Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece Vertigo is a film about obsession, so perhaps it is not strange that the film itself can become an obsession to the viewer.
If you have not seen the film, stop right here and go out and get it on DVD or watch in on TV — it has been on several times recently, including on the hi-def channels. The movie has been wonderfully restored, with great image and sound quality. There are spoilers ahead, so come back only after you have seen the film.
John (Jimmy Stewart) is a retired cop, unable to work any more because of a traumatic experience involving heights. He is enticed by a former associate to take on some freelance work: trailing his wife who has been behaving oddly, seemingly convinced she is a reincarnation of her great-grandmother Carlotta, who died tragically long ago. As John, aka Scotty, follows Madeleine (Kim Novak), on her weird meanderings to the art museum where she stares at Carlotta’s portrait, to Carlotta’s grave, to the old house where she lived, the movie is devoid of dialog for a long stretch. Scotty, and the viewer, voyeuristically observe Madeleine, and an attachment clearly develops. When Madeleine seemingly tries to kill herself by jumping into San Fransisco Bay, Scotty fishes her out, takes her “unconscious” back to his apartment, undresses her and puts her to bed. Certainly Scotty’s interest in this case has become more than a little unprofessional at this point. There is an electric moment when Madeleine, in a robe, reaches for a coffee cup, and their hands touch… broken off by the phone ringing, the caller being her husband. Madeleine slips away.
The couple take to wandering together, in the mysterious depths of the redwood forest, on the ocean front before crashing waves, and they clearly fall in love. But Scotty is being duped. When Madeleine seemingly is successful in killing herself by jumping off the tower of a Spanish mission, Scotty is unable to save her because of his fear of heights. He goes into a deep depression, worsened by the harsh words of blame spoken at the inquest. The other love interest in his life, Midge, fails to break through to him, and quietly disappears from the rest of the movie. Then while walking the streets, he finds a girl that reminds him physically of Madeleine — Judy Barton.
Judy considers running away
Judy is crude where Madeleine was refined, but she actually is the same girl, which is quickly revealed to the viewer in a flashback. Apparently Hitchcock considered deleting this flashback to keep the suspense going until the end of the movie, but leaving the scene in completely shifts the focus of the film and turns it into the psychological masterpiece of obsession that it is. Judy considers running away, but self-destructively stays and plays along. She is humiliated that it is not she that he loves, but the image of Madeleine that she p;ayed before. But she doesn’t have the qualities of Madeleine. She instead is the type of woman who would get herself involved in a murder plot and would take advantage and ruin a man like Scotty. On the other side, John/Scotty himself scarcely comes off well as a man who will remake a woman into the image that he is obsessed with, uncaring about her feelings. She is distressed by all this, but allows him to turn her back into the image of Madeleine. She inadvertently gives herself away, and Scotty reacts by bringing her back to the scene of the crime, where she tries to convince him to love him. After all she is Madeleine if anyone ever was, but the original crime comes around full circle to bring about the tragic ending. The movie ends abrupty with Jimmy Steward standing on the tower’s ledge, looking down — his fear of heights cured at a terrible cost.
The effect of the movie is increased dramatically by the excellent acting of the two principals, as well as the Wagnerian (modeled after the opera Tristan und Isolde) score from Bernard Herrmann. Ultimately it raises and leaves unanswered the question: does one fall in love with a person or an ideal? Madeleine and Judy were one and the same, yet Judy could not substitute for the fictitious Madeleine. At the same time, despite the incredible injustice done to Scotty, was he really justified in treating Judy as he did?
Vertigo displays the genius of Hitchcock at the very peak of his movie-making skill. Like the greatest works of art and literature, new subtleties reveal themselves with repeated viewings.