Filmsite Movie Review 100 Greatest Films
Vertigo (1958)
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Vertigo (1958) is one of Alfred Hitchcock's most powerful, deep, and stunningly beautiful films (in widescreen 70 mm VistaVision) - it is a film noir that functions on multiple levels. At the time of the film's release, it was not a box-office hit, but has since been regarded as one of the greatest films ever made. The work is a mesmerizing romantic suspense/thriller about a macabre, doomed romance - a desperate love for an illusion.

It is an intense psychological study of a desperate, insecure man's twisted psyche (necrophilia) and loss of equilibrium. It follows the troubled man's obsessive search to end his vertigo (and deaths that result from his 'falling in love' affliction). Hitchcock's work was a masterful study of romantic longing, identity, voyeurism, treachery and death. It also told about female victimization and degrading manipulation, the feminine "ideal," and the protagonist's fatal sexual obsession for a cool-blonde heroine. Hitchcock was noted for films with voyeuristic themes, and this one could be construed as part of a 'trilogy' of films with that preoccupation:

The film's screenplay, written by Alec Coppel and Samuel Taylor, was based upon the 1954 mystery novel D'Entre les Morts (literally meaning "From Among the Dead" or "Between Deaths") by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac. Boileau and Narcejac were also the authors of the story for French director Henri-Georges Clouzot's Les Diaboliques (1955, Fr.) starring Simone Signoret.

The film's theme of play-acting and/or remaking a woman by male domination was also echoed in Greek legend, and in George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion (and My Fair Lady (1964)). The film spawned clones with similar themes, such as Brian DePalma's Obsession (1976), and director Kenneth Branagh's Dead Again (1991).

The film's McGuffin (or plot device to propel the action) was the spirit of a dead woman known as Carlotta Valdes - who supposedly possessed the beloved female character and spurred the obsessed investigation of the male character.

Poster taglines trumpeted: "Alfred Hitchcock engulfs you in a whirlpool of terror and tension! - He Thought His Love Was Dead, Until He Found Her in Another Woman." One of the film's posters featured an abstract vertigo effect - a spiraling shape with the figures of a man and a woman falling into its center. Although much of the film's interiors were shot in a Los Angeles studio, the exteriors were often shot on location (mostly in San Francisco, including such spots as Fort Point, the Palace of the Legion of Honor, Ernie's, and the graveyard at Mission Dolores).

Hitchcock's masterpiece was the recipient of only two Academy Awards nominations, Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, and Best Sound, and it was left without a single Oscar statuette. Both James Stewart's performance and Kim Novak's marvelous transformations - from Madeleine to Judy, and to Judy (pretending to be Madeleine) - are rarely matched in the history of cinema. Her performance as a cool and icy blonde recalled the way that Hitchcock often presented and treated his ethereal leading ladies, who included Madeleine Carroll, Grace Kelly, Vera Miles, and Tippi Hedren. The film was passed over by the Academy for the frothy musical tale of Gigi (1958) (with a record nine Oscar wins, including Best Picture), about a young woman trained to be a courtesan of a wealthy suitor.

Plot Synopsis

The credits, accompanied by eerie music by Bernard Herrmann, play over Saul Bass' amazing title sequence that combines both live action and animation. The film begins with a fragmented and shifting image of a woman's blank and expressionless face; first, an enormous close-up of the lower left portion of her face, then her lips, then her frightened eyes darting left and then right, and then a straight-on closeup of her right eye as the entire screen takes on a bright reddish hue. The title of the film "Vertigo" zooms out slowly from the depths of her widening pupil. Spiraling, vertiginous, animated designs (of various configurations and shapes) replace the closeup of the iris, and the remainder of the credits plays over a black background after the pupil is entered and the eye fades away. The background returns to the eye (still reddish) and the final credit emerges from its center: "Directed by Alfred Hitchcock."

In the frightening opening prologue-sequence (a rooftop chase), an object divides the screen horizontally. Two hands grab the ladder rung - the top bar of a roof ladder on a fire escape - as a fugitive is being chased across a flat San Francisco city rooftop. A uniformed SF policeman (Fred Graham) and another dark-suited, plainclothes pursuer (later identified as James Stewart) follow the man. Two shots are fired. The fugitive and the policeman successfully jump across a gap onto a high-angled, red-tiled, Spanish style tenement roof, but the third man doesn't make the jump and is left clinging and dangling from a weakened gutter drain pipe by his fingertips. The policeman turns back to offer help and leaves the criminal to escape.

Holding onto the creaking and collapsing gutter, the hanging man is frozen by his fear of heights (acrophobia). He looks down many stories into the deadly abyss below and experiences a dizzying sensation called vertigo.

[Director Hitchcock used two simultaneous devices to achieve the effect and create an approximation of the disoriented psychological state of the character - the camera both tracks away from the subject while also zooming towards it. The simultaneous, opposing movements - a forward zoom and a reverse tracking shot - also represent the attraction and repulsion that the main protagonists experience in their relationships. The camera effect is used in this scene, and in the first mission stairwell sequence.]

When the policeman attempts to reach out his hand and rescue his buddy ("Give me your hand"), he loses his balance, and slips and falls to his death [the first of three horrifying screams and falls in the film]. The terrified man is left hanging there to witness the death. He gazes down on the pinwheel-shaped body of the policeman flattened on the pavement. The image of the man suspended there - dangling helplessly from the rooftop and downward-looking - [his rescue is never displayed] will be the overriding, symbolic, emotional and psychological position that he will remain in throughout the rest of the film. Part of his own psyche and stability also falls with his partner.

The second sequence also begins with an object dividing or bi-secting the screen, now vertically (the main character's cane balanced in mid-air). The hero's first words express his metaphysical angst: "Ouch, ouch." In a comfortable, well-lit, San Francisco hillside apartment [near North Beach, ostensibly with a view from Vallejo and Jones streets, although truly located at Montgomery and Union streets], a commercial artist/lingerie designer Marjorie "Midge" Wood (Barbara Bel Geddes), a blonde woman with an unflattering pair of glasses, is working at her drafting table easel in her studio/living room. She is drawing a supportive, cantilevered bra for an advertisement. In a chair next to her is the San Francisco man who survived the gutter pipe experience.

A disabled John "Scottie" Ferguson (James Stewart) [the initials of his name, 'SF,' mirror the abbreviation for the vertiginous city] is recuperating with psychological and physical scars. Midge asks him about his "aches or pains." He exults, hopefully, that he will be a "free man" the following day when his painful ("it binds") but therapeutic feminine corset is removed and he can dispose of his cane "out the window" - an ironic choice of words. "I'll be able to scratch myself like anybody else."

A "bright, young lawyer" with training as a police officer, he has had to "quit the police force" after blaming himself for his colleague's death and suffering from a pre-existing condition of acrophobia. Guilt-ridden, he fears he may cause the death of more innocent people:

Scottie: It's because of this fear of heights I have, this acrophobia. I wake up at night seeing that man fall from the roof and I try to reach out to him, it's just...
Midge: It wasn't your fault.
Scottie: I know. That's what everybody tells me.
Midge: Johnny, the doctors explained to you.
Scottie: I know. I know. I have acrophobia which gives me vertigo and I get dizzy. Boy, what a moment to find out I had it!
Midge: Well, you've got it and there's no losing it. And there's no one to blame, so why quit?
Scottie: You mean and sit behind a desk, chair-bound...
Midge: ...where you belong.
Scottie: What about my acrophobia? What about... Now, suppose, suppose I'm sitting in this chair behind a desk, here's the desk, and a pencil falls from the desk down to the floor, and I reach down to pick up the pencil - BINGO - my acrophobia's back.
Midge: (Laughing.) Oh, Johnny-O.

He has resigned early due to his fears and due to accepting the guilt for his fellow officer's death, but vows his independence and stability:

Scottie: I'm a man of independent means as the saying goes. Fairly independent.
Midge: Hmm, mmm. Well, why don't you go away for a while?
Scottie: You mean to forget? Oh now, Midge, don't be so motherly. I'm not gonna crack up.

He also complains to comforting, "motherly" Midge about the Mozart music (repeated later in the film when attempts are made to therapeutically cure his psychological 'crack up' with music). While Midge is sketching a new brassiere design, he asks her a direct question. [Her career of designing brassieres supports the argument that she is a maternal figure who desires him to be a more mature "big boy," but she is ultimately rejected when he chooses another woman.] She smartly answers without any air of mystery or femininity:

Scottie (pointing out a bra hanging next to her work area): What's this doo-hickey?
Midge: It's a brassiere. You know about those things. You're a big boy now.
Scottie: I've never run across one like that.
Midge: It's brand new. Revolutionary uplift. No shoulder straps. No back straps. But does everything a brassiere should do. Works on the principle of the cantilever bridge...An aircraft engineer down the Peninsula [a pun on Silicone Valley, although unlikely since the term wasn't in general use until the 1970s] designed it. He worked it out in his spare time.
Scottie: Kind of a hobby. Do-it-yourself type thing.

Then, they slip into a discussion of their relationship together - she is his dependable friend and his former college days' ex-fiancee who had called off their 3-week college engagement. [She was a former college sweetheart and would-be lover, but he never felt emotionally attached to her.] Midge queries his questioning methods, moving quickly from the subject of brassieres to her active love life - "That's following a train of thought." He suggests his own 'suspended' state in his work and in his non-committal relationships by mentioning that he is "available":

Scottie: How's your love life, Midge?
Midge: That's following a train of thought...Normal.
Scottie: Aren't you ever gonna get married?
Midge: You know there's only one man in the world for me, Johnny-O.
Scottie: You mean me. But we were engaged once though, weren't we?
Midge: Three whole weeks.
Scottie: Yeah, good-ol' college days. But you were the one that called off the engagement, do ya remember? I'm still available. Available Ferguson.

Scottie mentions that he has received a phone call message from another old college friend, ship-building tycoon Gavin Elster, after many years absence following the war. Before Scottie leaves, he suddenly wonders what Midge meant by "there's no losing it," referring to his acrophobia. She had learned from her doctor that the only cure for the "disease" of vertigo may be death. Midge offers him a prophetic warning:

...only another emotional shock would do it, and probably wouldn't. You're not gonna go diving off another rooftop to find out!

To "lick" his vertigo and to experiment and test out a theory, he tries different heights and progresses through them one at a time. Scottie believes he may be able to acclimatize himself and be cured. As she supervises, as a mother might do, he first starts out with a small stepstool. He hopes to gradually get used to the sensation as he chants: "I look up, I look down":

We'll start with this...What do you want me to start with? The Golden Gate Bridge? Now watch. Watch this. Here we go. There. (He steps up.) There. Now. I look up, I look down. I look up. I look down. There's nothin' to it.

But when she brings in a taller kitchen stepchair and he experiments with it, he breaks out in a sweat on the last step and gently faints into Midge's comforting arms, looking down into the deep abyss - at the side of the building where he was left hanging and faced death. He is still 'suspended' between his work and becoming involved (or personally committed) with Midge.

From there, the scene cuts to Scottie, who is to meet with his old college friend - the well-dressed, prosperous, handsome Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore).

[Director Hitchcock appears in his traditional cameo on the sidewalk outside Elster's Mission District shipyard company - he walks left to right across the frame, carrying a black trumpet horn case that looks like an oversized flashlight. As Hitchcock exits the frame, Scottie walks into the frame from the right and enters Elster's shipbuilding company office.]

A guard points out the location of Elster's office (located on the Embarcadero) in the Mission District. The wood-paneled office is decorated with a few suspended chandeliers. There, Scottie immediately learns - after a dissolve - that Gavin married into the "dull" shipbuilder business and has taken responsibility for it: "My wife's family is all gone. Someone has to look after her interests." Elster laments how San Francisco has changed from a bygone era, and uses four qualities to spell the urban area ("color, excitement, power, freedom"). He sits in front of a large window (similar to Midge's cityscape picture window) that shows the immense size of his modern business with large cranes moving freight - he tempts Scottie (a "hard-headed Scot") to experience more excitement in his diseased or flawed life:

The things that spell San Francisco to me are disappearing fast..I should have liked to have lived here then - color, excitement, power, freedom.

Scottie notices old maps and woodcuts from the wild days of San Francisco. Elster, who knows about Scottie's accident, retirement, and subsequent weakened psychological state from newspaper reports [and using it to his full advantage] explains how he was sorry to read about Scottie's harrowing incident on a rooftop and his newly-discovered vertigo. Scottie describes his disability and a little background on his life:

Elster: Is it a permanent, physical disability?
Scottie: No, no. It just means that I can't climb stairs that are too steep or go to high places like the bar at the Top of the Mark. But there are plenty of street-level bars in this town. (Scottie refuses an offer of a drink - it's too early in the day)...I never married. I don't see much of the old college gang. I'm a retired detective and you're in the ship-building business.

Gavin proposes to hire him as a private detective "as a special favor" to trail his strange, neurotic, potentially suicidal wife, to help protect her from some harm that may come to her from "someone dead." Elster sets up Scottie by asking him (as the camera zooms back):

Do you believe that someone out of the past, someone dead, can enter and take possession of a living being?

At first, Scottie is comically skeptical and quickly refuses, although Elster believes that his wife is deeply-disturbed or possessed. Scottie harshly suggests a doctor's services: "Take her to the nearest psychiatrist or psychologist or neurologist, or psychoanaly...or maybe just the plain family doctor. I'd have him check on you too." Elster realizes it sounds "idiotic" to Scottie who has always been "the hard-headed Scot(t)." Elster insists how he isn't making this up. He explains how she often goes into trance-like states and doesn't know where she has been, or she wanders as if she's lost:

Elster: She'll be talking to me about something. Suddenly the words fade into silence. A cloud comes into her eyes and they go blank. She's somewhere else, away from me, someone I don't know. I call her, she doesn't even hear me. Then, with a long sigh, she's back. Looks at me brightly, doesn't even know she's been away, can't tell me where or when.
Scottie: How often does this happen?
Elster: More and more in the past few weeks. And she wanders - God knows where she wanders. I followed her one day, watched her coming out of the apartment, someone I didn't know. She even walked a different way. Got into her car and drove off to Golden Gate Park. Five miles. Sat by the lake, staring across the water at the pillars that stand on the far shore. You know, Portals of the Past. Sat there a long time without moving. I had to leave, get back to the office. When I got home that evening, I asked her what she'd done all day. She said she'd driven out to Golden Gate Park and sat by the lake, that's all.
Scottie: Well. (Getting up.)
Elster: The speedometer on her car showed that she'd driven ninety-four miles. Where did she go? I've got to know, Scottie, where she goes and what she does before I get involved with doctors.

Elster insists that he only wants Scottie to do the job, to follow her and discover where Madeleine goes and what she does, before consulting a professional doctor and "committing her to that kind of care." [He is skeptical about medical attention for some unknown reason.] Not wishing to do the job himself, Scottie suggests the services of a private detective agency: "Look, this isn't my line...I'm supposed to be retired. I don't want to get mixed up in this darn thing." But when Elster insists that he needs his trusted, ex-college "friend" to trail her, Scottie is persuaded to go to Ernie's Restaurant that night to "see" (catch a glimpse) of her dining with Gavin before they leave for the opera.

The revelation of Madeleine in the next scene in Ernie's restaurant is masterfully directed. [Ernie's supper club was an actual landmark, located at 847 Montgomery St. in San Francisco, but closed in September, 1995. In fact, the interior and exterior shots of Ernie's in the film were sets. The restaurant was noted for its striking red interior, and later appeared in the Woody Allen film Take the Money and Run (1969).] Scottie is seated at the bar in a darkened, red-walled restaurant, stylishly decorated with red and white flowers. There, he surreptitiously sees Gavin at a table with the lovely, elegant, and beautiful blonde Madeleine (Kim Novak) wearing a dark, nakedly-backless evening dress with green trim [green is a predominant color associated with Madeleine - and Judy - throughout the film]. While the camera moves toward their table, Madeleine's back is kept toward the camera.

As she leaves the restaurant, Scottie, half in profile, has his nervous, "ghostly" first encounter with the woman. His first view of the beautiful female is incredibly transcendental - she is half-seen in a close-up profile as she deliberately pauses behind him [to display herself to him] and awaits Elster, with the radiant light reflecting off her hair. Fascinated by and attracted to the woman that he has heard fantastic stories about, he starts to romantically and dependently "fall" in love with the ethereal, inaccessible and complex woman - already obsessed and desiring her. He decides to accept Gavin's assignment to silently pursue his wife - without even meeting again with Gavin.

[This is the start of the hero's loss of objectivity and his obsessive, blurry descent into dream-like, timeless, and silent space as he pursues the mysterious female through the city's sites - a shop, an old Spanish mission, a graveyard, an art gallery, an old house/hotel, the waters near the Golden Gate Bridge, and then to an ancient forest of redwood Sequoia trees, etc. - places that have connections with the past or with death.]

The next day, in fantasy-like, soft-focused diffused light, he trails the gray-suited woman in her light-green (!) Jaguar sedan all over San Francisco as she drives around and around (almost always driving down streets, going left then right, left then right). He first starts to follow her from her high-rise apartment building on Nob Hill to a flower shop [a significant location and motif] on Grant Avenue through a narrow back alley and back door, where she buys a red and white nosegay bouquet as he voyeuristically peers at her with an ingenious split-screen effect. He sees her in a mirror reflection (on the left) through a cracked doorway (on the right) [the mirror is a means to see into the underworld and past]. Next stop is Mission Dolores - a Spanish mission with a backyard garden cemetery, where he enters a dark arched doorway and finds her after winding and turning through the cemetery path. In soft, diffused, surrealistic and hazy sunlight, she is standing and gazing in front of the grave headstone of "Carlotta Valdes born December 3, 1831 died March 5, 1857." [Note: Carlotta died at the age of 26 years old.]

Note: The spirit of the dead Carlotta Valdes is the motivating factor (or McGuffin/MacGuffin) for Scottie to discover what possessed Madeleine Elster.

Her next destination is the art gallery at the California Palace of the Legion of Honor where she is hypnotized, motionless and trance-like in front of a portrait painting of a woman named Carlotta Valdes [her ancestor's portrait]. Scottie notices that her single lock of swirling (vertigo-like) hair and hand-corsage bear a striking resemblance to the bouquet and hairstyle in the painting. Finally, he trails her to an old hotel on Eddy Street, the McKittrick Hotel, where she stands in a second-floor window facing the front. [Later, at the Empire Hotel, Judy similarly stands in a second-floor window.] He is puzzled by her strange, mysterious wanderings and trance-like behavior. Scottie enters the Hotel to follow the ethereal woman - he looks up the stairs past a magnificent, suspended hanging chandelier with crystal pendants.

He asks the hotel manager-landlady (Ellen Corby) to identify the tenant of the room on the second floor. She describes the two-week old occupant of the rented room whose name is Carlotta Valdes: "I can't imagine that sweet girl with that dear face...Valdes, Miss Valdes. Spanish, you know...Sweet name, isn't it? Foreign, but sweet...She just comes to sit, two or three times a week. I don't ask questions, you know, as long as they're well-behaved." Scottie is startled when told that Miss Valdes hasn't been there that day. He again stares at the chandelier as the landlady climbs the stairs to check the room - and then climbs up the optically-steep staircase himself (without - uncharacteristically - any disorientation) when she offers to show him the empty room to prove it.

From the second-story window, Scottie notices that Madeleine Elster's car has also mysteriously disappeared, and later finds it parked back in front of her apartment building, with the flower nosegay on the car's dashboard. The detective is thoroughly confused, and naturally wonders whether Madeleine is indeed an illusion - a spirit, a ghost, or a phantom. [Note: She is to be discovered later, of course, as an imposter and unreal "Madeleine." Scottie ultimately learns that he is following Elster's mistress, not his wife, and he has unwittingly become a pawn in his friend's plot to murder his real wife.]

In Midge's apartment, Scottie pours himself a whiskey drink and then asks Midge for a recommendation of an authority on San Francisco history for research purposes, focusing more on "the small stuff, you know, people you've never heard of." She attempts to clarify his question:

Oh, you mean the gay old Bohemian days of gay old San Francisco. Juicy stories like who shot who in the Embarcadero in August 1879.

But Midge is suspicious of his search and wonders what he is looking for: "Hey, you're not a detective anymore. What's going on?" But Scottie doesn't explain that he wants to learn more about Carlotta Valdes. She recommends the owner of the downtown Argosy Book Shop.

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