As with all his best movies, Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) brutally analyzes modernity, finding it schizophrenic and wanting. In contrast to the stripped-down minimalism of Rope, which also stars Jimmy Stewart, Vertigo is in every way lush and voluptuous. The movie relies on setting and mood more than dialogue. And unlike the confined space of the upper-class Manhattan apartment in Rope, Vertigo centers on a very middle-class detective in San Francisco. Symbols abound in the movie—symbols of American antiquity, of American nobility, of American industrialism, of American Hispanicism, and of American Catholicism. If Rope is philosophical, Vertigo is equally psychological.
Though critics loved Vertigo when it first appeared in 1958—the New York Times especially lauding it as a masterful work of cinematic art—the public, by and large, ignored it. Hitchcock, deeply embarrassed by its box-office failures, blamed the aging Jimmy Stewart as no longer appealing to the public. And strangely, Vertigo disappeared, becoming one of Hitchcock’s so-called “lost movies.” In 1983, it finally appeared again in movie theaters, and a year later on home video. Since its re-release in the early 1980s, critics have generally considered it one of the two greatest movies ever made, vying for first place with Citizen Kane.
No matter how many times one watches Vertigo, it demands full attention and immersion. This is simply not the kind of movie that can serve as background wallpaper. It is a full work of art, and as such it demands everything of us. Even the opening credits—disturbingly Freudian and Jungian—disorient the viewer. Designed by famed animator Saul Bass, they consist of swirling designs, taking ours eyes and minds into the depths of psychological despair and horror—into a personal and existential abyss. The credits should also serve as a warning: If you watch this movie believing you’ll end two hours later with a smile on your face and in your heart, you will be sorely mistaken. There’s nothing happy about this movie.
After the opening credits, the opening scene is an absolute classic, as several men run across the rooftops of San Francisco at dusk, a scene imitated by Dark City and the Matrix. Just as the chase begins, Detective Jimmy Stewart (John “Scotty” Ferguson) slips, holding onto a drainage pipe for dear life. As a fellow police officer tries to aid Scotty, vertigo strikes the detective, causing his would-be helper and colleague to fall several stories down, dying upon impact with the ground. An official inquiry clears Scotty of any wrongdoing, but, wracked with guilt, he quits the police department. This is a huge fall for Scotty, as he had been a lawyer turned detective, hoping one day to become San Francisco Police Commissioner.
Scotty’s best friend is Midge, his longtime and, presumably, only girlfriend, who called off their engagement sometime during college, but who still clearly loves him. That she loves Scotty is clear, but how she loves him remains unclear throughout the movie. A professional seamstress and designer, Midge streamlines and engineers bras. As with so much in Hitchcock, the sexual orientation of the characters is unclear. In Rope, the main killers are almost certainly homosexual. In Vertigo, Midge’s character might very well be a lesbian, though this is far from obvious. She reveals herself to be overly protective of Scotty, though she’s fine with him remaining romantically unattached. When he shows interest in another woman, Midge becomes excessively possessive, though she’s still not wiling to give a serious and committed relationship with him a chance.
Another old college friend re-enters Scotty’s life after the end of his hospitalization. Armed with a strangely convoluted story about ghosts, past lives, and spiritual hauntings, he asks Scotty to follow his wife—who is supposedly possessed by a Hispanic beauty of nineteenth-century San Francisco, Carlotta Valdez. Toward the end of her tragic life, the fallen beauty Carlotta descended into madness, asking for her child while wandering aimlessly through the streets of San Francisco. The old college friends claims to fear that his wife is also descending into madness.
In Rope, everything is claustrophobic. Here, in Vertigo, everything is huge, open, and dizzying. It’s hard to get one’s bearings in the movie, an obvious intention on the part of the director. Hitchcock famously hated filming outside. A perfectionist, he wanted control over every aspect of the film. Much of Vertigo, however, takes place in the outdoors, and Hitchcock proves himself as adept at outdoor filmmaking as indoor, despite his own hesitations. Again, details abound in Vertigo, often crowding the screen. Hitchcock even hired Edith Head—perhaps immortalized in our generation best as the outrageous designer of The Incredibles—to tailor and customize all of the women’s outfits in the film. Voluptuous in its varied scapes, San Francisco serves as the perfect backdrop to the film.
Without giving away too many plot details—all of which are unexpected, twisting and turning in ways perhaps only logical to the perplexing soul of Hitchcock—Vertigo follows pretended madness as well as real madness. There’s a murder central to the story, and Scotty, once again, finds himself caught in the middle, unsure of his own longings, his own virtues, and his own sins.
Perhaps most importantly, however, Scotty falls in love for the second time in his life. Midge might have been first, but the new woman—played by Kim Novak—becomes Scotty’s rather unhealthy obsession. Novak has deceived the much older man, and he has fallen for her completely. At first, she presents herself as an upper-class platinum blond, as sophisticated as imaginable in the 1950s. Later, in the film, she offers herself as a lonely and morally suspect transplant from Salina, Kansas. Now, far from the platinum blond, she is a rather sexualized redneck, a bumpkin making her way in the big city. Scotty falls for both, recognizing the possibilities of remaking the redhead into the platinum blond.
As mentioned above, one should not enter this movie lightly or with the expectation of a happy ending. As many times as I’ve watched this movie over the last thirty years, it never fails to depress me. It also obviously intrigues me to no end. This is not a simple work of art. This is deep, nuanced, and layered. Each viewing reveals something deep and profound.
As the story is a whirligig of convoluted desires, so too is the morality of Vertigo. Whatever Hitchcock thought after the movie’s box-office failure, Stewart’s performance is impeccable, as is Barbara Bel-Geddes’s portrayal of Midge. If there’s a problem with the film, it’s Kim Novak. By 1950s standards, she might have been considered attractive, but in my view she just looks cheap and sleazy. Had Jimmy Stewart been any less of an actor, his obsession with Novak would be laughable. Fortunately, he is the perfect male lead of the 1950s, equal parts wily and innocent, equal parts tough and vulnerable.
Vertigo remains a gem, one of the truly great works of art of the last century.
Books by Bradley Birzer may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.