Great Film | Vertigo (1958)

Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo traps its two main characters in a prison of love, murder and obsession, a trio that exists in many of Hitchcock’s tragedies. What makes Vertigo more desperate, and ultimately more torturous, is that Scottie and Judy never escape from their prison. They incarcerate themselves by falling in love with each other, and then because of the way Hitchcock sets up the movie’s first two acts, they never make it out to freedom.

Vertigo’s narrative structure can be seen as a blueprint for Hitchcock’s later masterpiece, Psycho. The real success of Psycho was in the way Hitchcock moulded and shaped the first half of its story; Marion Crane’s predicament involving her theft and subsequent getaway was given dimension as a standalone arc. We expected to see her follow through with her plan. The addition of the stalking police officer as a plot device further emphasised the legitimacy of Marion’s path (when things started to go wrong for Marion, the cop was never seen again). When she pulled over at the Bates Motel, we thought it’d be just another stopover; a cleansing shower and she’d be back on the road. Of course, Norman Bates’ boyish cheer helped dissuade our apprehensions. But the whole act, from start to finish, worked to mislead us.

Vertigo teases us with misdirection too, but it doesn’t go all the way. It doesn’t push us off. It sets up the character of Scottie (James Stewart), who begins the movie injured after a terrible accident saw his police colleague fall off the edge of a roof while trying to rescue him. Scottie has acrophobia, an inherent irrational fear of heights, or falling from heights. The fear gives him vertigo, which makes him dizzy. Screenwriter, Samuel A. Taylor, cleverly ties this fear in with the movie’s plot: An early scene sees Scottie trying to overcome his fear step by step, by climbing a high chair. At the end, he stands confident at the ledge of a bell tower, looking down at the very sight that would otherwise make him weak at the knees. Scottie travels with the plot to a personal resolution, not through it.

The plot deals with Scottie by dealing also with the women in Scottie’s life. The first of course is Judy (Kim Novak), the poor lady sucked into a malicious scheme by a man who forced her to dress and look exactly like his wife Madeleine. The second is Scottie’s good friend Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes), who plays the part of confidant and muse, and has a possible romantic connection to him (they were engaged back in college, called off after three weeks).

Judy is the quintessential Hitchcockian woman: Damaged, fetishised, and of course blonde. Midge is the embryonic form of the quintessential Hitchcockian woman. She too is blonde, but where Judy earns our sympathy as the movie progresses, Midge breaks down into self-loathing, distress and humiliation, an affliction that befalls almost every female lead of Hitchcock’s. But Midge is compensated; she is not dressed to impress. Instead, she is a fashion designer, designing the very thing that fetishises her gender in Hitch’s movies. She also owns a lavish studio apartment with a beautiful view of San Francisco — she begins the movie with no reason for distress. She grows into it.

But Vertigo’s strength comes not from Midge, or the plot. It comes from Scottie and Judy, who remain trapped by themselves throughout the movie. Hitchcock and his writers seem to think that the only way for them to break free is for one (or both) of them to die. This is like Romeo and Juliet played out over murder and fantasy in modern America. Vertigo is a tragedy. It is not a suspense movie (though it is), nor is it an adrenaline pumper like North By Northwest. It is a sad and unsettling account of a man who cannot let go of the woman he loved, and a woman who remains bound to men who constantly want to objectify and change her. Is it a coincidence that both Scottie and Gavin Elster treat their women in the same way that Hitchcock treats his?

Hitchcock was famous for the ill treatment of his female leads. He was a director who believed very strongly that in order for a peformance to hit the right notes of fear, or dread, or sadness, or happiness, or what have you, he had to instil the right mood, usually vigorously. I’m sure you’ve heard the negative stories about Stanley Kubrick and his treatment of Shelley Duvall in The Shining. He would make her do 65 takes of a gut-wrenchingly emotional scene, often showing her no mercy or pity in between takes, apparently to keep her emotions running at fever pitch (in some cases, she did contract fevers because of the stress). In the behind-the-scenes documentary that comes with The Shining’s special edition DVD, we get a glimpse of Duvall’s trauma. We see her lifting thickets of hair from her head as Kubrick strolls past with the words, “Don’t pity Shelley. Pity won’t help her”. But during her interviews, she professes her admiration and respect for the director.

Hitchcock’s approach was similar. But look at his results. Look at the way his females move about the space of his movies, in Rear Window, in Strangers On A Train, in Dial M For Murder, in Psycho and in The Birds. They are tremendous presences. The debate will always arise though: Is it worth it for a director to put his actors through hell to achieve the perfect take, or is it more humane to give them freedom, have fun on set, and end up with a result that disappoints in places?

To my knowledge, no such stories exist for Vertigo, but consider the way Novak plays Judy. She is always in recoil mode, ever ready to leap backwards instead of forwards into Scottie’s arms. It’s as if Hitchcock beat her into submission off camera and didn’t allow her time to recover before the camera started rolling. Her performance is somewhat stilted, but there are subtleties in the way she stiffens as “Madeleine” and loosens up as Judy. As the plot thickens for her, she reverts to stiffness. Her personality and performance bounce around, mirroring her emotional turmoil. It is not particularly grand acting, but it is right for the part.

Vertigo’s score is composed by Bernard Herrmann, a musician of insightful precision. Much of the movie’s effect owes its power to Herrmann’s music, which opens the movie in a sort of medley of dread and apprehension. We know dark and terrible things are about to happen before the movie seems to know it itself, and then the music weighs down on us when the movie fulfils its promise. Herrmann regularly worked with Hitchcock, scoring his other films like Psycho, North By Northwest and The Man Who Knew Too Much, but he also worked outside of Hollywood, across the Atlantic, with such French icons as Francois Truffaut on his 1966 and 1968 films Fahrenheit 451 and The Bride Wore Black. He is most known in America for his work on Psycho, but his score for Vertigo is equally immediate and beautiful.

Vertigo was screened during one of my theory classes at university and I used it as my case study for an assignment about the Politique des Auteurs — a collective advocated by Truffaut in 1954 that asserts the notion that directors are the dominant force behind filmmaking. The Politique came under heavy scrutiny, of course, by critics, screenwriters, cameramen, grips, producers, and everyone else involved behind the camera, for glorifying the role of the director. Like the methods of Kubrick and Hitchcock, the substance of this argument can be debated till kingdom come. But I think there is value in the Politique’s stance.

Think of it this way: Each member of an orchestra has the score sheet laid out before his or her eyes. They can read music. What’s more, they can follow the sheet and know precisely when to come in. But without a conductor to tie it all together, to unify the numerous parts and keep every violin, cello, bassoon and flute in harmony, would we be able to tell a Mozart from a Vivaldi? Vertigo is a prime example of Hitchcock conducting his orchestra, well aware that before him lay a masterpiece.

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