Received with both critical and commercial disdain upon its initial release, and nearly lost to poor preservation, one can largely credit academic discourse for rehabilitating the reputation of Alfred Hitchcock’s now acknowledged masterpiece, Vertigo. The curious erotic fixation of its main character, its examination of the power of the spectator to construct meaning, and the exploration of the relationship between fantasy and reality all intersect with issues surrounding gender dynamics to produce a rich and complex occasion for theoretical discussion. However, the reduction of Vertigo, a vital aesthetic object from the height of Hitchcock’s “mature” period, to its metaphysical shadows exclusively, does a tremendous disservice to the subtle performances of its leads and the technical brilliance of its visual and aural realization.
Hitchcock, master manipulator and accomplished practical joker, suspends the audience, like he does his characters, over a frightening abyss that at once beckons them, yet then causes them to recoil in abject horror at what they see: the infamous “zoom-dolly” shot from the top of the winding staircase that serves as such an apt metaphor for the experience of Hitchcock’s cinematic oeuvre. Vertigo proves that Hitchcock made films not just to be discussed but to be experienced, adding the lost dimension of sensation to the mere exercise of intellect.
John “Scottie” Fergusen (Jimmy Stewart) has been forced to retire from the San Francisco police department due to a seemingly incurable affliction of acrophobia: a fear of heights that results in a disturbed equilibrium, or “vertigo”. Just as Scottie begins to settle into a comfortable but unsatisfying bachelor’s life, an old friend makes a strange request. He asks Scottie to follow his wife, Madeleine Elster (Kim Novak), who her husband believes to possess her own curious affliction: the unexplained imitation of an ancestor, Carlotta Valdes, which very well could lead her to suicide. Scottie reluctantly accepts the assignment and begins the strange odyssey that entangles him in local legend, erotic obsessions and, of course, murder.
The title sequence invocation of the ocular motif, into which the camera tentatively descends, entering an amorphous dreamscape, only to recede and once again focus upon the single, naked eye, suggests the vital importance of looking in both visual interpretation and the understanding of its psychological undercurrents. The eye itself acts as a doorway into an uncertain abyss but also as the “camera” through which the psychology interprets “objective” reality; through this portal, meaning flows between the tangible and the abstract, one constructing another, mediated by the human subjectivity.
Vertigo, much like Rear Window, prompts us to question how we relate to what we watch. Slowly and methodically Scottie begins to silently survey the enigmatic Madeleine, following her to a graveyard, an old house, and the painting in a museum at which she stairs for hours. Hitchcock takes us along with Scottie, encouraging the viewer to identify with his perspective with the frequent subjective camera positioning — we see through the portal of his eyes and ourselves enter his neurosis as we too become engrossed in the beautiful woman’s mystery. That Hitchcock accomplishes his design with perhaps the medium’s most engaging example of purely visual cinema should not escape notice.
Scottie falls in love with his image of the enigmatic Madeleine, a sphinx with an intriguing secret wrapped in tales of the marvelous. Hitchcock enacts several technical measures to enhance our experience of Scottie’s estrangement from reality. The first method entails his use of vivid colour, particularly Madeleine’s association with an eerie green, in which Hitchcock and frequent collaborator, Edith Head, clothes Madeleine during Scottie’s first encounter with her in the red-coloured restaurant, making her appear oddly out-of-place, otherworldly.
Furthermore, one cannot discount the effectiveness of Bernard Herrmann’s dream-like and paranoid score, the perfect compliment to the final measure, the visuals themselves. Whether it be parallels drawn between Madeleine and the painting or Carlotta Valdes with Hitch’s camera movements, or the clichéd embrace of Scottie and Madeleine against an obviously flat and estranging back projection displaying the conventional romance motif of crashing waves, Hitchcock continually emphasizes the unreality of his situations, at once drawing the audience in and providing the means by which to discern the motivations behind the fantasy that so deeply captivates Scottie.
That fantasy offers another sort of portal: a simulacrum that examines the relationship between men and women, and in parallel, between spectator and spectacle. Hitchcock, especially during his later films, proved quite interested in social manifestations of gender, the interrogation of which perhaps came to its most fully realized stage with Vertigo and its sister film, the equally as cynical, but nonetheless underrated, Marnie. Hitchcock’s interest, as mentioned above, appears by way of the flawed male hero, but also in the seductively powerful icon on his blonde “ice queen”, of which Kim Novak’s Madeleine stands as the ultimate fruition.
Madeleine, as the mysterious blank slate, a clean surface upon which Scottie can inscribe his own meaning, epitomizes the definition of female as “lack”, missing the phallic power of action which Scottie hopes to provide — she is the mystery of the movie screen fantasy, of which we have all become familiar, that he must penetrate and overcome. As Scottie presumes to unravel the enigma surrounding Madeleine and cure the disease which he believes to afflict her, he can neither anticipate nor accept the ultimate realization of his own lack, and the social powers that inextricably bind, in Freudian terms, his erotic desire to his drive to dominate. When Madeleine ascends the ominous bell tower, only to plunge to her death, Scottie, left petrified on the staircase by his vertigo, cannot help but blame himself and his own heroic impotence.
Hitchcock could have ended the movie here but something thankfully compels him to continue. The subsequent hour chronicles, following a police inquiry, and after a brief stint in a psychiatric ward complete with cryptic dream sequence, Scottie’s Pygmalion-like obsession with reforming a woman he meets named Judy (also Kim Novak) into the perfect image of his departed Madeleine. At every step she resists, but his perseverance, his shear determination, forces her to yield — so desperate is she for Scottie’s love and he for what he has lost. Hitchcock’s reuse of the eerie green from earlier in the film, as well as the only reappearance of the title sequence music — during the cosmetic alteration of her eyes no less — triumphantly signal Madeleine’s uncanny return.
Kim Novak, only Hitchcock’s reluctant second choice for the dual roles (Vera Miles made the unfortunate “mistake” of getting pregnant), deserves a great deal of credit for her performance as both Madeleine and Judy. In retrospect, as Madeleine she effectively conveys the ambivalence of her character, obligated to carry out her orders but secretly herself involved with Scottie beyond simple performance. As Judy, she fights against Scottie’s insistence, demanding love and acceptance on her own terms, but struggles with the discovery his affection depends upon her performance.
Squeaky clean Jimmy Stewart also stretches his image, carrying much of the film with his gaze of voyeuristic interest and neurotic frustration with his affliction. The brilliance of his casting allowed Hitch to play off Stewart’s everyman image and more ably place the spectator in his position — Cary Grant and his persona would certainly have proven too great an obstacle to such a plan.
The last time Jimmy Stewart would work with Hitchcock — who believed the actor’s age to be directly responsible for the film’s poor box-office receipts — remains one of his most compelling. Supporting cast members like Barbara Bel Geddes (as Scottie’s motherly artist friend Midge) provide necessary counterpoint to Scottie and his fantasy world: although their practical nature makes them uninteresting to the mystery seeking detective, they help anchor Scottie to a world from which he has largely departed.
Subsequent events uncover the deception to which Scottie has been subject and leave him poised on a literal and metaphorical edge, just as the film had started — what stares back at him from the abyss will have to remain the preoccupation of academic speculation and the faculties of the moviegoer. However, Vertigo’s new life, carefully restored from the best available prints for this DVD release (a process chronicled in one of the extras) should best reveal Hitchcock’s mastery of his medium, a director who had aesthetically mastered audience identification and estrangement, forming beautiful mysteries out of tedious realism that continue to fill us with the wonders of the unknown, the revelation of the once unseen, and the realization of our unconscious world of fear, fantasy and, quite possibly, perversion.