Vertigo (1958) – Two Different Tragedies

07 Apr

download (1)If you’ve never seen Alfred Hitchcock’s VertigoDON’T READ THIS POST! Vertigo, like all of Alfred Hitchcock’s films, really deserves to be viewed without prior knowledge, though I don’t always manage it. But I knew very little about Vertigo before I saw it. I was expecting a kind of suspense story with a fair dose of romance, so I was a little taken aback, when in the first half of the film, what I got instead was a stunningly beautiful, dreamlike, almost supernatural, romance. It didn’t seem very traditionally Hitchcockian. Then the second half began and I was alternately surprised and a little appalled to find myself watching  a twisted tale, more nightmare than dream, of love turned to obsession.

I’ve put off watching Alfred Hitchcock’s later films (late fifties and on). I had the impression that, apart from the delightfully thrilling and entertaining North By Northwest, his films became more grim and less fun. And admittedly, Vertigo is more grim and less fun. However, I liked it a lot. It took me a while to decide that I liked it. I was too stunned by the ending to be able to make up my mind right away. I had to think about it and sort out my extremely varied reactions to the various parts of the film. If Hitchcock meant to manipulate his audience and jerk them around in unexpected and occasionally unpleasant ways, then he succeeded masterfully.

The first half of the film opens with John “Scottie” Ferguson (James Stewart), a retired police detective with acrophobia, who is asked by an old acquaintance, Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore), to follow his wife. Madeleine Elster (Kim Novak) is behaving strangely and Helmore thinks she’s possessed by her great-grandmother, Carlotta Valdes, who committed suicide when she was 26 years old. Madeleine is now 26 and going off into trances, driving to the museum and staring at Carlotta’s picture, visiting her grave, and even tries to commit suicide by jumping into San Francisco bay, all without remembering any of it. But Scottie falls completely in love with her and tries to help her realize that it’s not true; she is not going to die. But halfway through the film, seemingly irresistibly impelled, she jumps off the bell tower of a mission. Scottie can’t reach her into time because of his acrophobia, which prevents him from climbing the bell tower stairs.

Kim Novak as Madeleine and James Stewart

Kim Novak as Madeleine and James Stewart

This first half of the movie is almost like a movie on its own. It made me think of The Ghost and Mrs. Muir. It has a score by the same composer, Bernard Herrmann, and often floats along in the same, dreamlike way, like a tone poem. It’s haunting and the movie is almost worth watching just so you can listen to that wonderful score. But the first half also has seemingly supernatural undertones. The movie really has you wondering if it is true, if Madeleine is really possessed by Carlotta, which puzzled me because I had never before associated Hitchcock with supernatural films. But primarily, the first half is a romance between Scottie and Madeleine, the kind of romance that you know is fated to end badly and if the movie had ended there, it would have been a complete, though tragic, story.

But it didn’t end there. After Madeleine dies, Scottie goes into a deep depression. He can’t seem to accept she’s gone or get over his all consuming love for her when he meets a young woman who looks just like Madeleine. Her name is Judy (Kim Novak, also) and her hair is a different color and she does it differently and is a working girl in contrast to the extremely remote, almost in another world, sophisticated Madeleine. Grasping at anything that could bring Madeleine back to him, Scottie asks Judy out. She says yes and the audience learns, though Scottie doesn’t, that Judy is really Madeleine. Or rather, that Judy was playing Madeleine. Gavin Elster had hired her to pretend to be his wife so that he could kill the real Madeleine and use Scottie to convince the police that she was suicidal. But Judy/Madeleine fell in love genuinely with Scottie and when she runs into him as Judy she allows him to gradually take over her life. So eager to please, though wishing he would love her as Judy, she allows him to turn her into Madeleine. He buys exactly the same clothes Madeleine wore, has her change her hair and wear it the way Madeleine wore it. Protesting the whole way, she goes along with it.

James Stewart with Kim Novak as Madeleine and Judy

James Stewart with Kim Novak as Madeleine and Judy

But when he finds out that Judy was Madeleine all along, he feels betrayed, drives her to the place where she supposedly committed suicide and confronts her there. And in his shock, rage and hurt, he is finally able to conquer his acrophobia and climb the stairs. But once there and after explanations, Judy is startled by a nun and steps backwards, falling to her death for real this time.

The second half of the film is like a completely different film, almost feeling unreal at times. And when I first discovered that Judy was really Madeleine, it initially felt like a cop out that undermined the beauty of the romance in the first half. Here we’d had this very convincing, almost supernatural romance that you are invested in and it turns out to have a natural explanation after all. My first thought was it didn’t seem worthy of Hitchcock and that a twist for a twist’s sake wasn’t worth it.

But as the movie continued, it began to grip me anew. The second half is a mirror of the first, but less pure, less lovely, more obsessive and dark, ending as the first half did, except more bleakly, because now it is his fault that she died and not a vague, supernatural force beyond anyone’s control.

I like to think tragedy comes in two flavors: the lovely kind and the bleak kind. The first kind of tragedy is like “Romeo and Juliet.” It’s sad, but there is a sense of fatality about it, beyond anyone’s control and despite the fact that you don’t want the story to end sadly, there is a fittingness to it. The second kind is more like “Othello.” There is nothing fitting about the end. Othello is the author of his own tragedy and one’s reaction is less “Oh, how beautifully sad,” and more “oh my gosh, that’s awful!” The focus of the beautiful tragedy is on how lovely love is. The focus of the second is how people self-destruct and destroy their own love.

KimNovakandJamesStewartinVertigo195What is amazing is that Alfred Hitchcock manages to have both kinds of tragedies in the same movie! In the first half of the film, their love seems doomed through no fault of their own. The supernatural is too much for them. It’s somehow comforting, like “Romeo and Juliet.” The second half is the complete opposite. It’s not so much tragic as bleak because he is the one who is responsible, not any supernatural forces. But the first half was so beautiful, you really want that to be the real movie, even though it is actually an illusion. The reality is that Madeleine never existed. She was created and Scottie is in love with a woman who isn’t real and in his obsession over her he takes the real woman and tries to turn her into the image of an image. And she, in her desperate need of him, lets him.

Kim Novak really does a sensational job as both Madeleine and Judy. Apparently, there were critics who complained she was too stiff, but I thought she was really quite good at conveying suppressed passion. She is still because she is holding back. And in the end, despite the appearance of remoteness at the beginning, she becomes truly the most sympathetic person (despite the fact that she apparently helped Gavin Elster commit a murder – we never do hear what happens to him. He said he was going to Europe and when the movie was finished my sister trenchantly offered the hope that he get run over by a bus). Scottie, on the other hand, goes from being the man we sympathize with to almost the villain. He’s almost crazy with love and you can see it in his eyes and how he treats her. He is a victim, but becomes a shadow of Gavin Elster; trying to make a real women into the shadowy Madeleine and then killing her (so to speak – it’s not directly his doing, but he is the catalyst for the accident). It’s truly a masterful movie; I’ve never had a movie elicit quite so many different emotions within a two hour framework. I am quite eager to see what it will be like on a second viewing.

Here is an example of the lovely score by Bernard Herrman (who also composed the scores for Hitchcock’s PsychoMarniThe Man Who Knew Too MuchThe Wrong ManNorth By NorthwestTorn Curtain and The Birds).


Posted by on April 7, 2015 in Drama, Romance


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14 responses to “Vertigo (1958) – Two Different Tragedies

  1. The Animation Commendation

    April 7, 2015 at 1:06 pm

    I didn’t like this film. I think the main problem was because the film was so hyped for me, even being called the best film ever made, so I guess I was expecting a lot more than the film gave me.


    • christinawehner

      April 7, 2015 at 2:21 pm

      Yes, it can be so hard when a movie or book is hyped so much! I’m afraid to watch Citizen Kane for the same reason and had a similar reaction to Strangers on a Train, which I didn’t feel met the hype, either. Somehow, I heard more about Pyscho and Hitchcock’s other films than Vertigo, so it kind of took me unprepared, expectation-wise.

      Liked by 1 person

      • The Animation Commendation

        April 7, 2015 at 4:31 pm

        Yeah, the hype disappointed me somewhat as well when I saw Citizen Kane, but not as much as Vertigo. I do believe Citizen Kane is the better movie.

        People have been telling me about Strangers on a Train, but I haven’t seen it yet.

        The only Hitchcock films that I’ve seen so far (in order of my fave to least fave) are Psycho, Marnie, Vertigo, and Rear WIndow.

        Liked by 1 person

        • christinawehner

          April 7, 2015 at 5:17 pm

          You make me curious to finally buckle down and see Citizen Kane. I was reading somewhere that Orson Welles called Citizen Kane a comedy, so perhaps when I watch it I should try not to view it with the too serious mentality that I am watching art.

          I’ve heard very good things about Psycho! That will probably be the next Hitchcock I see. You have the advantage of me on Hitchcock’s later films. Most of the ones I’ve seen are from the ’30s and ’40s.

          Liked by 1 person

          • The Animation Commendation

            April 8, 2015 at 9:01 am

            Yeah definitely give ‘Citizen Kane’ a watch. I mean, even if it doesn’t meet your expectations, you can’t NOT like it.

            And yeah, definitely give ‘Psycho’ a watch.

            Liked by 1 person

  2. FictionFan

    April 7, 2015 at 2:24 pm

    I wasn’t quite as taken by Kim Novak’s performance, but I think it’s one of Jimmy Stewart’s best. And one of Hitchcock’s best too – not perhaps his most enjoyable, but one of the most atmospheric and thought-provoking. Great review as always!


    • christinawehner

      April 7, 2015 at 3:14 pm

      I haven’t seen as many Jimmy Stewart movies as I have other actors, so it was quite a revelation from George Bailey to Scottie! It made me very curious to see more of his movies. I agree with you about how Vertigo is not Hitchcock’s most entertaining. It’s almost more fun to think about then watch. I’ve talked myself into liking it with how much time I’ve spent thinking about it and I want to find out if that liking will last through another viewing or if my liking will only exist in the thinking about it rather than in the actual watching. 🙂

      I read somewhere that Hitchcock hadn’t really wanted to cast Kim Novak in the role. He wanted Vera Miles, but she became pregnant and he couldn’t use her, though the role of Madeleine/Judy had been written specifically for Miles.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Movie Maniac

    April 10, 2015 at 11:11 pm

    Excellent review! This is my all-time favorite movie! I love the twist because Hitch is saying, “viewers, I want to make sure you understand this is not a whodunit, this is a character study.” Have you seen De Palma’s Obsession? It’s virtually a remake of Vertigo and it is fascinating too. BTW, in my opinion, Jimmy’s best work was done with Anthony Man and Hitch.

    Liked by 1 person

    • christinawehner

      April 11, 2015 at 3:03 pm

      That is a good point that about the purpose the twist serves! It did initially throw me for a loop because from a whodunit perspective it seemed lame, but then it completely changes the way we view the characters and suddenly the twist makes sense.

      I had not heard of Obsession before, but I’ll have to look for that. Thanks for telling me!



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