Went to see one of my favorite old films last night, Hitchcock’s now classic Vertigo. I write “now” because the film’s rise to lasting fame has been gradual, from an original position in the shadow of North By Northwest and Psycho, to its present-day status as one of the greatest films of all time. Actually, according to a critics’ poll recently released by the British film institute, Vertigo has now been voted the greatest film of all time, apparently dislodging Citizen Kane, previously a perennial winner of the accolade. While this is gratifying for the film’s legions of fans, many of whom were on hand at The Castro Theater to watch a restored print and to see a live appearance by Kim Novak, I wonder the following: what is it that changed, gradually or not, over the last sixty years to make this once (relatively) rejected film such an iconic piece of cinema?
It’s surely not the visual style of the film, which is unforgettably dreamy, colorful and strange, but no more so than it will have appeared in 1958. It can’t be the acting, which on the surface, will have seemed typical for the period. There was James Stewart, for example, more or less in his prime, being as expressive and likeable as he ever was, despite the dark complexity of his character. His co-star was the obligatorily beautiful Kim Novak whose acting may have seemed stiff upon the film’s original release, though her vapidity has a certain logic to it given the story’s themes. However, come back Grace Kelly, some may have pined at the time. And it can’t have been the direction, for again, in Alfred Hitchcock audiences were faced with a filmmaker at the height of his career, delivering one suspenseful gem after another. Indeed, it wasn’t until the latter half of the sixties that his commercial magic started to wane.
Only when I consider Vertigo alongside other Hitchcock films, observing its taboo themes, plus the nuances in the acting, or the hypnotic music, that its danger and fantasy shine through, justifying the delayed praise but also explaining a once tentative reaction. The plot features a retired police detective, played by Stewart, who discovers he has vertigo while on the job, which leads to the death of a fellow policeman. In the aftermath, he is approached by an old college friend to do a private job: follow this man’s wife, who is suicidal and probably crazy—possessed by an obscure historical figure in local (San Francisco) folklore named Carlotta Valdes. This friend wants Stewart’s Scottie character to follow his wife Madeleine and gather evidence for a later institutionalization. In Rear Window, Stewart made an injured voyeur a winning character. In Vertigo, he takes his Scottie character to another level.
Scottie reluctantly takes the college friend’s job but quickly sinks his teeth into the intrigue, following Madeleine from churches to department stores, to museums, and eventually to a private spot beneath the Golden Gate Bridge where she will jump into the bay so that Scottie can dutifully save her. He does save her from drowning and at this point in the story two things ought to be clear: first, that Scottie is falling in love with Madeleine, and secondly, that this will have been expected by Madeleine, and also by the friend that hired Scottie. So far, everything seems a little contrived, a little unrealistic (even for the fifties) and yet, as Martin Scorsese once remarked about this film, it doesn’t matter. This is shaping up as a doomed love story, not just a suspense thriller, though nothing is predictable. A viewer might pick up that the film’s title, a reference to Scottie’s affliction, is a metaphor for the “falling” experience of love and obsession that follows.
After the rescue, Scottie gets closer to Madeleine, who reciprocates his feeling, and becomes embroiled in her obsession, which is to emulate the suicidal mania of her alter ego, the long-deceased Valdes. Though he gets close to analyzing the ghostly elements, discovering the links in Madeleine’s dreams if not understanding her underlying guilt, Scottie fails to prevent his lover’s death, which occurs as she falls from the tower of an old California Mission—a predestined end. Or, that is what appears to happen shortly after the halfway point of the film. Thereafter, Scottie recedes into shame and frozen grief: he is institutionalized, having absorbed Madeleine’s apparent psychosis. Then he wanders SF streets, visiting places Madeleine frequented, and then visiting her grave. In another contrived sequence, he sees a Madeleine look-alike in the street and immediately approaches, asking this woman to dinner. By now, Scottie’s transformation from a zealous detective to a stalker (which seemed like it was coming all along) is complete, and for the remainder of the film, Stewart’s character gets creepier. Much to the film legend’s credit, this doesn’t render Scottie unlikeable, as his perverse pursuit of Judy (Madeleine’s seeming look-alike) is inflected with grief and endearing passion. Even as Scottie seduces the sympathetic Judy, and later controls everything from her clothing to her hairstyle to create a Madeleine facsimile, the audience retains its sympathy for him. As Judy emerges finally into the molded image of Scottie’s lost love, there is a sense of triumph alongside the painful tragedy that is hers and his.
The brilliance of this scene is layered with irony: from a medium that creates falsehood as a matter of habit, and from the mind of a great manipulative director, both a woman and an affair are brought back from the dead and thrust into a man’s fantasy. The film mirrors the actions of the protagonist, yielding a mixed feeling for an audience: one can admire the craft, the controlling of events, while finding reprehensible and sad the domination of the Judy character. And yet, things aren’t as simple as they seem. In the climactic sequence, Scottie learns what the audience already knows: that Madeleine and Judy are the same person, and that Judy was an impersonator, an opportunist paid by the college friend to lure Scottie to be false witness to a murder. Because of his penchant for vertigo, for “falling”, he cannot follow Judy to the top of the tower, so he doesn’t see that the friend has his already murdered wife in his arms, ready to drop her before Scottie’s hapless gaze.
Kim Novak’s Judy character, like Scottie, retains audience sympathy despite colluding with the murderer, partly because she seems like an exploited figure, but also because she is like Scottie: she is also acting out of misguided and reckless love. I think this the essential reason that Vertigo has enduring appeal: despite the perversion, the opportunism, the impulsivity and bad decisions, the fantasy of love remains an intoxicant, and Vertigo, with all of its color and cinematic verve, is like fifties psychedelia—a fantasy of dark love. The problem or not (depending upon one’s point of view) of non-wholesome love is that too many people in society identify with how complicated and twisted love can be. It can make innocent and lovely women like Kim Novak seem traumatized and a bit dull. It can make nice guys like James Stewart seem menacing.
Not everyone will get it, and even those who do might still try to simplify matters. As the end credits ran, I overheard stupid questions like, “what happened to the bad guy?” (Scottie’s murdersome friend), as if the just capture of that figure would have rendered the end satisfactory. Actually, it was irrelevant to the story’s point. During the Castro Q & A with Kim Novak, the now aged actress was troubled with questions about MeToo movement issues and how they related to her character in Vertigo. While praising the manipulative, neurotic genius of Hitchcock, Ms Novak made the worthy point that her Judy character represents women whose personhood is denied or subsumed within male obsessions. But even this perspective seems facile, for her character is not without culpability for having embroiled herself in a plot whose aims will have been clear from the outset. Perhaps one of the secret lessons of films like Vertigo—indeed, of art that takes time to infiltrate minds—is that we need art to tell us things that contemporary politics and topical comment can’t: that things aren’t as simple as they seem.