Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
A San Francisco detective suffering from acrophobia investigates the strange activities of an old friend's wife, all the while becoming dangerously obsessed with her.
Vertigo (1958) is the first of Alfred Hitchcock’s four straight masterpieces of the late-50s and early-60s (North by Northwest, Psycho and The Birds being the others). It also might be the best of the four. It is the most complex.
The story revolves around Scotty Ferguson, played by James Stewart, who is a retired detective in San Francisco. Ferguson retires after coming down with arachnophobia. The move opens with a rooftop chase. Scotty and another officer are hot on the trail of a criminal. They jump from roof to roof. The other officer makes the jumps fine, but Scotty has trouble on one. The officer stops his pursuit to help Scotty. Unfortunately for the two, Scotty has a case of vertigo and the officer loses his balance, falling from the roof.
While trying to get over his arachnophobia, Scotty spends a lot of time with Midge, a former fiancée, who is nothing more than an interesting character. In fact, she is basically forgotten in the second half of the movie for some reason. She is basically someone who is inserted for Scotty to talk to. She has some fine qualities, but they are not accented enough in her brief screen time.
Anyway, a former schoolmate of Scotty’s, Gavin, calls him up for a job. At first Scotty refuses -- saying he is retired. But Gavin convinces him that the job is good. Scotty is asked to look after Gavin’s wife, Madeline, who seems to believe she is the reincarnation of an ancient relative named Carlota. Carlota had committed suicide and Scotty’s friend feels that Madeline will do the same.
Scotty sees Madeline first in a restaurant and then follows her throughout the next day. He is struck by her. In fact, the audience is captivated by her. Kim Novak, despite her tumultuous relationship with Hitchcock, does a great job in this movie. She is very photogenic and her presence captivates the audience. Hitch also devoted a lot of time to her trivial routines. Or at least what would normally be a trivial routine. Hitch makes sure we pay attention to Novak’s beauty and the beauty of the city.
This is where Vertigo stands out from a lot of Hitchcock movies. The story might be more complex than a lot of his other movies, but the photography is so simple. The city of San Francisco has never looked so good on film. The winding streets, the local shops (Ernie’s was one of Hitch’s favorite restaurants), the Redwood forest, the deep history of the Bay Area, are all brought to life. Of course there is the famous Golden Gate Bridge and the monumental scene where Scotty saves Madeline when she jumps into the bay. Typically movies shot in Technicolor tend to make colors too bright. That is not the case here as all the color saturation seems perfect.
Once Scotty saves Madeline, the two fall in love. Madeline is crazy though. Because of his love for her, Scotty is unable to notice the warning signs of Madeline’s suicide. She and he make a trek down the coast to an old mission. This is where Carlota died -- it is where Madeline wants to die. Because of his arachnophobia, Scotty is unable to prevent Madeline from climbing the steps and throwing herself out the bell tower at the mission.
During an inquest, it is found that Madeline died accidentally and Scotty could do nothing to prevent her death. The scenes in the mission bell tower are most famous for Hitchcock’s “Vertigo shot.” The shot that mimics the effect of vertigo was something Hitch had been working on for over 20 years. It was finally perfected here and was done by using miniature models. The camera was moving toward the models while the lens was zooming out. The technique has been used in movies many times since Hitch first pioneered it.
Devastated by another death he feels he could have prevented, Scotty goes into rehab. This is the last time we see Midge, as she and the other doctors are unable to get Scotty back on track. After an unspecified length of time and for some unknown reason, Scotty is taken out of rehab and put back in the real world. Here he drifts along thinking about Madeline. One day, while walking along the street, Scotty notices a girl who looks a lot like Madeline. He stalks his prey to her hotel where he makes his move. The girl’s name is Judy. After some resistance she agrees to go out with Scotty. After their first date, in which Scotty talks a lot about Madeline, it is revealed to the audience that Judy is in fact Madeline. Kim Novak plays both characters and just has dyed her hair. Although there are times when it seems that she has done more than just dye her hair to change from Madeline to Judy.
This would be a good time to mention that Novak was not Hitch’s first choice for the role. He wanted to use Vera Miles. But since it took so long for a script to be written, Miles was unable to be used because she got pregnant. So Novak was used and Hitch didn’t like her. The two didn’t get along. Novak had other ideas on how the play the character. Despite the tension, the performance on the screen is great.
Scotty decides to remake Judy in the model of Madeline. Of course Judy resists this. She had been hired by Gavin to play Madeline once in order to cover up the murder of Gavin’s real wife, the real Madeline. Since Scotty had arachnophobia, something Gavin knew, Scotty would be unable to save Madeline when she “jumped” from the bell tower. In fact, Judy ran up the bell tower where Gavin threw his wife’s body off.
This is not realized by Scotty until the fully remade Judy puts on a necklace that had belonged to Madeline and Carlota before her. Obsessed with the crime, Scotty forces Judy back to the mission and up the steps of the bell tower. In triumph, Scotty makes it to the top. In tragedy, footsteps are heard coming up the stairs and Judy jumps out of the tower in one of the most frightening scenes of the Hitchcock cannon.
Vertigo is a masterpiece plain and simple. It is regarded highly by critics, scholars and audiences. The main reason for this can not be found, at least to me. It has some sort of quality that just makes it enjoyable to watch. Maybe it is the complex story. Maybe it is the luscious scenery. Maybe it is the performance of Jimmy Stewart. Maybe it is the chemistry between Stewart and Kim Novak. Whatever it is, this movie is a must see for anyone who likes movies.