling. When Madeline runs off to the bell tower, John weighed down by his acrophobia cannot follow. As he struggles up the stairs, Madeline throws herself from the tower’s heights.

Madeline Fallen

John looks down on his lover helpless.

John Looks Down on Madeline’s Body

If you have never seen “Vertigo,” then shame on you, but more importantly, STOP READING THIS NOW! Everything from here on out will ruin the experience of viewing it on your own. Now go watch “Vertigo.”

Now.

Madeline’s death doesn’t occur until over halfway through “Vertigo.” The first half is all tone and character development. A number of critics at the time of the film’s release in 1958 complained that it takes too long to get going. I feel that the slow plodding pace accentuates the jolt of speed that happens after Madeline’s death. From here until the end, the film’s pace is relentless.

Consumed by guilt, John succumbs to a feverish dream where he sees Carlotta framed in such a way as to accentuate her necklace.

Carlotta’s necklace

At this moment, we take this image for granted, and see it as an image of Carlotta’s spirit haunting John. He did after all follow Madeline as she wandered from relic to relic marking Carlotta’s life and death.

Hitchcock doesn’t mess around though. Everything within any of his frames is placed there for a reason, either to direct or misdirect our attention. He continues to layer in information in such a way as to make the viewer feel brilliant later on, when the reason is finally revealed.

Unfortunately it is less our deductive reasoning and powers of observation, and more Hitchcock’s obsessive control and mastery of his medium. He hides everything in plain sight and uses repetition to reinforce his intent. Hitchcock may be a controlling and brilliant master, but the payoff is oh so worth it.

John’s dream continues in hallucinatory glory, and he envisions himself falling into an open grave. Hitchcock gives us an incredible image that is creepy and unforgettable.

John Dreams of the Grave

Want to talk about a visual sequence that is chalk full of loaded images? The dream sequence that Hitchcock gives us is full of imagery that could have many a thesis writer busy for months. Add to that the fact that it’s just so visually pleasing, and you just can’t go wrong.

After this recent psychological break, John is admitted to a mental hospital. The doctors believe it will be some time before he shows any psychological recovery. The trauma of almost falling from a rooftop, coupled with the grim image of his dead lover has proven too much for him. Ever the dutiful standby, Midge visits, though John is despondent and unresponsive.

Midge Visits John in the Hospital

Hitchcock lunges ahead. John has recovered, but still haunts the locations where he and Madeline used to go. On one of his circuits, John runs into Judy, a shop girl who bears a remarkable likeness to Madeline. John follows her back to her apartment and asks to talk to her.

John Finds Judy

Judy reluctantly agrees to talk, when John tells her that she reminds him of someone else. She even agrees to have dinner with John, before he leaves.

Once he is gone, Judy turns to her desk and begins to compose a letter, a confession to a former lover. The letter reveals she was the Madeline whom John fell in love with, though not the real Madeline Elster. Gavin had employed Judy so that he could get rid of his real wife, and have a convenient witness to her “suicide.” Judy destroys the letter, but the images of murder still come to her.

Instead of heavy explanation, Hitchcock gives the viewer Judy’s flashback and shows us what happened in the bell tower.

The Bell Tower Revealed

Why in the world would Hitchcock give away all of the secrets to the mystery that was developing around Madeline’s death, and a good thirty minutes before the film’s conclusion?

Because “Vertigo” is not a whodunit, but a classic example of a liebestod, a story of love through death and the fetishism surrounding a dead lover, which comes with it. It is study of the interactions between two people each struggling with their varied emotional ties to one another. Once the plot is exposed, Hitchcock’s focus comes to bear on Judy, and her melancholy love for John, and John, who wants to find a former lover lurking inside of Judy.

John crafts an obsessive string of demands for Judy. He wants her to change her clothes, her hair, and her makeup. John is trying to mold Judy into Madeline. He cares little for the woman in front of him, and instead lusts for the lost idealized woman that haunts his mind. His obsession becomes fetish as he endows Judy with Madeline’s physical qualities.

Judy, out of love for John or possibly the desire for love, gives in to John’s demands. When the transformation is complete, Judy, now Madeline, steps from the hazy green fog of John’s imagination, and once again takes corporeal form. John, because of his willingness to utterly dominate another person, has his lover back.

Judy’s Transformation is Complete

So now Hitchcock has put Judy and John back together. Judy is the former murder accomplice, who really loves John and allows him to make her into someone else. Her love contains the sadness of knowing that John is truly in love with a myth. John is the man so consumed with a dead person that he would force a living person to become the deceased.

And yet they seem happy, until Judy makes a mistake when choosing her accessories.

Judy Wears the Necklace

John sees he’s been duped, and now the control that he’s exerted over Judy to this point swells to a new level. John drives Judy and himself to the seen of the crime, and forces Judy up into the mission bell tower, as he describes the crime to her. John is consumed with the idea that another man, in this case Gavin Elster, had sway over Judy/Madeline, which foments John’s insecurities and weakness. The result is anger directed at Judy.

Does this look like the face of a man in love?

John Takes Judy to the Bell Tower

This is Jimmy Stewart, folks. The likeable, bumbling, guy next door that won us over in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” and “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Here he is a crazed, weak, angry, insecure, despicable character, who still manages to illicit our sympathy. This would be like putting Tom Hanks in a role from “Eyes Wide Shut.” It almost hurts your brain to think about.

Stewart rises to the challenge and gives an honest and believable performance. His character is an utterly broken individual, and though his actions are often questionable, we can understand why such a person would act in this way.

While John advances, Judy cowers.

Judy Cornered

This is the face of a woman, so tragically in love with a man that she would allow herself to be made into someone else.

Kim Novak was often criticized for her lack of ability as an actress. She was an undeniable beauty, but her performances were seen as stiff and awkward. Roger Ebert claims that her flatness of character helps in “Vertigo,” but I find it difficult to defend the argument that Novak doesn’t show some real chops in her performance as Madeline and Judy.

She must make each person believably different, so that Stewart’s character, John, will react with rage when he thinks of Gavin coaching, and training Judy to become Madeline. I find the melancholy and longing that Novak brings to Judy thoroughly satisfying and believable, and I see her as an underused and undervalued actress.

When the shadowy figure of a nun rises into the bell tower with Judy and John, Judy loses her footing and falls. Hitchcock leaves us with a final stark image.

John Looks Down from the Bell Tower

What a way to end a film. Hitchcock gives us with two dead women; a broken man looking down on one of them; a murderer, who runs free; and an emotionally broken friend back home in San Francisco. A more complex ending is hard to find.

“Vertigo” will stay high on any list of great films, because its complexity does not stem from the plot points that the story follows, but the motivation and intent behind actions that we see on screen.

Hitchcock cripples Ferguson with acrophobia then makes it necessary from him to rush to the top of a bell tower. Hitchcock keeps the objects of Ferguson’s desires just out of reach. This constant frustration forces Ferguson to act out. His insecurities and lack of control push this character to the ends we’ve seen.

In the same way, Hitchcock has Gavin buy off Judy, and then forces Judy to fall in love with John, only to again to be forced into the body of another. This time, it’s for love not money. We can see that these characters move in the right direction, and their actions are satisfying and real, but each action has multiple layers of meaning. Each time you watch “Vertigo,” John and Judy will do what they do for completely different reasons, but with the same tragic results.

Though I have rambled on for way too long, I have only just scratched the surface of what “Vertigo” has to offer. I would encourage anyone, who wants a truly unique and fruitful cinematic experience to go and revisit Hitchcock’s best.

Next up #8 Schindler’s List (1993)

For links to #10-19, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #10 The Wizard of Oz (1939)

For links to #20-29, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #20 It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

For links to #30-39, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #30 Apocalypse Now (1979)

For links to #40-49, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #40 The Sound of Music (1965)

For links to #50-59, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #50 The Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring (2001)

For links to #60 – 69, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #60 Duck Soup (1933)

For links to #70 – 79, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #70 A Clockwork Orange (1971)

For links to #80 – 89, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #80 The Apartment (1960)

For links to #90 – 100, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #90 Swing Time (1936)

In addition to contributing to Scene-Stealers, Trey makes short films and teaches at the Kansas City Art Institute. Follow him here:

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Reed July 2, 2011 at 4:53 pm

First of all, I think this is one of your finest reviews so far, Trey. Really excellent work.

There’s so much I would love to add, and maybe will come back. Just wanted to say that even though some people like to try to pick this movie apart, I believe it’s Hitchcock’s best and definitely deserves its stature and place in the top 10.

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2 Xavier Robertson July 3, 2011 at 7:21 am

I think it was on the special features of the dvd I have but I’m fairly sure that Novak’s performance in this movie was coaxed by Hitchcock in a major way. I think it said that Hitchcock constantly fought with her about the quality of her acting and struggled to get her to perform the way he wanted. Its been I while since I watched the featurette but I think that was the case.

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3 Trey Hock July 3, 2011 at 8:08 am

Reed, thank you for the warm compliment. This was probably one of the more difficult posts to write. Like you said there is just a lot to “Vertigo,” and I wanted to make sure that I did justice to the work.

Xavier, it wouldn’t surprise me at all. Hitchcock was a notorious tyrant on the set, who had little respect for most of his actors. I’m sure that Novak was coaxed and prodded the whole way, but the end result shows her ability, whether it was coerced or not.

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4 Tyson October 25, 2011 at 6:33 pm

Trey,

Awesome review. I finally got around to seeing this over the summer and I was blown away. If you need to rebuild your idea of Jimmy Stewart as the most endearing man on earth see the Mormon funded short film, Mr Krueger’s Christmas: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8tMuSVVljg8

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