Vertigo: a feeling of dizziness, a swimming in the head/ figuratively a state in which all things seem to be engulfed in a whirlpool of terror.
Vertigo is often considered one of the best films if not the best film by legendary director Alfred Hitchcock. My expectations coming into this film were massive having seen Psycho and Rear Window. They are both excellent films that demonstrate Hitchcock’s exceptional craft and I understood why he was often referred to as the master of suspense. I was really impressed with Rear Window for what it managed to accomplish in such a restricted setting and Psycho is just a great character study and a brilliant film.
Vertigo opens with a rooftop chase involving our lead character detective John “Scottie” Ferguson played by James Stewart and a fellow officer. Scottie slips and hangs on for life on the edge of the rooftop which leads to the officer plunging to his death after trying to save Scottie. That opening is significant because that is how Scottie develops his acrophobia (extreme fear of heights) which becomes a big plot point later on in the movie. After quitting the force, he is contacted by an old college acquaintance, Gavin Elster, about a job. Elster wants Scottie to follow his wife, Madeleine, who he believes to be possessed since she has been disappearing during the day and not remembering where she has been. Scottie takes the job out of curiosity and follows Madeleine around the city of San Francisco.
Madeleine’s daily routine includes visiting the grave of one Carlotta Valdes and going to an art museum where she stares at a portrait of Carlotta for a while among other seemingly mundane things. Scottie notices that she is completely unaware of him as she is being followed and he starts to research more about the subject of the painting who Madeleine strangely resembles. He learns that Carlotta Valdes committed suicide in the late 19th century and that she is related to Madeleine even though Madeleine has no knowledge of this connection. In the first act, not a lot happens and I started wondering where the story was going and how the acrophobia would come into play in the grand scheme of things. I just sat back and enjoyed the cinematography and watched Scottie become more and more infatuated with Madeleine and said to myself “In Hitchcock, I trust!”. One day , Scottie follows Madeleine to Fort Point where Madeleine attempts suicide by jumping into San Francisco Bay; Scottie rescues her. She wakes up at his apartment and it isn’t until that moment that our two main characters exchange words.
The dialogue is great and Madeleine played brilliantly by Kim Novak is infectious and you can’t take your eyes off her. They start going on drives together and Scottie attempts to figure out more about Madeleine, something is clearly off about her character. Every time she asks him what he is doing or what he does for a living he simply replies “Wandering” there is a great line about it in the film. The film also creates a deliberate illusion in order to direct the audience in a certain path. There is one scene in the forest where Madeleine walks ahead of Scottie and is suddenly completely out of his sight, Scottie and the audience believe for a moment that she may have vanished into thin air when she is really just standing behind a big tree. These characters have genuine and believable affection for each other and Scottie often forgets that he is on the job.
She keeps telling him about her recurring nightmare and he makes a connection with the history of Carlotta Valdes and figures out where this dream of hers takes place, a bell tower at a Spanish mission. She takes him there and tells him about how she wants to die and Scottie grows even more concerned about her and has completely fallen for her. In the third act, we see to a certain extent how his acrophobia fits into all of this and after a certain reveal, the movie completely takes on a new meaning that puts everything into perspective and becomes dark and completely unpredictable. It doesn’t hit you all at once but I was completely blown away by the entire third act and appreciated Hitchcock’s storytelling. The movie goes to places that I would have never expected it to go and by the end of it, Vertigo is really about Scottie’s obsession over Madeleine, an obsession that later turns into lunacy in the third act. There are notable and visually rich scenes, Scottie’s dream sequence is vibrant, psychedelic and symbolic with a fitting score. There is also the dolly zoom which Hitchcock uses to show us Scottie’s vertigo caused by his acrophobia in the bell tower scene by zooming in while moving the camera away from the ground.
There is also a character we don’t see too often during the movie, but is a very interesting character that deserves a mention. Midge, a close friend of Scottie, who is a character so grounded in reality and is independent unlike Madeleine; she dismisses Scottie’s belief that Madeleine is indeed possessed. She is also envious of Madeleine since she is secretly in love with Scottie which becomes evident when she draws a portrait of Carlotta Valdes with her face on it. That scene is disturbingly funny since she completely immerses herself into Scottie’s fantasy of Madeleine’s past and present.
I can’t discuss the beauty of the third act without a potential spoiler, but I will say that it elevated what was already a great engaging drama into a masterpiece. I am still amazed at how I have managed to avoid all these spoilers for these famous Hitchcock films that have been out for more than half a century. It is hard to point out or describe why Vertigo stands out as a landmark in film making and is often considered the best film of all time, you just have to see it and decide for yourself. I think it’s very different from Psycho or Rear Window but it still retains the standard Hitchcock quality while telling a less expository and a more ambiguous story from his other films. In the heart of Vertigo lies a twisted love story that makes the audience emotionally invested in its characters while also dealing with identity.The idea of an obsession taking on a persona and projecting the image of “the ideal woman” from a man’s detailed perspective in the third act strangely reflects on the film maker’s idea of perfection and characterization. I can’t recommend this movie enough, it might just be my favorite Hitchcock. (10/10)