Upon release, Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) was deemed a commercial and critical failure. It was not as dramatic as Rear Window (1954) nor as surrealist as Spellbound (1945). It took years before it achieved its status as a masterpiece, but is now considered Hitchcock’s greatest work and one of the best films ever made.
After suffering a severe case of vertigo which led to a policeman’s death, officer John “Scottie” Ferguson (Jimmy Stewart) is approached by an old friend, Galvin Elster (Tom Helmore) who believes that his wife, Madeleine (Kim Novak) is being possessed by the spirit of an old suicidal ancestor. He follows her, begins to talk to her and ends up falling in love with her. His vertigo though prevents him from saving her as she climbs to the top of a tall church and hurls herself off. The incident and its supernatural origins send Scottie into a tailspin. He ends up spending months, possibly a year in a sanitarium, a wreck of a human being until he meets Judy Barton, a woman who looks remarkably like Madeleine. We learn that Judy was actually posing as Madeleine for him, enacting a plan concocted by Galvin to murder his wife and have Scottie play the part of detective willing to testify about her suicidal tendencies. Still in a fit of hysteria, Scottie goes out with Judy and convinces her to transform herself into Madeleine for him. Judy, hopelessly in love but trapped in her lie, placates him. When Scottie finally figures out the depths of her betrayal and who she really is, he corners her back at the church and forces her to the murder scene, overcoming his own vertigo. But Judy, haunted by the memory of what she did, mistakes a mysterious figure (who turns out to be a nun) as the spirit of the true Madeleine come back to haunt her and falls out of the church to her death, leaving Scottie alone again.
It is a heartbreaking story, part mystery, part romance, part ghost story, part drama. It is amazing how fluid it goes from beat to beat, genre to genre. Jimmy Stewart, in perhaps his greatest role, is always able to keep the audience empathized with his character even as he delves into a madness that mirrors the story of Carlotta. And Kim Novak, with all of her changing personas, pulls the viewer into her charm and mystique and makes us yearn for her just as she makes Scottie obsessed.
The film is about obsession and desire. Scottie has never felt love like he does with Madeleine. It is her mystery, her attractiveness that draws him in. More than just a fling or compatibility like he has with Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes), it is her connection to spirituality and the otherworld that has Scottie hooked. He is tempted by divine powers, powers he can’t understand. And when that love is taken away from him, desire overwhelms him.
Without the ability to feel that love and with loss stinging in his heart, he wanders through life aimlessly until he meets Judy by pure chance, fate interfering with his life again as this is the same woman he had fallen in love with, only hidden in her true form. But rather than try to move on with his life, Scottie’s obsession takes control of him, driving him into trying to recapture his old love, his incompatibility to move on from the past and resist temptation clouding his senses. Judy, helplessly in love with Scottie, can only try to please him.
Love is not a joyous thing in the film, but something that blinds reason and logic. It traps Scottie and Judy. It drives them towards tragedy. Scottie’s love towards Madeleine turns to anger as he realizes how he’s been betrayed by Judy. Judy is hopeless to leave Scottie because of her love for him, leaving both characters hurtling towards each other in an inevitable confrontation.
Guilt is also an integral force in the story. It is guilt that drives Scottie to try and help Galvin after the cop dies on the rooftop in the first scene. It is guilt that haunts Scottie after he is unable to conquer his vertigo to save Madeleine. And it is guilt that draws Judy back to Scottie as she feels compelled to be with him after she hurt him.
And in the end it is Judy’s guilt for the murder of an innocent woman that ends her life, leaving Scottie alone and hopeless once again, love and fate torturing him for what we assume will be the rest of his life.
Vertigo is Hitchcock’s deepest film, speaking to the universal sorrow of loved ones lost and the pain that guilt entails. Shot in gorgeous technicolor and utilizing a deep color palette that highlights San Francisco, Vertigo still entrances viewers with its haunting portrayal of Scottie and his doomed quest.