During his decades-long reign as Hollywood’s Master of Suspense, Alfred Hitchcock had made a number of classic films. If you were to point to any film within Hitch’s career, I’m sure you would find at least a small pocket of the film community declaring it his best (save for perhaps THE PARADINE CASE). But if any film deserves to sit on the Iron Throne of the Hitchcock oeuvre, it is the magnetic and mystifying VERTIGO.
Even among classics like REAR WINDOW, PSYCHO, REBECCA, NOTORIOUS, THE LADY VANISHES and NORTH BY NORTHWEST, this 1958 psycho-romantic mystery stands separate. There is something so different about VERTIGO; it is hypnotizing, ethereal and dreamlike. Bernard Herrmann’s Wagnerian score leads us to a swirling madness. Words and phrases weave in and out of the screenplay. Except for one crucial exception, characters disappear and reappear throughout the film either in person or by mention. Locations are visited and revisited. VERTIGO is a cyclical film and the results are dizzying.
One of the major themes of VERTIGO is identity and the loss of it. Scottie (James Stewart, one of my favorite Old Hollywood actors) goes through the trouble of clarifying that he’s John to his friends and Scottie to his acquaintances. He also calls himself “Available Ferguson” at one point. Midge (the chic Barbara Bel Geddes) calls him Johnny or sometimes John-O. Midge calls herself by her full name Marjorie Wood when alone with her romantic frustration. Judy Barton (Kim Novak, an underrated talent) becomes Madeleine twice and the Madeleine persona is so powerful, she and Scottie both lose themselves to it. Judy also has a second persona, Carlotta Valdez. The owner of the McKittrick Hotel patronizingly says the name is “foreign but sweet” and the last name Valdez gives a racial element to Scottie’s erotic fixation. As Scottie and Judy go deeper and deeper into their psychological turmoil, their identities become consumed by obsession. That is the true horror of VERTIGO.
The romantic obsession shared between the characters is just a side effect of Gavin Elster’s plan to kill his wife, the real Madeleine. These two troubled, psychologically damaged souls are now bound together because one man wanted his wife out of the picture. The murder part of the story becomes an afterthought almost as soon as it is brought up. The film has no use for its own MacGuffin. Elster didn’t intend for Scottie to fall for Madeleine or for Judy to fall in love with Scottie. Their disturbed romance, a bizarre love triangle, is the souvenir of the killing. So is the madness that was born from it. When Scottie tells Judy she shouldn’t have kept Madeleine’s necklace, his words resonate with his own situation. If only he could have let Madeleine go, then perhaps both his and Judy’s psyches could have been spared.
VERTIGO may be nominally a thriller but after seeing it so many times, I’ve come to see it as a tragedy. The film is sad, full of melancholy and loss. Death envelops the film, which both begins and ends with someone falling to death. Scottie has the death of three people hanging over him and much of his time is spent chasing after a ghost. What could be sadder than that?
Speaking of ghosts, VERTIGO teases a trip into the supernatural for the first half. Like a proper Gothic horror story, there are ghosts out to possess, the threat of madness and glamorous hypnotic trances. The scene in Muir Woods is legitimately scary; the score, the daylight horror and Kim Novak’s powerful performance add to the eerie atmosphere. Even the scenes when Scottie is following Madeleine, nearly wordless for a long stretch of time, maintain an otherwordly feel. Scottie feels attracted to Madeleine but he is also becoming fixated on the mystery behind her strange behavior. For a first time viewer, it is not hard to get sucked into the ghost tale of Carlotta Valdez.
Even people who do not like Hitchcock have to agree he was the absolute boss of building unbearable tension. Hitchcock’s secret for building suspense was to let audiences in on something the characters don’t know and his method works wonders in VERTIGO. He ingeniously gives out a twist in the story at the right time—just early enough that audiences can enjoy the tension the twist brings. The film changes perspective and the change allows for a new kind of suspense.
VERTIGO is not only my favorite Hitchcock film but also my favorite film period. Actually when I saw it for the first time, I didn’t even know it was a celebrated classic. As I became better acquainted with the Hitchcock fandom, I was happy to discover that this awesome film was considered a masterpiece. VERTIGO dropkicked CITIZEN KANE out of first place in the 2012 British Film Institute’s Sight & Sound critics’ poll. That was a watershed moment in film history. It was the ultimate vindication for a film that flopped with both critics and audiences in 1958. VERTIGO has stood the test of time, becoming a shining achievement of Alfred Hitchcock’s career.