Wednesday, August 24, 2011


Vertigo; drama, USA, 1958; D: Alfred Hitchcock, S: James Stewart, Kim Novak, Barbara Bel Geddes, Tom Helmore
San Francisco. During a pursuit of a robber, emotional police detective John "Scottie" Ferguson discovers his fear of heights when he gets stuck hanging from a roof, a feeling which is only exacerbated when his colleague dies trying to pull him up. Now retired, Scottie is hired by his old friend Elster to follow his wife, blond Madeleine, because she acts strangely and wonders around aimlessly. Scottie falls in love with her and she tells him she thinks she is Carlotta Valdes, a woman who committed suicide in the 19th century. When Madeleine insists on going to Mission San Juan Bautista, she climbs up a bell tower. Scottie just sees her body falling from the roof and a committee concludes that she committed suicide due to a mental disorder, acquitting him and Elster from every guilt. Years later, Scottie meets a girl, Judy, who looks exactly like Madeleine. When he brings her to the tower, she admits she just played her, while Elster killed the real Madeleine and threw her from the tower so that it only looks like suicide. Unfortunately, Judy slips and falls from the tower.

"Vertigo" is probably one of Hitchcock's most misunderstood films: first underrated during its premiere when it confused the audience and then overrated 44 years later when the self-righteous voters awarded it the 2nd place among the best films of all time in "Sights & Sounds". Hitchcock himself viewed the film years later, trying to figure out why it was such a commercial failure, and concluded that it was probably because it is an "endlessly depressing" film. His comment is indicative because the audiences and critics consistently tend to error and perceive "Vertigo" as a thriller, when there is hardly any suspense in it since it is a clear case of a psychological drama about loneliness. It starts off with opening credits dwelling in psychedelic colors and then moves on to humorous dialogues involving hero Scottie (while observing an unusual bra, Midge explains to him:"An aircraft engineer down the peninsula designed it; he worked it out in his spare time," and he replies with "What a hobby..."; when his acquittance Elster asks him if his fear of heights burdens his everyday life, Scottie replies that he just has to avoid "At the top of Mark's" bar) and then goes to the main tangle, revolving around the mysterious behavior of blond Madeleine, which will in a plot twist turn out to be just a fake decoy for establishing a conspiracy.

In one small line, Scottie says he has never been married. He is an emotional, middle-aged detective who is a perfect prey for the ploy when he falls for the attractive Madeleine: he thinks he finally has the chance to find the love of his life, that it is still not too late. She leads him through numerous false trails and pulls his leg, though thanks to Hitchcock's direction the story flows naturally, especially thanks to small details (especially memorable in the cross-section of a very old tree that shows the history of almost a thousand years during the grow of the plant, while she touches its edge and points to when "she was born and when she will die"). The final third, the "revelation segment", is arguably the weakest in the entire film. Some unusual solutions, the peculiar "art-deco shot composition" and the dumb, clumsy ending involving the nun are notable flaws. However, as a whole, "Vertigo" is practically a romantic Greek tragedy: Scottie lost the chance to find the love of his life, Madeleine, and then when he got another chance, he lost it again, conveying fatalism of his destiny.



cinemarchaeologist said...

The ending with the nun really was weak--uncharacteristic of Hitchcock, it looked as if it was tacked on because the filmmakers couldn't find a way to properly wrap the story.

Still, the movie is a real classic. I'm something of an heretic when it comes to Hitchcock. I love his ability to create those incredible setpieces, but when handling the more mundane elements that make up most of the rest of the movie, he very often seems bored to me (and ends up boring me).

VERTIGO has been ripped off and rehashed a million times. If you can find it, I strongly recommend a relatively obscure version that was done in 1995 called MIRAGE, starring Edward James Olmos and Sean Young.

Marin Mandir said...

I don't consider "Vertigo" one of his best films. In fact, only lately did I start to appreciate it after examining some themes he tried to present. The ending was really abrupt, as you said. I will try to check out "Mirage".