I recently saw Vertigo for the first time ever on a big screen. A totally different experience than watching it on TV.
[NOTE: There are spoilers in what follows. I don’t consider them anything that would diminish the enjoyment of seeing the picture but, if you value surprise as well as suspense in a film, you should see the film before reading this. I don’t include a plot summary in the thoughts that follow but that is available dozens of places online.]
[NOTE: Vertigo is currently #1 on Sight and Sound’s list of the greatest films of all time. It is #9 on the AFI list.]
To me, Vertigo has always been the quintessential horror movie. The antagonist (Jimmy Stewart as Scottie Ferguson) does what horror movie villains do, he acts with total disregard for the humanity of those around him (Kim Novak as Judy Barton.)
He starts off as a good guy though. He’s literally on top of the world as he races across the rooftops of San Francisco, risking his life to apprehend a criminal. When his pursuit imperils his own life he fights against death, he hangs on, he doesn’t want to fall.
But even though he is, somehow, rescued from that fall it’s, literally, downhill from there as he watches his fellow officer fall to his death and tumbles from a stepstool because of his vertigo and follows Madeleine/Judy downhill, always downhill, in her travels around the city (in her green car). It’s downhill figuratively as well as he starts drinking more and courts this married woman.
He slows his fall as he saves Madeleine from the bay (and seats her on green pillows in his apartment) and takes her to the mission to free her from the past.
But Scottie’s inability to climb the tower steps leads to yet another fall and he loses Madeleine.
We can’t help but empathize with Scottie. He is a pathetic figure in the mental home as Midge tries to clear away his cobwebs. Even after his discharge he seems to be hallucinating as he sees Madeleine everywhere (and nowhere.) Stewart’s portrayal of Scottie evokes our sympathy for a man who has lost so much. His guilt nearly drove him mad and now his grief may do so as well
But we have new hope when he meets Judy (who’s wearing a green dress and lives in an apartment with a green neon sign outside.) She is Scottie’s second chance to be happy. We want to forgive him for being beguiled with a married woman and recapture that lost love.
But from the very beginning things don’t seem right between Scottie and Judy. On their first date he stares at a woman who reminds him of Madeleine. Things get a little creepy as Scottie buys Judy a corsage (reminding us of Madeleine’s nosegay) and turn macabre in the dress shop.
Scottie has a chance here to rise up and move forward. To build a new life with a new love. But he falls. A haughty spirit goes before a fall and fall Scottie does, but not in love with Judy. One morbid step at a time he places himself at the center of his universe. He hungers for the love he had with Madeleine and he will use Judy in whatever way he must to fill that emptiness.
As it often does in Hitchcock’s films the past comes back to haunt the present. Just as Mrs. Danvers brought back Rebecca to haunt Mrs. De Winter and as Mrs. Bates will haunt Norman (and even as Carlotta haunted Madeleine) so now Scottie brings back Madeleine to haunt Judy.
As Scottie takes this ghoulish turn we see that he is not the classic horror-movie villain. He doesn’t use a meat cleaver, he uses a gray dress. Instead of pursuing his victim in the dark he takes her shopping in the light of day. Instead of luring her to her doom he drops her off at a beauty salon for a makeover (Stewart is trance-like as he recites the line “the color of your hair.”) Scottie’s actions are no less detestable for occurring out in the open.
Scottie is necromaniacal as he recreates his dead love in his living companion. Judy voices our outrage as she complains, “what are you doing?” but Scottie’s response is ice cold – “it can’t matter that much to you.” Just as the “rich and powerful man” used and then discarded Carlotta and just as Elster used Judy and murdered Madelelne so Scottie is using Judy. The situation Elster asked about (“Do you believe that someone out of the past, someone dead, can enter and take possession of a living being?”) is coming to pass.
Scottie is becoming C.S. Lewis’s “Father below” who is empty and must be filled. He does not need a woman who can eventually become a wife, he needs cow that can eventually become food. Judy’s only purpose is to feed his fantasy.
But everything Judy did for Elster in furtherance of a murder she’s done for Scottie out of devotion. She let a man remake her all over again, the dress, the shoes, the hair but this time there was no ulterior motive. This time it was for love. Scottie’s plan has worked. The woman he wanted, the very same woman to whom he gave his heart, is his. She has remade herself exactly as he wished.
And visually Hitchcock has presented Judy as the possibility of real love. She is the real thing, not an illusion like Madeleine. We initially see her from the front (unlike Madeleine who has her back to us.) And unlike Madeleine who disappears from the McKittrick hotel Judy is still there in her room when Scottie comes up. At the beach Madeleine describes vanishing into a corridor. Midge vanishes in just this way as she leaves the mental home. But when Judy returns from the salon she emerges from the end of the corridor outside her hotel room, reversing these earlier disappearances.
But as she comes down the corridor we find ourselves, to our chagrin, viewing her from Scottie’s dark perspective and thinking, “something is wrong with her hair.” It’s not pinned up as Madeleine’s was. Scottie makes her fix it and when she emerges from her bedroom the transformation is complete. The green colors that connected Madeleine and Judy in life situations (the car, the cushions, the dress) now seem to connect them in death. The neon sign outside her window casts a green shroud over Judy as she walks toward Scottie.
Some critics have panned Novak’s performance in the film and her expression as she approaches Scottie is indeed wooden. But I think Ebert is right when he notes that such a portrayal is appropriate here, “Ask yourself how you would move and speak if you were in unbearable pain, and then look again at Judy.” Judy has just surrendered the last little bit of herself. Scottie’s faux resurrection is complete and Madeleine has returned to possess her.
But although he has been able to create the “person” he wanted Scottie cannot create the “world” he wants. His fantasy will eventually run up against the truth that he is not god. His original idea of Madeleine was an illusion. That person never existed and trying to bring her back to possess Judy won’t make her real.
But Madeleine’s necklace “is” real and it shatters the illusion. Perhaps this is Judy’s cry for help. Maybe she dons the necklace on purpose to let Scottie know that she is still in there somewhere. That Madeleine has not totally taken over.
But Scottie’s reaction to the necklace is chilling. Judy is nothing to him. All that matters is his fantasy. This was Scottie’s second chance (that he later claims to want at the bell tower) to move up and move on. If Scottie’s ever going to truly love Judy it’s now. If he’s ever going to turn from his Madeleine fantasy and give Judy the affection she deserves this is the time.
It shouldn’t be hard. This is the woman he wanted, the very person he loved. All dressed up and ready to go. In the dress he wants, the shoes he wants, hair dyed the color he wants, arranged in the style he wants. But, as with all desire for anything but God, more is never enough. The last line of the film will remind us that God has mercy but here Scottie has none.
Now Scottie has “one more thing to do.” He takes Judy to the bell tower so he can be free of the past. He must complete the climb he could not finish earlier. He must ascend to heights he’s never reached. He will climb his personal Tower of Babel and make a name for himself.
Here, in the finest achievement of Stewart’s distinguished acting career, the anger that Jesus says is murder consumes him as he forces Judy to complete the climb with him. The abuse that was previously psychological becomes physical as he shoves Judy up the stairs.
And here the film creates in the viewer a tension that I think is significant.
Hitchcock, as he often does, encourages us to side with the villain (think of the 2nd sinking-the-car-in-the-bog scene from Psycho.) Scottie has sympathetic moments throughout the film and even in this scene. His terror as he hangs on for his life in the opening scene, his anguish in losing Madeleine, his pathetic state in the mental home. We found ourselves critiquing Judy’s hair arrangement, just as he does, when she returns from the salon. In this final scene he complains that Judy and Elster picked on him. He remembers his love for Madeleine. He admits he’s scared and just wants to stop being haunted. We want to root for him.
And Just as Scottie has sucked Judy into his world so Hitchcock entices us to enter his world where Scottie is a sad figure who is haunted by the past and has been cheated out of his chance at happiness. But even here in this final scene Scottie is not on the side of the angels. For all his lovestruck presentation he ultimately confesses to murder. As he pushes Judy up the stairs and confronts her with her deception he says, “He made you over, didn’t he? Just as I’ve done.” He confesses that he has done just as Elster did(and the “rich and powerful man” did before him.) Elster killed Madeleine’s body just as Scottie killed Judy’s soul. Given the diabolical undertaking Scottie has chosen we cannot, in good conscience, hope for his success. We must fight the urge to root for him.
Most critics don’t see the same darkness in Scottie that I do. Perhaps I’m too harsh in my analysis. But perhaps these critics have given in somewhat to Hitchcock’s enticement. Perhaps they’ve been beguiled by Hitchcock’s sympathetic portrait of Scottie.
After Scottie drags Judy the last few feet up the bell tower (although, as the close-up of her feet show she is no longer resisting) he is back on top of the world. He’s overcome his previous weakness. He is god.
But just as language was confused at the original Babel so vision is confused here. The approach of the true God is dark and menacing to Scottie’s counterfeit and Judy, who’s been sucked into that world, retreats at His approach and that retreat leads to a plunge into oblivion.
And, at the end, even Hitchcock cannot sympathize with his antagonist. He leaves Scottie alone in the final shot (while the bell tolls for him.) The nihilistic universe Scottie’s created for himself cannot satisfy the longings he sought to satiate with Judy. He is a fool because he sought to take for himself that which he could not keep. So are all men who suppress the truth.
Vertigo has always been in my personal top 10 of all time but after this theater viewing it is my new #1. It’s appropriate that my favorite film by my favorite director is now my overall favorite film. The experience of being in a dark room filled by Hitchcock’s images and Bernard Hermann’s magnificent score made this a breakthrough experience for me. I cried at the final scene but I found myself shaking for an hour even after leaving the theater. It was an emotionally draining experience but one I’m the better for having had.
When you react to a film you realize that much of its impact was communicated by the director subconsciously through the use of editing, camera movement, blocking of a scene, etc. I’m indebted to Donald Spoto and Robin Wood for their essays on Vertigo which helped me identify some of the methods Hitchcock used in this film. Many of my comments above were things they pointed out in their essays.