Vertigo: a beautiful film with disturbing themes of obsession and control

Alfred Hitchcock, “Vertigo” (1958)

For a mainstream Hollywood drama, this famous film by Alfred Hitchcock, regarded by some as his greatest work, features some very disturbing themes of which some are applicable to the Hollywood film industry and even to the man himself. In an age when romantic love, marriage and family life were held to be worthy ideals for the public and it was usual for film studios and even directors to mould actors, and especially female actors, into particular stereotypes that emphasised physical attractiveness, a healthy heterosexuality and availability for marriage within the limits of a sexually puritanical society, “Vertigo” subtly undercuts these notions and exposes their sinister implications while blandly appearing to uphold them. Revisiting and idealising the past, bringing it into the present to determine the future, converting a real object or person into its ideal, and that notion’s dark twin of fearing something and trying to suppress it yet being drawn to it and allowing it to define your life and dominate your thoughts and behaviour: these two polarisations form the basis of the vertigo that engulfs former police detective turned private investigator John “Scotty” Ferguson (James Stewart) and the women Madeleine and Judy (both played by Kim Novak) whom he loves.

Scotty has recently retired from the police force after his partner’s death from a roof-top fall has left him with a morbid fear of heights. An old college friend, Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore), commiserates with him and hires him to follow his wife Madeleine who’s been behaving oddly and may be suicidal. Scotty follows the woman closely in his car as she visits a florist, a museum, an art gallery and other landmarks around San Francisco city. He discovers she is obsessed with the life of a young 19th century woman, Carlotta Valdes, Madeleine’s great-grandmother, who suicided when young. After he saves Madeleine from suicide herself, they fall in love but Madeleine continues to be haunted by Valdes and a recurring dream of a Spanish mission church with a bell-tower. Scotty identifies the building as one just on the city outskirts and takes Madeleine there, hoping this encounter will stop the nightmares. The visit ends tragically when Madeleine climbs to the top of the bell-tower and falls to her death while Scotty, crippled by his phobia, watches helplessly.

He is cleared of murder by a court which declares Madeleine’s death to be a suicide. Scotty becomes depressed and his friend Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes) cares for him for a while. After he recovers, he revisits places that Madeleine had frequented and meets a young woman called Judy. Scotty becomes obsessed with recreating Judy in the image of Madeleine despite the girl’s protestations and when he has made her over, takes her to the church to retrace Madeleine’s death scene. In this way, he hopes to cure his acrophobia and to confirm whether Elster has taken advantage of his illness to stage a suicide scenario to mask his murder of the real Madeleine.

The ingenious plot with its surprising twist may be too clever to take seriously and perhaps there should have been a few clues thrown to viewers early on that Madeleine isn’t all she appears to be. Perhaps the clues are in plain view and repeated viewings of the film are needed to find them all. For one thing, Madeleine should have been aware of someone following her by car and on foot and she should have been afraid – but if she’s acting out a prescribed role, then her lack of concern becomes understandable. Scotty’s discovery of Judy’s dual nature seems hurried and forced as well: how, apart from seeing Judy wearing jewels similar to what he saw in a painting of Carlotta Valdes, does he know he’s been duped? One scene where he’s waiting for Judy to come back from the beautician and the hair salon, during which he could have ruffled through her wardrobe and discovered an incriminating grey suit or gone through her wastepaper basket and pieced together scraps of her confession note, is all that’s needed to give the plot more credibility. On the whole though the plot is spare and easy to follow and it allows for considerable character development and investigation of the movie’s themes of obsession, control of women, and the ease with which fantasy and ideal notions of love can interfere with and harm reality.

Both Stewart and Novak readily identified with some of the film’s themes and threw themselves enthusiastically into their roles; their acting which encompasses some of the noblest and worst of human behaviours is among the best audiences will see in Hollywood films of the 1950’s and brings some credibility to what is a far-fetched story. Viewers will sympathise readily with Scotty’s attempts to deal with his phobia and rebuild his life after Madeleine’s death but will find his intense obsession with Madeleine and his control of Judy’s appearance creepy and repellent. Stewart as both romantic hero and monstrous anti-hero brings the polarities of his role together with ease. Is Scotty any better than his manipulative friend who murdered the real Madeleine? For that matter, can Judy still retain Scotty’s love once he realises she has manipulated him emotionally as he has manipulated her physically?

Geddes’s character Midge who secretly loves Scotty but rejected a past marriage proposal and who acts as his confidante is an interesting person and a counterpoint to the remote Madeleine. She disappears after the movie’s halfway point when Judy enters Scotty’s life and while her absence is much missed and gives “Vertigo” a top-heavy feel, it highlights the extent to which Scotty is unhealthily consumed with draping Madeleine’s image over Judy.

The film’s bright colours and the San Francisco cityscape that includes the bay and the city’s surrounding natural environment where the sea meets land and a church is perched on wide lawns provide a beautiful backdrop to the film’s events. A softening filter is often placed over most scenes in a way reminiscent of romance films of the 1950’s and 1960’s and gives the movie a dreamy fantasy look. The musical score by Bernard Herrmann is by turns dramatic, suspenseful, highly emotional and romantic; it heightens tension in long stretches of the movie where there is no talk. The real and the unreal co-exist and bleed into each other, boundaries between reality and fantasy collapse and the imagined becomes more real than reality. This is illustrated in particular in Scotty’s remarkable dream sequence which includes a cartoon animation of a bouquet falling apart and other animated montages in which Scotty falls into an open grave or falls into the centre of the screen. Another very strange scene where the real intersects with fantasy occurs when Scotty follows Madeleine into a deserted alley and into a shabby backroom of a rundown building. He opens a door and sees Madeleine in a surreal, plush world of flowers, polished floors and wealthy shoppers; the door he is holding happens to be a mirror support. It is as if he has opened a portal into Wonderland.

The film’s structure more or less divides into two, with Madeline dominant in the first half and Judy in the second, yet the second half of the film echoes the first half: landmarks and places visited in the first half of the film are revisited in the second, and even Scotty’s viewing of Judy opening a window in her hotel echoes his sighting of Madeleine opening a window in the McKittrick hotel. Even the manipulation and duplicity of the film is duplicated: Scotty is maniulated by Elster and Madeleine in the film’s first half; in the second half, Scotty himself manipulates Judy. The circularity motif echoes also in the hairstyles of Madeleine and Carlotta in her portrait, and in the flower bouquet which Madeleine buys and which appears again and again in the film.

The film’s pace can be glacial, at least until the second bell-tower scene where, as audiences realise the extent of Scotty’s derangement and start to fear for Judy’s life, the tension skyrockets but otherwise “Vertigo” is well-made with excellent performances. On the plus side it’s beautiful and intriguing to watch with many surprising and innovative technical flourishes.  For a movie with a spare plot and small cast, it lends itself to many interpretations and touches on many aspects of human psychology that will continue to intrigue audiences.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Time limit is exhausted. Please reload CAPTCHA.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.