VERTIGO - Film (Movie) Plot and Review





USA, 1958


Director: Alfred Hitchcock

Production: Paramount Pictures; Technicolor, 35mm; running time: 127 minutes. Released May 1958. Re-released 1983. Filmed in part in San Francisco.


Producer: Alfred Hitchcock; screenplay: Alec Coppel and Samuel Taylor, from the novel D'entre les morts by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac; photography: Robert Burks; editor: George Tomasini; art director: Hal Pereira and Henry Bumstead; music: Bernard Herrmann.


Cast: James Stewart ( John Ferguson ); Kim Novak ( Madeline/Judy ); Barbara Bel Geddes ( Midge ); Tom Helmore ( Gavin Eister ); Henry Jones.

Vertigo
Vertigo

Publications


Books:

Amengual, Barthélemy, Hitchcock , Paris, 1960.

Bogdanovitch, Peter, The Cinema of Alfred Hitchcock , New York, 1962.

Manz, Hans Peter, Alfred Hitchcock , Zurich, 1962.

Wood, Robin, Hitchcock's Films , London, 1965; revised edition, as Hitchcock's Films Revisited , New York, 1989.

Truffaut, François, Le Cinéma selon Hitchcock , Paris, 1966; as Hitchcock , New York, 1985.

Douchet, Jean, Alfred Hitchcock , Paris, 1967.

Simsolo, Noël, Alfred Hitchcock , Paris, 1969.

Jones, Ken D., The Films of James Stewart , New York, 1970.

La Valley, Albert J., editor, Focus on Hitchcock , Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, 1972.

Durgnat, Raymond, The Strange Case of Alfred Hitchcock , Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1974.

Spoto, Donald, The Art of Alfred Hitchcock , New York, 1976.

Taylor, John Russell, Hitch , London, 1978.

Fieschi, J. A., and others, Hitchcock , Paris, 1981.

Narboni, Jean, editor, Alfred Hitchcock , Paris, 1982.

Rothman, William, Hitchcock—The Murderous Gaze , Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1982.

Spoto, Donald, The Dark Side of Genius: The Life of Alfred Hitchcock , New York, 1982.

Villien, Bruno, Hitchcock , Paris, 1982.

Weis, Elisabeth, The Silent Scream: Alfred Hitchcock's Sound Track , Rutherford, New Jersey, 1982.

Eyles, Allen, James Stewart , London, 1984.

Phillips, Gene D., Alfred Hitchcock , Boston, 1984.

Bruce, Graham, Bernard Herrmann: Film Music and Narrative , Ann Arbor, Michigan, 1985.

Robbins, Jhan, Everybody's Man: A Biography of Jimmy Stewart , New York, 1985.

Burgin, Victor, and others, Formations of Fantasy , London, 1986.

Deutelbaum, Marshall, and Leland Poague, A Hitchcock Reader , Ames, Iowa, 1986.

Humphries, Patrick, The Films of Alfred Hitchcock , Greenwich, Connecticut, 1986.

Kloppenburg, Josef, Die dramaturgische Funktion der Musik in Filmen Alfred Hitchcocks , Munich, 1986.

Brill, Lesley, The Hitchcock Romance: Love and Irony in Hitchcock's Films , Princeton, 1988.

Modleski, Tania, The Women Who Knew Too Much: Hitchcock and Feminist Theory , New York, 1988.

Finler, Joel W., Hitchcock in Hollywood , New York, 1992.

Sterritt, David, The Films of Alfred Hitchcock , New York, 1993.

Arginteanu, Judy, The Movies of Alfred Hitchcock , Minneapolis, 1994.

Boyd, David, editor, Perspectives on Alfred Hitchcock , New York, 1995.

Pickard, Roy, James Stewart: The Hollywood Years , London, 1997.

Auiler, Dan, Vertigo: The Making of a Hitchcock Classic , New York, 1998.

Auiler, Dan, Hitchcock's Notebooks: An Authorized and Illustrated Look Inside the Creative Mind of Alfred Hitchcock , New York, 1999.

Trías, Eugenio, Vértigo y pasión: un ensayo sobre la película "Vertigo" de Alfred Hitchcock , Madrid, 1998.

Condon, Pauline, Complete Hitchcock , London, 1999.

Freedman, Jonathan, and Richard Millington, editors, Hitchcock's America , New York, 1999.

Harris, Robert A., Complete Films of Alfred Hitchcock , Secaucus, 1999.

Bellour, Raymond, The Analysis of Film , Bloomington, 2000.

McGilligan, Patrick, Alfred Hitchcock , New York, 2001.


Articles:

Crowther, Bosley, in New York Times , 29 May 1958.

Pett, John, in Films and Filming (London), November and December 1959.

Agel, Henri, "Alfred Hitchcock," in New York Film Bulletin , no. 15, 1961.

Higham, Charles, "Hitchcock's World," in Film Quarterly (Berkeley), December 1962-January 1963.

Sweigert, William R., "James Stewart," in Films in Review (New York), December 1964.

Sonbert, Warren, "Alfred Hitchcock: Master of Morality," in Film Culture (New York), Summer 1966.

Cook, Page, "Bernard Herrmann," in Films in Review (New York), August-September 1967.

Nevins, Francis M., Jr., in Journal of Popular Culture (Bowling Green, Ohio), Fall 1968.

Samuels, Charles T., "Hitchcock," in American Scholar (Washington, D.C.), Spring 1970.

Skoller, D., "Aspects of Cinematic Consciousness," in Film Comment (New York), September-October 1972.

Silver, A. J., "Fragments of a Mirror: Uses of Landscape in Hitchcock," in Wide Angle (Athens, Ohio), no. 3, 1976.

Joyce, P., "25 Years of Film Interviews: Hitchcock and the Dying Art," in Film (London), November 1979.

Bitomsky, Herbert, and others, " Vertigo —aus dem Reich der Toten," in Filmkritik (Munich), June 1980.

Ebert, J., "Vertigo —The Secret of the Tower," in Framework (Norwich), Autumn, 1980.

Peary, Danny, in Cult Movies , New York, 1981.

Giacci, V., in Filmcritica (Florence), January 1981.

"Hitchcock Issue" of Camero/Stylo (Paris), November 1981.

Wood, Robin, "Fear of Spying," in American Film (Washington, D.C.), November 1983.

Andrew, Geoff, in Time Out (London), 1 December 1983.

Villien, Bruno, and G. Gourdon, in Cinématographe (Paris), March 1984.

Kehr, Dave, "Hitch's Riddle," in Film Comment (New York), May-June 1984.

Tobin, Y., in Positif (Paris), July-August 1984.

" Vertigo Section" of Revue Belge du Cinéma (Brussels), Autumn 1984.

Malberg, C. J., in Chaplin (Stockholm), vol. 27, no. 4, 1985.

"Hitchcock Dossier" in Revue du Cinéma (Paris), January 1985.

Barten, E., in Skoop (Amsterdam), March-April 1985.

Frauen und Film (Frankfurt), May 1985.

Open, M., "Fear of Falling," in Film Directions (Belfast), Summer 1985.

Gal, P. Molnar, in Filmkultura (Budapest), December 1985.

Brown, R. S., " Vertigo as Orphic Tragedy," in Literature/Film Quarterly (Salisbury, Maryland), January 1986.

Serenellini, M., in Cinema Nuovo (Bari), January-February 1986.

Wright Wexman, Virginia, "The Critic as Consumer: Film Study in the University, Vertigo , and the Film Canon," in Film Quarterly (Berkeley), Spring 1986.

Miller, G., "Beyond the Frame: Hitchcock, Art, and the Ideal," in Post Script (Jacksonville, Florida), Winter 1986.

Johnson, W., "Sound and Image," in Film Quarterly (Berkeley), no. 1, 1989.

Maxfield, J. F., "A Dreamer and His Dream: Another Way of Looking at Hitchcock's Vertigo ," in Film Criticism (Meadville, Pennsylvania), no. 3, 1990.

Braad Thomsen, C., "Dodens engel," in Kosmorama (Copenhagen), Spring 1990.

Leonard, Garry M., "A Fall from Grace: The Fragmentation of Masculine Subjectivity and the Impossibility of Femininity in Hitchcock's Vertigo ," in American Imago (Highland Park, New Jersey), Fall-Winter 1990.

Linderman, D., "The mise-en-abime in Hitchcock's Vertigo ," in Cinema Journal (Austin, Texas), no. 4, 1991.

Groh, F., " Vertigo' s Three Towers," in Hitchcock Annual (Gambier, Ohio), [no. 1], 1992.

Paini, D., "Au commencement etait le portrait," in Iris (Iowa City), Autumn 1992.

Modleski, T., and G. Vincendeau, "'Les femmes qui en savaient trop': un nouveau regard sur Hitchcock," in Cinemaction (Conde-sur-Noireau, France), no. 2, 1993.

Reid's Film Index (Wyong), no. 10, 1993.

Chankin, D. O., "Delusions and Dreams in Hitchcock's Vertigo ," in Hitchcock Annual (Gambier, Ohio), Fall 1993.

Poague, Leland, "Engendering Vertigo ," in Hitchcock Annual (Gambier), 1994.

Hinton, L., "A 'Woman's' View: The Vertigo Frame-Up," in Film Criticism , vol. 19, no. 2, Winter 1994–1995.

Street, S., "Hitchcockian Haberdashery," in Hitchcock Annual (Gambier), Fall 1995/1996.

Bond, J., in Film Score Monthly (Los Angeles), no. 69, May 1996.

Doherty, J., in Soundtrack! (Mechelen), vol. 15, September 1996.

Hoberman, J., "Lost in Space," in Village Voice (New York), vol. 41, 15 October 1996.

Perry, Dennis R., "The Imps of the Perverse: Discovering the Poe/Hitchcock Connection," in Literature/Film Quarterly (Salisbury), vol. 24, no. 4, October 1996.

Turner, George, "Hitchcock's Acrophobic Vision," in American Cinematographer (Hollywood), vol. 57, no. 11, November 1996.

Lyons, Donald, "Notes When Falling," in Film Comment (New York), vol. 32, no. 6, November-December 1996.

Morris, Christopher D., "Feminism, Deconstruction and the Pursuit of the Tenable in Vertigo ," in Hitchcock Annual (Gambier, Ohio), Autumn 1996–1997.

Brown, Royal S., "Back From Among the Dead: The Restoration of Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo ," in Cineaste (New York), vol. 23, no. 1, 1997.

DeRosa, Steven L., "A Very Different 'Slice of Cake': Restoring Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo ," in Macguffin (East Melbourne), no. 21, February 1997.

Charity, Tom, and Brian Case, "Dizzy Heights/ The National Alf," in Time Out (London), no. 1391, 16 April 1997.

Nochimson, Martha P., "Amnesia 'R' Us: The Retold Melodrama, Soap Opera, and the Representation of Reality," in Film Quarterly (Berkeley), vol. 50, no. 3, Spring 1997.

Ruedel, Ulrich, in Macguffin (East Melbourne), no. 22, May-August 1997.

Redman, Nick, in DGA Magazine (Los Angeles), vol. 22, no. 3, July-August 1997.

Johnson, William, "Enigma Variations," in Film Comment (New York), vol. 33, no. 6, November-December 1997.

Lucas, Tim, " Vertigo : Vertigo Before Hitchcock," in Video Watchdog (Cincinnati), no. 40, 1997.

Ames, Deborah Lee, " Vertigo : The Nomenclature of Despair," in Hitchcock Annual (Gambier), 1997–1998.


* * *


Not particularly successful at the time of its release, Vertigo has come to be recognized as one of Alfred Hitchcock's greatest films, where his profounder obsessions are reinforced by his technical inventiveness. It can be argued that Hitchcock's "greatness" comes only from the accident that his recurring obsession with voyeurism is the topic that best meshes with the ontology of the filmgoing experience. In any case, the longstanding argument over the superiority of his British vs. American periods looks to have been settled in favor of the latter. The less savory aspects of Hitchcock's life revealed since his death come as little surprise if Rear Window, Vertigo , and Psycho are seen as a supreme voyeuristic trilogy.

The Peeping Toms in these films progress through ever-greater distress—from the ostensibly healthy (if significantly broken-legged) James Stewart with his telephoto lens in Rear Window through the psychotic Anthony Perkins with his motel peephole in Psycho. If Stewart's Scotty Ferguson, the private eye in Vertigo , is more fascinating than either, it's because he's so precariously balanced between their psychic states. A former police detective who's developed a pathological fear of heights since being responsible for the fatal fall of a fellow officer, Scotty is institutionalized for a year in the middle of the film after assuming (wrongly) that his "weakness" (as the coroner puts it) prevented him from stopping the suicidal leap of the woman he was hired to protect and with whom he's fallen in love. The film ends at the moment of her "second" death. It's as bleak a conclusion as in any American film of its decade; Psycho is a rich comedy in comparison.

The voyeuristic impulse behind Hitchcock's style is most immediately evident in the tourist sensibility that pervades his American films—a tourist will keep his careful distance from the grit of the world. Here, the Golden Gate Bridge, the Palace of the Legion of Honor, Podesta's flowershop, Ernie's restaurant, Coit Tower, Fort Point, the Palace of Fine Arts make up San Francisco's slick surface through Robert Burks's sharp-edged Technicolor. Hitchcock's silent film mastery pays off in the scenes involving Scotty's extended tailing of Madeleine, accompanied by Bernard Herrmann's haunting score.

Vertigo extends this passive, tourist's world into more intimate levels. The film's plotline is the hokiest of ghost stories ("Do you believe that someone out of the past, someone dead, can take possession of a living being?"), but it soon moves into tragedy through flaws wrought by sexual obsession. The highly charged, pivotal scene comes quite late: Scotty has met a woman who reminds him of his dead love (in fact, she is the same woman—her fabricated "death" having been the cover for a man's murder of his wife). They return to his bachelor apartment after an increasingly uncomfortable afternoon of buying clothes to make the woman resemble her previous incarnation. Judy's plea, spoken almost to herself, is: "Couldn't you like me , just me, the way I am?" What looks for an instant like Scotty's gaze of reciprocated love is instead his revelation of the key for her complete transformation: "The color of your hair!" The scene lurches forward into an ultimate degradation, as Judy agrees to remake her brunette-shopgirl self into the (Hitchcockian) blonde ice-goddess, with tailored grey suit and tightly bound hair. The scene, and the whole film, is the essence of the Hitchcockian sexuality—that is, sexuality only exists as obsession, one that degrades women and literally deranges men. In Vertigo , Hitchcock does manage to be pointed about the ironies of this quest: Scotty looks longingly at other blondes in harsh grey suits even while dining with a vibrant incarnation of the woman he "loves." In a sense, he gets just what he deserves.

The film's genius is depicting such perversity as merely circumstance-crossed love. In other words, its genius is in revealing the perversity behind accepted "normal" practices. What's so odd about men redressing their women? Or in women remaking themselves in the adored image? Judy's plea puts it embarrassingly straight: "If I let you change me, will that do it? Will you love me?" Traditional sexual politics swells into a grand grotesque, a Chinese-box melodrama of tricks and betrayals. The scenario itself is complicated and inconsistent, but the repeated motifs in the dialogue ("Please try!" "It's too late.") tie the disconnected love-pairings into the tightest of nets. Hitchcock is typically cruel to plain Midge, with her patient, enduring love for Scotty. Her explanation of cantilevered brassieres is a woman's anti-mystery, pathetically commonplace next to Madeleine's apparent possession by the dead. Madeleine's feigned obsession presages Scotty's genuine necrophilia. (And, as in Psycho , the psychiatrist can't strip away the necessary layers—the problem is more than the "acute melancholia, complicated by a guilt complex" offered as a diagnosis or explanation of the problem.)

It's easy enough to appreciate the best of Hitchcock's films, and to be jolted by them, but Vertigo stands alone in its ability to move audiences emotionally. Perhaps the events are uncharacteristically heartbreaking because both Scotty and Madeline/Judy are caught in another, grander (and almost unseen) male power-play: Gavin's murder of his wife, his betrayal of his friend Scotty, and his abandonment of his accomplice Judy. A bookseller, echoing Gavin's words (and his actions), tells the tale of the original Carlotta being "thrown away" by her husband: "A man could do that in those days. He had the power and the freedom." On its visceral level, Vertigo succeeds because of James Stewart's explosive fury in the climax in the belltower, a betrayed idealist's fury practiced in his Frank Capra films and mastered through his Anthony Mann westerns.

It's remarkable that, considering all its plot twists, Vertigo should work even better after a first viewing. Once the secret's out, it's a completely different film, and a better one; no longer a harrowing ghost story, it is a profound study of sexual obsession, tied together by the city that best displays the essential acrophobic metaphor.

—Scott Simmon



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