Written by Samuel A. Taylor, Alec Coppel, Maxwell Anderson, and Thomas Narcejac
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
In my opinion, Vertigo is Hitchcock’s greatest film. It contains all those elements associated with his work but perfectly distilled to their most impactful essence. Hitchcock collaborator Jimmy Stewart gives his best and final performance for the director. Bernard Herrmann composes a gorgeous musical score that haunts the picture. Vertigo is also Hitchcock’s most honest film about himself, revealing many of his own obsessions and the way he tormented his actresses, especially foreshadowing what was to come with poor Tippi Hedren in just a few years.
John “Scottie” Ferguson (Stewart) has retired from his position as a San Francisco police detective after his vertigo is triggered during a rooftop chase that leads to an officer’s death. Out of the blue, he gets a call from an old college friend, Gavin Elster, who wants to pay Scottie to follow his wife Madeline (Kim Novak). Madeline has been behaving strangely, and Elster wants to know where she is spending her days. Scottie is reluctant but eventually agrees, leading to him falling in love with this woman from a distance. It becomes clear that Madeline is suffering a crisis of identity, and Scottie wants to help her. He begins crossing lines of propriety until tragedy strikes. But that’s not the end of the story, and Scottie finds himself descending into a dark psychological abyss.
Hitchcock fully embraces this story’s dreamlike nature, and you never really feel that this is happening in the real San Francisco. Giant redwood forests take on an air of mystique, the sky above a Catholic mission is watercolor paints and the line between dreams and the waking world blur. The director understands that the story is as much about the subconscious as a material detective story. By embracing that mix, it makes sense why this picture had a significant influence on filmmakers like Brian DePalma and David Lynch. Lynch, in particular, has a love of doppelgangers and even borrows character names from this film.
Scottie is a vulnerable character, physically and mentally. He has suffered an injury at the start of the film that leaves him needing a cane. He’s got his vertigo, which exists both mentally and physically, paralyzing him. When we meet Scottie, he doesn’t seem to have much direction and continually talks about his job post-retirement is wandering around. He has a former fiancee, now friend, who gets along with him wonderfully, but Scottie is too blind to see how well they work together. He desires what he cannot have, and this is what leads to his total misery. When the truth comes out, he becomes enraged because his dream was merely shaped by another man, another humiliation piled on the heap.
I don’t think Stewart ever gave a better performance with this one, starting with the typical charm & swagger you expect, but throughout the story, we watch him fall in love, become obsessed, completely break, and finally unleash a level of rage and despondency. It’s hard to say who the story’s antagonist is, but an excellent argument could be made that Scottie is the one most responsible for making his life into shambles. He gets caught up as a pawn in a larger conspiracy and never listens to his friend, Midge, who keeps trying to pull him back from the edge.
As it would be revealed in the coming years and decades later, Alfred Hitchcock was a profoundly unhealthy and toxic person. He would become obsessed with his actresses and shape them like clay into what he believed was the perfect image. Grace Kelly was the actresses Hitchcock appeared to want to mimic again and again in his work through the 1950s and 60s. When she retired from acting, he went about presenting his actresses in that same mold. Kim Novak plays the role of this woman, appearing as two characters: the one that is the dream and the one that will be remade. It becomes clear that Scottie is not in love with Madeline but in her image, reflecting Madeline’s obsession with a painted portrait of her great-grandmother.
Vertigo is a masterpiece of filmmaking, the sort of movie that makes it clear why people fall in love with the medium and want to make their own art. The themes speak to the core of being human presented with a veneer of gloss but ultimately sleazy and dirty beneath. Characters deal with overwhelming guilt and the seemingly incomprehensible drunkenness of lust. Hitchcock has a complete disinterest in macho heroes and finds much more interesting characters in broken, scrambled men. His female characters are the constant victims of these men, who seek only to possess them, never to know them.