Vertigo (1958)

The British Film Industry (BFI) finally replaced Citizen Kane with Vertigo (1958) as their choice for the best movie ever. It’s about time. The distinction is a good one, because it is a critical judgment seemingly made without regard for time, for history. You’d expect Citizen Kane, a sort of almost immortal sacred cow among movie cognoscenti, to be replaced by some current unworthy choice. But a movie from 1958…that’s a long time ago by today’s critical standards. So the new premiere ranking of Vertigo is a respectable sign.

There has been much hyper-precious critical appraisal of Vertigo. I would nominate the overriding idea in such analyses to be that the hero, Detective Scottie Ferguson, and indeed the film itself, can be understood as a drama largely of male obsession with females.  

I think much of such a dubious and short-sighted appraisal is finally explainable as an outcome of us humans usually being thoughtlessly lost–indeed, mostly and superficially taking our lostness for granted–in the vastness of the natural world and in the grip of our natures; but I think that Hitchcock has given us in Vertigo one of the truly important and eminently realistic art experiences of the critically salient but often subconscious primary human longing, a hopeless hope, for transcendence of that world. The movie is supremely if sadly realistic in a masterful crescendo.

Vertigo, adapted from Boileau-Narcejac’s 1954 novel, From the Dead, is three subplots beautifully integrated: Gavin Elster’s scheme; Scottie Ferguson’s quest; and Judy Barton’s tragedy. It is certainly best to see Vertigo for the first time with no a priori knowledge of how these three subplots play together: in short, no “spoilers.” But to feel the impact of Hitchcock’s shattering drama of the Human Condition, it is useful to revisit Vertigo with now an understanding of the stage-managing Gavin Elster, including his mythic persona; a fuller understanding of Scottie Ferguson as an archetypal hard-headed Scots realist who finds himself to have become (for want of a better term) a Recovering Surrealist; and to understand the profound pathos in Judy Barton’s all-too-human deadly arc. So herewith a summary of the major elements of the storyline, necessarily in some detail, which merges a moviegoer’s before-and-after viewings and is written for those who have already seen Vertigo.

The storyline: San Francisco detective, Scottie Ferguson (James Stewart), suffers acrophobia during a towering rooftop chase of a suspect when Ferguson nearly falls to his death. Wealthy San Francisco shipping magnate and acquaintance of Scottie in college, Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore), learning of Scottie’s retirement from the police force as Scottie battles the intense fear of heights brought on by the acrophobia, decides to exploit the damaged Scottie in a surrealistic and diabolical plot to murder Elster’s extraordinarily wealthy young wife, Madeleine, whom Scottie has never met. Elster takes as a mistress, hires, and coaches a beautiful shop girl, Judy Barton (Kim Novak), to impersonate Madeleine, then convinces a reluctant Scottie to act the detective and follow the Madeliene-imposter around San Francisco because Elster claims his wife has been possessed by the ghost of Carlotta Valdes, the suicidal great grandmother of Madeleine. Elster tells Scottie that Carlotta took her life specifically at age twenty-six, Madeliene’s present age, and that Elster fears his wife will do the same. A hard-headed Scots, Scottie is the Compleat Realist and doubts Elster, especially Elster’s claim his wife is possessed; but despite Scottie’s skepticism the now largely idle ex-detective agrees to follow “Madeleine” from a residence in the Mark Hopkins high on Nob Hill as she roams hilly San Francisco in her lovely, classic Jaguar. Scottie is, of course, unaware that Elster has designed the wanderings of “Madeliene” to reinforce his possession-by-the-dead surrealism: “Madeliene” visits an art gallery in which hangs a portrait of Carlotta who is wearing a distinctive necklace; “Madeliene” wears an identical necklace. “Madeleine” also reverently visits the gravesite of Carlotta. When Scottie follows “Madeleine” to an old hotel, the McKittrick (a literary name, eh?), Scottie discovers that “Madeleine” occupies a room there under Carlotta’s name. Subsequently, Scottie has a drink in a bar with Elster and reports on his discoveries; Elster assures Scottie that “Madeleine” has no knowledge of Carlotta and implies that hence “Madeleine’ must be possessed. Scottie, the classic practicing realist, is stunned and shaken. And later he tells his ex-fiance, Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes), about the behavior of “Madeleine”; and Midge, still in love with Scottie, takes him to a bookstore run by oldster Pop Leibel, knowledgeable of much San Francisco history, and Leibel relates the sad saga of the beautiful Carlotta ruthlessly abandoned by a rich man (“He threw her out!”) and who at the time of her ensuing suicide lived in the McKittrick. The following day, Scottie resumes his following of “Madeleine,” and she drives to Fort Point, where she jumps into San Francisco Bay. He rescues her–she is unconscious–and takes her to his apartment and dries her and puts her in bed. Upon awakening, “Madeliene” says she recalls nothing of the incident, and Scottie says she must have lost her footing. Their conversation grows tender and they clearly are developing strong romantic feelings for one another. But later “Madeliene” sneaks from the apartment and disappears. The next day, the trailing Scottie is surprised when he follows her back to his place and finds her putting a note of thanks in his mail slot. “Madeleine” says she is going to spend the rest of the day “wandering,” and the stricken Scottie proposes to join her (which it is hoped he would do under Elster’s scheme). While visiting the tract of giant sequoias at Muir Woods, “Madeleine” implies she has been having haunting dreams and a sense of being possessed. Then, following Elster’s script, she tells Scottie she has dreamed of a place that seems Spanish. Based on the clues in the vague account by “Madeleine”and just as Elster intended, Scottie pieces together that the place, actually not too far down the coast southward, is the mission at San Juan Bautista. Scottie, the realist, tells “Madeleine” that by bringing her back to the mission, the realism of the scene will cure her delusions, especially that she is possessed. On the grounds of the mission, “Madeleine” “recalls” it all, then turns and runs toward the mission itself with its bell tower, is caught by Scottie and embraced, tells Scottie mysteriously “It wasn’t supposed to be this way” and says that she has fallen in love with him, then breaks away and again runs toward the Mission, Scottie chasing her as she enters the foot of the tower and races up the spiral staircase toward the top. But the pursuing Scottie’s acrophobia halts him partway up the stairs, just as Elster had expected. Then Scottie sees through a nearby tower window the body of a woman dressed like “Madeleine” falling from above and far down to the roof of an adjoining building. He believes it to be “Madeleine.” Later, at the coroner’s inquest, Scottie is disparagingly accused of letting an innocent woman die because Scottie could not conquer his fear of heights. Elster is declared blameless. Traumatized and guilt-ridden, Scottie becomes catatonic and enters a sanitorium for several months. Midge visits him frequently but is unable to influence any improvement in bringing him back to reality: in particular, listening to Mozart doesn’t work. When Scottie, a man of independent means, is finally released, he begins a wandering search through San Francisco streets, apparently looking for the seemingly dead “Madeleine.” One day he spots three young working girls walking toward him on a sidewalk, and one of them, a brunette, strikes him as looking much like “Madeleine.” He follows her to her hotel apartment and asks her many questions. She identifies herself as Judy Barton from Salina, Kansas, and that she works in a department store. Scottie asks her to dinner, she hesitatingly accepts, showing a suspicious demeanor, and Scottie leaves for an hour to allow her to dress for dinner. Judy begins to pack her suitcase, hesitates, then writes Scottie a letter admitting that she is indeed the “Madeleine” hired by Gavin Elster and that Elster was waiting in the bell tower with the body of his already dead wife dressed exactly like Judy and that, to echo the acute Hitchcock and his screen writers in what is no mere coincidence of terminology with that of Pop Leibel, Elster threw his wife out of the tower. Judy concludes her confession by reiterating that she loves Scottie. But after reflecting, Judy can’t bear to leave Scottie and tears up the confession. After dinner at Ernies, Scottie asks to spend the next day with Judy, and she agrees. Scottie then insistently begins a project to make Judy look even more like “Madeleine.” He buys her a grey suit exactly like one “Madeleine” wore. He sends her to a beauty parlor to have her hair dyed and styled just like “Madeleine’s.” Judy’s love of Scottie overcomes her dread of his discovery that she is “Madeleine”–perhaps, she must think, she might be happy with Scottie if she is simply seen by him as closely resembling “Madeleine”–and so she consents to his wishes. And, of course, she ends up looking entirely like “Madeleine.” Scottie is agape. As they prepare to leave her apartment for dinner, Scottie detects that Judy is putting on a necklace exactly like the one Carlotta wears in the portrait and which Judy/”Madeleine” wore the day Elster threw his wife from the bell tower. The grim, clearly angry Scottie says nothing at the moment, but shortly he insists they go on a drive, and Judy grows more and more agitated when she sees that Scottie is driving toward San Juan Bautista, it now being obvious that he suspects she is indeed “Madeleine” and complicit in a murder. When they reach the Mission, Scottie, enraged, drags Judy up to the top of the bell tower, his acrophobia no longer impeding him in a validation of his principle of realism as a cure-all, and then, in the tower, heatedly and in her face does the good detective’s job of inferring and recreating the Elster plot in detail, including Elster’s rehearsals of Judy to prepare her for the role of “Madeleine.” Judy admits that she is guilty, declares that she remains in love with Scottie, and pleads for his forgiveness. She and the helplessly relenting Scottie embrace. But a nun emerges from the shadows in another portion of the bell tower, frightens Judy who screams, recoils, trips and falls from the tower to her death. The story instantly ends with the image of Scottie standing alone, staring in shock, shattered.

Hitchcock, it is my contention, gives us in Vertigo his ultimate judgment about what we call the Human Condition. He does so after a series of anti-climaxes in the storyline, only one of which is the “male obsession” theme sounded in perhaps the dominant echo chamber of some movie critics: Hitchcock doesn’t intend for us to turn away from Vertigo after we see that obviously Scottie is deeply in love with “Madeleine,” even “obsessively,” whether she is alive or dead (and surely understanding somewhere in his psychology that ironically here he too might be “possessed” by a dead woman). Apropos, at least two additional aspects of Vertigo must not be ignored let alone simplified: Gavin Elster’s mythic identity; and the issue of human epistemology as dramatized specifically in Scottie’s drama. 

Scottie is, of course, central. Hitchcock masterfully places several clues in Vertigo which bear on Scottie’s behavior, especially his behavior near the end of the movie. One of these comes at the conclusion of the inquest following Madeleine’s death: Scottie pointedly declines to shake Elster’s proffered hand in the hearing room when the latter offers consolation for Scottie’s “rough” treatment during the inquest. Scottie, the hard-headed realist, the lawyer and detective for whom a rose is a rose is a rose, a man who would no doubt chuckle at Samuel Johnson’s kicking a stone to refute Lord Berkeley’s idealism, must on some level hearken to the dismaying truth that as an empiricist, a dealer in facts, he never saw directly what happened in that bell tower, for his acrophobia prevented his witnessing. Was he played the fool by Elster? 

And we should note that the special effect Hitchcock employs for dramatizing Scottie’s fear of heights–the dizzying accordion-like illusion of a great extension of stair and building heights as perceived by the ill Scottie when hanging from the high-rise gutter, when stalled on the stairs in the bell tower and, later, when on a step-stool in Midge’s studio–is supremely surrealistic in a way reminiscent of such painters in that movement as Salvador Dali. And this is not to forget that possession by the dead is certainly “surreal.” In short, the Scottie we see in the sanitorium and, after his release, wandering and searching the streets of San Francisco, is a Recovering Surrealist. Clearly Scottie is in a turmoil. Small wonder the beautifully balanced and orderly Mozart is not, as Midge says, “the boy for Scottie’s recovery” in the sanitorium.

What specifically is preying psychologically on ex-lawyer and ex-detective Scottie is the suddenly possible falsity of his long-time and instinctive reliance on a simple, fundamental realism. Consider his shock at the surrealism of those downwardly extending spiraling stairs in the bell tower. And worse, if the surreal is true, can Scottie any longer confidently assure Gavin Elster that Madeleine, seemingly “possessed” by the long-dead Carlotta, merely needs a frank talk with their family doctor to put such surreal nonsense to rest? And did “Madeleine,” secretly, of course, a part of Elster’s scheme, find in Scottie’s ken any relief from her delusion of being possessed by the dead Carlotta when she went with Scottie to the mission at San Juan Batista, a dispelling Scottie had confidently assured her would be brought forth by the realism of that actual visit? 

I think Scottie’s behavior after his stay in the sanatorium is complicated in two ways: first, he intensely loves “Madeleine” and, searching prodigiously, hopes that somehow he can find her on the streets of San Francisco; and, second, at the same time he has deeply within him–not fully consciously?–a need to challenge the surrealism and regain his confidence in plain old-fashioned realism, a regaining of his sanity that may allow him ultimately not to have been made the fool. The two motives need not be contradictory. Indeed, this latter drive is what largely governs Scottie’s obsessive need to remake Judy Barton into “Madeleine” as a test: some part of Scottie’s psychology is birthing that relentless experiment. Can he too create a “Madeleine,” lovable as she might be, thereby lending plausibility to a murderous Elster plot?

But since Hitchcock reveals to his audience that Judy is “Madeleine” before Scottie confirms it through the necklace, the audience is in a position to see the importance in Scottie of the epistemological theme. As the owner of the expensive dress shop where the insistent Scottie is buying for Judy specifically those clothes worrn by “Madeleine” says, “The gentleman certainly knows what he wants.” He wants the truth.

Which brings us to the darkly brilliant Gavin Elster. His physiognomy, as has been noted, has a devilish cast to it. And he certainly is a prince of liars. His whole strategy for killing his wife primarily involves an implausible surreal plot; and his hand is present in every scene in which Judy Barton plays a “possessed” “Madeleine.” He is, in short, the diabolical maker of schemes, classically invisible, always present just behind the scenery. His cleverness is immense. His first two meetings with Scottie show this. In the first, he summons Scottie to Elster’s imposing ship-building office and makes small talk, Elster having known Scottie in college days, until Scottie, his curiosity aroused, says, ‘What’s on your mind, Gavin?” Only then does Elster bring up his murderous scheme, and hides it in the “possession” surrealism. To find out how vulnerable Scottie would be to Elster’s lies, Elster elicits from Scottie a blatant skepticism of “possession,” Scottie sarcastically advocating for cure a visit to the family doctor, and this telling Elster that should Scottie be fooled by Elster’s scheme, the uncompromising Scottie would be immensely shocked: Scottie is a good candidate to be played. In the second meeting, in a bar, when Scottie reports on “Madeleine” in her wanderings in San Francisco having given the appearance of being possessed, Elster, who has hired Judy Barton for the role, lies to Scottie that “Madeleine” has never heard of Carlotta; Scottie believes him. The story then proceeds to its grim conclusion.

The result can be given quickly: As Scottie stares shattered in the final scene, the pessimistic Hitchcock is here giving us his view of the Overwhelming Irony, the Pathetic Paradox, the Peerless Pyrrhic Victory, the Imponderable Impasse’, the Deadly Dilemma–all of these ultimate tragedies of our common human experience.

Though dark, it’s a great movie.

Postscript 1: One can sympathize with the Surrealists wanting a grand title for their art. “Sur” means “above” or “beyond” reality. However, and in line with Hitchcock’s pessimism, “surrealism” is not above reality but a distortion of it: those watches that bend like cheese and those pianos with the legs of animals are typically rendered in studiously correct realistic detail. This is not abstract art.

Postscript 2: In Psycho, Hitchcock has the superb character actor, Simon Oakland, playing the role of a psychologist, “explain” near the end of the film Norman Bates’s homicidal character as a sort of possession of his mother’s personality. Oakland’s “explanation” is hopeless psycho-babble. The closest we come to the truth is in that remarkable penultimate scene in which the jailed Bates grins frighteningly at us–the truth, perhaps some of it wordless, then seems to emerge. In Vertigo, the last expression on Scottie’s face as the movie ends seems of the same purpose: the truth of the matter.