Alfred Hitchcock was a director whose films are recognisable as his own, even without the use of odd or striking techniques, and even without creating his own plotlines or scripts. Hitchcock drew his ideas from other sources, such as novels, and seldom wrote his own screenplays, yet most movie buffs know the look and tone of a Hitchcock film almost instantaneously. Vertigo, released in 1958, famously showcases his style of directing exceptionally well. While, of course, it is another of the horror films he is known for, the film is a more profound, more psychological thriller than much of his work.
Vertigo may or may not be Hitchcock’s favourite creation, as some movie historians claim, but it is certainly one he put an excessive amount of effort into. The idea of obsession fascinated him, and he was immediately drawn to the obsession-themed novel, which is the basis for the film D’entre Les Morts. He had also expressed great interest in the horror potential of a confusion of fantasy with reality, which Vertigo also provides. He contributed to the script, which took over a year to write and was closely involved with every aspect of the movie’s production, including the set design, costume design, and soundtrack. Every aspect of Vertigo expresses Hitchcock’s vision for the film.
The central character is private detective John ‘Scotty’ Ferguson (James Stewart), who has retired from the police force due to a severe, debilitating fear of heights. The story begins when Ferguson is hired by a wealthy man, Gavin Elster, to follow his wife, Madeleine Elster (Kim Novak), whom he alleges has been behaving oddly and disappearing for hours at a time. Elster’s report is an odd one: he claims to suspect his wife has become mentally unstable but digresses into the question of whether a person can become possessed by the spirit of the dead.
Ferguson accepts the case and begins shadowing Madeleine Elster. He watches discreetly as she buys a distinctive nosegay of flowers, then proceeds to place the flowers on the grave of someone named Carlotta Valdes, where she stands staring down at the headstone. She enters a local art gallery, where she sits observing a portrait of the same Carlotta Valdes, painted holding a nosegay identical to the one Madeleine Elster has purchased. Finally, Mrs Elster walks to a hotel and takes a room under the name of Carlotta Valdes. When Ferguson inquires at the desk, he is told that ‘Miss Valdes’ has the room but is not there today. He gains entry and examines the room, but both Mrs Elster and her car are mysteriously gone.
With the help of his friend Midge (charmingly played by Barbara Bel Geddes), Ferguson tracks down the story of Carlotta Valdes, a local legend about a beautiful young cabaret singer who was abandoned by her lover, went mad, and committed suicide. On being confronted, Elster admits his wife is Carlotta’s great-granddaughter but that Madeleine is not aware of it.
Ferguson continues to follow Madeleine, who goes through the same routine each day, visiting the gravesite and the gallery, until one day, she walks to the ocean, where she unexpectedly leaps into the water. Ferguson saves her from drowning and brings her home to recover. She seems to have no memory of her actions that day and denies knowing anything about the art gallery. The following day, Madeleine returns to Ferguson’s home to thank him, and they spend the day together. In spite of her alarming mental state, Ferguson becomes infatuated with Madeleine. Her melancholy and confusion only fascinate him all the more. She describes her disjointed memories, and Ferguson becomes intent on discovering the source of her troubled condition and of helping her recover. At this moment, they begin an affair.
Ferguson continues to act as Madeleine’s therapist as well as her lover, listens to her flashes of memory, determined to help her. At last, he takes her to the site of an old mission, a small stone church with a tall bell tower, which about which she reports recurring dreams. She seems to remember it, but as if from another life. Overconfident in his ability to help Madeleine, he ignores her growing agitation as they approach the site. As if struck with a sudden resolve, she quickly climbs the bell tower. Ferguson’s vertigo prevents him from following her quickly enough, and when he finally reaches the top, she has leapt to her death.
At this point, only halfway through the film, the second part of the story begins. Ferguson’s struggle with grief, guilt and obsessive memories are expressed by an animated montage, something new to film at the time. Midge tries to help him through his depression, but with no success, and he is hospitalised for several months. Ferguson becomes functional again, but his obsession with Madeleine doesn’t end; he imagines her everywhere. One day, he encounters a young woman named Judy Barton who looks exactly like Madeleine – apart from hair colour – and he follows her. Of course, the resemblance is no fancy of his: the woman is also played by Kim Novak.
It is from this point that the mystery of Madeleine Elster intensifies, as does the story of Ferguson’s personal mania. He begins a romance with Judy Barton, but their relationship is tainted by his fixation on her resemblance to the late Madeleine Elster. At the same time, it begins to emerge that Judy Barton may not be what she seems.
The horror in Vertigo is subtle, based not on outward menace but on the dangers of self-deception, obsession, treachery and misplaced trust. In the second half of the movie, much of the tension derives from Ferguson’s compulsion to remake Judy Barton in his dead lover’s image. A scene in which he chooses clothing for Judy which resembles what Madeleine used to wear is not conventionally frightening, but his intensity, and Judy’s losing battle to be accepted as more than another woman’s ghost, have a chilling quality which Hitchcock exploits beautifully. Their relationship is clearly doomed, but how it might end, what the hidden truth is about Judy Barton, and how far the emotionally unbalanced Ferguson might go in the process provides suspense until the grim and ironic conclusion.
Hitchcock uses every detail in Vertigo to establish a mood and further the story. He made a point of using a new type of film, which provided more explicit images and allowed for more subtlety of shade and colour than was previously available. He chose Kim Novak’s wardrobe himself, dressing Madeleine elegantly in muted colours of white and pale grey in a bid to portray her as withdrawn and elusive. Novak as Judy Barton, meanwhile, wears bright colours, and her clothing is attractive, even voluptuous, but commonplace. Madeleine really does appear to be the idealised ghost of the more honest and ordinary Judy.
Hitchcock helped design the sets and had to have some sets custom-built, as no studio set or real-life setting provided precisely the look and mood he wanted. He also chose the music, which was typical of 1950s films but effective. Hitchcock was open to new and unusual uses of music to set the tone in a film – his distinctive use of a single violin in the murder scene in Psycho may be the best-known example – and he specifically sought out composer Bernard Hermann, who wrote the score for Citizen Kane, to provide music for Vertigo, in addition to carefully chosen classical music for certain scenes.
Even the cinematography was innovative for the time. The film made use of unusual zoom-in techniques, apparently explicitly invented for the film, which helped to establish the feeling of actual vertigo during some of Ferguson’s worst moments. Some of the problematic interior shots of the famous bell tower cost inordinate amounts of money for brief images, which contributed to the suspense of the scene.
The actors were also personally chosen by Hitchcock. James Stewart, whom he directed in two previous films, was selected for his ‘everyman’ quality. Hitchcock wanted John Ferguson to be a character the audience could quickly identify with, even as his obsession led him into rather ghoulish behaviour. Kim Novak was his second choice (after Vera Miles) for Madeleine/Judy; he wanted a classic blonde, a decision which adds to the premise that Hitchcock preferred elegant blondes for his female leads. In fact, he once joking stated that they make the best victims, like snow that shows up bloody footprints which could provide an aloof, mysterious quality.
Barbara Bel Geddes as Midge is the level-headed and wholesome character which provides a contrast for the unhealthy direction Ferguson’s life takes. In fact, Midge was recommended as a way to temper the horror of the film’s ending, in what is sometimes known as the ‘foreign censorship ending.’ When some film distributors objected to Vertigo’s dark and cynical conclusion, Hitchcock was pressured into filming a brief alternate ending, in which justice is served, and it is suggested that Ferguson will finally recover and end up with the sane and likeable Midge. Hitchcock won out in the end, and his original version of Vertigo was released without alterations.
More than any of Hitchcock’s other suspense movies, Vertigo finds the horror in some of the more frightening aspects of the human mind. It is a film that requires the viewer’s full attention, as it is not as overt as the typical contemporary horror film, but it is well worth the trouble.
For further viewing:
Hitchcock found horror and suspense in some aspects of the human mind, in this case curiosity and voyeurism, in his 1954 film Rear Window.
James Stewart again plays the central ‘everyman’ character, paired with another of Hitchcock’s elegant blondes, Grace Kelly, in a slowly developing suspense story about a man who may or may not be an accidental witness to murder.