Among the most compelling of Alfred Hitchcock’s films is the masterful Vertigo, a suitably dizzying web of Romanticism and passionate anguish. Based on Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac’s 1954 novel The Living and the Dead, this 1958 motion picture recently supplanted Citizen Kane for the number one spot on Sight & Sound’s 2012 critics’ poll.
Vertigo is certainly one of Hitch’s most visually astounding works, a tour de force of motion, shade and style that weaves an impressively intricate web. Page after page of analysis can be penned – and indeed has been penned – about the characters and their motivations, from the deceptive lure of the Ego to the potential “necrophilia” of the protagonist.
James Stewart stars as Scottie, a now-retired San Francisco cop. He suffers from acrophobia, which has resulted in the death of a fellow officer, so he’s confined himself to his recovery. When a questionable acquaintance (Tom Helmore) asks Scottie to tail his wife Madeleine (Kim Novak). It is believed that she is possessed by a ghost.
Grudgingly, Scottie follows Madeleine and eventually saves her from a suicide attempt. He falls in love with her and the feeling appears to be mutual, but before they can go any further she races up a bell tower and commits suicide. Scottie blames himself and his acrophobia for not being able to save her. When another woman appears, he believes he has a second chance.
Vertigo is a film of two parts: the first concerns the initial mystery of Madeleine. Here, Hitchcock and screenwriters Alec Coppel and Samuel A. Taylor cast a mysterious spell. The audience follows Scottie as he follows the beautiful blonde, venturing through various San Francisco landmarks.
The lure of Madeleine is strong, but her tendency to drift is apparently. Immediately she is established as one of Hitchcock’s famed enigmatic blondes: she is a figure of elegance and glamour, yet there is trouble in the water. Scottie’s fascination with her converts him as a person, makes him agitated and obsessed to the detriment of the movie’s other woman (Barbara Bel Geddes).
That other woman, Midge, is the “safe choice” but something inside Scottie keeps him drawn to more dangerous waters. He wastes little time developing his attraction to a woman who belongs to another man, while Midge sits and supports him from an emotional distance. That they were once engaged adds another layer.
It could be argued that Stewart’s character wants one woman but wants all “three” women in his life to become that one woman. There is Midge, who is now permanently in the proverbial friend zone, and there is Madeleine. After Madeleine, there is Judy (whose identity is known to all who’ve seen the picture).
The second part of Vertigo naturally concerns Judy and Scottie. He has suffered greatly from what happened to Madeleine and his “return to sanity,” so to speak, somewhat reminds of the fate that befell the Vera Miles character in The Wrong Man. His rift from society finds him picking up amorously where he left off, carrying his fixation into his renewed existence.
So when he finds Judy by chance on the street, he’s drawn to her. She has friends, it seems, and doesn’t appear anything like the detached but seductive Madeleine and yet there’s something there. As Truffaut would point out to Hitchcock, there is a distinctly “carnal” quality to Novak at this point.
Scottie takes this carnality and attempts to cast it into the image of a ghost. “To put in plainly, the man wants to go to bed with a woman who’s dead,” Hitch would say about this component. “He is indulging in a form of necrophilia.”
These elements of Romanticism, taken from the metaphysical argument that the Self is everything, serve to ultimately betray all of the characters in Vertigo. Scottie cannot reimagine history; he can only recreate insanity. Madeleine doesn’t have a second chance. Judy cannot escape her past. The Self, for all its hopefulness, is condemned.
Luckily, Hitchcock underlines this ominous sense of things – a slant that is found in all of his films to some extent – with some of the most amazing visual work of his career. Vertigo’s artistic value could comprise another full post of observations, as could the Bernard Herrmann score or the Novak and Stewart performances.
But for now, it’s enough to call this picture a masterpiece. It is a reflective instance of clarity of form, a movie that overwhelms its pitfalls with technical flourish and psychological penetration. Another vivid specimen of Hitchcock’s desire to achieve “pure cinema,” Vertigo is a woozy wonder to behold.