A former San Francisco police detective juggles wrestling with his personal demons and becoming obsessed with the hauntingly beautiful woman he has been hired to trail, who may be deeply disturbed.
Confession time: I have never seen Vertigo in one sitting, in its entirety. I have seen many scenes, and I knew an awful lot about the film. For example: did you know that Vertigo was one of the first films to use computer generated imaging (CGI)? See, that’s something I knew before ever even seeing the film completely.
Today that has changed. I, Kristen Rose, have watched Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo in its entirety, and I have to say: it is his masterpiece.
As the quick little summary at the top tells you, Vertigo follows Scottie, played by Jimmy Stewart (who can still get it in ’58). Scottie is former police detective that discovered he had acrophobia while on a chase with a fellow officer. That fellow officer died trying to rescue Scottie, but ultimately, it just didn’t work out. This scene from That 70s Show shows it pretty well:
Really, though. That was a shot for shot scene remake in that episode.
Scottie is reached out to by an old college friend, Gavin Elster (played by Tom Helmore), to assist in figuring out what is wrong with his wife, Madeleine (expertly played by Kim Novak). Gavin suspects that his wife has been possessed by an old relative of hers, Carlotta Valdes, and is worried that Madeleine will kill herself just like her great grandmother did.
Now, here’s where to stop reading if you’ve never seen the film Vertigo and would like to go in blindly (which I recommend. Somehow, after all these years, I had managed to avoid spoiling the twist in the film, so that was quite fun).
Scottie soon is buying into Gavin’s suspicion that his wife is possessed. He consults his friend and ex-fiance, Midge (played by Barbara Bel Geddes), and soon is told the sad history of Carlotta Valdes. She killed herself at 26. Madeleine is 26 now. Scottie becomes romantically entangled in this mystery, which ends with the suicide of Madeleine, who throws herself off the roof of a church.
To say Scottie is devastated is to say the least. Following Madeleine’s death, Scottie is plagued by some of the trippiest nightmares I’ve ever seen come out of the 1950s.
Scottie is committed to a mental hospital, and that’s the end of that. Once Scottie is out, he can’t stop thinking about Madeleine. He sees her everywhere in any woman that looks even a little remotely like her. Then he stumbles upon Judy Barton, who looks more like Madeleine than all the others. He becomes obsessed with Judy, and as their relationship progresses, he becomes insistent on her dressing like Madeleine and looking like Madeleine. And she agrees, albeit reluctantly. (Honestly, the whole thing is real creepy on Scottie’s part. I would say “that poor woman” but…) Turns out Judy Barton is the woman that Scottie fell in love with, but she is not Gavin Alster’s wife. Gavin Alster set his old friend Scottie up. Gavin wanted his wife dead, but didn’t want it to look like he killed her, obviously. So, he made up this story about Carlotta Valdes and asked Scottie to follow his “wife”, who was really Judy Barton. Judy just looked identical to his wife, so Gavin knew his plan would work. He knew that he would break his wife’s neck and throw her from the bell tower at Mission San Juan Bautista. He knew that Scottie had just retired from the force, as a result of his acrophobia and the vertigo he would experience. He knew Scottie could never run to the top of that bell tower. He wouldn’t make it. Once “Madeleine” made it to the top of the bell tower, Gavin was waiting, with his real wife’s body, to throw her from the top. Gavin then returned Judy Barton to the way she had looked before, and he ran off to Europe or something and she got a paycheck. Honestly, who cares, because that guy sucks.
So, at this point in my movie watching, I don’t know which way is up. That only intensifies when Judy makes the mistake of putting on a necklace that had belonged to Carlotta Valdes. Scottie recognised it from the portrait.
He doesn’t lead on that he knows anything until he has Judy in his car. She thinks they’re on their way to dinner. But, she soon recognizes where they are. They’re nearing Mission San Juan Bautista. Scottie is in a blind, maddening rage while he pulls Judy up the stairs. He wants to get rid of his past once and for all, he says. As they make their way up the stairs, she reveals the truth to him. That she isn’t Madeleine, but she is the woman he fell in love with. She is the woman that loves him. Soon, Scottie realizes that he’s made it to the top of the bell tower, no vertigo in sight.
This is really when I didn’t know which way was up. I had no idea how this film was going to end. There were mere minutes left. I couldn’t figure it out. Then it happened. Somebody, a seemingly large black figure, emerges from the stairway, scaring Judy, causing her to fall from the very same spot where Madeleine had been thrown. Resulting in death.
Talk about an ending. I kid you not, I audibly said “oh my god” when this film ended so abruptly.
But, I guess it ended just as abruptly as it started. Full circle.
Speaking of circles, it’s clear Hitchcock put a lot of thought into the motif of this film. Circles and spirals are everywhere. They’re subtle, they’re not subtle, but they are everywhere. So much thought went into the look and feel of this film. We have the birth of the “dolly zoom” shot, or the “contra zoom” shot. And with the use of lighting throughout to visually indicate a pivotal moment in the story, the varying high and low angles, and precise thought on when those angles are used, it’s clear Hitchcock poured his heart and soul into this film. Shame that it was a critical failure when he was alive. Then again, he was kind of a shit person, so I’m glad he died thinking this film was a failure. Anyway.
Let’s talk about the character of Midge. Midge, as I said is Scotties’ friend and ex-fiance. They went to college together, with Gavin Alster. Midge is very clearly in love with Scottie (or Johnnie, rather. That’s how we’re to tell that they have a past. She’s the only one to call him Johnnie.) Barbara Bel Geddes plays Midge sweet to start, but things begin to become unraveled when Midge assumes Scottie and Madeleine are having “relations”. She weirdly paints herself into the portrait that Madeleine is obsessed with and is surprised and embarrassed when Scottie sees it and storms out of her apartment. Midge is the one we see visit Scottie in the mental hospital, and she’s the one to tell Scottie’s doctor that Scottie was in love with the woman who threw herself off the bell tower. And that’s literally the last we see of her. And that frustrates me. Was her point to be the antithesis of Madeleine? Because they still both looked similar. You know how Hitchcock loved his blondes. Anyway, I wish her character was a bit more fleshed out.
I am obsessed with the performances of Kim Novak and James Stewart in this film. First of all, we all know how I feel about James “Jimmy” Stewart right? (If not, please refer back to line 6 of this article.) This performance is different from his others. I feel like his legacy is this “good guy” character from films like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and It’s a Wonderful Life. But, in Vertigo, he becomes unhinged in the end. He becomes scary. When he begins to pull Judy to the stairs of the bell tower, I knew this wasn’t a James Stewart I had seen before. It was so refreshing.
Kim Novak killed this role. She annihilated it. There’s a difference between the characters of Madeleine Elster and Judy Barton. There’s a difference in the way they walk, talk, carry themselves, etc. And you can see that. Which isn’t always easy to do. Novak is so convincing as both Madeleine and Judy. It’s because of her performance that I had no idea how this film was going to play out. When we see Judy, I really just thought this woman was meant to look like Madeleine, which is why Novak was playing her. I never saw them being the same person, simply because I couldn’t then figure out how everyone else fit into this narrative. Kim Novak deserves all of the praise. Especially after having to deal with Alfred Hitchcock’s sexist ass.
It should be crystal clear to anyone who watches this film why it is in the top ten of the “100 Greatest Films over 100 Years” list from the American Film Institute. Honestly, I’d argue that Vertigo should be higher on the list. Much higher. I’m talking top 3. This film is phenomenal. There’s only a handful of moments in my life where I have watched a film and been completely blown away and in love with everything about said film, and this is one of them.
Next up is Schindler’s List. I suspect my tone will be very different with that article. We shall see.