What’s the bigger pity, that people can’t be what we want them to be or that we can’t be satisfied with people for what they are? Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) is about murder, as many of his movies are, but it’s also about obsession and control, two things that are sometimes absent from his plots but always present in his filmmaking. He was the master of control; almost nothing happened in front of his camera that he wasn’t in charge of. Actors, cinematographers, composers all bent to his will. In Vertigo, it is a woman who decides she would rather bend to the will of the man she loves than be herself and risk losing him. To watch her subjugate her very self to his desire is heartbreaking.
Vertigo is Hitchcock’s most disturbing film, though Shadow of a Doubt (1943) and Spellbound (1945) compete for that honor. Along with I Confess (1953) and The Wrong Man (1956), it is his most humorless. It works on the level of a nightmare like The Birds (1963), which has a plot that is nearly as ludicrous, but we aren’t thinking about the plot during Vertigo,because that isn’t the point. The ridiculous murder scheme is secondary to the emotional destruction of one man’s obsession. In Vertigo we are given a man who loves a woman that doesn’t exist, and we watch him go mad as he tries to create her based on a model that isn’t real.
In San Francisco, John Ferguson (James Stewart), called Scottie by his friends, is a retired police detective who quit the force because of a dangerous exploit that resulted in the death of an officer, a few broken ribs for Scottie, and a debilitating fear of heights. An old school friend phones him up to hire him as a private investigator to watch his wife, Madeleine (Kim Novak), who has been acting strange lately. The husband feels she’s possessed by her great-grandmother, a San Francisco socialite who killed herself around the same age Madeleine is now. The husband is worried Madeleine might do the same. Scottie follows Madeleine to strange locations, graves and old hotels. She returns to an art museum to sit in front of a painting of her relative with an odd expression on her face.
One day she throws herself into the Bay. Scottie, who up until now has watched Madeleine from a distance, jumps in and saves her. He is in love with her and now that he has inserted himself into her life, she falls in love with him too. It’s not long however, before Madeleine’s strange behavior leads her to an old Spanish mission and to the top of a bell tower, the same one her great-grandmother threw herself off of. Scottie tries to save her, but his fear of heights cripples him and he watches in horror as Madeleine’s body cascades to its death.
Afterward, Scottie spends time in psychiatric treatment. When he is released, he listlessly wanders the streets, like a ghost with no purpose. Walking into a shop one day he sees Madeleine. Of course, it can’t be, and the girl he sees is a little different. She dresses less elegantly and her hair is brown compared to Madeleine’s ash blonde, but it looks just like her. He follows her to her apartment and demands to know who she is. She’s Judy Barton of Kansas, she says, confused by the strange man in front of her. He asks to see her some more, and Judy, who seems to sympathize with Scottie, who has obviously lost someone important to him, agrees.
Hitchcock then, which is rare for him, reveals the secret early: Judy is Madeleine, or rather, that the Madeleine Scottie knew was Judy all along. The real Madeleine had been murdered before by her husband, who hired Judy to impersonate her in the convoluted possession and suicide plot, knowing that if he hired Scottie, he’d substantiate the story, and that with Scottie’s fear of heights, he’d be unable to discover the switch at the top of the tower. The body Scottie saw was Madeleine’s, but what he didn’t know is that the girl he fell in love with, Judy, was at the top of the tower as the husband threw Madeleine’s body over the side.
The problem is that Judy really fell for Scottie, and so when he comes back into her life, she accepts the degrading things he asks of her, demanding that she change her hair and dressing her up in the clothes he knew Madeleine to wear. It’s then we realize that Scottie is deranged. He can’t see the devoted girl in front of him, only the canvas for making a Madeleine. “Couldn’t you like me, just me the way I am?” she begs of him. “I’ll wear the darn clothes if you want me to, if you’ll just like me.” All he hears is her agreeing to wear the clothes. With that battle won, he moves on to her hair. “Oh, no,” she protests. “Judy, please, it can’t matter to you.” Whether it does or it doesn’t is certainly of no matter to him. The only thing that matters to Scottie is reconstructing this ideal woman, one that never really existed for him in the first place. Therefore, expectedly, his creation is only momentarily satisfying. Eventually, he finds out that he’s been tricked, that he fell in love with an invented person, and he goes off the deep end.
It’s made fairly clear that Scottie is unable to love a real woman. His ideal mate is right in front of him the whole time in the person of Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes), an old friend and ex-fiance who’s clearly still in love with Scottie. But Scottie doesn’t reciprocate because he’s only capable of loving a fantasy. It’s the same reason he won’t accept the very real Judy for what she is. Watch how the practical Midge, who is a commercial artist, explains one of the brassieres she’s painting for an ad. She’s actively putting herself out of the running for the Scottie sweepstakes. For Scottie, bras shouldn’t be explained; they lose all their allure. It’s a cruel standard he has, and two hearts and one life pay the price.
The movie is seeped in color, one of the best color pictures ever made. Everything is primary, Kim Novak’s stunning green dress walking through an impossibly red bar, the blue of the ocean splashing skyward during a kiss, and the green of a neon light invading Judy’s apartment, the specter of Madeleine and her emerald palette seeping into Judy’s life. Scottie is dressed in conservative browns and grays, always with a collar bar, signifying his strong draw to the bold hues of the world he wants to be a part of. All of these elements (not the least of which is Bernard Hermann’s haunting score) add to the immediacy of the story, the resemblance to a nightmare; the longing and obsession are triggered by color.
When Hitchcock felt like it, his camera could turn quite chauvinistic. I have no idea if he hated women or not, but he certainly put them through the wringer in his movies. There is a theme of women humiliating or subverting themselves in the name of the men they love. In Notorious (1946), Ingrid Bergman more or less prostitutes herself to help Cary Grant’s spy. In Rear Window (1954), Grace Kelly puts herself directly in harm’s way for the benefit of the incapacitated James Stewart, and here in Vertigo Novak’s Judy must effectively deny her own existence and accept that Scottie only loves the idea of her, only loves her resemblance to someone else, all the more ironic considering that the someone else was, in fact, Judy. Our sympathies are always with the women, a fact that saves Hitchcock from serious charges of sexism, but the ordeals and trials they are put through are unrelenting.
Vertigo is often called Hitchcock’s most personal film. I’ve never really thought of Hitchcock as a personal filmmaker, but I imagine it’s nearly impossible to make a great film without putting something of yourself into it. Here is Hitchcock’s obsession of control. “Did he train you? Did he rehearse you?” Scottie screams at Madeleine, outlining Hitch’s relationship with actors. “Did he tell you exactly what to do, what to say?” Here also is his obsession with chasing after an idea. Hitchcock made more than 50 movies, many of which had similar themes and plots. He was constantly reworking the same story. He even went so far as to remake one of his own movies. I don’t know if he perfected it with Vertigo, but he made a movie that best reflected his dark side, that best captured the sick perversions lurking beneath the surface in his other films. They’re all here in Vertigo.