Let’s Talk About… ‘Vertigo’ (1958)

Film #71 in FilmExodus’ AFI 100 Movies

Every week FilmExodus does a review/analysis of a different cinematic masterpiece from AFI’s 100 Movies 2007 updated list. For a complete overview and how you can participate, click here.

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

Starring: James Stewart, Kim Novak, Barbara Bel Geddes, Tom Helmore

 

Out of all the films in Alfred Hitchcock’s vast filmography, Vertigo stands apart in its notoriety. It was infamously critically panned upon its release, failing miserably at the box office and causing Hitchcock to publicly blame an aging James Stewart for the film’s lack of appeal. Kim Novak would receive similar criticism about miscasting later on. But Hitchcock did not fight the poor reception for he had other projects on the horizon. Indeed, the years 1959 – 1963 would be some of the director’s most well-received, notably with the massive success of Psycho. As the years went by, Vertigo attracted a small cult following and some critics started to reappraise the film. This movement grew over time – boosted by the film finally being re-released theatrically after 30 years of copyright hell and an extraordinary restoration of the deteriorating master print – so that by the end of the century, the film had been reclassified as being one of Hitchcock’s greatest efforts. Not only that, Vertigo is now considered as one of the greatest films of all time and marked it’s much celebrated 60th anniversary this year.

Always a fan of Hitchcock’s style, I started to seriously explore his work in my late 20s. I had grown up watching and re-watching Psycho II, later becoming attached to the 1960 original. I ended up choosing Vertigo as the next step in my self-paced Master of Suspense curriculum. The film did not disappoint me and I experienced a mystical feeling that lasted for several days after I had watched it though I was also bothered that I had not understood everything about the story. It was not confusing per se but the performances were so profound and the screenplay so smart that I it left me outwitted. Both Hitchcock and his wife Alma Reville, who treated most of his films’ scripts, were very clever and enjoyed making people think. In the case of Vertigo, they did just that.

Scottie keeping a watchful eye on Madeleine.

Madeleine.

The story beings with a night-time rooftop chase in San Francisco. Police detective John “Scottie” Ferguson (Stewart) is attempting to capture a criminal with the assistance of a uniformed officer. Scottie keeps up with the individual for a while until he loses his footing and fails to clear to the next building. He hangs on to the roof for dear life, his anxiety growing over the sight of the alleyway far below him. The officer tries to pull Scottie up but slides off of the roof tiles and falls to his death. Somehow, Scottie is saved although he is heavily traumatised from the incident, developing acrophobia and vertigo that is so bad that he resigns from the police force. During his convalescence period, he spends time with his old college flame, Midge (Bel Geddes).

One day out of the blue, Scottie receives a phone call from another of his old college buddies, Gavin Elster (Helmore). Gavin has moved back to the city after an extended period of time to work in the shipbuilding business at a firm linked to his wife, Madeleine (Novak). Deducing that Gavin got in touch with him for more than just social reasons, Scottie enquires to know what is on his mind. With that, Gavin starts talking about his wife being taken over by the ghost of one of her dead relatives, specifically her great-grandmother Carlotta Valdez. Madeleine has no idea of the blood relationship between herself and Carlotta even after she starts becoming engrossed by her old pieces of jewellery and visiting landmarks connected with her past. Convinced that something bad will happen to her, Gavin asks Scottie to follow Madeleine to help furnish him information about her behaviour that would later be useful to doctors. Though he initially declines, Scottie accepts to consider taking the case after setting his eyes on Madeleine and falling under her spell. Little by little, Scottie is able to piece together – also with Midge’s help – portions of the puzzle but unfortunately not before it is too late and Madeleine takes her own life, at the very same age as Carlotta had been when she killed herself.

An inquest is held to determine whether Scottie was at fault in connection with Madeleine’s death. He has to once again be reminded of the tragic accident that took the police officer’s life as it is a harsh tactic used by the Prosecution. In the end, he is found “not guilty” but the psychological damage is done and he suffers a complete mental breakdown. He remains in a rest home for an unspecified amount of time, appearing non-responsive and in a vegetative state though conscious. Again, an unspecified amount of time passes before he is living a somewhat normal life, seeing roaming the streets of San Francisco. Scottie often goes back to the places he saw and went with Madeleine, still hung up on her and their ill-fated love. One afternoon he sees Judy Barton (Novak), a beautiful young woman who resembles Madeleine, walking down the street. He follows her to her residence and after some negotiation ends up getting a dinner date. Though he enjoys his time with Judy, he is still obsessed with Madeleine and thinks that if he physically transforms her, he can in some way bring Madeleine back to life. Scottie is playing a dangerous game as is Judy who is a somewhat willing participant. What will this spell in the end for everyone?

Midge trying to reach an unresponsive Scottie.

Vertigo has been minutely analysed countless times and despite this, discussions about the film still remain fresh. Moreover, fans of the film seem to have keen insight and limitless explanations to help better explain and understand the plot. I am no different in these aspects as each time I watch the film, my general appreciation of it seems to mature and evolve. This is something that I do not find frustrating but is rather an experience that I highly relish because it seems as though the film always delivers something new to me.  Since I have seen Vertigo at least 50 times, this definitely bewilders me although in a good way!

For this part of my article, I will go a little more in-depth in with character analyses and talk about some of the clues that I picked out on my own. If you by chance have not seen the film or do not wish to be spoiled, please do not read any further.

The most important person to start with in my opinion is Gavin Elster. He is the mastermind behind the Madeleine/Carlotta plot, an innocent looking man who plays the role of the grieving widower oh-so-well. It takes a while to notice any slip-ups in his plan or his behaviour, which is seemingly flawless. Well, it was not until I purchased the Blu-ray version of the film that I could build a solid case against Mr. Elster by being able to spot little details that had gone about unnoticed and unspoken.

  1. There is a portrait in Gavin’s office that hangs on the wall close to the door, above a model ship in a glass case. It reads: “San Francisco in July 1849” Now, Gavin is a self-professed lover of history and there are many historical pictures hanging all around his office. He expresses dismay at having returned to live in San Francisco after so many years because the things he loved are disappearing quickly. (It would seem that he had been born in the wrong century.)
  2. Carlotta Valdes, Madeleine’s supposed great-grandmother, was born on 3 December 1831 and died on 5 March 1857. She would have been 17, going on 18, in July 1849 right about the time that her name would have been a prominent headliner back in the day.
  3. Since Gavin is a connaisseur of local history specifically during that period, he would have undoubtedly known about Carlotta’s prominence. This would easily lead him to the painting at the museum which would grant him visual access on how to re-create certain aspects: the flower bouquet, the bun in her hair and her jewellery. Additionally, he would be able to incorporate physical locations into Madeleine’s visits like the McKittrick Hotel and the Mission Dolores.
  4. Using the excuse that Madeleine was unaware of her blood relation to Carlotta Valdes is extremely convenient in further fuelling Gavin’s made-up story.

Then there is Judy Barton, seemingly just an ordinary girl from Salina, Kansas. She is undoubtedly curvaceous and attractive though her clothes and make-up are not very refined. Her hair is brown and she has a reasonable size mole on the left side of her face. Although she resembles Madeleine Elster to a certain degree, perhaps no one but Scottie would have ever made a connection between the two of them. There is a moment in the street when she is walking with her friends while being watched by Scottie. If you study that scene very carefully, you will see there she stops in her tracks for a split second, surrendering her secret identity. Judy has recognised Scottie and it is thanks to that moment that she is able to stay calm and collected when he knocks on her door later at the Empire Hotel. The look on her face as she opens the door is that from a woman who is calm and collected, not of a woman who has been followed by a stranger who will not leave her alone. The cracks in Judy’s Madeleine show a little earlier in the film, though. When she drops off the letter at Scottie’s apartment, she seems ill prepared to encounter him and even more uncomfortable when he asks where she is headed. That is the moment when I feel that Judy went off-script from Gavin’s plans. She should have made-up an excuse and simply driven away. Instead, she could not deny her attraction to Scottie and let him come closer to her than ever should have been the case.

As for Scottie, or Johnny-O as Midge calls him, he is a very intelligent fellow who actually studied law but who ended up dreaming of being the Chief of Police. He is very good at his job and is able to piece together the story of Carlotta though he remains sceptical of any matters of the paranormal. Though he buys into Madeleine’s dilemma, he does not believe that she is predestined for tragedy. He will never forgive himself for letting her run up the bell tower at the Mission and feels that making Judy over and bringing Madeleine back-to-life will somehow stop the Valdes curse. Some have labelled Scottie’s behaviour and fixation on Madeleine as being obsessive. I do not quite believe that to be the case. Deep down, I think he always knew about Judy’s true identity because he would never have pushed his outrageous demands on any other girl, who no doubt would have slammed the door in his face straight away.

Judy was just as traumatised as he was. There is no indication of what she looked like when she initially met Gavin. Was she a brunette then, too, or was she a blonde? Did she change her looks after Madeleine’s death to stay undercover in the city and to flee that persona? One thing is sure. Scottie says that Gavin made Judy over but better than he had done which is very true. Though the same clothes are purchased, the same hair colour and make-up are used, Judy as resurrected Madeleine is missing something about her. Along those lines, I find it strange that Judy had a prominent mole on her face that disappears when she is Madeleine. The mole did not appear to have been drawn on with a crayon but rather appeared to be a natural beauty spot.

Some have suggested that part of or even the totality of the film is nothing more than fantasy; a mere dream that Scottie makes-up either after the first incident with the officer dying or after he goes mad from Madeleine’s death. I could see either one of these being a possibility though I would say that his dream with Judy/Madeleine starts after his breakdown. It is odd that after that point, Midge is neither seen nor heard from again. Also, seeing Scottie’s catatonic state is distressing and it is possible that he would have never made a full recovery from Madeleine’s passing.

There are so many factors to consider and it is likely that just as you have come to a conclusion about Vertigo, you will be challenged to re-evaluate your position. It is hard to label this as Hitchcock’s most perfect film considering that plethora of amazing pictures he made during his career even though it is hard to think of anything else as wonderful when you are watching it. Simply listening to Bernard Herrmann’s breathtaking soundtrack will carry you away, enticing you with mystery, romance and drama. James Stewart was never better in a Hitchcock film and supersedes the performance he gave in Rear Window. He plays Scottie with such bold intensity and untainted desire. Watch the scenes between him and Kim Novak in Scottie’s apartment after her “fall” into the Bay and there is all the proof you need. Kim created three very memorable characters: Madeleine Elster, Judy Barton and Judy’s Madeleine. It was an incredible undertaking for a relatively inexperienced actress who managed to come out on top. This film is amongst the best she ever did and she still proudly talks about it whenever she can.

It is a pleasure to see Vertigo given a deservingly high ranking on the AFI’s 100 Greatest Films list. If you have not seen it, I cannot recommend it enough. Even if you are not overly familiar with Hitchcock, this is still a wonderful start to be introduced to his work.