So my reaction to Hitchcock’s Vertigo followed three rather unique and distinct phases, namely:
- Wow, I….suddenly miss seeing films on a big screen.
- What the hell.
- No, seriously, what the hell.
Allow me to explain.
I miss seeing films on a big screen.
For as long as I can remember, I have been largely indifferent to the visual element of the films I’ve seen. Not completely so – if there’s a shot that is set up especially well, I’d notice that (there are shots in the Tom Hanks film Road To Perdition or the sci-fi film The Cell I’m thinking of in particular), but not to the point where I’d feel deprived if I saw them on home video. “So I see a pretty picture or a good shot in a smaller size,” was my attitude. “So what, it’s still the same image.”
So I was very surprised to find myself watching Saul Bass’ title credits and viscerally wishing I was seeing them on a big screen. I imagined what it would be like to have those dizzying, Spirograph-like patterns completely overwhelming my field of vision, wrapping around even into the peripheral, and for the first time, I felt deprived not having that experience. I can’t say for sure whether that is because of my becoming more immersed in film as a whole, or whether I just miss being in movie theaters; but it was a reaction I wasn’t expecting.
And there are certainly shots during the film where I knew a big screen would have enhanced things as well. The “vertigo” of the title is the bane of detective John “Scottie” Ferguson’s existence (Ferguson is played by Jimmy Stewart); a debilitating fear of heights that hinders him during a rooftop chase. When he slips during the chase and another officer falls to his own death, Ferguson throws in the towel altogether, settling in to a bit of a life sabbatical spent idling around San Francisco and bugging his ex-girlfriend Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes). But an old college friend turned shipping magnate (Tom Helmore) persuades him to take on one last it of detective work as a favor.
All Ferguson’s buddy Gavin wants him to do is follow his wife Madeleine (Kim Novak) and protect her….from herself. Sort of. Madeleine has been slipping into weird fugue states, Gavin claims, temporary trances where she loses all sense of where she is and seems unaware of what she’s doing; she has no memory of them when she snaps out of it, either. Gavin even offers a far-fetched theory that Madeleine is being temporarily possessed. But Ferguson of course finds this ridiculous, and agrees to follow Madeleine around and at least get more info on her actions.
While possession doesn’t seem likely, Madeleine does seem strangely obsessed with a specific dead person. On his first day, Ferguson tails her first to a florist’s, where she selects a very specific bouquet. She visits the grave of a woman named Carlotta Valdes, lingering there for several minutes. Then she visits an art museum, staring at a portrait of that same Carlotta Valdes – who bears a striking resemblance to Madeleine and holds a similar bouquet. Finally, she wanders into the McKittrick Hotel, a bed-and-breakfast run out of an old Victorian mansion, and takes a seat by the window of a top floor room. Ferguson slips in, asking the clerk to escort him up to Madeleine’s room – but when they get there, she’s vanished. Hmm.
Midge and Gavin help Ferguson fill in some holes. Midge is a local history buff and digs up Carlotta Valdes’ story; she’d been the mistress of a wealthy man during Gold Rush San Francisco, but when she had a child, her lover had kept the child as his own and dumped Carlotta, who spent the rest of her days as a recluse in the house now operating as the McKittrick. Gavin adds the detail that Carlotta was Madeleine’s great-grandmother – but that Madeleine didn’t know any of this. Intrigued by the story – and by the beautiful Madeleine – Ferguson rededicates himself to his duties, so he is fortunately on hand the next day when instead of ending up at the McKittrick, Madeleine drives to Fort Point on San Francisco Bay and throws herself in. Ferguson heroically leaps to her rescue, bringing her back to his place to dry off and warm up and snap out of it.
A grateful Madeleine offers to hang out with Ferguson the next day as a companion instead of having him follow her. Over the course of the day she tells Ferguson about the weird dreams she has sometimes, disjointed images from Carlotta’s life – the McKittrick, an open grave, a convent at a Spanish mission – and both of them realize they’re strongly attracted to each other. Ferguson takes her to a mission which could be from her dreams, and Madeleine says she recognizes it – so much so that she is suddenly seized with a compulsion to run up into the bell tower. Ferguson chases after her, but his vertigo slows him down – so all he can do is watch helplessly as she disappears up the stairs ahead of him, and then moments later, her body plummets past him to the ground below.
What The Hell.
Now, that felt like it could have been one heck of an ending right there. But there was another good bit of the story after this – after a seriously depressed Ferguson, consumed by guilt, checks himself into an asylum for nearly a year. When he gets out, he revisits some of the same spots from his brief relationship with Madeleine – the restaurant where he first saw her with Gavin, the museum with Carlotta’s portrait, the florist’s shop where she bought the bouquet. Occasionally he’s started when he sees another woman with a similar blond updo or a similar gray suit, but each time, when he looks closer, it’s not Madeleine. How could it be.
So it’s odd when he sees another woman – brunette instead of blond, saucy instead of refined – who reminds him of Madeleine. He follows her to the boarding house where she lives and confronts her in her room, which understandably alarms her and forces her to prove that she’s not Madeleine – her name is Judy Barton, a secretary from Kansas who’s been living there in that boarding house for three years now. An apologetic Ferguson offers to take her to dinner for her trouble; and on this rather odd foundation, the two begin dating. Except as time goes on, Ferguson gradually encourages her to wear different jewelry. Then he buys her a suit to match Madeleine’s. Then he persuades her to tone down her makeup, like Madeleine did. Then he persuades her to dye her hair blond, and wear it in an updo…
So, yeah. This was the part where I started thinking “what the hell.”
Mind you, shortly after we meet Judy there is a revelation about her which makes Ferguson’s obsession make a sort of sense in context. But it’s still really, really creepy watching Ferguson fall into the same depths of obsession with a dead woman that Madeleine had – and watching how he’s manifesting it by turning a different woman into Madeleine. There’s a famous scene where Judy has finally fully transformed herself into “Madeleine” – the same suit, the same hair, the same makeup – and as she and Ferguson study each other, she looks profoundly disturbed, while he looks elated and lustful. Other reviewers have spoken about how poignant this scene is, how it plays up how trapped Judy is – but they’re reading Judy’s discomfort as heartbreak, while what I see is fear.
No, Seriously, What The Hell.
I started watching this alone, and Roommate Russ came home at this point. He’d already seen it; so when I paused the film to give him my initial “what the hell” quip, he simply smiled and said “you’ve got another ten minutes to go, right? ….there’s more. Buckle up.” He refused to elaborate further, saying that if he did so it would be “a crime against cinema.”
He was right. There is more. And it would indeed be a crime against cinema for me to elaborate. But it was enough for me to renew my “What the hell” reaction, this time for an entirely different reason, and enough to start me wondering just how many psychological studies may have been done about Hitchcock over the years. Because – based on that ending, and given some of his other works, dude had some issues, y’all.