Buried in studies of a nature more than all else adapted to deaden impressions of the outward world, it is by that sweet word alone – by Ligeia – that I bring before mine eyes in fancy the image of her who is no more.
Edgar Allen Poe, Ligeia.
In 2012, Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo was elevated to the top of Sight and Sound’s poll of the greatest films of all time, finally unseating Welles’ Citizen Kane from the perch it had maintained with peculiar tenacity since 1962. This represented the culmination of a critical reappraisal which had been a long time in the making. Vertigo drew mixed critical reaction on its initial release, and did tepid box office comparative to Hitchcock’s previous hits. Hitch’s ownership kept it out of circulation for a decade, so its critical stature only began to gather real momentum when it re-emerged for distribution in 1983.
Nowadays, Vertigo is considered as integral a part of the cannon – both of Hitchcock and cinema generally – as it comes. Nevertheless, there remains a certain minority not entirely persuaded by Vertigo. I recall a friend many years ago who just couldn’t get into it, despite being a big film buff and admirer of most Hitchcock pictures. His problem was with the credibility of the plot. In fairness, there is no denying that on a literal level, the resolution of Vertigo’s mystery is almost impossible to swallow, or “devilishly far-fetched” as Bosley Crowther put it back in the day. One might also wonder at Hitchcock’s peculiar decision to depart from the original novel and reveal the story’s twist two thirds of the way through, rather than at the end. It is probably this logical straining of the plot which prompted critic Tom Shone – in his 2004 book Blockbuster – to argue that “Hitchcock is a director who delights in getting his plot mechanisms buffed up to a nice humming shine, and so the Sight and Sound team praise the one film of his in which this is not the case – it’s all loose ends and lopsided angles, its plumbing out on display for the critic to pick over at his leisure.”
Vertigo is a film of two distinct parts, each ending with the fall (or apparent fall in the first) of Kim Novak’s character from the bell tower of the Mission San Juan Bautista. In the first part, the audience, like Stewart’s character John “Scotty” Ferguson, is enraptured and deceived. In the second, the dream is gradually decoded, and everything is different. Ferguson, sympathetic in the first half, becomes a domineering bully and fetishist; Novak, so remarkable as the haunted society woman Madeleine, is a little more exaggerated, and consequently less convincing, in her performance as the earthier working-class Judy. The great spell of the first half – its hypnotic sense of surrender to waking dreams and the ghostly persistence of the past – has to give way in the climax to a rational explanation, to the mechanics of plot. For this reason, dissatisfaction with Vertigo – the sense of its “loose ends and lopsided angles” – tends to be focused on this second half of the picture.
Nevertheless, even if we grant this criticism of Vertigo’s strained plot, I still think it’s a pretty strong candidate for the Sight and Sound title - bearing in mind of course how subjective and chimerical the notion that any film could be the greatest of all time. Nobody has ever denied that Vertigo is immaculately directed and acted, but this is only a component of its distinction and greatness – there is an extra quality to Vertigo, something that transcends its magisterial craftsmanship as much as it does any logical contortions of the plot. The only metaphor that springs immediately to mind to get at this is the illusory “Madeleine Elster” that Ferguson falls desperately in love with. There are certain blunt, obvious reasons why somebody might fall in love with Madeleine - Kim Novak being a straight eleven on most scorecards. (I’m going to put “Madeleine” in italics to avoid more tortured locutions like Judy as Madeleine as Carlotta.) But Madeleine is more than simply a ravishingly beautiful woman – she offers Ferguson something which is simultaneously far more intoxicating and terrifying than mere surface glamour, however abundant. Madeline is haunted by the presence of another woman, the tragic Carlotta Valdes, who is herself a being of mutable facets: first the beautiful Carlotta, then the sad Carlotta, and finally the mad Carlotta. Madeleine is a mystery, a sleepwalker down a darkened corridor of broken mirrors and dream fragments, a woman struggling to assert her identity against some supernatural current that pulls her into the past, into the cold fixity of an old painting, to a premature engagement with the darkest place at the end of the corridor. She is a presence through which the primal forces and mysteries of sex, death, dream and time assert themselves. It’s little wonder Scottie had it so bad.
Little wonder, too, that we have had it so bad for Vertigo over the years. Like Madeleine, the surface beauty of its craftsmanship is elevated by the sense that it is haunted by other presences and endless subterranean corridors, by the uncanny sensation of something which we know but cannot precisely articulate. Woven around its familiar structure as a suspense/mystery story, Vertigo has a peculiarly dreamlike and literary quality – it’s infused with poetry even in its most incidental details, and becomes over repeated viewings one of those oddly labyrinthine movies where every motif and idea recurs and repeats throughout in different forms. The effect is like the image which appears in the opening credits and later in Scottie’s nightmare – the figure falling into a spiral, the spiral in Kim Novak’s hair, the spiral of the past recurring in the present. Vertigo has the thematic richness and aesthetic consistency of a great novel – or at least it seems to. How much of its suggestive power we can ascribe to the source novel (D’entre les morts, literally “from among the dead”, by Pierre Boileu and Pierre Aryraud, which I haven’t read), how much to Hitchcock and his esteemed collaborators, and how to our own imaginations, I cannot say. Movies are made in a pressurised scramble to catch the light of a single day, and then linger with us for lifetimes. The following essay is an attempt to untangle why Vertigo casts such a potent and enduring spell over filmmakers and film lovers. Some of the echoes and resonances I find in it are doubtless intentional to its authors, some accidental, and others peculiar to my own viewing sensibility. It seems apt enough that we bring something of our imagination to bear on Vertigo, as it is a film in which we see the whole world, its haunted San Francisco, through the enchanted and disordered eyes of its protagonist, Scotty Ferguson.
To rehash Vertigo’s familiar plot for reference: John “Scotty” Ferguson is a San Francisco detective who discovers during a rooftop chase that he suffers from acrophobia. Feeling guilt over the colleague who fell to his death trying to save him, and a sense of inadequacy owing to his spells of vertigo, Scottie quits the force and takes solace with his friend and one-time fiancé Midge. At a loose end, he finds himself reluctantly employed by old college acquaintance Gavin Elster, now married into a shipping fortune, to follow his wife Madeleine. Elster claims that his wife has become possessed by a long dead woman – Carlotta Valdes – and wants to know more about Madeleine’s daytime activities before involving doctors. Following Madeleine, Scotty discovers a woman apparently in a trance, endlessly revisiting a handful of historical San Francisco locations of some particular emotional resonance. These include Carlotta Valdes’ gravesite at the Mission Dolores (in reality the oldest surviving structure in San Fran), and the art museum at the California Palace of the Legion of Honor where Madeleine studies a portrait of Carlotta. Madeleine appears to be modelling herself after the figure in the portrait by carrying a bouquet of roses and fashioning the back of her hair into a tight, spiral-like bun.
Having saved Madeleine from an apparent suicide bid in San Francisco Bay, she and Scottie begin a tentative relationship. The clock, however, is ticking. Carlotta Valdes committed suicide at 26, the same age Madeleine is now, and we have a strong sense that Madeleine is melting into Carlotta, and history destined to repeat itself. Scottie, however, believes that Madeleine can be saved, and the mystery of her apparent possession explained rationally. Central to solving this mystery are Madeleine’s frequent dreams of an 18th century Spanish monastery whose church has a large bell tower. This location seems to be the key, the locus around which the spiral turns. Realizing that these dreams are of a real place, the Mission San Juan Bautisa, Scottie takes her there, hoping that its tangible reality will finally overwhelm her delusions of possession. However, the opposite results: having made a last avowal of her love, Madeleine runs into the church. Scottie attempts to follow her up the spiral staircase of the bell tower but is prevented from doing so by attacks of vertigo, and he watches helplessly as Madeleine plunges to her death from the top. In a sense, we have returned to the beginning of the film, Scottie’s vertigo being the inadvertent cause of somebody’s death, with the toll of grief and guilt more severe this time around as it was the woman he loved.
We now move into the second section of the film. Scottie, grief-stricken to the point of madness, has become like Madeleine in the first: a ghostly figure, haunted by the past, endlessly returning to San Francisco locations of an obsessive personal significance. During his wanderings he encounters a brunette, Judy Barton, who bears an uncanny resemblance to Madeleine. Despite the physical resemblance, Judy is a working girl from Salina, Kansas, who is earthier and more overtly sexual than Madeleine. In the aforementioned bizarre reveal, the audience is immediately let in on the whole of the plot: Judy was employed by Gavin Elster to impersonate his wife. The Madeleine Scottie fell in love with was a fiction, the Carlotta Valdes story an elaborate (painfully so, to Vertigo’s detractors) ruse to secure a witness for Madeleine Elster’s supposed suicide, in reality a bait and switch murder carried out by Gavin for cold hard cash. However, in the midst of maintaining the Madeleine illusion, Judy really did fall in love with Scottie, and so decides to indulge his courtship in the hope that he might fall in love with her for who she really is. This, however, proves to be painful and demanding, as Scottie is obsessively devoted to the idea of bringing Madeleine back to life to every last detail. With meticulous care and often tyrannical coercion, he makes Judy over as Madeleine, changing her wardrobe and hair, and finally adding the last crucial detail: the pinned spiral in the hair. With everything in place, we have one of the cinema’s great raptures: the apotheosis of romantic passion and perverse fetishism as Hitchcock’s camera wheels gracefully around the couple, around the increasingly ambiguous hero who has attained his impious goal, the impervious blonde goddess who represents a symbol of unattainability in life, and becomes literally so in death.
The rapture is short-lived. A piece of jewellery gives Judy away, Scottie begins to suspect the truth, and we circle back to the bell tower of the Mission San Juan, where Scottie overcomes his acrophobia and forces Judy to confess. The sudden appearance of a nun startles Judy, causing her to slip over the edge and thus repeat the film’s inescapably tragedy. Vertigo concludes with Scottie, standing in the bell tower, thrice grief-stricken and guilt-ridden, seemingly trapped in a cycle of reliving the same tragedy, over and over, round and around.
Some of the most common thematic resonances drawn from Vertigo centre on the relationship of Scottie to Madeleine/Judy, and particularly Scottie’s remodelling of the latter into the former in the second part, so I’m going to look at them briefly before exploring the film’s literary and mythical qualities. In a general sense, Scottie’s fetishistic obsession with Madeleine reminds us of the tendency of people to fall in love with idealizations, images, or narrow ideas of people, rather than with the imperfections, complexities, and day to day variability of the full person. Love of a strongly romantic or sexual character tends to be the love of an idealization, or a particular ardour engendered by the image. For the person enthralled by this type of passion, the idealization and the image exist in a realm exalted above the everyday reality in which the object of desire exists as a fully-fleshed out person. This is the predicament Judy finds herself in; she wants Scottie to love her for her real personality, but he remains obsessively enthralled by the fantasy of Madeleine which she and Gavin Elster created to sucker him. (Another question raised here relates to identity: did Scottie fall in love in Judy because it was her appearance and personality moulded to become Madeleine, or only with the performance and fantasy of Madeleine? Are the two – the person and the outward persona adopted – so easily separable?)
Scottie’s recreation of Madeleine has most frequently been associated with the characteristic fetishes and feminine ideals of Hitchcock himself. The director’s recurring penchant for the reserved, cultivated blonde has been described by Trauffant as “the paradox between the inner fire and the cool surface.” Hitch himself expressed this duality in somewhat more blunt terms: “We’re after the drawing-room type, the real ladies who become whores when they’re in the bedroom.” (Source: Style on Film: Vertigo.) This fairly typical masculine desire to embody Madonna and whore in a single person – outwardly repressed, privately wanton – goes some way towards understanding the duality between Vertigo’s blonde and brunette incarnations of the same woman, and the distinct styles of dress and types of sexuality embodied by Madeleine and Judy Barton. Madeleine’s characteristic dress is the grey suit – subdued, tight in a manner restrictive rather than sensual, almost severe but elegant in its understated simplicity. The overall sense of restriction, moderation, and control is completed by the final detail in Scottie’s recreation of Madeleine – the pinning up of the hair at the back. This clearly represents Hitchcock’s ideal – the sexuality made all the more alluring by being understated, hidden beneath the cold, business-like surface. In contrast, when we first encounter Judy Barton she wears a lustrously green outfit that emphasizes the natural shape of her body, with (unusually for the time) no bra. This is the opposite of the restrictive, subdued sexuality represented by Madeleine; in her somewhat forced working gal tones, Novak’s Judy tells Scottie: “I’ve been on blind dates before – to tell you the truth, I’ve been picked up before.” It’s this earthier, more natural woman that fails to excite Scottie, as he remains enthralled by the fantasy of the artificial Madeleine, the woman who is becoming a painting, a work of art. In a an interesting piece of life-imitating art, Kim Novak had to be cajoled in the grey suit by her director, just as Judy must be coerced into it by Scottie.
It’s thus not difficult to see Vertigo as a perhaps inadvertent glimpse into the darker corners of its director’s psychology, and a study in general of the subjugation and mistreatment of women. Although some of the details remain contested, Hitchcock’s preoccupation with his personal blonde ideal seems to have become utterly unhealthy by the time of his relationship with Tippi Hedren. The intersection between Scottie as an only intermittently sympathetic bully in the second half of Vertigo, and Hitchcock’s apparently obsessive, domineering, and abusive relationship with Tippi Hedren is a fascinating subject, but it is an aspect of Vertigo so well-trodden elsewhere that I’m not going to dwell on it in this essay.
Modern stories which have a certain resonance and archetypal power frequently have analogues with much older myths. This, at least, is certainly the case with Vertigo. The most obvious mythic precursor is the story of Orpheus and Eurydice. Orpheus loses his beloved, and goes into the Underworld to reclaim her from the world of the dead. His music so charms Persephone that he is allowed to bring Eurydice back to the upper world, with one condition: Orpheus must walk ahead of his bride, and not look back until such time as they have regained the land of the living. Orpheus is careless, however, and loses his beloved for the second time, this time forever. Vertigo recapitulates this classic double-punch tragedy: Scottie loses (or appears to lose) Madeleine to death, but then miraculously gets her back. His own actions, however, ultimately lead to the real and permanent loss of his beloved. The prohibition against looking back seems particularly apt in relation to Vertigo’s primary theme of the inescapable return of the past in the present. Scottie’s tragedy is that when he finds Judy, he has the woman he loved, and her love for him was the one thing about Madeleine which wasn’t counterfeit. But he is haunted by the past, and must look back, first in the re-creation of Madeleine, and then in the return to the Mission San Juan Bautisa, where what was the first time an illusion becomes reality, and he must lose Judy/Madeleine forever.
Scottie also recalls Pygmalion and Oedipus. Pygmalion was the Cypriot sculptor who carved a woman out of ivory – Galatea – so perfect that he fell in love with her. Pygmalion prays to Aphrodite for a woman as beautiful as his statue, and upon returning home and kissing Galatea, finds that the dead ivory has become living flesh, and the idealized work of art a real woman. This myth differs from Vertigo both in its happy ending, and in another crucial element: Scottie falls in love with a work of art which he has not created himself, but which is rather a creation of Gavin Elster’s dramaturgy and Judy Barton’s acting. Nevertheless, Vertigo reflects and inverts the uncanny transformation of the Pygmalion myth: Madeleine is a real woman in the process of being absorbed into a painting and the chill of history, and Judy a real woman who Scottie cannot love until he transforms into a work of artifice. Oedipus, on the other hand, is often called literature’s very first detective. He resembles Scottie in the sense that his tenacity in solving the riddle of his own parentage and identity is ultimately his undoing - cracking the case brings him nothing but profound suffering.