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VERTIGO (1958)

Starring: James Stewart, Kim Novak, Barbara Bel Geddes, Tom Helmore

Director: Alfred Hitchcock

Nominated for two Academy Awards:

Best Art Direction

Best Sound

To explain Hitchcock and his reasoning for telling the stories he did would be like attempting to fly into outer space on a broom. He remains one of Hollywood’s greatest enigmas and trying to figure out how his mind worked would be impossible and a little time consuming. So all we can do is stand back and marvel at the classics he have left behind for us, classics that where primarily under appreciated during their initial releases, but as time went on, have enticed the imagination of people worldwide. There is no question that VERTIGO is perhaps Hitchcock’s finest film as a storyteller and a director. The film is perhaps his greatest labor of love, as it clearly is a representation of himself as an artist and a human being. Based on the novel D'Entre les Morts by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, Hitchcock weaved together a masterfully told story about obsession and forbidden desires and spent a year preparing the film as he saw fit. Hitchcock was very particular with the actresses he hired; he never wanted a professional but someone who would listen to his strict directions. Vera Miles, who had worked with Hitchcock on THE WRONG MAN, was set to star as the lead female character, the duel part of Madeleine Elster and Judy Barton. Hitchcock knew the movie would make Miles a star, and had her fitted for costuming before production began. But, much to Hitchcock’s dismay, Miles became pregnant before shooting began and had to turn down the part. Though Miles would work with Hitchcock in another great film, PSYCHO, two years later, Hitchcock was understandably upset about losing his actress. This is when Kim Novak steps in, whose biggest success up to that date was 1955’s PICNIC alongside William Holden. Novak had trouble setting the tone of her character right, and was always going to Hitchcock for guidance about how she should play Madeline and Judy. But Hitchcock said that his job was only to tell her where to stand and what tone of voice to use, the rest was up to her. If she had a lack of confidence off screen, it is nowhere in sight onscreen.

James Stewart, a renowned Academy Award winning actor and who had previously worked with Hitchcock on ROPE and the 1954 smash hit, REAR WINDOW, was chosen to play the leading man, John Ferguson (nicknamed Scottie). Stewart was perfect in the role, as he symbolizes the everyman, the hero who the audience can relate to, who we can identify with. This film is one of his most memorable performances, but also shows that Stewart, better known for playing softer roles in which his characters wouldn’t hurt a fly (MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON, THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH, HARVEY and so on), really dwells deep into the character of John Ferguson and brings a unique and unsettling depth to this man. It truly is one of his greatest performances and one of the most complex characters in cinemas history.

The films prologue is perhaps its most famous scene, as Scottie, a police officer in civilian cloths and another police officer are chasing down a criminal over the rooftops of San Francisco. When he leaps across to another building, he loses his grip and slips down towards the gutter where he hangs on for dear life. The other police officer comes to his rescue, but unfortunately falls to his death, giving a bloodcurdling scream as he falls to the ground several stories below. Scottie watches the whole thing in frozen terror and clings tightly to the gutter railing.

The scene then jumps to him sitting in the home of his good friend, Midge Wood (Barbara Bel Geddes), a lingerie designer and artist. Scottie and Midge are good friends, even once being engaged for three weeks years earlier in college. Scottie is recovering from the rooftop incident (we never learn how much time has passed or even how Scottie was rescued), and is looking forward to his corset is removed and ditching his cane. Though the incident has left him physically ailing, his mental state of being has also suffered and now has a tremendous fear of heights, acrophobia (which causes vertigo). Midge is concerned for Scottie’s well-being and watches over him closely, and when his attempt to climb a simple stepladder fails, he falls into Midge’s arms obviously shaken and mentally worn out. Midge cradles him in her arms.

Scottie is called to the office of a former classmate later that day, Gavin Elster (Helmore), who has made a great success for himself as a shipping magnate. The purpose of the meeting is an odd one, as Gavin wants Scottie to follow his wife, Madeline, around town to see what she does with her days. Madeline has apparently been acting very strange the past little while, and goes in trances in which Gavin doesn’t recognize her, and has his own theory as to why she is acting so strange. Do you believe that someone out of the past, someone dead, can enter and take possession of a living being? Scottie, extremely cynical, is reluctant to do any further police work (after quitting the force), and believes that the answer of what is wrong with Madeline awaits with a good psychiatrist. Gavin realizes how ridiculous the notion that his wife is being possessed by another force sounds, but doesn’t want to commit her to an institution just yet, and wants someone he can trust follow her around to see what she does with her days. Scottie is convinced to catch a glimpse of her in a restaurant she and Gavin will be eating at, and there he sees Madeline for the first time. She is a beautiful woman, with glowing blond hair and elegant cloths and when she passes Scottie, who is sitting at the bar, he is transfixed on her. He accepts the job of trailing her every move.

The next day he follows her in his car. She stops by a flower shop and purchases a small bouquet, where Scottie watches from behind the store (where she entered and he followed), and he appears to be hypnotized by this mysterious force that surrounds her every move and every gesture. She then drives miles out of town to an old Spanish mission that where there a cemetery in the back of the old building. Madeline goes up to the grave of Carlotta Valdes, who died at the age of twenty-six one hundred years earlier and puts the bouquet of flowers by the grave and then leaves. She then drives to an art gallery where she is locked on a painting of Carlotta Valdes, and the resemblance between the two is striking. They both wear their hair the same (vertigo like), and sit in the same position. Scottie then follows her to a hotel, where she stands in front of the corner window on the second floor. When he asks the hotel manager who occupies the room, and the name of the occupant is Carlotta Valdes. But when he investigates the room with the manager, Madeline is nowhere in sight, and her car which was parked outside is gone. Scottie becomes more and more tangled up in the case and is infatuated with Madeline and everything about her. But is she real? She’s almost like a dream. Scottie goes to see Midge about getting in contact with someone who knows about San Francisco’s history, and she becomes more concerned about why Scottie is so dedicated to the case, being that he is no longer a detective. But Scottie is adamant and the two go and talk to proprietor Pop Liebel (Konstantin Shayne), is well researched on the history of the city. Scottie’s mission is to learn more about Carlotta Valdes and about the hotel he followed Madeline into. Liebel explains:

Oh yes, I remember. Carlotta, beautiful Carlotta, sad... It was hers. It was built for her many years ago by... the name I do not remember, a rich man, powerful man... It is not an unusual story. She came from somewhere small to the south of the city. Some say from a mission settlement. Young, yes, very young. And she was found dancing and singing in cabaret by that man. And he took her and built for her the great house in the Western Addition. And there was, there was a child, yes, that's it, a child. I cannot tell you exactly how much time passed or how much happiness there was, but then he threw her away. He had no other children. His wife had no children. So he kept the child and threw her away. You know, a man could do that in those days. They had the power and the freedom. And she became the sad Carlotta, alone in the great house, walking the streets alone, her clothes becoming old and patched and dirty. And the mad Carlotta, stopping people in the streets to ask, 'Where is my child?' 'Have you seen my child?' She died by her own hand.

Midge wonders why Scottie’s interest is so peaked, and wonders if he isn’t just attracted to Gavin’s wife. Scottie even wonders if Carlotta has returned from the dead and possessing Madeline, but Midge laughs it off but is still curious about the whole thing herself, and opts to go and see the portrait of Carlotta.

Scottie meets up with Gavin, where he explains that Madeline is the great, great granddaughter of Carlotta, but isn’t aware of it. She wears the jewelry that she inherited, and appears to be contemplating suicide, claiming the spirit, or the psychological influence, of Carlotta might try to harm Madeline. Scottie begins to wonder if Madeline isn’t merely a victim of such an unusual past (her grandmother committing suicide like her mother before her). But since Madeline isn’t aware of her family history, she simply cannot be haunted by it, but what other explanation could there be?

Scottie continues to trail her the following day, except this time Madeline has gone to the San Francisco Bay underneath the Golden Gate Bridge. She tears pedals off of a flower and sprinkles them into the bay (much like a funeral service), and then jumps into the Bay herself in a suicide attempt. Scottie, watching always from afar, jumps in after her and pulls her to safety. She is unconscious and Scottie brings her back to his apartment, where he dries her cloths and prepares a warm fire for her. Madeline wakes up and has no idea where she is, and has no memory whatsoever of jumping into the Bay, or for that factor, anything prior to it. Scottie is attracted to her intensely, now that he has Madeline so close to him and his growing obsession. The two chat for a while, getting to know each other a little bit more intimately since Madeline is a tad embarrassed of causing Scottie so much trouble. When Gavin calls, Madeline sneaks out of the house, where Midge is watching from across the street in her car.

Scottie once again follows Madeline around, but this time she stops off at his house where she was planning on leaving a thank you letter. Scottie wonders if he can accompany Madeline for the day, just as a friendly companion and Madeline is persuaded happily. He falls under her spell as time goes on, and now that he can talk to her, he refuses to let that connection go. Both go on a long road trip to a historical site of centuries old redwood sequoias, where Madeline indulges in her own fascination with death (the trees where there long before she came along, and will remain long after she is gone). Madeline goes into mysterious trances, and Scottie begins to make a mad attempt to unlock the mystery that surrounds her. She says that there is something within her, and then makes a plea to go somewhere where there is more light. When they travel to a cliff overlooking the ocean, Madeline once again speaks about death and her immense fear of it. She describes horrific dreams about her own grave, and how it’s waiting for her. She also recalls what looks to her a Spanish tower with a garden below it, which Scottie knows is the Spanish missionary where Carlotta’s grave is. Madeline is beginning to believe she is losing her mind, but Scottie vows to take care of her and protect her from these forces that are haunting her. The two kiss passionately as the waves crash furiously against the rocks behind them.

Midge, continuing her concern with Scottie’s well being, invites him over for a drink and possibly spend some time together. Midge, a gifted painter, has painted a portrait of Carlotta but has instead painted her own face in the place of Carlotta’s. Scottie is insulted and quietly disgraced by Midge’s actions. He feels that the parody is a mock of his feelings for Madeline, and leaves Midge’s apartment. Midge is disgusted with herself, and tears herself down verbally and emotionally, being that she has hurt the man she is still in love with.

Madeline rushes to see Scottie the following day where she explains that she had a dream, which lately has been reoccurring, about a Spanish missionary with a bell tower. She obviously doesn’t remember visiting the one she is dreaming about, and Scottie believes that visiting the missionary will be helpful to her handling what is haunted her. Scottie promises to be her protector, and they both drive out of town to the missionary. Madeline recognizes the place from her nightmares, and Scottie helps her deal with the emotions running through her mind. She appears to be taken over from the spirit of Carlotta, and recollects memories from long ago. Scottie finally embraces Madeline and proclaims his love for her, but Madeline tells him that it is to late. She runs away from Scottie and runs up the bell tower, where Scottie’s fear of heights kicks in. As he climbs the stairs after Madeline, he freezes up and crouches down on the stairs. But as he sits there being surrounded by great fear, he hears a chilling scream from Madeline as her body tumbles down from the top of the tower. His disability has caused him to lose the person he idolizes and loves.

Scottie has a total breakdown after a hearing that cleared him of any wrong doing, but still attacked his cowardly actions for allowing a life to be loss so tragically. After awhile he is released from a mental institution, and begins to trace back the locations where Madeline visited often. He is consumed by the past and refuses to allow his love for Madeline go, not accepting that she is gone. Then one day, he notices a woman by the name of Judy who has a powerful resemblance to Madeline, with the exception that she is a brunette. Is this woman Madeline? Can Scottie make her into Madeline and resume the relationship that was cut short? Though the revelation of who Judy is comes early in the second half of the film, I won’t say anything about it.

VERTIGO is without a doubt a compelling character study of both the admirer and the one being obsessed over. These two people meet under circumstances that are doomed from the beginning, and their fate is always laced with tremendous tragedy and heartache. Stewart’s performance as the everyman who we can relate to is astonishing, and gives him a rare opportunity to really dwell into such a complex and intriguing character. His increasing obsession with a woman he has never spoken to before is interesting to watch, as he falls victim to her overpowering spell. There is this radiance that surrounds her every move and this causes Stewart to need her. Stewart really does a powerhouse job and was fully deserved of an Academy Award nomination for his performance.

Kim Novak’s performance is without a doubt one of the most exhilarating and commanding performances ever filmed, and she gives a performance that is original and highly unique in its devastating complexity and ghostly beauty. Hitchcock had gone through his usual routine of making up his actresses the way he saw fit. He was very particularly with the wardrobe, the hairstyle, everything. But perhaps it was his own obsession with changing Novak that inspired Novak’s own performance. She had to go through vigorous changes and was subjected to quite a bit of stress from the constant preciseness of Hitchcock and acclaimed costume designer Edith Head. I believe this helped Novak’s performance as Judy, who must suffer great humiliation and loss by allowing herself to be made up in the image of Madeline. She loves Scottie so much that she would degrade herself and her own identity just to please someone else, and goes through such personal and emotional turmoil as he obsesses over every single detail, from the gray dress we see Madeline wearing when Scottie first begins to follow her. To the vertigo shape style she had her hair in (the shape symbolic of Scottie’s spiral downward from sanity and reasoning). Hitchcock’s efforts paid off tremendously in transforming Novak, but I wonder what sacrifices that Novak herself had to endure.

The film is divided up into two sections. The first, described above is of Scottie’s growing obsession (which is the key word to describe the film), over Madeline. We see this ordinary man forsake everything to be close to this enigma, this stunning beauty with sad eyes and this glow that constantly surrounds her, silhouetting her in light but surrounded by this dark force at all times. Stewart’s obsession is very simple, but the film isn’t about his obsession but with obsession itself. The use of colors, the score, the brilliant camerawork all helps weave together Hitchcock’s masterpiece.

The second half of the film deals with Judy, who must destroy her identity to please Scottie, who by now is virtually dead inside and is consumed by this overwhelming force that refuses to loosen its grip on him. He is zeroed in on the image of Madeline, and will go to no lengths to duplicate her. Hitchcock blends together so many themes at once (love story, murder mystery, ghost story, thriller), and eventually ends it off on a tragic and devastating note. I won’t describe the climax, but it reminds me of the climax to NOTORIOUS where the fate of the lead character/s is never known. We never know if Scottie overcomes his obsession for Madeline, or that the events that happen to Judy and her fate help him overpower his own life again. It is without a doubt one of the greatest endings to any film of all time.

VERTIGO is a dark film, despite its many lightly lit scenes. Hitchcock is at his finest here, and delivers what has to be one of the greatest single contributions to the world of cinema that the world has ever known. Unfortunately, Hitchcock was before his time and the film failed at the box-office during its original release. But since 1958, a new audience has grown to appreciate the film that audience simply couldn’t see sixty-three years ago. Stewart, Novak, and Hitchcock will be remembered for what they accomplished here, and deservedly so. But the film will always reflect on Hitchcock himself, a man who is, and will remain, his own enigma.

My Grade: A++