I Was Getting Worried.
And then the twist cracks you over the head and everything changes.
American Film Institutes Ranking: #61/100
Awards: Nominated for two in the technical categories.
This movie made me sweat bullets over wasted time. You get stuck watching, reading, playing, and listening to a lot of things you don’t care about when you review top 100 lists. Here I was, halfway through, and wondering if I really cared to make it to the end. I’m thankful I did. Hitchcock takes his sweet time, but once he finally decides to drop the bomb, everything that was “wasted time” becomes intricately plotted narration.
Scottie Ferguson (Jimmy Stuart) retires from the police force after having an intense bout of Vertigo during a rooftop chase of a criminal. He begins to work as a PI for a previous friend who is worried about his wife, Madeline (Kim Novak). She is the great granddaughter of Carlotta Valdes, and there is reason to believe that Carlotta is possessing Madeline: she goes off for hours at a time visiting places connected to Carlotta but does not have any recollection of these moments.
Scottie and Madeline, due to all the time they spend together, strike up a relationship. On one outing, Madeline rushes up a bell tower on a Catholic property (childhood home of Carlotta), and Scottie gets an acrophobia attack (fear of heights) and can’t chase her down. Once Madeline reaches the top, she throws herself off to her death. It is ruled a suicide, and Scottie is devastated thinking that his weakness as a person lead to her death.
But, something doesn’t sit right with Scottie, and he continues to churn the events over in his head. The rest of the film follows as he tries to discover what really happened to Madeleine on that bell tower.
I want to start with a random side bar: Hitchcock does wonders with small-rolled characters. This movie is a two-pronged event between Jimmy Stuart and Kim Novak as the two leads, but there are so many tertiary characters that round out the ensemble. Midge Wood (Barbara Bel Geddes) is friend and wannabe suitor to Scottie. She is peppered throughout the script, but her impact is undeniable. She is quirky and interesting; each moment with her is a wonderful break from the main story.
A particular poignant scene is when she runs a gag on Scottie, recreating a Carlotta Valdes painting with her own head. This unnerves Scottie (this whole thing has just wrecked him) and he leaves. She is left in her lonely apartment scolding herself for being so stupid. It’s a moment that doesn’t directly impact anything but shows us much about Scottie through the relatable overreach of trying to impress a love interest.
Back on subject: this film is neat in a lot of ways. The presentation is so unique for a film from the 1950s. Take this representation of Scottie’s Nightmare after not being able to save Madeline:
It’s completely psychedelic BEFORE that was a thing!
The story is also a complete oddball. It is about the ghost of a wretched ancestor possessing her granddaughter and forcing her to commit suicide. Now, [SPOILER ALERT] this isn’t what happened at all [/SPOILER], but Hitchcock takes his sweet time running this storyline until it is on fumes. Everything is so ridiculous that each passing scene did not add anything important…until he decides to reverse plane of field and run in the opposite direction.
Everything that was so unbelievable and stupid becomes magnificently important. Scottie isn’t going to go down believing this garbage but actually realized all the hidden clues sprinkled throughout. This crescendos into an ambiguous ending that people still debate today.
I was lifted so high from depths so low to only be displaced once again.
Vertigo is an odd film on many different levels, but it brings a stark moment of clarity near the end. I yearned for that moment. Hitchcock waits till the last moment to save us, and it is deftly done.
Other People’s Takes:
- Poppity Talks Classic Film: “It was not confusing per se but the performances were so profound and the screenplay so smart that it left me outwitted.”
- Trace Evidence: “In Vertigo we have two “bombs.” The first is Madeleine—we don’t know what she will do. Is she going to kill herself? Then in the second half Scottie becomes the bomb. Will his obsession destroy him?”
- Movie Babble Reviews: “It was a pretty stressful film, partly due to its dark ending, but mostly because Hitchcock made me slightly ill-at-ease with his portrayal of a normal, older man — a skeptic with a good head on his shoulders — who succumbs to an unhealthy obsession with a mysterious blond.”