Alfred Hitchcock films represent a unique brand in terms of style, content and theme. He appeared in a time as Hollywood was modernizing with technology and the skill that it could create on screen. Dynamics of crime, drama, suspense and even horror films that followed are influenced by his plots, characterization and camera techniques. Hitchcock was as sensitive in thought construction as he was demanding in his casting. Many of his titles, such as Psycho (1960) and The Birds (1963), demonstrate the lasting power in memory that movies can hold on audiences in their time and subsequent generations to come. Famous directors, such as Martin Scorsese and Brian DePalma, have shown influences of Hitchcock in their body of work alongside interviews about their beginnings as professionals.
Hitchcock is referred to as the ‘Master of Suspense’ due to his ability to surprise the audience in film with subplot revelations that are unique in content. As a result, deep emotions of the watcher would be stirred and confronted. A fine example of the relevancy of this title is the film called Vertigo. The movie was based upon a novel entitled From Among The Dead, translated from D’entre les morts, written by authors Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac. The book was written in 1954 and the same pair composed a title called Celle qui n’etait plus that was later turned into a classic film called Les Diaboliques (1955). Diabolique, the remake, was released in 1996 with Sharon Stone and Kathy Bates in lead roles.
Vertigo was shot exclusively in San Francisco, California and production took place between September and December 1957. Many settings on location still stand today. One exception was the bell tower midpoint and conclusion with Mission San Juan Batista used as the spot. San Juan Batista is the name of the town also and it is located around one-hundred miles south of the main city. Some of the known places include: Fort Point, Palace of the Legion of Honor, Big Basin Redwoods State Park, Palace of Fine Arts, North Beach and Union Square. Hitchcock was drawn to San Francisco because he felt its diverse culture and artistic side was reminiscent of Paris, France.
Vertigo was released in the Spring of 1958 to a mixed audience. The financial cost was a draw with 2.8 million with a total of 2.4 million put into the making. The noticeable backlash came from Hitchcock fans themselves. Many felt the film was too much of a departure of the romanticism the director often displayed in his movies. Some complained that the plot was too drawn out and too slow. People were puzzled as to how the mystery behind the murder in the film was revealed with almost a half of the film left to run through. Hitchcock was personally devastated by the poor reception of a film he put delicate care and thought into creating. His initial reaction was to blame the presence of his lead actor, James Stewart, for being too old to be paired against the lead actress, Kim Novak, who was over twenty-years younger. The passage of time, however, has proven a much different verdict for this complicated and grandiose example of filmmaking.
Popular actor James Stewart was selected to star in the main character role of Vertigo. His character was noted for despair, emotional turmoil and tragic proportions of failed heroism. He had already worked with Alfred Hitchcock for three previous movies: Rope (1948), Rear Window (1954) and The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956).
Actress Kim Novak was cast as the female lead and tortured counterpart to James Stewart in Vertigo. She had already gained acclaim for appearances alongside William Holden in Picnic (1955) and alongside Frank Sinatra in the very same year with The Man With The Golden Arm. Her passionate pairing with Stewart allowed them a chance to work together again in Bell, Book and Candle just seven months after Vertigo was released. Cary Grant expressed an interest in portraying the Stewart role for this romantic comedy but was cast instead in Hitchcock’s North by Northwest (1959). Stewart ironically sought to obtain the Grant role but was set aside by the director following the disastrous sentiments many held in relation to Vertigo.
Barbara Bel Geddes played the past romantic interest of Stewart and his current source of stability. She had cemented a large part in television history with the role of Miss Ellie Southworth-Ewing in Dallas. The actress was also noted for being in the Broadway version of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof with the part of Maggie.
Tom Helmore is the chief villain of Vertigo but was seen as just the opposite in The Time Machine (1960) as a sympathetic friend. Helmore had also appeared twice in Hitchcock films with The Ring (1927) and Secret Agent (1936).
Alfred Hitchcock is noted for making a firsthand appearance in his movies and he could be seen wearing a gray suit and carrying a trumpet case just outside the office to the character of Helmore.
Vertigo opens with an action-packed chase sequence at night. Detective John Ferguson (played with dramatic zeal and sentimental charm by James Stewart) is on the hunt to pursue a suspect and chases him across rooftops of the city. John is nicknamed Scottie and he secretly possesses a fear of heights, called acrophobia that causes a nauseating and disorienting mental effect, called vertigo. It is this condition of vertigo that causes him to fall short in the line of duty. Scottie is with another cop and he loses his balance hopping from one roof to another. As a result, the suspect runs away and is never caught. Scottie clings barely to life and is frozen with fear as he gazes at the street several feet below. The cop tries in vain to rescue his friend, but falls off the building to his death instead. Scottie is devastated and overcome with guilt in the aftermath. He decides to withdraw from the police force altogether because the shame at his helplessness is too strong. All of this occurs within the first ten minutes of the film.
Scottie makes a few attempts to sidestep his fear of heights but is unable to shake the effects of dizziness that follow when his mind perceives danger. His close friend and former fiancé, Midge Wood (played with a loving and matronly quality by Barbara Bel Geddes), warns her companion that his phobia cannot be so easily overcome. She suggests instead that only another unexpected emotional shock could undue it. This simple and innocuous line foreshadows the latter half of the plot and ultimate significance of Vertigo.
The plot begins to take off in adventurous and mysterious territory when Scottie responds to the call of an old college acquaintance named Gavin Elster. Elster (demonstrated with a reprehensible edge and intelligent perception by Tom Helmore) is a boss and direct heir to a ship-building business due to his marriage. The wife, Madeleine (vividly brought to life on screen with vulnerability and sensuality by Kim Novak), is described as possessing strange and troubling behavior. Elster paces the room in a tentative manner as he suggests her behavior indicates she has become possessed by somebody from the dead. Scottie is reluctant to take on the uncomfortable assignment of trailing his friend’s wife around as a semi-retired detective, but agrees to do so after considerable appeal by the anxious husband.
Vertigo is noteworthy for lush cinematography throughout San Francisco in these scenes as Detective Ferguson is confronted with the unexplained behavior of Madeleine Elster. The filming is gentle and lush. The background score, courtesy of Bernard Herrmann, fills the space and expressions with tension. Scottie does his best to gather information but at the same time remain hidden. On one occasion he follows the girl to a museum where she is staring silently from a bench at a painting of a Spanish girl named Carlotta Valdes. The detective notices that both women have similar hairstyles even if their hair color is different. He later finds her gazing with a somber posture at the gravesite of Ms. Valdes herself.
Midge has deep connections and familiarity to San Francisco. She enlists the aid of a local book store owner to assist Scottie when he asks his old love for questions surrounding an unusual woman named Carlotta. Scottie discovers that Carlotta was a former resident of the city who committed suicide after being abandoned by her rich lover and the father of her child. Elster compliments his companion on his excellent detective work and reveals further pieces of the puzzle. It turns out that Carlotta is the great-grandmother of Madeleine, but she is not aware of these events herself. Scottie is baffled as to how the woman could move about and retrace the steps of someone if she is not even aware of doing it in the first place. Elster then declares his innermost concern and belief: Madeleine is mentally ill with a propensity for suicide and she is currently being possessed by the ghost of Carlotta.
Vertigo reaches a turning point when Scottie Ferguson saves the life of Madeleine Elster. She purchases a small bouquet of flowers and proceeds to spread the petals into San Francisco Bay. Scottie tracks her to Fort Point and watches the activity from a safe distance. However, he springs into action and sheds his anonymity when the girl throws herself into the water. He manages to rescue her in time from drowning and brings her back to his apartment to recover. The detective informs the frantic and worried Elster of the details when the ship-builder calls wondering about his wife’s absence.
From this point forward, Scottie and Madeleine become friends. They start to spend social time together and this causes a distance between Scottie and Midge. Soon the newfound couple starts to realize that their emotions they are carrying around for each other are far more than platonic feelings. One day they attend Muir Woods (really filmed at Big Basin) and Madeleine appears to transform into the trance of Carlotta and details how she once lived. Scottie tries to break the spell of possession but all that does is cause the troubled girl to flee. She races next into the nearby ocean area and considers once more jumping into the water to end her life and suffering. Scottie grabs the girl just in time and begs her to hold on. He implores Madeleine to have second thoughts by insisting that he will help and protect her from outside harm. Madeleine appears to return to her regular self and falls into a kiss with her dedicated pursuer.
Vertigo rolls into the halfway mark of its running time when Mrs. Elster rushes over to the home of Mr. Ferguson in order to describe for him a recurring dream. She goes over in detail elements of a primitive time lacking technology but harboring powerful religious artifacts. Scottie puts the pieces together and recognizes similarity with her details to the known historic site called Mission San Juan Batista. Madeleine is taken aback when her counterpart describes the church and declares all problems she is facing are tied to there. The wealthy wife of Gavin Elster states there is no way this truth could be possible because she has never visited the church before. Scottie convinces the frazzled lady to accompany him on a drive south to the place and see if there is a possibility for self-discovery. Once at the location the possession returns. The persona of Carlotta is in place and tells Scottie what the simple times in her lifetime were like. The ex-detective implores the fragile female to understand that she can be free of anybody’s control. She confesses to Scottie that she is in love with him and then disappears inside the church. The lawman gives fast chase but is unable to react when she heads up the large staircase for the bell tower. His vertigo takes over and all he can do is watch with horror as Mrs. Gavin Elster throws herself out of the tower and to her death on the roof below.
The second half of the film begins as Mrs. Madeleine Elster is laid to rest and her death is declared by a local court to be a suicide. Gavin is there as a forlorn Scottie is excoriated by the judge of being aware of his own fear of heights and not being able to intervene in a necessary crisis. The devastated former detective tries to speak to his close friend afterwards but the wealthy shipbuilder silences all talk by stating he plans to go to Europe to grieve. From that point forward, Scottie slips into a mental breakdown. He has a nightmare regarding Madeleine, and that is captured by colorful cinematography and a frightening tone of music by Herrmann. In the next scene Scottie has arrived in a sanitarium with his first and only visitor being Midge. She correctly guesses that Scottie was in love with the dead woman and informs his doctor. The audience is then informed that it will take a while for Scottie to snap out of what is a catatonic state. He is there nearly a year when he rises and is released into civilization again.
Vertigo nears its ending with a shocking turn of events: Scottie stumbles across a woman in the city who appears to be a look-alike of the woman he loved. At first, he was trailing the area alone and sad in an effort to shed his continued grief. He thought he was spotting Madeleine everywhere, but each time it was uncovered to be only his imagination. This new woman is named Judy Barton and she has arrived in San Francisco from Kansas. Kim Novak also plays Judy but with one important difference: the new girl is a brunette while the old girl was a blond. Judy possesses a more urban accent that Madeleine and her manner is far more feisty and suspicious. Scottie spots her near a flower shop with friends and follows her back to the hotel she is staying at. The girl is at first unnerved and assumes the stranger is one of a threat. She warns him to stay away but Scottie pleads with her to talk with him. Judy can see that the man is more vulnerable than she is and relents. Ferguson admits that Ms. Barton reminds him of a girl he knew who is now dead. He asks to take her out to dinner as a sign of good faith and a proper apology for intrusion. She remains suspicious but agrees once the man assures her that his interest is genuine and strictly platonic in nature.
Once Scottie is gone, Judy is left alone to think and reflect. She retreats to her desk and goes to compose a letter. A voice-over is heard as she writes by Kim Novak. The message is both an aching and startling confession. It turns out that Judy was a decoy posing as Mrs. Elster and working with Gavin in a plot to murder his wife. The real Madeleine was virtually separated from her husband as she lived in another part of town. Judy was picked due to her resemblance to the woman and Gavin trained her precisely on how to act. Scottie was chosen to be a firm witness to a suicide because of his fear of heights. The story surrounding Carlotta was partially accurate but mainly fictitious to paint Madeleine as suicidal. Judy carries enormous guilt and wants to release Scottie from his pain in the ill-fated encounter, but quickly destroys the note.
Judy and Scottie begin to spend time together. He takes her to places he spent time with Madeleine in. The girl is alert to the circumstances but remains quiet so as not to arouse any suspicion of her true identity. Soon the obsession becomes real: Scottie falls in love again and wants to recreate Judy in the likeness of Madeleine. He buys her outfits as he dines her and seeks to change her hair. Judy is tearful and afraid as the transformation in attitude takes over. She realizes she is trapped even though her true role is secret. She cares for Scottie at the same time as she wants to protect her livelihood. In a gripping scene of dialogue, Judy gives in to the wishes of Scottie so long as he will love her.
Vertigo arrives at its conclusion as the transformed Judy Barton enters her hotel room in the same image and outfit as Madeleine Elster. James Stewart portrays the obsessed man as a loving romantic as he takes the girl in his arms with a passionate embrace. The two are reunited with feelings heightened and hopeful for the future. They prepare to go out to dinner and Judy is giddy with excitement. Then a clue to the murder plot is accidentally discovered. Scottie helps clip on a necklace to his beloved and spots the item as being a necklace belonging to Carlotta Valdes. He puts two-and-two together and his clever detective skills inform him to the truth. He deduces that Judy is the Madeleine he fell in love with after all. That can only mean the real wife has died and a crime so perfectly covered up from detection by any authorities.
Scottie is seething with revenge for the injustice and personal betrayal he has been put through. His life has suffered an enormous cost of personal suffering and in the process strained his good relationship with Midge. He decides he most expose Judy and there is only one way to do that: take her out to San Juan Batista Mission. They get in the car and he plays it off as if they are going on a drive. She is confused at first that dinner is put on hold but sits still and barely notices the events. Once at the spot, it is nighttime and the car doors open. Judy is terrified and asks Scottie what he is doing. Scottie says that this experience will free them both of the past and allow them to be together. Judy refuses to comply and Scottie responds by ordering her up the stairs. She starts to move and then he announces that he knows who she is. She tries to run and reminds the ex-detective that he will never be able to complete the climb. Scottie believes he can survive with his second chance and lays out his suspicions regarding the murder Gavin has done.
Judy confesses all the secrets and says that Gavin gave her both the necklace and money for her contribution in his plot. Scottie is furious and devastated by the words. He shivers and reminds his former beloved that there is no way for either of them to go back to the way it was due to Madeleine’s murder. Judy pleads with her man to keep her safe from others. All of a sudden a distant female voice is heard. Judy turns and reacts in horror as she believes she has confronted the ghost of her counterpart. She shrieks and jumps out the open space of the bell tower just like it occurred before. Turns out the female voice was a nun on the mission and she tolls the bell in recognition of the death. Scottie gazes several feet below in silence. He has overcome his vertigo but his sense of self and the world at large will never be the same.
Vertigo is a remarkable achievement of film progress and film success. It helped solidify the role of Alfred Hitchcock as the noted “Master of Suspense.” It has gone on to rank as one of the most popular movies in Hollywood history due to its gentle pace of story making and evocative score. James Stewart veered from a mild-mannered hero to an obsessive stalker of truth, love and justice. Kim Novak conveyed the dark side of how beauty can work in your favor and against your safety. Tom Helmore was both chilling and unassuming as the chief villain. Barbara Bel Geddes was a stalwart friend and companion whose character was out of her element to the complex mystery. At the time of release, Vertigo confused and put off film critics with its cerebral plot. Even Hitchcock was disgusted and resentful of its outright failure to catch on. However, the film legacy has endured and many rank it not only as a film classic but a true Hitchcock classic.
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Cast: James Stewart, Kim Novak, Tom Helmore, Barbara Bel Geddes
Studio: Paramount Pictures
Running Time: 2 Hours and 8 Minutes
Brian's Rating: 5-of-5 stars