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Vertigo - Hitchcock's Tale of Obsession

Jimmy Stewart, Kim Novak and a Fear of Heights

About.com Rating 4.5 Star Rating
User Rating 5 Star Rating (1 Review)


Vertigo - Hitchcock's Tale of Obsession


Paramount Pictures
Received with mixed reviews when it came out in 1958, Vertigo is now viewed as one of Hitchcock’s masterpieces, a dreamlike tale of obsession and the hopeless search for lost love. Among its requisite Hitchcockian elements: voyeurism, taut suspense, and a gorgeous, ice-cool blonde.

Filmed in locations around San Francisco that seem oddly empty of life, Vertigo used camera angles and techniques innovative for its time, and much copied in later years. The murder-mystery plot backbone would be hard to buy from any other filmmaker, but with this Hitchcock film noir, the plot is beside the point.

The Plot

“Scottie” Ferguson (Jimmy Stewart) is a police detective who must retire from the force when his fear of heights contributes to the death of a policeman in a rooftop chase. Soon after, he is called by a former college friend to “watch over” his wealthy young wife. She has an unhealthy obsession with her great-grandmother, Carlotta Valdes, who committed suicide a century before. She seems to slip in and out of the dead woman’s persona.

Scottie takes the job only after he sees the gorgeous Madeleine (Kim Novak), out to dinner with her husband, and is immediately fascinated. He starts following her as she visits Carlotta’s portrait at an art gallery, buys flowers that match those in the portrait, sits idly in Carlotta’s former room in an old mansion, now transformed into a hotel -- and of course, when she visits Carlotta’s grave.

After he rescues her from a plunge into San Francisco Bay, he embarks on a mission to somehow snap her out of her obsession. To give away much more would ruin the film for first-time viewers. But suffice it to say, he loses her. And when he runs into a shop girl on the San Francisco streets who bears an uncanny resemblance to the lost Madeleine, his own obsession takes hold, and he tries to remake her in the image of his lost love.

The Cast of 'Vertigo'

Stewart is superb, sacrificing some of his genial screen presence to play the neurotic, obsessed Scottie. He is cold to his longtime friend and onetime fiancé, Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes); too forceful and urgent with Madeleine; and downright cruel in his attempts to make over the crude and world-weary shop girl Judy (also played by Novak) into the elegant, mysterious Madeleine.

Bel Geddes is wonderful as Midge, a warm island of sanity and normality where Scottie can’t quite settle down. Ina dual role, Novak is spectacularly beautiful, provocative and elusive as Madeleine and earthy and pleading as Judy. While there are other characters in the film, they’re little more than props or plot devices. The movie takes place in the little world created between Scottie and Madeleine and their twin obsessions.

The Backstory

The pace as Scottie follows Madeleine can be maddeningly slow, and today’s movie viewers might find some of the visual images odd and weirdly dated -- particularly the infamous dream sequence with its surreal animation and harsh washes of light and color across Stewart’s face. The movie is richly visual -- watch for different hues of green associated first with Madeleine and then with Judy, and the warm red and gold hues associated with Midge. The deliberate pace and fog filters add a slow and dreamy sensuality to Scottie’s voyeuristic pursuit of Madeleine. And enjoy the ingenious shot Hitchcock uses to visualize Scottie’s fear of heights and vertigo -- tracking the camera backward while zooming sharply forward.

'Vertigo' - the Bottom Line

Vertigo shows Hitchcock as a director at the height of his powers, and ahead of his time. It rewards repeated viewings. Don’t focus on the flaws in the plot. Focus on the mesmerizing characters and visuals, and after 50 years, Vertigo will still cast a spell.

Recommended for You

If you liked Vertigo, you may like other Alfred Hitchcock films, or other dark love stories like Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre.

'Vertigo' at a Glance:

Year: 1958, Color
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Running Time: 128 minutes
Studio: Paramount Pictures
User Reviews

Reviews for this section have been closed.

 5 out of 5
Vertigo, Member mardsenscherer

This film, although not flawless, is a monumental cinematic achievement. Hitchcock in Vertigo masterfully integrates all the constituent elements of film -- the players, the acting, the script, the set decoration, the equisite color cinema- tography, the musical score, audio and special effects, the costuming, and above all the direction -- into an an unified aesthetic imperative driving the viewer inexorably into a personal (this is an intensely personal film, not only for the director, but for every viewer who sees it) exploration of not only who Scottie Ferguson, Madeline Elster and Judy Barton are, but who, in reality, he or she, the viewer, is. Unlike any other film I have ever seen, Vertigo disturbingly questions not only the characters reality and genuineness, or lack therof, but our own reality, our own authenticity as viewers, and perhaps our own desire for that ""last true obsession of the romantic"" -- death -- and the perfection that we may find in death, but never in this world, never in this universe. Vertigo is an exemplar of Ezra Pound's dictum that ""great art is news that stays news"". I first viewed Vertigo as young boy in a small movie theater in northern New Jerysey more than 50 years ago, and, yet, every one of the many times in the decades I have viewed the the film since, like a symphony of Beethoven or Mozart, or painting by Rem- brandt, Velasquez, Renoir, or Van Gogh, I discover another insight, another perspective, another truth. Vertigo is a motion picture that is about many things -- the frality of human beings, the nature of identity, or reality itself, the potential for human beings to create great beauty but also, the inherent limitations of human kind to develop true interpersonal connections, the awful realization that, whatever beauty humanity in our limited universe is capable of creating, such beauty is very fragile and fleeting, as is our real understanding and connection to any of our fellow men and woman -- ultimately leaving us existentially alone in a quotodian miasma. Thus, all we have in this word, is, at best, a ""glimpse"" of the infinite, if we are lucky. In this connection, the film Vertigo is suffused with images of death -- early in the picture Scottie's laying down on Midge's sofa, as if in a coffin, Madeline's visit to the flower shop, the quietude there, the floral arrangments suggestive of funeral settings, Madeline's visit to Caroltta's grave in the cemetery at Mission Delores, her pointing out of the rings on the redwood tree in the forest -- ""here I was born here I died"" - an almost impercepable interstice in the eons that have preceeded us and will, inexorably, follow us. And of course, Madeline's ""suicide"" at Mission San Juan Batista -- one staged and perhaps the other, in essence, real. Against this inexorable drive toward death by Scottie and Madeline, we have only the ineffectual and almost pathetic efforts of Midge and Madeline's alter ego, Judy Barton, vainly trying to, in Midge's case, relieve Scottie of his obsession with beauty, perfection and the death that can encompass those elements and Judy's failed attempt, as with Norman Bates, to survive against the stonger personality within her -- as Norman becomes his mother, Judy, by the end of the film, succumbs to what she fears -- the Madeline side of her being and thus inevitable death. And Scottie? He could no more tolerate Judy than Midge. One must believe that at the end of the film, he too jumped into the void to join his beloved Madeline -- for eternity.

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