Review: “Vertigo” (1958)
WARNING WARNING: SPOILERS SPOILERS
Okay, girls, who would you rather go out with: John “Scottie” Ferguson or Norman Bates?
I know. A no-brainer. Kindly, lovable Jimmy Stewart, Carol Burnett’s favorite actor, versus one of the creepiest serial killers ever to interrupt a girl’s shower. Of course Scottie kills the girl, too. Twice. And at least Norman lets her wear her hair the way she wants.
“Vertigo” did poorly with audiences and critics when the movie opened in 1958, for which Sir Alfred Hitchcock harrumphed and blamed his long-in-the-tooth star. (He never worked with Stewart again.) Others have blamed the ending, or near end, when Hitchcock lets us in on the secret before Scottie figures it out himself. Hitch sacrificed mystery for suspense, as he often did.
Both explanations, to me, are off. The problem, if it is a problem, is with Scottie. Here’s what he does:
- Causes the death of a fellow cop
- Pretends he’s still on the police force to get information during a private investigation
- Has an affair with the woman he’s tailing
- Has an affair with the wife of an old friend (same woman)
- Forces one woman to dress up like another woman (same woman)
- Causes her death
People go to the movies expecting someone like Jimmy Stewart to play the hero. It’s a mystery and he’s a detective and he’ll figure it out and get the girl (half his age). But in “Vertigo” he actually plays a terrifying figure. Scottie Ferguson isn’t “Jimmy Stewart” here; he’s halfway to Norman Bates.
The movie begins with a horizontal split screen—foreshadowing all of the movie’s doppelgangers—which crystallizes into the close-up of the bar of a metal ladder. A crook, as lithe as a young Bob Fosse, is being chased over rooftops by an elderly cop in uniform and plainclothes detective John “Scottie” Ferguson. The crook jumps rooftop to rooftop and the cop follows. Scottie attempts the jump, misses, slides down the slanted roof and clings to the gutter. He looks down and panics. We get that famous track-in, zoom-out shot to represent vertigo, and Scottie cries out in fear. The cop doubles back to help but Scottie’s helpless. He can’t help himself, and he can’t help the cop when the cop slips and falls past Scottie and into the alley below.
At this point, Scottie is still clinging to the gutter five stories above an alleyway, but Hitchcock has done what he wants here and moves the story along. In the very next shot, we see Scottie, hanging out, leisurely, in the sunny loft of his friend, Midge (Barbara Bel Gedes), attempting to balance a cane on the palm of his hand. Doesn’t he feel guilty about the dead cop? Later in the scene, we get this exchange:
Midge: It wasn’t your fault
Scottie: I know. That’s what everybody tells me.
An argument can be made that everything else results from Scottie’s repressed guilt feelings about the cop. He’s nonchalant here but for the rest of the movie he’ll be haunted by the dead.
I should say he seems nonchalant. In actuality he’s completely unmanned in the loft. He has no job. He needs a cane. He wears a corset. He’s spending time with a woman who is busy designing women’s underwear so he’s caught up in that frilly world—sexless and neutered. This woman, to whom he was once engaged, mothers him. She calls him “Johnny,” the diminutive, and shoots him a dirty look when he says, “Oh Midge, don’t be so mothering.” But she’s like the worst of mothers: she wants him weak. When he talks up his baby-steps approach to overcoming his vertigo, and demonstrates, she demands he go higher, with a stepladder, and when he fails and falls into her arms, she’s there to catch him and coo his name.
Afterwards he meets an old college friend, Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore), a bland man who married into his position as shipbuilding magnate, and who offers Scottie a job tailing his wife Madeleine. Not because he thinks she’s fooling around but because he’s worried about her. Supernatural elements are brought up, and Scottie, the modern man, scoffs, but Gavin is serious and insistent. His wife thinks she’s been taken over by the spirit of a dead woman.
It’s a job anyway. It’s a purpose. So for the next 10 minutes of screentime—an eternity—we see Scottie tailing Madeleine (Kim Novak): into an alleyway (where she buys flowers); into a church graveyard (where she visits the headstone of Carlotta Valdes:1831–1857); into a gallery (where she genuflects before a portrait of Carlotta Valdes, whose hair, Scottie notices, is done up the way Madeleine does hers). Not a word is spoken. For 10 minutes, we only hear Bernard Herrmann’s eerie soundtrack music. It’s like something out of “Alice in Wonderland,” and we find ourselves, as in that book, pulled into this hazy, silent dreamworld where dead girls possess live ones. We almost begin to believe it. Does Scottie? He follows Madeleine to the McKittrick Hotel but suddenly, poof, she’s gone, and the hotel clerk insists she was never there. Like a ghost.
The next day Madeleine tries to make herself a ghost by jumping into San Francisco Bay, but Scottie jumps in after her, pulls her out and takes her home. Not only does he take her home—rather than, say, Gavin’s home or office—he takes her wet clothes off. He leaves her naked in his bed. All of which goes unsaid but is alluded to in that stifled 1950s fashion. “When you, um,” she says, with a look toward the bedroom. “There was something in my hair?” The next day she mentions the whole thing must’ve been embarrassing for him. “No, I enjoyed it,” he responds, before tamping down his enthusiasm. “Uh, talking to you.”
We understand. Given the opportunity, who wouldn’t want to undress Kim Novak? But in Scottie’s mind he’s not doing anything particularly creepy. He’s the hero. That awful nightmare of clinging to a rain gutter and causing the death of a fellow cop? That’s over. He’s strong again. Madeleine plays on this need. When he tells her his name, she responds, “Good strong name.” When she’s piecing together what happened, and says, “I fell into the bay and you fished me out,” his response, “That’s right,” is flushed with pride. He needs her to fall into the bay—so he can save her—so he can forget the first two minutes of the movie. Here’s a question. Since it’s all a ruse, including, possibly, her fainting spell, was she awake the whole time he was undressing her? He’s taking advantage of her helplessness under the guise of heroism and she’s being taken advantage of under the guise of helplessness. No one is what they seem, but at least Madeleine/Judy knows she’s playing a role.
By the time she leads him to San Juan Batista, they’ve begun a romance. “No one possesses you,” he says, trying to possess her. “You’re safe with me.” But she breaks away and runs up the stairs of the tower. He tries to follow, but, ah, there’s the vertigo again. He drops to his knees. He can’t make it to the top of the tower. Yes, it’s a sexual metaphor. Then there’s a scream and he sees her body drop past the window and crumpled on a rooftop below. The woman who was making him forget the dead cop is now like the dead cop.
Books have probably been written about Scottie’s reaction shot here. At first he looks sad. But when nuns arrive to check out the body, he suddenly seems trapped, and guilty, and he bites his hand and skulks away. This is necessary for the plot—if he checked out the body, he’d see it wasn’t his Madeleine—but forget that for a second. Why should Scottie feel guilty? Truly guilty? Because he hadn’t protected her? Because the arrival of the nuns remind him that he hadn’t been such a nice Catholic boy? He’d mixed business with pleasure. He took off her clothes and kissed her but he couldn’t ascend the tower. He couldn’t be a man so now she’s dead. It’s a wonderful, oil-and-water amalgamation of Catholic guilt and impotent guilt. Is the crime lusting in his heart or not lusting well enough with his body?
Catholic guilt or impotent guilt? Or both?
After an inquest that’s so brutal it’s humorous (Coroner: “We are not here to pass judgment on Mr. Ferguson’s lack of initiative; he did nothing, and the law has little to say on the subject of things left undone”), Scottie winds up in a sanitarium, watched over by Midge, whose interest in him increased as his interest in Madeleine increased. In their opening scene, Midge couldn’t be bothered to go to dinner. But once he’s on the case, once he’s virile again, she can’t abide it and does her own detective work, mocking his. She finds the painting of Carlotta, and, in surely one of the creepier moments in movies. repaints it with her own face. In the sanitarium, she pleads with him as he pleaded with Madeleine: “Johnny, please try. You’re not lost.” But then she adds her own touch: “Mother’s here.” Ick. The role she rejected in the beginning is the role she adopts. She’s part of the reason he’s halfway to Norman Bates.
A second later she’s gone from the movie. The last time we see her, she’s walking down a gray hallway in a gray suit. Contrast this with Madeleine, whom we first see in a startling green dress, who drives a green car, and who, as Judy, is first seen in a green sweater and illuminated, by the neon sign outside her apartment, in green—like a precursor to some alien chick in “Star Trek.” When Scottie and Madeleine visit the giant redwoods, Scottie tells her the Latin name: “Sequoia sempervirens,” he says. “Always green. Everliving.” Is that her? Even when Madeleine goes gray, she stands out. The gray suit is fitted, perfect, and her blonde hair is fitted and perfect. Midge, whose name is the name of an annoying insect, blends into the walls as she leaves. It’s as if she left the movie before she left it. She’s another kind of ghost—the one Scottie can’t see.
Sequoia sempervirens? Or the first Orion slave girl?
Confession: I was once obsessed with a girl in the 1980s and after it ended I saw her doppelganger everywhere. A couple of times a week I’d see a tall, athletic girl with long brown hair, and think, Is that her? Is that her? That’s Scottie after the sanitarium. His case was to follow a woman obsessed with a dead girl and now he’s the one obsessed with the dead girl. Suddenly, too, San Francisco is full of women with gray suits and upswept blonde hair. Those are his triggers. At first, when he runs into Judy, he doesn’t even register her, since she’s brown-haired now, wearing it down, and wearing a sloppy green blouse. Her personality is brassily American rather than vaguely, fussily British. But it’s the same girl.
Hitchcock lets us in on this fact early—too early for some—but I think he made the right move. Without it, her actions would seem incomprehensible and his actions would seem crazier than they do. Plus it shifts the point of the view from his to hers. We worry about her now, this accessory to murder, because we worry what he’s going to do when he finds out. He’s still slightly bats: disconnected, given to rages. He’s not satisfied with her as Judy so he takes her to a department store to buy gray suits and shoes. He looks at her hair and demands she dye it blonde. “It can’t matter to you!” he says. Each step brings him closer to the truth. “When will he realize?” we wonder. We don’t want him to. We’re rooting for her now. The hero is the monster.
Hitchcock once said, in a conversation with Francois Truffaut in the 1960s, that he sees this dress-up game as a kind of reverse stripping. “Cinematically,” he says, “all of Stewart’s efforts to recreate the dead woman are shown in such a way that he seems to be trying to undress her, instead of the other way around.” But Hitchcock must have been aware of other echoes. Kim Novak herself supposedly had trouble with the gray suit but he won her over. He convinced her. Wear it, Kim. Wear it. He got her to dress up like other actresses, now dead to him, such as Madeleine Carroll and Grace Kelly, just as he would with Eva Marie Saint and Janet Leigh and Tippi Hedren. Yeah, that’s the suit. Yeah, pin up your hair like that. Which raises the question: How much of Hitchcock is Scottie channeling?
Dress-up equals control, and control equals power, and sex is in there somewhere. Once Scottie figures out Judy is Madeleine, he takes her back to San Juan Batista and up the stairs of the tower. His rant against her, as he’s shaking her, is a poem to perverted jealousy:
You played the wife very well, Judy. He made you over, didn’t he? He made you over like I made you over. Only better! Not only the clothes and the hair but the looks and the manner and the words! ... And then what did he do? Did he train you? Did he rehearse you? Did he tell you exactly what to do, what to say? You were a very apt pupil, too, weren't you? You were a very apt pupil!
Two years later, Hitchcock will forego the woman altogether and have the man play dress-up himself.
Though “Vertigo” did poorly with both critics and audiences in 1957, it’s since been embraced. Hugely. In 2002, readers of “Positif” listed it the fourth greatest film ever made, while the critics of “Positif” placed it higher: no. 2. It also placed second in Total Film’s “100 Greatest Movies of All Time” in 2005.
The second-greatest movie ever made? I appreciate “Vertigo,” I love analyzing it, but I get little joy from it, just as I get little joy from most Hitchcock. (“The 39 Steps” is an exception.)
Yes, there’s the plausibility angle, which Hitchcock always dismissed because his films were invariably implausible. OK, so Gavin Elster wants to kill his wife so he creates a suicidal doppelganger (Judy), a reliable witness (Scottie), and the most elaborate backstory in the history of crime. I mean, couldn’t Madeleine simply be suicidal? Why bring poor Carlotta into this? Plus, to make it work, Gavin has to rely on four increasingly implausible things happening:
- Scottie’s vertigo has to prevent him from ascending the tower. (Most plausible: It’s why he was chosen.)
- Scottie has to see the body fall past the window. (Less plausible: It requires a scream and a quick turn of the head. Plus his vertigo has to freeze him at a point where he can see out a window.)
- Scottie can’t check out the body once he descends the stairs. (Even less plausible: Wasn’t he a detective once?)
- The cops can’t ascend the tower themselves to check out what is known, in some police circles, as “the scene of the crime.” (Least plausible of all. If they’d done so, they would’ve found the dead woman’s husband and another woman, hysterical, dressed like the dead woman, at the very spot from which the dead woman jumped. Questions, one hopes, would’ve arisen.)
But this isn’t why I get little joy from “Vertigo.” Hitchcock’s movies are certainly personal, which is a positive, but sometimes they feel a little too personal. He delves inward and finds the peculiar rather than the universal. His obsessions are not my own. He once famously said that his movies weren’t slices of life, they were slices of cake, and they are, but often they’re slices of cake laced with something astringent. I take a bite and make a face. “I like the chocolate but...too much tannin.”
That said, no one did endings better than Hitchcock, and “Vertigo” is one of his best: a kiss, a fright, a scream... and for the third time in the movie, and the second time with the woman he loves, Scottie, good ol’ Jimmy Stewart, stares down at yet another death he’s responsible for. The beginning is the middle is the end. The nightmare is cyclical. One gets the feeling it'll never end.