Much has already been written about Hitchcock’s 1958 masterpiece Vertigo. It is a tale of obsession and manipulation, of love and loss. It has been lauded for its technical achievements (first film to use a dolly zoom) and its brilliant use of color to evoke mood. Film schools around the world pick apart the details of Vertigo and analyze its subtext. The film follows Scottie (James Stewart), an acrophobic detective forced to retire due to his fear of heights, who is then hired as a private investigator by Gavin Elster (Tom Elmore) to follow his wife Madeline (Kim Novak), who may be either suicidal, or possessed by the spirit of a dead woman named Carlotta Valdes. Spoilers to follow.
The more that Scottie follows Madeline, the more infatuated he becomes with her. He saves her after she jumps into the San Francisco Bay, brings her back to his place, and eventually they kiss and begin a relationship. She shares with him that she doesn’t remember being certain places, then describes the setting of a nightmare she had. Scottie recognizes her description as the birthplace of Carlotta Valdes, Mission San Juan Bautista. They drive there and embrace, before Madeline runs up the stairs of the bell tower. Scottie becomes dizzy from his acrophobia, falls behind in his chase, then watches her jump to her death. Scottie is heartbroken and feels guilty about her death, but soon sees a woman in the city, Judy (also played by Kim Novak), who looks like Madeline. He forces his way into her apartment and tells her she looks exactly like someone he knew, then spends all of his time with her, taking her to the places he took Madeline, and buying her clothes so that she will look identical to the woman he couldn’t save. He is trying to conjure from the dead this fantasy woman. We find out midway through the film that this mysterious woman actually was the Madeline he’d been following all along, and that she’d been hired–because she looked so much like his wife–by Gavin in his elaborate plot to kill his real wife. At any rate, Scottie takes Judy back to Mission San Juan Bautista and forces her to climb the bell tower with him. He has somehow figured out this elaborate scheme and confronts her about this when they are at the top. The tragedy is that the two have actually fallen in love with each other through the process, even though they don’t truly know anything about each other. Judy then falls to her death too, and Scottie cannot save her for the second time. We are left wondering what becomes of Scottie and if Gavin is ever punished for his murder plot.
I first watched Vertigo in high school during a phase when I would devour any Alfred Hitchcock film I could get my hands on. I thought it was a masterpiece because it had a high rating on IMDB and was supposedly one of his best. Upon rewatching Vertigo, though, I’ve come to the conclusion that it pales in comparison to some of his best work, such as North by Northwest and Dial M for Murder. The truth is it is rather boring. The plot is convoluted and full of holes, the characters are unbelievable, and Stewart’s performance as the lead detective is hackneyed at best.
That isn’t to say that Vertigo is without merit. I lived in San Francisco for several years and felt transported back to the city by the bay as I was watching the film. Hitchcock does an excellent job bringing the city to life. There are beautiful shots of the iconic Golden Gate Bridge and other San Francisco landmarks, and it feels like you are climbing up and down the hilly streets during the shots from inside the car. Barbara Bel Geddes also turns in a good performance as Midge, Scottie’s underappreciated friend. She’s a smart and funny artist who is secretly in love with Scottie, but for some reason he won’t give her the time of day.
Much of the problem with Vertigo lies with Scottie’s character. Are we really supposed to root for this guy? He falls in love with a married woman that is clearly troubled, either suicidal or possessed by a spirit. They begin an affair. Then, after Madeline’s death, he becomes obsessed with Judy and with recreating the dead woman. What is Scottie really trying to do? Is it his warped way of coping with his grief and guilt over Madeline’s death? It is all very strange and not exactly believable. And don’t get me started on Gavin Elster’s murder plot. It is ridiculous. He’s somehow able to trap his real wife at the top of the bell tower before Scottie and Madeline arrive, then pushes her out the window and swaps out Madeline, who is really Judy. And it all hinges on Gavin banking that Scottie will not be able to reach the top due to his acrophobia, and that no one else at this bell tower will see him and be able to identify him in this elaborate murder scheme. Rather than feeling suspense or interest in this twist, I found myself laughing at how convoluted it all was.
Fans of the film might argue that we aren’t supposed to identify with Scottie, and that Hitchcock is really deconstructing the male gaze, and this may be true, but it remains that the storytelling in Vertigo just isn’t very good, and the plotting is overly complex and farfetched.