A quick disclaimer: Alas, spoilers are included in this piece as there is really no way to analyze Vertigo (1958) without mentioning a few key plot points.
Alfred Hitchcock’s magnum opus Vertigo is a sort of meta-study of how we construct our own realities (as such, to some degree, it has something to say about how the structure of our own realities functions on film too): a film, wrapped in a mystery, wrapped in an enigma that examines how these things work within the confines of the human psyche. As such, while not strictly being a surrealist piece, it can be examined using a psychoanalytic or surrealist lens. Understanding the psychology of Vertigo is absolutely necessary, in my view, to understand the story as Hitchcock wanted it told. It is nevertheless essential film noir, and mind-bending mystery, with a plot that truly defined “the Hitchcock twist”. In September 2012, it also kicked Citizen Kane (1941) out of the designation of “best film of all time” (after over 50 years) in the rather prestigious poll conducted yearly by Sight & Sound magazine.
Vertigo was a part of the infamous “five lost Hitchcocks”: along with Rope (1948) my look at Rope can be read here, Rear Window (1954) my look at Rear Window can be read here, The Trouble with Harry (1955), and The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956). These films disappeared from theaters for about 30 years when the great director purchased their rights back from the studio in order to leave these films as his legacy to his daughter Patricia. The source novel itself D’entre les morts (“from among the dead”) was a 1954 piece of crime fiction commissioned specifically by Hitchcock from the writers Pierre Boileau, and Pierre Ayraud (writing collectively under the nom de plume Boileau-Narcejac). Boileau-Narcejac also wrote the thriller Celle qui n’etait plus (1952) which was made into the truly unsettling Les Diaboliques in 1955 by Henri-Georges Clouzot after Hitchcock himself pushed very hard for the rights to the novel but lost out to Clouzot at the last minute. That story of the two great directors in a epic game of artistic one upsmanship is very interesting in and of itself, as is Clouzot’s film (do not bother with the 1996 remake of the same name, it is not worth it).
Vertigo tells the story of San Francisco police detective John “Scottie” Ferguson (James Stewart), who is trying to psychologically recover from crippling acrophobia (fear of heights) he acquired while chasing a suspect across a San Francisco rooftop, when a fellow, uniformed officer, fell and was hanging off a rooftop by his hands, Scottie tried but was to incapacitated by fear to pull him up. Interestingly, the word “vertigo” is only said once, at the beginning of the film by Scottie. Vertigo pioneered the now famous “zoom out and track in” shot, also known as “contra-zoom”, which was a very effective (but expensive) way to communicate Scottie’s vertigo from his point of view of large heights: the shot of his view down the stairwell of the old Spanish mission (only a few seconds of screen time) put a $19,000.00 dent in the film’s budget, this is about $161,000.00 in today’s money.
It is in the midst of Scottie’s recovery, that he is contacted by his old college buddy Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore), with a very unusual story and request. Elster wants his wife Madeleine (Kim Novak), who is a huge part of the mold of “Hitchcock’s icy blondes”, followed because he thinks she is possessed by the spirit of her dead great-grandmother, the cabaret singer Carlotta Valdes, who married a rich a man in San Francisco in the 1800’s and was subsequently driven mad when her husband took their child and left her. Carlotta ultimately took her own life while in the grips of her psychosis, she was 26.
Gavin Elster’s suspicion may sound crazy, Scottie also thinks so, that is, until he starts following Madeleine and notices a series of strange occurrences that parallel with the history of Carlotta Valdes: Madeleine Elster even wears her dead great grandmother’s jewelry, when (as Gavin communicates to Scottie), she never used to. Gavin also communicates to Scottie that Madeleine know nothing of her great grandmother’s sordid history (it was Madeleine’s mother who told Gavin the details of Carlotta while on her death bed).
After Madeleine, in her seeming fugue state, tries to take her own life by jumping in the San Francisco Bay, and Scottie saves her, the two begin falling in love, and Scottie deepens in his obsession over her. Madeleine communicates a nightmare to Scottie where she is at an old Spanish mission and is staring down an open grave. Scottie makes the connection that it is actually a real place by San Francisco, where he takes Madeleine in the hopes of breaking her delusion.
It is at the mission where (we are led to believe) Madeleine hurls herself out of the mission’s bell tower to her death, being the same age as Carlotta Valdes when she died. It is also here, and shortly after, where things begin breaking down in the film’s reality and Scottie’s reality.
The character arc of Madeleine Elster is ostensibly over in the film, and it is when (soon after) we meet the different character of Judy Barton (also played by Kim Novak). Madeleine was a suave, sophisticated socialite, Judy is comparatively more crude, unsophisticated.
It is here that Vertigo gets into very interesting psychological territory. What are we the audience to make of this, the dual character switch? Hitchcock gives away part of the answer early, which builds Vertigo’s tension exquisitely.
Still, the effects of the character switch (this “doppelganger” dynamic) are something, and say quite a bit about how we the audience see Scottie’s reality and how he constructed it. We learn that Madeleine Elster was a lie, a waif, a shadow of a woman, and never really real. Scottie merely saw what he wanted to see in her, his archetypal woman, and constructed his reality around her (the way we the audience with the help of the filmmaker construct an alternate reality when watching a film).
When he sees Judy, his cognitive dissonance was building into something eerily reminiscent of a neuropsychiatric condition called Capgras Delusion (only in reverse). Capgras Delusion is marked by a firm belief that one’s friend or loved one was replaced by an exactly identical impostor. This is in close psychological territory to what happens to Scottie with the dual character switch: a tumultuous emotional storm that is shown in an interesting way by Saul Bass: Vertigo was the first film ever to use computer graphics in part of it (the introduction and Scottie’s nightmare).
The character switch is undoubtedly Vertigo’s most potent legacy, having also been a pivotal influence on David Lynch’s Lost Highway (1997) my analysis of that film can be read here, and Mulholland Dr. (2001), my analysis of that film can be read here. It, and the mystery and suspense so eloquently ingrained in its narrative (how will the tension of the switch be resolved?) will undoubtedly thrill, shake, and delight audiences and budding filmmakers for generations to come.
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