“Vertigo” (1958) is called director Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece these days, but received criticism at its release. It might be coincidental to the original unpopularity that this is a film so rich in imagery it takes more than one viewing to catch everything. In a sense, you could say this is one of those classic films saved by television, VHS and DVD, where multiple viewings are possible. For years this film was unseen due to copyright restrictions.
Then again, it might not be coincidence that it takes many viewings to appreciate the film. That is the way with works of art. The first time seeing the film one is absorbed by the mystery. On subsequent viewings, one is diverted more by the colors and reflections, and the artistry of the film. A film with an abrupt, disjointed ending, it becomes on subsequent viewings less a suspense story and more a character study with unanswered questions. We are left not so much with an unresolved story, but a story with an ending of our choosing.
Any discussion of Alfred Hitchcock films invariably becomes an analysis of the psychosexual quirks of Hitchcock himself; of his use of blonde actresses both idealized and humiliated, of domineering mother figures, of mirror reflections and double images, of impotence. Perhaps no other director’s films takes on his own personality so intimately. I humbly confess to being ill-qualified to psychoanalyze the Master of Macabre, so I will keep this essay on his “masterpiece” to the qualities about it I find most arresting even after you’ve seen the film a few times.
James Stewart and Kim Novak give what are among the best performances of their careers. Mr. Stewart, able to play the good guy, with a wry comic delivery and a bit of goofy charm throughout his younger years, never lost this boyish appeal as he aged, but he also had the ability to play on man on the edge of sanity. Hitchcock used him in a few films probably for this reason. Underneath his “aw shucks” personality, Stewart could appear shockingly desperate and sickeningly afraid. It is used sparingly and has a far greater effect than the most violent scene played by a more brooding actor. It can be said that the creepiest part of the film is not the murder mystery, but the way Stewart’s personality changes as he become more obsessed with Kim Novak’s role as Judy, trying to remake her as Madeleine. His domination of her to the point of choosing her clothes is what we least expect from the average Joe with a fear of heights that we meet at the beginning of the film.
Kim Novak plays a person imitating another person, so her role is not exactly dual as it is layered. You don’t catch this on first viewing when you really think she is playing two people. It’s after you’ve seen the film again, knowing the ending, that one can really appreciate the depth of her fine performance.
The location shots in and around San Francisco, with sweeping rooftop views of the city and the bay, the iconic image of the Golden Gate Bridge, the sharp, steep hills, all create the texture of this film. It is a city of jagged fault lines. The music by Bernard Hermann, particularly with its Spanish suggestion of castanets is subtle and contemplative in the art museum, and during Stewart’s nightmare, becomes grotesquely exaggerated and frightening. It follows us in one variation or another all through the film, just as James Stewart tails Kim Novak.
One could make a game counting all the mirror reflections and shots in profile, and patterns of swirls and spirals. Beautiful Miss Novak looks especially striking in profile, and it is obviously reflective that we are never shown a full picture of who Madeleine is, who Judy is, because neither are as important as what James Stewart wants them to be.
We are also never told who Midge is. Played by Barbara Bel Geddes, Marjorie, with the less glamorous sounding nickname of Midge, is Stewart’s friend from college days. She appears in pastel sweaters and skirts, as if perennially the college girl. We are told they were once engaged, but their relationship now is more of camaraderie, and he teasingly refers to her mothering him. We get only a brief, concerned glance from Midge, and the suggestion that perhaps though it is she who broke off their engagement, she still loves him. When he climbs a stepstool to challenge his fear of heights, a disability which made him recently retire from the police force, he becomes dizzy and faint, and falls into her arms. Her embrace is indeed motherly, comforting, supporting.
We discover late in the film that Stewart’s fear of heights is why the murderer chose him as a ruse to set up his crime, but we see another aspect to Stewart’s character that makes him the perfect chump for the murderer’s scheme. Stewart, seeming emasculated by his vertigo, and appearing to keep an emotional distance from the old girlfriend who mothers him, is immediately attracted by Miss Novak’s vulnerability. Here is a person more lost and vulnerable than he is, and it is a boost to his ego that, at first hired to observe her, he soon becomes her protector.
We are teased throughout the film by red herrings. Kim Novak’s character of Madeleine at first seems to be the victim of possession by the ghost of a tragic ancestor. Then the ghost story appears to become one of the old movie cliché of hereditary insanity. Each of these story lines is gradually ruled out. Stewart, the cynical ex-cop, does not believe in demonic possession. After he falls in love with Madeleine, he also rules out insanity and substitutes a gentler diagnosis of her merely being obsessed with a sad family story, a lonely woman who needs reassurance and comforting.
We are never really shown the moment Stewart falls in love with Madeleine. In his apartment, when they both reach for a cup and their hands touch, the moment is erotic. In an earlier scene, Stewart’s character and Midge are chummily conversing in her studio apartment where she works at a drawing board as an illustrator of women’s undergarments. They examine a bra together like two children looking at a keen model airplane. There is a humorous lack of eroticism. (The blinds and configuration of her windows reminds me of “Rear Window”. He even asks her how her love life is, the same question Grace Kelly asks James Stewart in that film.)
Yet all it takes is his hand to touch Novak’s over a cup of coffee and the moment becomes electric. When he tells her his name is John Fergusson, she comments that it is “a good strong name.” Just this sentence helps him begin to shed the humiliation of his vertigo and his resentment at being mothered.
However, Stewart’s obsession must have started before this. When Madeleine, in her melancholy trance, leaps into San Francisco Bay in a suicide attempt, he rescues her. In the very next scene, he is back in his apartment. We are given a peek at her clothes hanging in the kitchen as if to dry, and then the camera pans over to through the open door of his bedroom, where Novak’s naked shoulder exposed from the blankets tells us on one sweeping movement he has chosen to take her home with him, undressed her while she was unconscious and most vulnerable.
We might have been given an intervening scene which would show his indecision as to what to do, a scene which showed him making this choice. Giving us a point at which he has fallen in love. But Hitchcock leads us on with a scene that is as sexy as it is senseless. A street-wise cop would not take a suicidal woman, unconscious and suffering from hypothermia back to his apartment, strip her naked and put her in his bed. One would assume he would know there might be legal ramifications to this.
It does not occur to him either to take her to her own home and back to her worried husband, or to a hospital. One might argue that in bringing her to his home he was attempting to protect his client with discretion. But Hitchcock never argues this. He just shows it to us and lets our own confusion be his toy. We do not realize that Stewart is being set up until much later.
When Miss Novak awakes, she remains enigmatic, with few words and minimal, if graceful movement. She slips on the robe he has left her, and sits down obediently on the cushions he has tossed on the floor for her. She does not glance around, wondering if a female on the premises removed her wet clothing, no wife or girlfriend, or housekeeper, no visiting old maid aunt. She seems to accept the situation and demurely thanks him. She apologizes for being a bother.
A later outing together walking among a dark and Wagnerian redwood forest deepens her dependence as she unburdens herself to him, and when the waves crash behind them and she begs him not to let her go, what else can he do but kiss her? We know by now he has completely forgotten about his client, her husband, and wants her for himself. Not only he is going to comfort her anxiety, he is now going to cure it, and brings her to the fateful scene at the mission.
When his vertigo prevents him stopping what appears to be her suicide, his guilt sends him on a psychedelic nightmare, which sends him to a sanitarium. There, even motherly Barbara Bel Geddes is unable to comfort him this time, and she walks down the long gray corridor in her long gray coat and out of the film. We never are told the beginning of their story together, and we are shown no goodbye. One wonders why it does not occur to Stewart that young women who hide behind enormous eyeglasses and wisecracks might also be concealing their vulnerability.
Many months pass, and when we next see James Stewart, he is roaming the familiar venues of 1950s San Francisco, still haunted by his lost love. He sees similarity to her in Judy, as Judy, a dark-haired shop girl stands for a moment, in profile of course, before him on the street. He follows her, and strikes up a friendship with this girl who though favors Madeleine, is not an exact replica. She dresses more colorfully, with a lack of Madeleine’s sophistication and taste. She speaks in a harder Midwest accent, not the cultured eastern finishing school, slightly English-sounding tones which Madeleine spoke. Judy wears her hair differently, wears heavier makeup. She is a more coarse person, and we may wonder what it is exactly about her that attracts James Stewart. Perhaps it is the same wistful sadness. It is one thing, besides the actress playing them, that the two characters have in common.
Miss Novak is particularly effective as the downtrodden Judy, so desperate to be loved by the man she duped, but helplessly fell in love with, that she agrees to let him make her over into the image of his lost love. Never is good guy Stewart so harsh and disgusting as when he whines, cajoles, and bullies her into her new clothes, stares at her feet in her new shoes like a man with a fetish, and orders that her brown hair be dyed blonde.
But when he sees his creation emerge and his expression shatters into a look of wonder, heartache and unspeakable joy, we are still sorry for him. The 360-degree shot of their climatic kiss was reportedly not trick photography with scenes of the fateful carriage house appearing suddenly in her drab hotel room, but an actual set on a turntable.
Mention should be made as well of the “vertigo affect” by cinematographer Robert Barks that will actually give you vertigo if you haven’t got it already. Robert A. Harris work on the 1996 restoration of this film is marvelous, and should also be noted.
At this point, Mr. Hitchcock does the unthinkable in a murder mystery and tells us the ending before the end of the movie. We see Judy and Madeleine are the same person, and that Stewart was a dupe to a murder arranged by his client. It is a striking moment when Stewart discovers this himself when he notices the necklace Judy wears is the same one in the infamous portrait that had mesmerized Madeleine. However, it may strike the audience as incongruous that so carefully planned a murder would be fouled by coincidence. That the murderer would have allowed Judy to keep both the famous gray suit and the necklace when the rest of his plan was so meticulous seems unlikely. That she would have remained in San Francisco and not be sent away after the crime seems unlikely. That she would have been recognized and pursued by James Stewart makes a wonderful tale of eerie fantasy, but it is based on mere chance which seems unlikely.
Most unlikely of all is when Judy leaps to her death at being startled by the approach of a nun when Stewart, having conquered his vertigo, angrily drags her up the bell tower. The murderer gets off free, and the cycle of death by falling, and guilt, is repeated.
It is a film with no beginning, as we come into it in the middle of a rooftop chase, and Stewart dangling from a drainpipe. It ends with the plot dangling. One can see why the critics and the audience in 1958 might have felt that the movie lacked a complete story and the end was missing.
But repeated viewings show us a different film. Like the paintings in the art museum Madeleine frequents, the film is a painting, not of the ghostly Carlotta or even a series of postcards of San Francisco, or cartoonish parody like the painting Midge does of herself as the portrait of Carlotta. The film might be a little bit of all those things, but it is also in and of itself, a painting.
Sometimes a painting will tell a story, but sometimes it will only suggest moods, meanings that might add up to many different stories. We when we look at paintings we are seeing color, and patterns, and brush strokes if we look really close. We may see different things each time we look at it. That’s what happens when you watch “Vertigo.” The ghost story that is really about insanity, that is really about love, that is really about obsession, that is really about vindication, that is really about a murder mystery where the murderer gets away, is a movie about all these things. The next time you see it, you may notice something else.