This year is the 60th anniversary of the release of the Alfred Hitchcock film Vertigo. This dark and powerful film wasn’t all that well received upon its release back in 1958, but over the following decades it was reassessed and it is now considered to be one of Hitchcock’s greatest film achievements.
The film has since been showered with many accolades. It has even been called the greatest film ever made by some film critics. It is a film that I have come to love a great deal. I was entranced by its story of mystery, sadness, love, horror and tragedy the first time that I saw it. It has become a firm favourite of mine. This is in my top 3 Hitchcock films.
Scottie and Madeleine kiss. Screenshot by me.
This film is really several types of film all rolled into one, it is part Film Noir, part horror, part mystery, part romance and part tragedy. It is a film about obsession, mystery, death, love, longing, desire, fear and guilt. I consider this film to be Hitchcock’s most fascinating, haunting, dark and unforgettable film.It is a film that really gets under my skin.
The film is based upon the 1954 novel The Living And The Dead, which was written by Pierre Boileau and Pierre Ayraud. In my opinion this page to screen adaptation made for the darkest film that Hitchcock had made up to this point in his career. The obsession that James Stewart’s character has for the woman he fixates on in the second half of the film makes for some very uncomfortable viewing. His behaviour really borders on stalker behaviour, but at the same time his character is the real victim of the film as he has become so broken by deception and grief.
Hitchcock takes both his characters and us on a very dark, complex, and unsettling journey in this film. It may be a difficult viewing experience to endure at times, but it is a film which is well worth seeing through to the end.
Hitchcock prepares Kim Novak and James Stewart for a scene. Image source IMDb.
The film was shot out on location in San Francisco and the history and beauty of that city ended up being the perfect backdrop for the film. The city almost becomes another character in the film, with the city streets and iconic locations featuring heavily in the vast majority of scenes.
At the heart of Vertigo is the growing bond between Scottie (James Stewart)and the mysterious and troubled Madeleine (Kim Novak). Scottie is a former Police Detective who has quit the force after developing vertigo and acrophobia. He develops these conditions after nearly falling from a building during a police chase. Scottie also blames himself after a colleague died while trying to save Scottie from falling from the roof. He is wracked with guilt and fear following this incident.
Midge comforts Scottie. Screenshot by me.
Scottie is aided in his recovery from this incident by his friend and former fiancé, Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes). Midge is the woman for him, she is genuine, kind, funny, and is there for him no matter what. Scottie likes and loves her very much and can unburden himself to her. They make a cute pair, who are equally comfortable and relaxed in each others company. It’s clear to us and to Midge that they should be together. Sadly Scottie ends up ignoring Midge in his pursuit of Madeleine, who is the femme fatale of this film (typical Noir guy there then 😉 ).
Scottie is hired by an old friend, Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore)to work as a private detective to keep an eye on Elster’s wife, Madeleine (Kim Novak).Elster tells Scottie that he is very worried about his wife, he fears that she may be possessed by the spirit of a dead ancestor. She is acting very strangely and he fears she may also be suicidal. Scottie follows Madeleine, he soon becomes convinced that something is not right with her at all. He also comes to accept that as odd as it may seem, Elster may well be correct when he suspects that Madeleine could be possessed.
Scottie ends up falling in love with this mysterious woman. He is left wracked with guilt and despair once again, after he fails to prevent her from jumping to her death. Some time after her death, Scottie meets Judy (Kim Novak), a young woman who bears an uncanny resemblance to the dead Madeleine. Scottie soon learns that all may not have been as it had initially seemed to him. So he sets out to do some investigating.
Another passionate moment for Madeleine and Scottie. Screenshot by me.
Leaving aside the mystery and horror elements of the story, the heart of the film is the relationship between Scottie and Madeleine. They are two troubled and sad souls clinging desperately to one another the way a drowning person clings to a lifebelt or piece of wood to try and stay afloat. Scottie feels protective of Madeleine, he is drawn to this gentle and shy woman of mystery. Scottie can’t see that all may not be as it seems with Madeleine’s situation at all, he is so blinkered by love and desire, that he ignores the reality before him. In his attitudes he is the typical Noir detective, slowly being drawn to his doom by the femme fatale that he desires above all else in his life.
The irony is that the woman he loves isn’t real in any sense of the word. The woman that Scottie sees before him isn’t even the real Madeleine. Her actions and personality are not even those of the real woman pretending to be Madeleine. Scottie is basically in love with a woman who doesn’t exist. The woman he loves and longs to have is nothing more than a phantom. Madeleine is the ultimate Noir femme fatale, she leads Scottie on and is forever unattainable.
Scottie and Madeleine in a rare happy moment. Screenshot by me.
Madeleine likes Scottie very much and she can’t deny her feelings for him in return, but she never lets him too close to her. She feels safe with him and yet she runs from him, never allowing herself to stay with him for long periods of time. Madeleine always runs away from Scottie or pushes him away from her. They want to be together but can’t. We in the audience want a happy ending for them but we know that it is highly improbable they will get one. This is Noir and Horror territory that we are in after all.
James Stewart as a traumatised Scottie. Screenshot by me.
James Stewart and Kim Novak deliver career best performances here. James in particular goes places we have never seen him go before.
This is one of the darkest roles that James ever had in his entire career, and I think he does a superb job in playing this very troubled and tragic character. He really makes us feel Scottie’s obsession, lust, love, grief and longing.
I think that James also does a superb job of conveying the crippling fear when Scottie has an attack of vertigo and is left helpless and paralysed in terror, shaking and sweating and desperate to get away from wherever he may be at the time.
Kim is equally superb in the dual role of the ethereal, glacial, refined and regal Madeleine, and the fun loving, independent and sexy Judy. She does a terrific job of conveying Madeleine’s fear and vulnerability. Kim also excels at conveying Judy’s longing and fear much later in the film. Kim’s role was originally going to have been played by Vera Miles, but she unfortunately had to give up the role after becoming pregnant. I really wish we could have seen how Vera would have played this dual role, but I’m convinced that she wouldn’t have been able to match what Kim did with these two roles.
Kim Novak as Madeleine/Judy. Image source IMDb.
Hitchcock made three films in his career that I think can be considered to be horror films, Psycho, The Birds and Frenzy. Vertigo is the closest he ever came though to making a ghost story. The first half of the film plays out like a ghost story. It appears that Madeleine is possessed by the spirit of a dead ancestor who went mad and committed suicide aged 26.
Kim gives Madeleine an otherworldly and ethereal air in these early sequences, and she really makes you believe that this woman is torn between the realm of the dead and the world of the living. There is a far and away look in Kim’s eyes during the scenes where Madeleine is possessed. When I watch her in these particular scenes I believe that she is someone else and is a deeply troubled woman.
Some of the scenes in the first half are very eerie. Look at the sequence in the forest for example, that scene is very eerie and would not be out of place in a horror film. Don’t forget the scenes where Madeleine visits the graveyard and the old hotel too. Seeing these scenes makes me wish that Hitchcock had tried his hand at making a ghost film.
Madeleine throws herself to her death from the roof of a bell tower. Scottie tries to save her from jumping but he is prevented from doing so by a vertigo attack. In the second half of the film, we see Scottie haunted by the memory of the dead Madeleine. He has a breakdown brought on by his guilt at being unable to save her, and his deep grief and pain at losing her. Midge tries her best to help him at this time and visits him regularly.
When Scottie recovers from his breakdown he wanders the city streets and constantly runs into women and places who remind him of Madeleine and their time together. Scottie then meets Judy (Kim Novak) and we see another type of horror as a living woman is remoulded into the image of a dead one, and we see a dead woman resurrected.
Judy becomes Madeleine. Screenshot by me.
This second section of the film plays out to me like My Fair Lady meets Frankenstein. I find this part even more disturbing and sad than the first half to be honest.
In this half of the film, Scottie changes Judy into Madeleine by dressing and styling her in Madeleine’s image from when he knew her. He permanently erases Judy from his life so that he can be with Madeleine again.
This final half also plays out to me like a Greek or Shakespearean tragedy. There is no happiness to be found in this film from this point on.We see Scottie learn that his breakdown, guilt and grief were all for nothing because the woman he loved wasn’t even the woman who died. We also see him destroy Judy (the real woman he loved, he just didn’t realise that at the time)and recreate her in the image of the dead fantasy he so desired. We also see Scottie inadvertently cause the death (once and for all, no bringing her back from the dead now)of Judy/Madeleine by taking her back to the scene of the crime at the end of the film. It’s dark, disturbing and bleak stuff for sure, but it’s also incredibly sad too.
I also like how the film gets us to change who we sympathise with and also why we sympathise with them as the film goes along. At first we sympathise with Scottie and Madeleine for being troubled and lonely souls who want to be together. We then sympathise with Scottie when he loses the woman he loves and blames himself for it. We then sympathise with him even more when we learn he was used, manipulated and lied to. We then sympathise with Judy when we see how Scottie treats her. We then hate Judy when we learn what she did and what she agreed to be a part of. We still feel sorry for Judy though because she was used by Elster, and she is being used by Scottie to get what he wants. We then sympathise with Scottie again during that tragic ending. We sympathise with Midge throughout and want to yell at Scottie to open his eyes and see the woman in front of him, and yet at the same time we want some happiness for him and Madeleine/Judy. It’s far from easy and simple who to side with in this.
Our doomed couple. Image source IMDb.
There are no black and white characters in this (apart from Elster who is a clear cut villain, and Midge who is the good girl left on the sidelines by the man she loves)only grey characters. Personalities change through out the film, and we like and loathe certain characters at certain times during the film. Nothing about this film is simple or uncomplicated. This is precisely why I love this film so much.
I have to praise the photography by Robert Burks. His work makes the film look so vibrant and beautiful. I think that he deserves high praise indeed for what he managed to achieve here.
I love the lighting in the film and I’ve also noted the recurring use of green clothes and green lighting when Madeleine/Judy are around. We have Madeleine wearing the green and black evening dress, driving a green car, being surrounded often by green trees, lawns and plants. We have Judy wearing a green dress, green skirts and green jackets. We also see Madeleine being bathed in an eerie green light in the mirror in the flower store, and Judy surrounded by green light through her window from the neon light outside. Green symbolises jealously and life. Perhaps this colour was used to represent the rebirth of Madeleine/Judy and to also show that Scottie is jealous that Madeleine is Elster’s and she isn’t free to be his.
A few shots featuring the key colour of green. Screenshot by me.
Perhaps green was also used to show Madeleine and Judy as offering Scottie life and freshness and an escape from his troubled life? What do you think about the use of green in the film?
The music is very important in the film. Bernard Herrmann’s score for this is possibly his best work. The score is beautiful, romantic, sweeping, spooky, sinister and thrilling. At times the music also sounds like it is swirling, something that I really like because it represents Scottie’s feeling of vertigo. The music adds so much atmosphere to the film.
The heartbreaking part about this film is that you want Scottie and Judy to have a happy ending, but f course if they had got a happy ending I highly doubt we would be talking about this one so much sixty years on. Plus a happy ending isn’t what Noir and tragedy are all about. There was an alternative happy ending that Hitchcock was made to film to keep the production code people happy.
This alternative ending is included as an extra on many DVD and Blu-ray releases, it shows Scottie and Midge back together again in her apartment and a radio report indicating that Elster has been brought to justice for his crimes. It is nice to though to see that Scottie has a chance of happiness by being with Midge again. The trouble is that this ending just lacks the shock and emotional impact of the bell tower finale. The bleak ending implies that Elster has completely got away with his crimes, and this to me makes that ending all the more dark and disturbing than it already is thanks to that final shot.This is a film that offers plenty for audiences to discuss and ponder over once the film has finished. I think that is why I love this one so much. This film makes you think and feel and draws us in, just like Madeleine and her problems draw Scottie in.
The only issues I have with the film are the following points. I don’t find it plausible that Elster would have left Judy alive, she knew what they had done and she could have gone to the Police or blackmailed him. If Elster wanted no trace left back to him of the crime, why leave Judy alive afterwards? I also don’t get why Judy didn’t just run away once Scottie found her and invited her out for dinner. I also don’t get why the reveal to what had happened in the bell tower was shown so early in the film. I think it would have been more impactful if the truth had been learnt by us and Scottie jointly during the scene where Judy puts on the necklace.
I’d like to say happy 60th birthday to one of Hitchcock’s greatest achievements. Well done to James Stewart, Kim Novak and Barbara Bel Geddes for so perfectly conveying the tragedy, love, desire, pain, fear and obsession of their characters to us. Thanks to all the cast and crew for their hard work to help make this film.
What do you think of this film? Please share your thoughts and views below.