Great Films: Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock, 1958, USA)

Vertigo is one of those films, along with the likes of George Sluizer’s Spoorloos (1988), Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy (1982) and Alfred Hitchcock’s own Rebecca (1940), that at least according to their film certificates may be suitable viewing for all audiences and ages, yet their profound and frankly frightening delineations of the dark depths of their protagonists’ obsessions are as graphic and disturbing as any violence, horror or gore, and should be steered around with a wide berth by the young, over-impressionable or faint of heart. But for those able to stomach it, as well as those who in some way relate to the nature of the characters’ fixations, Vertigo is cinema’s greatest examination of self-destructive desire.

A film about how traumas affect psychologies begins with a fairly simple cause and effect: police detective John “Scotty” Ferguson is involved in a rooftop chase where he witnesses a colleague fall to his death, resulting in his developing acrophobia-induced vertigo. The early plot device not only sets up his retirement from the force, thus allowing him to be in a position to undertake his sunsequent unofficial investigations, but also prepares the audience for the more complex psychological changes which are to follow.

Enter the MacGuffin, that most Hitchcockian device which moves everything along so smoothly yet ultimately has little relevance to the film’s theme. But while in other films it is clear-cut (the $40,000 in Psycho, the government secrets in North By Northwest) here it is less so, and seems to be on shifting sands. Initially, it is precisely defined by the mission Gavin Elster puts Scotty on: solving the mystery of where his wife Madeleine is going. This slowly changes to discovering the relevance of the painting of Carlotta Valdes, the grave, the hotel, and how they are all interlinked, before yet another mystery surfaces, that of what Madeleine’s vision of a Spanish bell tower represents.

The famous surprise that comes halfway through Psycho is unanimously praised as daring, but it could be argued that the surprise that comes two-thirds of the way through Vertigo is just as revolutionary: here is the central mystery, or at least what has been the central mystery so far, solved before our very eyes. Is that the end of the story? Audiences at the time must have thought so, probably not suspecting that there would be at least another 40 minutes of film to come. But this is where the classic mystery thriller format ends and the psychological horror comes to its apex: no longer is a man chasing a doomed woman with whom he is in love, but a woman is now chasing a doomed man whom she loves, but who loves not her but someone who never existed.

In this setup, there is a little philosophical overlap with Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solyaris (1972), in that both films in different ways examine what it means to love someone. In the Russian film, the question is is it the other person in themselves that we love, our own perception and memory of what they mean personally to us, or is it in the forever unbridgeable gap between two existences. Vertigo offers a much more bleak outlook: Scotty falls in love with a charlatan and is unwilling to accept any other ‘Madeleine’, while the very real Judy has fallen in love with a Scotty who is perhaps just as unreal, as invented as her alter-ego.

The main characters, their interlinkings and failures to communicate the truth to each other, as well as their incomplete knowledges of the whole situation are what drive the film towards its inevitably tragic conclusion: lies, tricks, deceptions are everywhere. Even the superficially relaxed relationship between Scotty and Midge, whose early scenes together appear to offer light relief to the thickening mystery plot, have an undercurrent of jealousy and sexual tension, which surface when the latter makes an ill-judged attempt at poking fun at the former’s developing preoccupation, overstepping the mark catastrophically.

It takes an obsessive to analyse obsession; just as there is something of Vladimir Nabokov in Lolita‘s Humbert Humbert, there is much of Hitchcock in John Ferguson. As has been noted by many others, the disquieting scene where an increasingly paranoid Judy is made-over by Scotty to look exactly like Madeleine, right down to the platinum blonde hair and fitted grey suit, in many ways acts as Hitchcock’s confessional to the way he uses the women he casts in his films, meticulously and some would say obsessively controlling their looks and manners. For a director so verbally dismissive of the importance of acting talent and so frequently abusive of his female characters, it is something of an admittance of guilt.

There is so much happening for the viewer both in terms of overt plotting and underlying psychology that it is easy on a cursory viewing to overlook just what a dazzling technical achievement the film is: Bernard Hermann’s magnificent, unsettling score, making even the most trivial detail seem sinister and loaded with danger; the performances of the two leads, both playing against type but delivering career-defining roles; the use of location, San Francisco’s apartments, hills, landmarks, narrow backstreets and surrounding landscape as important a location to Vertigo as Los Angeles was to Philip Marlowe. The virtuosity with which Hitchcock can add a breathtaking effect, yet make it necessary enough to the story for it not to seem overly showy – the ‘vertigo’ shot as famously copied in Jaws, or the bravura scene between Scotty and Judy that Roger Ebert describes as the director’s best.

Note also the colour coding: the bright, passionate reds of the restaurant where Scotty first sees Madeleine, the famous grey suit, the greens of both the car he follows and the doppelganger he later stalks. It may seem like a game of directorial cat-and-mouse, but the later scene in the hotel room, where Scotty finally acquires the woman he has been fixated with, make it clear that this is no foolish joke on the audience: the translucent green of the hotel sign forms a mysterious haze around his desired one, which is later shattered by the very real red of the familiar-looking necklace around her neck. See here for more on the film’s colour coding.

One final odd curio: film censors in certain countries required the film not to end on the dramatic bell-tower ledge, but for there to be a coda explaining how the fleeing fugitive Elster was being captured in Europe, as if audiences in Europe would not be able to handle anyone guilty of murder not being seen to be brought to justice.

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