Vertigo – An Appreciation
He is known as “The Master of Suspense,” or quite simply, “The Master.” His influence can be seen from filmmakers all over the world, in movies made as recently as today. Even people who are not film buffs recognize his name; he has become a staple of modern pop culture, equal to the likes of Marilyn Monroe or James Dean. Alfred Hitchcock is one of the few great directors that successfully fused an artistic sensibility with suspenseful, high entertainment. He did this so well and so often, in fact, that he could be accused of being a one trick pony, which couldn’t be any further from the truth. Hitchcock was a master of film technique, priding himself in the ability of manipulating an audience to think and feel whatever he wanted them to. This is seen in many, if not all, of his films, none more so than his masterpiece, Vertigo (1958).
The film is one of the best that Hitchcock ever made, arguably one of the best movies ever made by anyone. It is the most personal of his films, dealing with the issues, fears, and desires that would continuously run throughout the rest of his career. The main character, Scottie Ferguson (played by James Stewart), and his relationship with the mysterious, blond woman Madeleine Elster (Kim Novak), is one that reflects the relationship Hitchcock had with all of his lead actresses. Hitchcock was famously one of the most controlling directors: he preferred his actresses to be blond, cold, and seductive. He preferred his actors not to “act,” but move and behave in a way that only he wanted them to. Keeping them under his control, Hitchcock molded and shaped his actors and actresses to become whatever it was he desired. Looking closely, the way Scottie molded and shaped Novak’s character to the idyllic image of his own wishes is a representation of the director. In other words, Vertigo, is much the story of Hitchcock himself.
The story is a maze of false leads and double identities. Scottie works as a police detective, and after a tragic incident on the roofs of San Francisco, he resigns himself from fieldwork, due to his overwhelming fear of heights. However, the life of a detective cannot escape him, and sometime later is recruited by an old friend in Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore) to follow his wife Madeleine, whom he fears may be suicidal. What begins as a job for a friend soon turns in to a dangerous obsession, with Scottie becoming more intrigued, and then finally falling in love, with this peculiar yet beautiful woman. The more Scottie follows and interacts with Madeleine, the more he commits himself to her, to the point of blinding himself from the truth that eventually reveals itself to him.
The tragedy of the first half of the story is that it is a ruse, a part of a complex and more sinister plot involving murder and lies. Madeleine eventually succumbs to her madness, and Scottie, unable to save her due to his acrophobia, becomes humiliated, haunted, and broken psychologically. Time passes, and while walking down a street, he encounters a woman named Judy Barton, who coincidentally looks much like his lost love. He involves himself with her, but cannot escape the passionate obsession of his past, even to the point of coloring Judy’s hair blond and making her wear the same gray suit Madeleine had previously worn. What Scottie doesn’t realize, is that the Madeleine he knew never existed, but was impersonated by Judy herself. What makes the film less about a simple twist in identity and more about the tragic relationship between these two characters is that, while impersonating Madeleine, Judy found herself falling deeply in love with Scottie, so much so that she would be willing to remake herself the way Scottie wants her to, to recast herself as the lie so that she can have the love she was never meant to have.
See what just happened here? Hitchcock, in his masterful ability to manipulate the audience, weaves the story in a way where by at the end of the film, we find ourselves caring for both of these people. Scottie, when finally realizing the deception, screams out in agony and anger, and we sympathize with his situation and can literally feel the turmoil of his heartbreak. For Judy, she makes the mistake of falling for Scottie, despite being a tool for the real villain of the film. We watch as she sacrifices her true identity so that she can make him fall in love with her again, although it is not the same kind of love she received when compared to the first half of the film. When the final scene comes, as these two characters make their way back up the bell tower, we find ourselves torn, unable to hate or care for either one more than the other, left with only broken hearts, unfulfilled desires, and sad tragedy.