50 Years of Obsession With Vertigo

Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo is celebrating this fall its 50th anniversary as an object of obsession for movie lovers. This year also marks the less-auspicious 15th anniversary of when I became obsessed with it in the commons room of a college dorm. Though I squirmed right off the filthy couch at the final scene, when a nun bubbles up out of the darkness, as if from the unconscious itself, to say “I heard voices” and provoke a suicide, it wasn’t my initial, generally enthusiastic response to the movie that proved it such an objection of obsession. It was the fact that numerous scenes kept haunting me; I couldn’t—and still can’t—help thinking of its swirling images and swirling story.

Set in San Francisco, Vertigo is about Scotty (Jimmy Stewart) who falls in love with the mysterious woman he’s been hired to investigate, Madeleine (Kim Novak), who seems to be haunted by the suicidal ghost of Carlotta Valdes. Even though Scotty and Madeleine end up falling love, she does, as if by fate, commit suicide, and Scotty, because of his fear of heights, is unable to save her. Well, actually, she doesn’t commit suicide—it’s all part of the diabolical plan of Elster, the man who hired Scotty. Hitchcock, to many early critics’ consternation, reveals half-way through the movie that Madeleine is just playing a part: she’s not a mysterious, haunted woman; she’s Judy from Salina, Kansas, who’s been hired by Elster to impersonate his wife and fake her suicide, so that he can get away with killing his real wife, who happens to be rich.

But Scotty has been duped, and he believes that he’s responsible for the death of the woman he was madly in love with. After emerging from a prolonged mental breakdown, he sees walking down the street a plain but lovely woman who looks a lot like Madeleine. Of course, we all know she is Madeleine—that is, Judy. She eventually lets Scotty court her, because she too is in love with him. Here begins the Orphic descent into the underworld. Scotty tries to dress Judy up to look like Madeleine, to recreate the things they did together—in a word, to bring the dead back to life. But you can’t look back, and the movie ends with an immortal loss.

Vertigo, in some ways, has that strange 1950s look–theatrical, melodramatic, Technicolor. But Hitchcock is way ahead of us. In more than any other of his movies, he gives us the outlandish fantasy that our psyches crave–like the passionate kiss while the waves break against the shore–and diagnoses it as a fantasy. What are most movies, after all, but the diabolical plot of a director to make a pretty girl from Salinas into a femme fatale to obsess a hapless public and make a lot of money? After he’s discovered the truth, Scotty says bitterly to Judy, as if to Kim Novak herself, “Did he train you? Did he rehearse you? Did he tell you what to say?”

In most horror movies, there is a monstrous character (for instance, Norman Bates in Psycho) whose job is to freak us out. In Vertigo, the truly monstrous character turns out to be the person we most identify with: We’re the monster. Here is where the casting of Jimmy Stewart as Scotty is brilliant, for Stewart more than any other actor embodies the American Everyman, the character we can all relate to. He is the average above-average guy who doesn’t buy into nonsense and has a pure wish for happiness and justice. His temperament on film is fully exploited in movies like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and It’s a Wonderful Life. In Vertigo, he begins as a good detective who’s been traumatized by his inability to help a fellow cop from spiraling to death from atop a roof. He then falls in love with a troubled woman, whose life he wants to save.

Up to this point our heart goes out to the good-hearted, troubled guy. But after Madeleine’s apparent suicide, Hitchcock reveals that this character we feel for and identify with is ultimately cold, obsessed, selfish, isolate, deeply damaged. Some of the most memory-searing scenes in Vertigo are simply of Jimmy Stewart’s eyes flashing with an alchemy of malice and horror. There’s a good lesson about us Americans here: Underneath our smiles is something much darker than the depths of your average Continental existentialist.

What, ultimately, is desire? The easy answer—that we want what we believe will bring us happiness—is terribly wrong. Whom does Scotty really love? The woman he first falls in love with is a fantasy staged for his deception. Does he really love Judy? Yes and no. Is Judy really Judy—or is she the character that she played for Scotty, the character in whose role she discovered her own true love? Our identities hover weirdly between the boring lump we are and the roles we imagine ourselves into. If this is so, love really is impossible!

In any case, there is a third crucial character, Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes), a graphic designer and friend to Scotty. She is cute, sassy, talented, caring and attracted to him. She is obviously the smart choice for Scotty’s love–so, obviously, he doesn’t fall for her. In a heartbreaking scene, Midge paints her own face into the famous portrait of the mysterious Carlotta. Her cuteness and domesticity give the portrait a comic air, but Scotty can only say, “That’s not funny.” It sure isn’t. What’s the big difference between the faces of Kim Novak and Barbara Bel Geddes? Not much, just the difference between passion and friendship, beauty and cuteness, life and death. As Pascal says, “Had Cleopatra’s nose been a little smaller, history would have been different.”

Just like Scotty, we have a kind of acrophobia–we have trouble looking into the depths. We don’t want to look underneath the roles we find ourselves playing, and our movies rarely compel us to. On the contrary, they usually reinforce the fictions that hold our worlds together. The final shot in Vertigo is a kind of finale to our great Hollywood myth. After Judy’s suicide, Scottie peers down into the abyss into which she has jumped. He has just lost the fantasy support system of his mind, but he has simultaneously gained the ability to look deep. He has been cured of his vertigo.

Almost every shot in Vertigo is fully alive. By “alive,” I mean that every part contains the DNA of the whole. And I haven’t even begun to talk about Bernard Hermann’s unforgettable score, where there is a repeated two-note motif that denotes—well, I could go on and on about this movie, but, as Hitchcock used to say, “Someone once told me that every minute a murder occurs, so I don’t want to waste your time, I know you want to go back to work.”

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