Earlier in this project I discussed a film that often gets saddled with the occasionally problematic title of “greatest film of all time.” Citizen Kane has been the go to pick for this title for decades, getting everything that comes along with that title, both good and bad. But, over the last few decades, a new contender for this title has been emerging. And it’s the film that we’ll be discussing today, Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece, Vertigo. A lot of that comes from the fact that the film has been doing quite well in the last few Sight and Sound polls. If you’re not familiar with them, these are lists that are put out by the British film magazine Sight and Sound that arrive every ten years and poll a litany of film critics to see what they think the greatest films of all time are. Citizen Kane had a stranglehold on the top spot of those polls for decades. However, slowly but surely, Vertigo crept up that list until finally usurping Kane in the top seat. Now, similarly to when I discussed Citizen Kane, I personally don’t know if I’d call Vertigo the best film ever made. I love it. I really do. But I wouldn’t even go so far as to call it my favorite Hitchcock. Although, it is pretty handily my favorite film of 1958, which is why we’ll be discussing it today. Not that it didn’t have any real competition. Oddly enough, Orson Welles released what is possibly his second-best film after Citizen Kane this year in the form of Touch of Evil. Which is great. If you haven’t seen Touch of Evil, or only know it from it’s famous opening tracking shot, I highly recommend checking it out. We also get Akira Kurosawa’s the Hidden Fortress, which is also a frankly amazing film. But, it’s hard to deny the strange, haunting, toxic power that Vertigo has, keeping it enough above these other two films to become my favorite of 1958.
Vertigo began life as an extremely well-regarded French crime novel named D’entre les morts written by the writing duo Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcajec. Hitchcock was a big fan of their writing, and had even tried to buy the rights to a previous novel of theirs, which ended up becoming Clouzot’s Les Diaboliques, which is also an amazing film. But, when they released D’entre les morts Hitchcock got his second chance, and began adapting the novel to become an incredibly archetypal Hitchcock film. He put quite a bit of himself into the film, and did a masterful job at using Jimmy Stewart in his lead. Unfortunately, the film didn’t quite find its audience when it was first released. See, this was still during the period of time where Hitchcock wasn’t really a highly respected filmmaker. He was a somewhat sleazy master at thrillers, not real cinema. And, unfortunately, this film isn’t quite as salacious as a normal Hitchcock film. There’s still plenty of darkness, psychological drama, and murder, but it’s a much different film from his normal fare, and as a result it wasn’t overly accepted. It was considered a bit of a failure, and then it more or less faded from public consciousness. And that’s kind of all thanks to Alfred Hitchcock himself. For reasons that I’m sure made some sense at the time, Hitchcock has a tendency to take films out of distribution, making it so that they couldn’t be ran again in repertory theaters. After their initial runs the films would vanish, the master prints locked away by Hitchcock. So, people didn’t see Vertigo that much. It didn’t create a huge splash when it was released, and then it faded away, becoming legendary. Slowly its esteem started to rise, and people started to recognize it as the beautiful oddity that it really was, but it was impossible to see. Until Hitchcock died. At that point the film was able to be restored, and released back into the public, where it was finally appreciated as the masterpiece that it really was. No one knew what to make of Vertigo when it was initially released, and it’s kind of easy to see why. It’s weird. But it’s also fascinating.
Vertigo is the story of a man named Scottie Ferguson. Scottie was a police officer in San Francisco until a sudden case of vertigo caused him to freeze up during a chase with a suspect that resulted in the death of a fellow officer. Scottie leaves the force after the incident, and is struggling to find some meaning in his life, just bumming around with his best friend Midge, until he gets a call from an old classmate named Gavin Elster, who has a proposition for Scottie. It turns out Gavin’s wife, Madeline, has recently been having some strange psychological episodes where she seems to become possessed by a past life. She’s become fixated with her ancestor Carlotta Valdes, and believes that she’s occasionally taken over by the spirit of Carlotta. Gavin is worried about Madeline, and has asked Scottie to follow her and see what’s gong on, hoping to prove that his wife hasn’t gone completely insane. So, after arranging a meet-up in a local restaurant so that Scottie can see what Madeline looks like, he begins following her all around town. And things certainly seem strange. Madeline spends an inordinate amount of time at a museum, staring at a painting of Carlotta. She also seems to sleep-walk through the city, getting flowers and laying them at the grave of Carlotta, all while seemingly unaware of her actions.
But things get really worrisome when Scottie sees Madeline throw herself into San Francisco Bay, seemingly attempting to kill herself. He saves her, and brings her home to talk to her. At this point she’s Madeline again, and doesn’t seem to have any recollection of what happened, or her apparent fugue state she falls in. Scottie becomes fascinated by Madeline, and ends up spending quite a bit of time with her. He tells Gavin about all of this, and Gavin is worried, because Carlotta famously committed suicide around the same age that Madeline is, and he thinks she may be following down the same path. By this point Scottie’s fascination with Madeline has turned into a romantic obsession, and he keeps spending time with Madeline, confirming the idea that she appears to be possessed by her ancestor. But, one day while they’re talking about all the visions and nightmares she has about Carlotta, Scottie makes a realization. The place that she keeps seeing, a belltower in a mission, is actually just a few hours away. He’s convinced that if they go there together he’ll be able to snap her out of it, letting them be together. So, the two head down to the mission, and Madeline is suddenly filled with a desire to go to the top of the belltower. She runs away from Scottie, who is unable to follow thanks to another assault from his vertigo, leaving him unable to stop Madeline as she throws herself from the top of the tower to her death. Her death is quickly ruled a suicide, leaving Gavin in charge of her inheritance, and Scottie is forced to spend quite a bit of time in a sanitarium, the stress and strain too much to bear.
Eventually he’s released though, and begins trying to reforge a life. But he just can’t get Madeline out of his head. Everywhere he looks he sees her face, and he knows that he’s not going to be able to survive without her. Which is when he happens to run into a woman on the street that bears an uncanny resemblance to Madeline. He follows the woman to her apartment, and after successfully creeping her out, she agrees to go on a date with him. Her name is Judy Barton, and she has a secret. She’s the woman that Scottie fell in love with. It turns out Gavin had a plan to kill his wife, and he hired Judy to pretend to be Madeline, and seduce Scottie so that their whole suicide plan could be judged legitimate. The real Madeline was thrown from the belltower, a woman Scottie never met. But, Judy is actually in love with Scottie, so she agrees to start spending time with him, even though things quickly start looking problematic. Because Scottie isn’t interested in being with Judy, he’s interested in turning her into Madeline. He takes Judy to all the same places, forces her to wear the same, clothes, and even gets her to dye her hair to the same shade as she wore when she was Madeline. The entire time Judy keeps the truth away from Scottie, but it doesn’t change the fact that he gets more and more obsessed. He’s convinced that he failed Madeline, and has gotten it in his head that everyhting will be fixed if he can turn Judy into Madeline and save her from the bell tower. So, one day he drives Judy out to the mission, and forces her up into the bell tower, hoping to fix his psyche. But, along the way he finally figures out what is actually going on. And he’s not pleased. He screams at Judy, forcing her to the top of the tower, furious that she and Gavin did this all to him. But, when he gets to the top of the tower he realizes what a monster he’s become, and plans on letting Judy go. Which is when a nun comes to see what’s going on, scaring them, and causing Judy to slip from the roof, plummeting to her death, and leaving Scottie alone again.
It’s understandable why this film struggled to find an audience in 1958. It’s fascinating, and while I probably wouldn’t call it the greatest film of all time, there’s no denying that fact that it truly is one of the most unique and influential films in American cinematic history. But, it’s very strange. Especially in comparison to the other films in Hitchcock’s filmography. It’s much slower, much more personal, and possibly even darker and weirder than he normally did things. Hitchcock was no stranger to things like murder, but there’s something about this film that just feels odd. Hitchcock was known as a peddler of thrillers at this point in his career, it was still eight years away from Truffaut helping re-contextualize Hitchcock’s career into the strange auteur we consider him now. This was a, comparatively, slow film that took the time to examine obsession, eventually creating a story that’s somehow creepier than films of his that feature straight-up murder. It’s a beautifully crafted film, full of gorgeous color, lovingly shot, and dripping with dread. The way that Hitchcock shoots this film, filling the frame with sumptuous beauty while telling such an ugly and depraved story is so wonderful. And that lonely and twisted world is wonderfully portrayed by Kim Novak, who is able to bring both Madeline and Judy to life, perfectly selling the stressful tight-rope that that character is forced to walk.
But the thing that most fascinates me about this film is its star, Jimmy Stewart. Hitchcock used Stewart several times, and every performance he gave Hitchcock was great. Stewart, especially at the time of this film, was an idealized American. He’s probably still best-remembered for his roles with Frank Capra, personifying that “aw Shucks” Americana that was so important in the 1940’s. He’s the perfect “average American,” the guy next door. And this film made him an obsessive creep who terrorizes a woman to the point that she dies. And that’s such a wonderful choice. Scottie Ferguson is not an appealing character. He’s self-centered, has no problem starting an affair with a friend’s wife, and then psychological torments a woman while trying to turn her into something she’s not. Certain actors get typecast, it’s bound to happen. And if this film had taken a different actor, someone who usually played rougher, creepier characters, I don’t think the film would carry quite the punch that it does. If Scottie had been played by someone like Robert Mitchum, it would have felt right. But, by putting someone like Jimmy Stewart into this film, and having him snap and become a horrible monster shows that anyone could do this. Scottie is a terrible man who wants a woman he’s found to be perfect, telling her to change everything about herself to more conform to his version of a perfect woman. He even has the gall to say things like “it couldn’t matter to you,” about things like the color of her hair. He makes her an object. Something with no agency that exists to please him. And he’s played by Jimmy Stewart. He’s just an average guy. Anyone could be like this. And that makes it so much creepier and satisfying.
Vertigo was written by Alec Coppel and Samuel Taylor, directed by Alfred Hitchcock, and released by Paramount Pictures, 1958.
Categories: Cinematic Century