Directed by: Alfred Hitchcock
Written by: Alec Coppel & Samuel A. Taylor, based on the novel "D'Entre Les Morts" by Pierre Boileau & Thomas Narcejac
Starring: Jimmy Stewart, Kim Novak, Barbara Bel Geddes, Tom Helmore
(128 minutes, Color)
Note: Typically I try to avoid spoilers in these essays, but any appreciation of Vertigo requires an analysis of the entire plot.
Vertigo is perhaps most contemporarily famous for being in inspiration behind Laura Mulvey's term "the male gaze," a pioneering idea in modern cinema criticizing Hollywood cinema for its inherent objectification of female characters and actresses onscreen. Vertigo motivates this term because the majority of the film is shot from the viewpoint, if not direct perspective, of the protagonist, Scottie, a private detective. Scotty is hired by a college friend, Elster, to follow Elster's wife Madeleine, who is suspected to be possessed by the spirit of her ancestor Carlotta, dead of suicide. Madeleine is certainly one of the most seductive and enigmatic characters in film history, thanks to both Kim Novak's multifaceted performance and Hitchcock's voyeuristic camera. Scottie, initially skeptical of the supernatural aspects of Madeleine's case, becomes intrigued as he starts following Madeleine, unbeknownst, through the city.
The first portion of the film, as Scottie falls in love with Madeleine from afar, is driven heavily by Freud's theory of the uncanny, that which is associated with death and evokes an unsettling alertness in the subject. As Madeleine wanders the city, the uncanniness surrounding her stems from the eerie repetition of her appearance and actions: she visits Carlotta's grave, wanders around the same areas of the city as if in a trance, and unsettlingly resembles a painting of Carlotta: same curl of hair, same posture, and same bouquet of flowers. When she jumps into the San Francisco Bay he dives after her, gathering her in his arms and returning her to his home. He undresses her and puts her to bed.
It's Scottie's need to be a savior that pulls him toward Madeleine. After a previous case ended tragically, he has suffered from crippling vertigo and needs something to make himself whole again. Madeleine is his chance for redemption and masculinization. But he loses her almost as soon as they find passion together: driven by the uncontrollable urge of her possession, she dashes up a church bell tower and hurls herself from the top. Scottie, because of his crippling vertigo, cannot save her. Imagine his and the audience's surprise, then, when we suddenly see Madeleine in the street, only in the form of Judy, her doppelganger from Kansas.
Thus begins Vertigo's exploration of human desire and domination. When Scottie encounters Judy, she is immediately an object to him; a chance to bring Madeleine back to life. But Judy is of course Madeleine, or rather, Madeleine only existed as part of a murder plot Scottie knew nothing of. When the audience discovers the sordid history of Judy/Madeleine, it's the first time we are shown something from a point of view not Scottie's. Judy pens a letter to Scottie telling him of all that has transpired and asking for his forgiveness, but then burns it. As Madeleine, she's fallen hopelessly in love with him.
The realization of Judy's identity throws the first half of the film into a new light for the audience: Madeleine was never possessed. Scottie was manipulated the entire time. When Scottie at last discovers the ruse, his rage runs free. "Did he train you?" he screams to Judy. "Did he rehearse you? Did he tell you what to do, what to say?"
So as Scotty begins to remold Judy as Madeleine, and she allows him. The audience views the situation through Scottie's eyes, and his tactics to bring Madeleine back from the grave sometimes border on sadistic. Because of this, the movie is considered to be an example of the objectification of women onscreen to mold male desires; a narrative and cinematic incarnation of "the male gaze." That reading of Vertigo is superficial, however, as it doesn't realize that Judy is the film's most tragic character, and Hitchcock's most complex female role. The villain of the film, Elster, has only done to her what Scottie, the protagonist, is now attempting to do. That moral ambiguity finds its core in Judy, who is the character who changes most from beginning to end. Her first transformation to Madeleine was for money. Now it's as a willing sacrifice for her love.
When she emerges from her bedroom dressed exactly as Madeleine, a still unaware Scottie embraces her passionately as the camera revolves around them. Suddenly Scottie is back at the church, reliving his last moment with Madeleine. Judy tries to bring him back to her with her embrace as her heart is breaking. Her decision to wear Madeleine's antique necklace, her final connection to the sordid crime, is her last desperate attempt to win Scottie's love unequivocally on her own terms. Scottie is too lost, and more than willing to offer Judy as a sacrifice on the altar of his dream.
This only leads them back to the church in Scottie's last attempt to recreate the past. Wise to Judy's lies and ignorant of his own sadism, he literally drags her up the stairs to face her demons and absolve him of his. Here's where the audience is most surprised by Hitchcock's genius: the film has been told from Scottie's point of view, but in this final test of fate, we care just as much for Judy. Unlike the first tower scene, the second isn't shown from Scotty's perspective. Both Scottie and Judy are in full view of the camera always, and POV shots take an almost entirely third-person stance. Scottie is no longer blameless. It is Judy who committed the crime, but Scottie is the guilty one.
Hitchcock's styling of the film is most notable for the way he works the idea of falling into the visual schema of the film. A main theme of the movie is spiraling, from the superior animated opening credits to the twisting bell tower that is revisited both in life and in Scottie's nightmarish dreams. Hitchcock created his famous vertigo effect by pioneering the "dolly zoom," also known as the "Vertigo effect:" pulling the camera angle back while zooming in, so as to undermine normal visual perception and create an effect of falling that is unsettling even to modern viewers desensitized by special effects.
In the previously described, dialogue-less 360-degree shot, Hitchcock bares his soul more than in any other film of his. The background changes but the shot is unbroken. As Bernard Herrmann's love theme swells on the soundtrack, Scottie, Judy, and Hitchcock all give their everything to the moment: Scottie drawing inward, Judy pouring her soul into the embrace, and Hitchcock presenting a ravishingly tragic portrait of the futility of forcing happiness from the universe. Hitchcock is simultaneously the most widely-critiqued and enigmatic film director of all time. Vertigo is the closest he ever came to baring his soul.
Vertigo is unrated by the MPAA. It's not a movie that is appropriate for children or that children will enjoy. Violence includes several non-graphic deaths ranging from suicide to murder, along with several non-explicit but prevalent sexual themes. Best to save it for older teens and adults.