Vertigo (1958) remains the top contender for the best film of Hitchcock’s impressive oeuvre. In the film, John “Scottie” Ferguson (Jimmy Stewart) suffers from vertigo after pursuing a robber over rooftops and plummeting nearly to his death. After his near-fatal accident, he is hired to investigate Madeline (Kim Novak), the wife of an old college friend, who is acting strange, almost possessed. As Ferguson pursues Madeline, he not only saves her from drowning, but ultimately falls in love with her. But his vertigo prevents him from saving her life a second time when she appears to throw herself from a church tower. The second half of the film follows Ferguson as he recovers from a mental breakdown and meets Judy, a woman with such a striking resemblance to Madeline (Judy is also played by Kim Novak) that Ferguson becomes obsessed and remakes her in Madeline’s image.
Despite the titular diagnosis, Ferguson experiences vertigo just a few times during the course of the film. Instead, the film fixates on orientation: focusing, following, and driving. In fact, driving scenes make up 13 minutes (or over 1/10th) of the 128 minute film.
As Debra Fried notes when discussing the dynamics of car shots in Hitchcock films:
In some measure, shot-reverse-shot technique promotes the illusion that we are in the room with the interlocutors, invisible but privileged to switch from the vantage point of whichever speaker it is most important to be looking at during any moment in their exchange.
Hitchcock uses this technique during these driving scenes. Shots may shift from Ferguson in a car, staring directly into the camera in search of his desired object, to the desired object itself (often Madeline), and then to a third shot depicting where the two are positioned in the wider world. These scenes in Vertigo are not the carefree and slightly reckless driving of Melanie in The Birds (1963), nor as frenetic and fearful as Marion’s drive in Psycho (1960); rather they are there to create a relationship between Ferguson and the viewer.
Stewart’s searching eyes and placid face fills these scenes, effectively maintaining the audience’s attention; a quality Hitchcock knew, having cast Stewart in Rear Window (1954), another film that included close-up shots of Stewart looking at the objects of his obsession (similarly, the film also included themes of disabled bodies, impotence and troubled relationships). The viewer watches Ferguson as he pursues Madeline, and eventually drives with her on long picturesque, but largely silent, rides. Therefore, the viewer cannot help feeling they know something about Ferguson. The charm of winding and scenic road trips with the genial and inquisitive Ferguson creates an intimacy between the him and the audience.
This sense of intimacy is also built on silence. Throughout the first half of the movie, whenever the car is in motion, Ferguson does not speak; the viewer is looking at Ferguson as he appears to be staring right back. He only talks once while in the car, when parked with his friend, Midge. Otherwise, even when in the car with Madeline, she speaks while Ferguson is quiet. It’s a familiar and knowing silence, not an eerie one.
However, this intimacy disappears in the second half of the film. For all the driving in the first half of the film, after Madeline’s death viewers aren’t back in the car with Ferguson until the film’s climax. Instead, we see him walking or only after exiting the car. The viewer has been distanced from Ferguson while at the same time, his actions become increasingly questionable. His obsession to remake Judy into Madeline is filled with tension and eventually, hints of violence.
In the climax, Ferguson takes Judy for a drive to the same church tower from which Madeline supposedly fell. While the audience knows Judy’s true nature, Ferguson shows no hints of knowing who she really is. Therefore, his increasingly distant and menacing attitude as they get closer to the tower has a disorienting effect on the audience; what has gotten into Ferguson?
This final drive has three significant elements. First, it happens at night, while Ferguson’s drives with Madeline were during the day. That alone indicates a psychological shift. The second is that Ferguson talks a lot in response to Judy’s questions and increasing fear, where he remained largely silent during his trips with Madeline. His voice has lost much of its previous warmth; it is either cold or angry. The third element is the look in Ferguson’s eyes. In the previous scenes, Ferguson’s expressions oscillate between observing and emoting depending on the state of his relationship with Madeline. But in this final drive, Ferguson has a distant look or blank stare. This creates perspective shift on the part of the audience. In the earlier rides, the viewer identified with Ferguson and wondered about the mental state of Madeline, but in the now, the viewer questions Ferguson’s mental state
Given the alienation of the second half of the film, viewers are just as clueless as Judy is when it comes to Ferguson. Hitchcock induces a cinematic vertigo to audiences who have grown comfortable with the protagonist through the intimacy of these car rides. He uses the second half of the film to defamiliarize and de-identify the audience with Ferguson, to the point of making the viewer fear him and feel for Judy, even though the viewer knows the Judy’s misdeeds. By luring viewers into a sense of ease and comfort, only to use that familiar place to disorient viewers before the film’s denouement, Hitchcock illustrates that the title applies as much to the audience as it does to Ferguson.