Not particularly successful at the time of its release, Vertigo has come to be recognized as one of Alfred Hitchcock's greatest films, where his profounder obsessions are reinforced by his technical inventiveness. It can be argued that Hitchcock's "greatness" comes only from the accident that his recurring obsession with voyeurism is the topic that best meshes with the ontology of the filmgoing experience. In any case, the longstanding argument over the superiority of his British vs. American periods looks to have been settled in favor of the latter. The less savory aspects of Hitchcock's life revealed since his death come as little surprise if Rear Window, Vertigo, and Psycho are seen as a supreme voyeuristic trilogy.
The Peeping Toms in these films progress through ever-greater distress – from the ostensibly healthy (if significantly broken-legged) James Stewart with his telephoto lens in Rear Window through the psychotic Anthony Perkins with his motel peephole in Psycho. If Stewart's Scotty Ferguson, the private eye in Vertigo, is more fascinating than either, it's because he's so precariously balanced between their psychic states. A former police detective who's developed a pathological fear of heights since being responsible for the fatal fall of a fellow officer, Scotty is institutionalized for a year in the middle of the film after assuming (wrongly) that his "weakness" (as the coroner puts it) prevented him from stopping the suicidal leap of the woman he was hired to protect and with whom he's fallen in love. The film ends at the moment of her "second" death. It's as bleak a conclusion as in any American film of its decade; Psycho is a rich comedy in comparison.
The voyeuristic impulse behind Hitchcock's style is most immediately evident in the tourist sensibility that pervades his American films – a tourist will keep his careful distance from the grit of the world. Here, the Golden Gate Bridge, the Palace of the Legion of Honor, Podesta's flowershop, Ernie's restaurant, Coit Tower, Fort Point, the Palace of Fine Arts make up San Francisco's slick surface through Robert Burks's sharp-edged Technicolor. Hitchcock's silent film mastery pays off in the scenes involving Scotty's extended tailing of Madeleine, accompanied by Bernard Herrmann's haunting score.Vertigo extends this passive, tourist's world into more intimate levels. The film's plotline is the hokiest of ghost stories ("Do you believe that someone out of the past, someone dead, can take possession of a living being?"), but it soon moves into tragedy through flaws wrought by sexual obsession. The highly charged, pivotal scene comes quite late: Scotty has met a woman who reminds him of his dead love (in fact, she is the same woman – her fabricated "death" having been the cover for a man's murder of his wife). They return to his bachelor apartment after an increasingly uncomfortable afternoon of buying clothes to make the woman resemble her previous incarnation. Judy's plea, spoken almost to herself, is: "Couldn't you like me, just me, the way I am?" What looks for an instant like Scotty's gaze of reciprocated love is instead his revelation of the key for her complete transformation: "The color of your hair!" The scene lurches forward into an ultimate degradation, as Judy agrees to remake her brunette-shopgirl self into the (Hitchcockian) blonde ice-goddess, with tailored grey suit and tightly bound hair. The scene, and the whole film, is the essence of the Hitchcockian sexuality – that is, sexuality only exists as obsession, one that degrades women and literally deranges men. In Vertigo, Hitchcock does manage to be pointed about the ironies of this quest: Scotty looks longingly at other blondes in harsh grey suits even while dining with a vibrant incarnation of the woman he "loves." In a sense, he gets just what he deserves.
The film's genius is depicting such perversity as merely circumstance-crossed love. In other words, its genius is in revealing the perversity behind accepted "normal" practices. What's so odd about men redressing their women? Or in women remaking themselves in the adored image? Judy's plea puts it embarrassingly straight: "If I let you change me, will that do it? Will you love me?" Traditional sexual politics swells into a grand grotesque, a Chinese-box melodrama of tricks and betrayals. The scenario itself is complicated and inconsistent, but the repeated motifs in the dialogue ("Please try!" "It's too late.") tie the disconnected love-pairings into the tightest of nets. Hitchcock is typically cruel to plain Midge, with her patient, enduring love for Scotty. Her explanation of cantilevered brassieres is a woman's anti-mystery, pathetically commonplace next to Madeleine's apparent possession by the dead. Madeleine's feigned obsession presages Scotty's genuine necrophilia. (And, as in Psycho, the psychiatrist can't strip away the necessary layers – the problem is more than the "acute melancholia, complicated by a guilt complex" offered as a diagnosis or explanation of the problem.)
It's easy enough to appreciate the best of Hitchcock's films, and to be jolted by them, but Vertigo stands alone in its ability to move audiences emotionally. Perhaps the events are uncharacteristically heartbreaking because both Scotty and Madeline/Judy are caught in another, grander (and almost unseen) male power-play: Gavin's murder of his wife, his betrayal of his friend Scotty, and his abandonment of his accomplice Judy. A bookseller, echoing Gavin's words (and his actions), tells the tale of the original Carlotta being "thrown away" by her husband: "A man could do that in those days. He had the power and the freedom." On its visceral level, Vertigo succeeds because of James Stewart's explosive fury in the climax in the belltower, a betrayed idealist's fury practiced in his Frank Capra films and mastered through his Anthony Mann westerns.
It's remarkable that, considering all its plot twists, Vertigo should work even better after a first viewing. Once the secret's out, it's a completely different film, and a better one; no longer a harrowing ghost story, it is a profound study of sexual obsession, tied together by the city that best displays the essential acrophobic metaphor.
Essay by Scott Simmon
Release Date: 1958
Starring: James Stewart, Kim Novak, Barbara Bel Geddes, Tom Helmore, and Henry Jones
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Writers: Alec Coppel and Samuel Taylor
Source Citation: Simmon, Scott. "Vertigo." International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers. Ed. Sara Pendergast and Tom Pendergast. 4th ed. Vol. 1: Films. Detroit: St. James Press, 2000. 1278-1281.