Vertigo (1958): Hitchcock’s Best Film–Surreal, Haunting, Indelible

Part One in a Series of Articles
Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” is without a doubt one of the most profound and touching films in the history of cinema. Moreover, for many critics, this 1958 work is Hitchcock’s greatest masterpiece, his most fully realized film on any number of levels, narrative, thematic, visual.
 
Our Grade: A (***** out of *****)
When initially released, Hitchcock’s film was popular and well received by the critics, but it was not appreciated and analyzed as a masterpiece. Made after “The Wrong Man” (1957), with Henry Fonda, which was a commercial flop, “Vertigo” preceded “North by Northwest” (1959), starring Cary Grant, which was a huge hit. Incidentally, Hitchcock wanted Cary Grant to play the Jimmy Stewart role in “Vertigo,” and was devastated when Vera Miles, star of “Wrong Man,” got pregnant and could not play the dual role of Madeleine/Judy. In hindsight, I think both Jimmy Stewart and Kim Novak are superb and perfectly cast.
 
It would take another decade, and for critics like Robin Wood and Andrew Sarris, to elevate its stature. I can only speculate about the reasons for its critical neglect? The estimable critic Robin Wood has observed that “Vertigo” is marked by pessimism and willful refusal to see any worthwhile possibilities in human relationships. Most of the characters are either helpless devitalized dupes damned from the outset, or malignant intriguers who trap them.
 
As is known, the film is adapted from “D’Entre les Morts,” a mystery novel by Boileau and Narcejac, authors who are better known for writing “Les Diaboliques,” which inspired one of the most suspenseful films I have seen, directed by French filmmaker Clouzot. “Vertigo,” the book and the movie, contains a brilliant surprise ending that reverses what preceded, or at least renders it a different kind of meaning
 
As always, Hitchcock and his scenarist took very little from “D’Entre les Morts” apart from the basic plot line. In fact, in a daring move, Hitchcock created an alienating effect, by revealing the “secret identity” of Madeleine/Judy (bother played by Kim Novak) about two thirds of the way in a letter that Judy writes and narrates to the audience.
 
I have watched the film at least a dozen times, and each viewing, has yielded different kinds of meanings and various emotional responses, depending on my age, sensibility, knowledge, interest, and other variables at the time.
 
Issues of Plausibility
 
There has been very little discussion about the film’s issues of plausibility—and with good reasons. Unlike many Hitchcock’s films, “Vertigo” is not a realistic film in the conventional sense of the term. It’s really impossible to analyze the narrative in terms of logic or probability. Unfolding as a dream/nightmare, founded on fantasy (and the fantastical), the plot is anything but probable.
 
For starters, here are some crucial themes and subplots that never get discussed or resolved in the movie–deliberately. Hitchcock was too brilliant a filmmaker, always paying meticulous attention to the smallest detail, not to be aware of them, so negligence and carelessness should be ruled out right away. 
 
The movie begins with a roof chase scene, in which a policeman, peer of Scottie (Jimmy Stewart), tries to help him and in the process loses his life. However, Hitchcock never shows (or tells) us how Scottie got down from the roof to which he was clinging. From Scottie’s subjective POV of the abyss and a shot of the dead cop, Hitchcock moves quickly to the next scene, in which Scottie visits Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes), his close friend and former fiancée.
 
Disappearances
 
Later on, we never find out how Madeleine was able to bypass the hotel clerk, who claims not to have seen her enter—denying Scottie’s report that he did see her going into the hotel. When he is allowed to visit her room, there is no evidence that it has been used.
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Leaving Sites
 
Scottie, who has fallen deeply in love with Madeleine Alster, leaves the site of her death without examining her corpse, or making sure she’s dead. What’s more, in his manipulative calculation, Alster the murderer counts on Scottie not being too nosy, not being too investigative, a striking fact considering that Scottie was a policeman.
 
What was the actual role, if any, of Judy Barton (Kim Novak), Alster’s mistress, in planning Madeleine’s death? When exactly did the murder occur? How did Madeleine’s body get to the church? I mention all of these details because other mystery-suspense movies made by Hitchcock are rigorous in depicting them and/or discussing them.
 
Crime Without Punishment?
 
Hitchcock never tells us if the villaine, Alster, who manipulates Scottie with his murder scheme, gets caught and punished—a severe violation of Hollywood’s Production Code.
 
The biggest enigma is the last shot of the film, with Jimmy Stewart, standing on the roof, as Judy falls accidentally to her death. We are expected to believe that Scottie is cured of his vertigo. But is he really?
 
Invariably, in every class in which I have shown “Vertigo,” a sizable number of students would dispute the notion of Scottie’s eventual cure, instead claiming that the expression on Scottie’s face at the end suggests not only pain and anguish, but anger and descent into madness.
 
Early on, Scottie tells Midge that he’s going to wander for a while, and indeed, most of the film depicts his wandering, first following Madeleine, then pursuing Judy. The scholar Paula Marantz Cohen has suggested that “it becomes difficult to imagine an end to this kind of aimless, circuitous movement.” And thus, Scottie is doomed to continue his wandering for the rest of his life.
 
In a future essay, I’ll analyze how Hitchcock deconstructed the prevalent notion of the American screen hero (John Wayne is the prototype), who is goal-oriented, aggressive, efficient, pragmatic, action-driven, and future-oriented, all attributes that are missing from Scottie’s personality as a protagonist.
 
Bernard Herrmann’s Indelible Score

Herrmann’s score was conducted by Muir Mathieson and recorded in Europe due to a musicians’ strike in the U.S. Scorsese analyzed Herrmann’s famous score in the following way: “Hitchcock’s film is about obsession, which means that it’s about circling back to the same moment, again and again, and the music is also built around spirals and circles, fulfilment and despair. Herrmann really understood what Hitchcock was going for — he wanted to penetrate to the heart of obsession.”

Graphic designer Saul Bass used spiral motifs in both the title sequence and the movie poster, emphasizing “Vertigo’s psychological vortex.”

Cast

James Stewart as John “Scottie” Ferguson

Kim Novak as Judy Barton and Madeleine Elster

Barbara Bel Geddes as Marjorie “Midge” Wood

Tom Helmore as Gavin Elster

Henry Jones as the coroner

Raymond Bailey as Scottie’s doctor

Ellen Corby as the manager of the McKittrick Hotel

Konstantin Shayne as bookstore owner Pop Leibel

Lee Patrick as the car owner mistaken for Madeleine

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