Universal, 1958 Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
The great French director René Clair once remarked that moviegoers, as they sit in the darkness watching a film, enter into a “dreamlike state”; and over the years, many great directors, from Melies to Bunuel to Fellini to Lynch have aided in that process by gleefully plunging their viewers into the human dreamscape. But no film has ever so straightforwardly, simply, and seductively taken on the actual form and structure of dreaming than Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo. From its first throbbing arpeggios, Bernard Herrman’s brilliant score carries us, with the impatience of a dream, from ominous threat, to lush, romantic calm, to tense confrontation, to resolution… and back to fear again, as the late great Saul Bass’ credits likewise dissolve from the glorious Black and White of Kim Novak’s absurdly lush lips and tear-welling eyes, to the rich VistaVision color of Bass’ iconic spiraling motifs, culminating in an extreme, Psycho-presaging close-up of one terrified eye. With its disorienting changes in mood, color and visuals, this brief and brilliant credit sequence leaves no doubt: We are entering the ever-shifting, primal world of the dream.
“You’ve got it, and there’s no losing it…” (Vertigo)
The protagonist of this audience’s collective reverie is retired San Fransisco detective Scotty Ferguson (Jimmy Stewart), who has been asked by his old friend Gavin to investigate his wife’s swift descent into madness, believing her to be possessed by the spirit of a tragic ancestor, who, seduced and abandoned by a rich patron whose child she had borne, leapt to her death a century ago. As the film begins, we are almost immediately thrust into Scotty’s worst nightmare, as he recalls, in vivid, exaggerated detail, the nocturnal rooftop chase that ended with Scotty dangling from roof’s edge, watching helplessly as a fellow officer plunged to his death, leaving him with the crippling fear of heights that precipitated his retirement, and which provides the ‘MacGuffin’ of Vertigo. For, despite its title’s reference, Vertigo is no more about acrophobia than Citizen Kane is about sleds, concerning itself, rather, with the desperate longing for, and fear of, love; and the deception, denial and redemption that follow in its wake; vertigo, if you will, of the heart. This longing is first expressed by Scotty’s best friend (and old college girlfriend) Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes in arguably the best of the many understated and underrated performances of her long career) in whose sunny, serene studio we “wake” from the rooftop nightmare, in the first of Vertigo’s many seamless transitions from ‘sleep’ to ‘reality’. Waking ‘reality’ in the film is represented by Scotty’s periodic “checking in” with Midge, or by scenes in which Scotty is trying to nail down the facts behind the mystery that is fast growing around him (much in the way we try to reassure ourselves after a particularly vivid nightmare).
Midge, we learn, in a quick series of subtle glances and offhand remarks, is still deeply in love with the clueless Scotty, and as she gently prods Scotty about his future, jokes about her sex life, and her occupation (she illustrates brassieres for fashion ads), the extraordinary naturalness of these quiet easy moments between Stewart and Bel Geddes ground us in a normalcy that will make Scotty (and our) descent into obsession and near madness, by contrast, all the more terrifying and poignant. Hitchcock is popularly remembered for his riveting, confrontational set-pieces, but it is in these subtle, casual moments that Hitchcock’s true genius for cinematic storytelling becomes most apparent.
In one of the cinema’s great romantic entrances, Scotty first sees Madeleine leaving a restaurant (whose chapel-like swinging doors and impossibly red, sensual decor presage the passion and obsession to come) and, to the strains of Hermann’s love theme, (an irresistible mix of sweeping romance, regret and loss which seems to suggest both the beginning and the end of the affair); is instantly transfixed. In Vertigo’s signature sequence, Scotty follows Madeleine from a back alley, into the dank back entrance of a flower shop, to an ancient prayer chapel, to a graveyard and the gravestone of her notorious great-grandmother, Carlotta Valdez, to an art gallery where Madeleine stares for hours at a portrait of Carlotta, and to the Golden Gate Bridge in whose shadow Scotty saves her from an apparent suicide leap and drowning. Vertigo is, we will discover, not as seamlessly perfect as say, Notorious or Strangers on a Train, (possessed as it is by an uneven and poorly structured second half, one of the most HUH?-inducing endings of all time, and don’t even get me started on Kim Novak’s eyebrows) but this sequence may be the best such set-piece in film history. As Scotty and Madeleine glide thru a wordless ballet of cat and mouse (the 11 minute scene is nearly dialog-free), at once deception and courtship, Robert Burks’ superb photography follows them, dwarfed by vast expanses of deep blue sky and San Fransisco architecture (the city itself seems at times to act as a separate character in the drama) and time seems suspended; the oneiric, gauzy atmosphere seeming to emerge from a great time and distance, like a cherished but fading memory.
Now deeply in love, Scotty take Madeleine to Carlotta’s childhood home in an effort to break the spell, and is, due to his vertigo, unable to save her from throwing herself, Carlotta-like from its bell tower. It is here, in the film’s second half, that things get a little dicey, as we endure one of those leaden expository scenes for which Hitch was notorious, as an inquest chides Scotty for cowardice and incompetence, while finding him legally innocent of wrongdoing. (At least this one doesn’t come at the climax of the picture, as does the psychiatrist’s explanation which brings the otherwise flawless Psycho to a screeching halt), and is leavened by the dry, droll wit of veteran character player Henry Jones. This is followed by a lame, embarrassing nightmare sequence that would have made Roger Corman cringe (odd, indeed, that the only literal dream sequence in this filmic dream is its worst.)
“Only one person is a wanderer… Two together are always going somewhere…”
– Madeleine to Scotty
As Vertigo heads into its final great hallucination, however, Vertigo presents its most powerful, and complex moments. In a chance encounter, Scotty meets shop-girl Judy, a dead ringer for the ‘lost’ Madeleine, and is, again, mesmerized. The resemblance is understandable (SPOILER ALERT, though it’s hardly a big surprise) as we learn that Judy has impersonated the real Madeleine to help her lover Gavin kill his wife, using Scotty to vouch for the ‘suicide’, and his fear of heights to insure his missing the switch. She has, of course, fallen in love with Scotty for real now, and decides, somewhat illogically, to insist that she is not the same woman, in the hopes that he will fall in love with the ‘real’ her. It is here that things get really interesting, and very twisted. If Scotty really believes Judy is a different woman, then his obsessive, bullying insistence that she take on all the traits and physical appearances of ‘Madeleine’ is sick and intrusive. If on the other hand, he instinctively senses the truth, he is simply forcing her to become the woman he, unsuspecting, fell in love with. And why does Judy insist so vehemently on being loved for ‘herself’, when she know it was ‘her’ that he fell in love with in the first place? Is she jealous of herself? And who is the real Madeleine/Judy anyway?
We expect, and get, a masterful performance from Jimmy Stewart, but the heart of this emotional whirlpool is actually the much-maligned Kim Novak. Not the screen’s most versatile actress, Novak nonetheless shines here, in an unaffected, almost primitive performance; making believable the many conflicting and conflicted layers of Madeleine/Judy’s ‘real’ and fictional selves, the nuances of which shine through the hideous late 50’s makeup (did I mention the eyebrows?) and stay true and honest on repeated, informed viewing. In these last few moments of emotionally charged and beautifully realized melodrama, Vertigo confronts at last its core themes of identity, trust and betrayal; sweeping us, and its doomed lovers, to the aforementioned (and, one suspects, studio imposed) all-bad-girls-must-die clunker of an ending.
No mere false step, however, will keep Vertigo from lingering in your mind for days, probably years, or from its proper place in the short list of great films. This near-masterpiece is full of extraordinary images (the reflected sliver of Stewart’s face as he spies on Madeleine in the flower shop, the recurring ‘spiral’ images of hair, lighting fixtures, stairways, trees), and counterpoints (Midge’s longing for Scotty to Scotty’s for Madeleine, the suicides and abandonments of Carlotta, the Madeleines, both real and fictional and Judy) but what endures, finally, is the way in which Hitchcock, through color, sound, camera movement and his brilliant ensemble, reaches our most basic touchstones of love, fear, attachment, and loss; transforming what might have been an enjoyable, if forgettable, mystery thriller into a whodunit which seeks no less a solution than of the mystery of the human heart.