Why does Alfred Hitchcock's picture 'Vertigo' endure as such an
important piece, more than forty years after it was made?
Universal recently committed more than $1 million for its restoration, a
process that gives modern moviegoers outstanding clarity of image and
sound. According to the experts in charge of the restoration, audiences
for the next 200 years should be able to enjoy their restored version.
Then there are the ardent fans of Hitchcock's - the ones who claim this
is his masterpiece, one of the very best films. How talk was started
that 'Vertigo' is a personal film I don't know; but there is an odd,
desultory tone to 'Vertigo', a slow sadness that punctuates the
passionate emotions and intense action scenes.
Finally, I know first hand that 'Vertigo' is watchable by contemporary
youngsters: my 14 year-old son and ten year-old daughter were glued to
our television while the tape played.
Like many of the stories selected by the meticulous Hitchcock, the plot
of 'Vertigo' is difficult to describe. It's nearly like putting into
words the bizarre images from an MTV video or a commercial with
fast-paced digitized figures. Here goes: John "Scottie" Ferguson
(James Stewart) has imposed retirement on himself because he suffers
attacks of anxiety and dizziness when he looks down from great heights.
Another dimension of his uneasiness is guilt. John had been a
detective, and when he'd fallen during a chase and hung from the gutter
of a building, he'd watched a police officer trying to help him fall to
Where the story starts to writhe with originality is when a college
buddy of the aging Ferguson contacts him with a request. The
ship-building executive Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore) apparently has a
young wife who is preoccupied with living the life - and perhaps the
death - of Carlotta Valdez, her great-grandmother. Elster wants
Ferguson to follow Madeleine Elster (Kim Novak) and note her wanderings
- and protect her from herself, if necessary. In the following
sequences we watch Scottie Ferguson trail Madeleine to a flower market,
a museum, a boarding hotel, and the farthest destination, 100 miles
south of San Francisco, a Spanish mission. In these places Madeleine
seems to assume a trace-like state in which she patterns her behavior
after Carlotta, a woman who took her life after a period of depression
and distraction brought on by losing custody of her daughter.
What the husband, Elster, had not counted on was his friend's falling in
love with Madeleine. For awhile Ferguson follows her undetected. But
when he witnesses her jump into San Francisco Bay, he dives in and
brings her back to his own apartment. Though at first it seems
Madeleine wants nothing to do with Ferguson, she returns to drop off a
thank-you note. Ferguson happens to follow her to his own apartment,
where he expresses tentative affections that she returns. Later, in a
stunning scene back at the mission, their relationship ends, sending
Ferguson into a mute depression, an acute "melancholia" from which he
emerges, after a year, as a man obsessed with regaining what he's lost.
Novak returns in a brilliant double role as Judy Barton, a woman who
looks just like Madeleine Elster. Enough said that the two fall in
complicated love, and relive crucial and compelling scenes.
The literary elements in Hitchcock's films are always remarkable. That
his plots resemble finely written stories is no mistake. In 'Vertigo'
we see the director's fascination with heights, first of all,
illustrating the terror felt by Ferguson as he glances from high-rise
windows or simply down a flight of steps. The part of the body featured
in this film seems to be the eyes. From the swirling vortex in Saul
Bass' title design, to extreme close-ups of the eyes of the main
players, we catch glimpses of troubled souls. Other leit motifs include
jewelry, paintings, water, and lurid lighting. Hitchcock also expertly
uses dramatic irony, given to us in a sudden sequence late in the story,
just before we need to know it. Finally, the master of suspense is not
above using even animation, in a dream scene, to assist in showing the
deteriorating psyche of the beleaguered detective Ferguson.
Jimmy Stewart is as impressive as ever in the leading role. Stewart is
the ultra-rare combination of modest looks and supreme composure. The
best thing is, oddly enough, that when he loses this composure, he is
completely convincing, his acting completely transparent. Occasionally
in the story Ferguson acts flippant and nonchalant, as in many scenes
with his old pal "Midge" Wood, an artist to whom he was engaged briefly
several years before. (Midge is played by the wonderful stage and film
character actress Barbara Bel Geddes.) Soon Ferguson displays a
tortured affliction that surprises the viewer. This actor depicts an
astonishing range - always natural and sympathetic. At first feeling
sorry for the psychologically troubled Madeleine, Ferguson dabbles in
attempted cure; a failed healer, he tries later to cure himself. What
a paradoxical role this one, vastly different from the others he played
Kim Novak's character was originally given to Vera Miles. But when
production was delayed by Hitchcock's gall bladder operation, Miles
announced she was pregnant and could not play this challenging role.
Hence the glamorous Novak's selection as the troubled blonde Madeleine
Elster, and as her doppelganger, the less sophisticated Judy Barton.
Novak's acting is never over-stated; it seems natural without the
wooden façade many of her contemporaries practiced - like Miles, for
instance, practices in 'Psycho.'
Another reason this story endures is its universal contradictions. It
is at once a mystery and a romance, with loads of forbidden behaviors
that must have struck audiences of the late '50s as terribly risqué.
Why does Scottie Ferguson pursue the damaged (and married) femme fatale,
instead of the comfortable, mothering Midge? Sinister schemes, trauma,
searches for redemption - all of these themes commingle in Hitchcock's
In service of his "pure cinema" philosophy, Hitchcock crafts long
establishing shots (remember the opening of 'Psycho'?), and paces some
scenes slowly. For a thriller, 'Vertigo' has relatively few frenetic
scenes. Modern audiences will yawn during a few of the characters'
conversations, even though their dialogue was approved by the stamp of
Hitchcock's wit. If 'Vertigo' were to be remade, as Gus Van Sant remade
'Psycho,' the newer text would be comparably inferior. Certainly,
though, a few plot elements could be borrowed, as it's hard to think of
a film with such a stunning and thematically unified conclusion.
The rock band Harvey Danger demonstrates the lasting impact of 'Vertigo'
in their song 'Carlotta Valdez.' My son spotted the allusion
immediately, and played the track from the CD 'Where Have All the
Jump into the San Francisco Bay
I'll follow you in
I know you can't swim
When you've been dead 100 years, Carlotta
Carlotta Valdez, I will make you her
Everything's subjective, nothing lasts for Johnnie-o
Kiss Kim Novak where the redwoods grow
I'll bleach her hair and pretend she didn't die
Go up the mission stair
I'll follow you anywhere -
That is, until you climb too high
Cause I get vertigo
Carlotta Valdez, I will make you her…
One thing that is reinforced to me weekly, as I view modern movies: the
past is in no way inferior to the present. Many of us have constructed
borders around ourselves, and are convinced we do not like black and
white films, or anything older than we are, or anything with subtitles….
The list goes on. For sure, Alfred Hitchcock is an original voice who
takes his place in the canon of great directors, whether or not
'Vertigo' makes everyone's short lists of the best films ever made.
Copyright © 1999 Mark OHara