If you’ve never seen Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, DON’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.
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.
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.
What 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 Psycho, Marni, The Man Who Knew Too Much, The Wrong Man, North By Northwest, Torn Curtain and The Birds).