What about Sir Alfred Hitchcock's "Vertigo" (1958) made critics in 2012 declare it to be the greatest film ever made, and what about it made critics in 1958 declare it to be one of the Master of Suspense's weaker efforts?
Sir Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) is a psychological thriller starring Jimmy Stewart as a retired San Francisco detective with a fear of heights named John “Scottie” Ferguson, who is enlisted by a college friend, Gavin Elster (Tom Helsmore), to surveil Elster’s suicidal shipbuilding heiress wife, Madeleine (Kim Novak). As Scottie’s journey leads him deeper into a whirlpool of obsession, deception, loss, and acrophobia, he crosses paths with a troubled shop girl named Judy Barton (Novak), who bears an unfortunate resemblance to Madeleine.
Adapted by Alec Coppel and Samuel A. Taylor from Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac’s 1954 crime novel D’entre les morts, Paramount Pictures released Vertigo to a mixed critical reception, with Variety praising Hitchcock’s direction in their review, but criticizing the length and pace of the story. This is a far cry from the British Film Institute’s decennial Sight & Sound critics’ poll in 2012, which ranked Vertigo as the greatest film of all time (Vittorio De Sica’s Ladri di biciclette (1948) was the first film to be so honored in the 1952 poll, and, from 1962 to 2002, Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane (1941) was the only film to hold the title).
Bearing all that in mind, this essay aims to theorize as to which qualities make Vertigo “great,” what makes it “flawed,” and why its reputation has undergone such an intense reevaluation.
Jimmy Stewart and Detective John “Scottie” Ferguson
In texts like Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) and It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), Stewart assembles an affable persona antithetical to what one would expect from the antihero in a Hitchcockian thriller. Indeed, his collaborations with the Master of Suspense yielded a prep school housemaster who waxes philosophical on “the art of murder” in Rope (1948), a voyeuristic photographer in Rear Window (1954), a doctor who finds himself tangled up with an international assassination conspiracy in The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), and, finally, the obsessive, controlling, weak, and perverted former detective in Vertigo. But Stewart is an effective Hitchcock leading man for two reasons: first, because his acting style is that of a likable everyman, the audience is not put off by his characterizations, but is instead invited to empathize with them, which makes them far more challenging to see in the good ol’ boy next door – to see them in ourselves – and thus more haunting; second, like many Americans at that time, Stewart had been forced to kill people as a service member during World War II, and to cheat death himself. Gone was Capra’s lighter prewar interpretation of the actor, to be replaced by Hitchcock’s darker postwar vision.
As for Scottie Ferguson, we relate to him not because we like him, despite his imperfections, but because we are him, because of his imperfections. He is a police officer whose job it is to save lives, but he can’t even do that right – three people die because of him – and, rather than solve the crime at the heart of the plot, he enables it, he commits it (against his will, pitifully enough, governed internally by desire and externally by circumstance). There’s nothing “extraordinary” about him, which is exactly what makes him so ordinary, because we, the viewers, are offered no more information about Elster’s plan than Scottie is, and so we share in his reactions to the truth as it is revealed to us, the despair over his own powerlessness.
Perhaps the conflict between the “powerful” and the “powerless” is where Vertigo succeeds over Citizen Kane. The latter film is about a rich, white media titan – William Randolph Hearst, allegorized by Charles Foster Kane, played by writer/director/producer Orson Welles. Welles’s genius is readily apparent in every frame of Citizen Kane, with enough content in each innovatively deep focus shot to write pages about, but, as much as we learn about him (sure, absolute power corrupts absolutely – Welles’s generous investors, RKO Radio Pictures, can attest to that – but absolute power is something not many of us experience), what do we learn about ourselves? Citizen Kane is a film to be studied, but Vertigo is a film to be lived (ironically enough, considering its theme of death), and, with Hitchcock working with the studio system, not rebelling against it (he produced and directed and nothing more), he is able to craft a personal piece of artwork with Hollywood production value and democratize it as a wide release, attracting legions of fans through Stewart’s star power and connecting to the popular masses, not just the elite few. Since Scottie’s character plays the role of audience surrogate, Hitchcock’s employing him as auteur surrogate saturates him with greater authenticity and marries us to the director’s brilliant consciousness via the universality of the human condition, the sex and death bookending all of our lives, as mirrored by the San Francisco setting which bears Scottie’s initials and which we can identify as being part of our world while Hitch elevates it at the same time to a mythical otherworld, where the dead come back to life and the woman of every man’s dreams becomes a reality… almost.
The evidence suggesting Hitchcock masquerades as Scottie, is very nearly too obvious. Outside of the fact that both of them are dominating and abusive figures with a penchant for blondes, Scottie’s vertigo – which prevents him from getting to the top of the phallic bell tower at Mission San Juan Bautista to reach the object of his affection – parallels Hitchcock’s own frustrating and emasculating obesity. Interestingly, though, Scottie’s occupation as a policeman divorces him from Hitchcock inasmuch as Hitch had a well-documented phobia of the police, originating from one of many cruel and bizarre forms of punishment his parents exercised against him (and which a more qualified psychoanalyst would be apt to dissect throughout Hitchcock’s filmography). Scottie is everything Hitchcock was most afraid of within himself, and, so, they are everything we have to fear in ourselves, the egomaniac behind the artist, the necrophiliac behind the protagonist, the beautiful lies and the ugly truths and the duality of personality and the idea of identity as performance. In the first half of Vertigo, Scottie is the forlorn hero of this tale, but, in the second half, he is the crazed villain, yet, all the while, he is one of Elster’s victims (the other two being Judy Barton and the real Madeleine Elster), and this crosstalk between “good guy” and “bad guy” may be the most disturbing – and honest – facet of Hitchcock’s masterpiece.
And no other character embodies this fluidity more fully than the love of Scottie’s life, a woman who doesn’t exist.
Kim Novak and Judy Barton/Madeleine Elster/Carlotta Valdez
With Hitchcock, Stewart, and screenwriter Taylor individually capable of identifying with Vertigo as a personal passion project (Taylor was hired for his intimate knowledge of the Bay Area), Novak and her Hollywood starlet dreams of seeking adoration by allowing powerful (male) entertainers like Hitch to treat her like they knew what was best for her when really they only wanted what was best for themselves, undoubtedly equipped her to achieve a transcendence unrivaled in the cinematic arts: a performance that is more poetic than it is dramatic.
Like a matryoshka doll, Judy is “possessed” by Madeleine much the same way “Madeleine” is “possessed” by Carlotta, and the three of them together fulfill the “rule of three,” the Western writing principle that storytelling is at its most satisfying when structured in threes (the Holy Trinity being the most likely origin). Novak’s portrayal of Judy is so different from that of “Madeleine” that, at first, you really do believe they are two separate people, and not only because of her looks, but also her voice and body language. Likewise, Judy becomes “Madeleine” and “Madeleine” becomes Carlotta not just in appearance, but also in (mis)fortune: once Carlotta’s lover gets what he wants out of her (an heir), he abandons her and drives her to suicide; once Elster gets what he wants out of Carlotta’s great-granddaughter Madeleine (her inheritance), he murders her in an apparent suicide; once Scottie gets what he wants out of Madeleine’s doppelgänger Judy (her (dead) body), he “kills” her insofar as who she is and pursues a love with her as toxic as death itself (and which ultimately results in her own accidental demise at the same untimely age as Carlotta and Madeleine).
For Elster, Scottie, and Judy alike, the past isn’t “there,” but it’s still as real an influence in their lives as the nothingness between them and the fall to death, the fall in love, the fall into madness. Elster obsesses over the past – Carlotta Valdez’s San Francisco of the late 1800s and early 1900s – because, back then, a patriarchal capitalist male of his wealth afforded the power to put a price on a person’s life (Carlotta’s child) and a person’s quality of life (Carlotta herself). Scottie obsesses over the past – the short time he gets to spend with “Madeleine Elster” – because of the sexual pleasure and gratification it gives him. But what does Judy get out of objectifying herself as a mannequin for Elster and Scottie to dress up with their fantasies, to be literally possessed by them as opposed to the symbolic possessions by Madeleine and Carlotta? Why does she transform herself into Elster’s Carlotta Valdez and Scottie’s Madeleine Elster?
And, for that matter, why does Novak choose to be Hitchcock’s Judy Barton?
Judy is a complexity, to say the least, arguably more so than Scottie the protagonist. Scottie is motivated by everything we know about him, everything we know about ourselves: his job and his sexuality. Judy is motivated by everything we don’t know about her, psychological forces that only she experiences, for she is guilty of murder and suicide.
Ever the Freudian, Hitchcock offers us a telling glimpse of Judy’s psychosexual development: she was born in Salina, Kansas, her father died, her mother remarried, she moved to San Francisco three years before the events of the film proper to get away from her stepfather, she lives at the Empire Hotel for no special reason, she works at Magnin’s, and she’s been picked up by men since she was seventeen. The line, “I didn’t like the guy, so, I decided to see what it was like in sunny California,” is as close as a Production Code Administration-approved film can come to, “My stepfather sexually abused me and instead of moving to Los Angeles like most other people, I moved to San Francisco because it’s about as far as I can get from Kansas without jumping into the Golden Gate Bay again.” If sex and violence are linked as deeply as Freud and Hitchcock understand them to be, then Judy places no value on Madeleine Elster’s life because she doesn’t place value on her own with the ghost of her father and the trauma of her stepfather there to warp the expectations she should have for other people (such as Elster), and she grows to be mutually obsessed with Scottie since he loves her for the beautiful, mysterious illusion she can be, not for the destroyed, destructive reality she already is, even though pretending to be Madeleine Elster is dangerous.
In the end, Judy could leave Salina, Kansas, but she couldn’t leave it behind, and, just like Madeleine and Carlotta, her past predetermines her future.
Sir Alfred Hitchcock
Judy isn’t the only one whose history shapes Vertigo. Truly, Hitchcock himself brings a rich background upon which to construct his masterwork.
As “American” as Vertigo is, with its star-studded cast and studio-quality mise-en-scène, the British director is thoroughly “European” in his approach as well, not unlike the ways in which French scholars branded the subgenre of film noir in Hollywood crime releases after World War II and before Vietnam. Vertigo is a crime picture distributed within those temporal constraints, but it disrupts and undermines the noir elements present in its narrative (the gloomy, convoluted plot distracting the filmgoer from the main point in the same way the war-torn world confused the cynical noir artist, the traumatized hero, and the femme fatale), primarily the vibrant color scheme even though “film noir” translates to “black film.” Judy functions as a femme fatale as far as she’s lethal and she’s incentivized by Elster’s money, except she seems to be compelled more by pragmatism than greed (she lives in a hotel room and probably needed to cover the losses of her Magnin’s salary for rent when she agreed to play Madeleine, hardly the chain-smoking sociopath populating the rest of noir – she is emotional, not emotionless, the icy but glamourous “Madeleine Elster” nothing more than a fabrication), and she doesn’t use her sexuality as a weapon so much as her sexuality is used as a weapon against her. Her task is never to seduce Scottie, just to lure him to the bell tower and witness a “suicide,” and she doesn’t represent the male fear of the newly emancipated postwar female using men for their privilege, because she wants to submit to Scottie, she wants him to be in control, no matter how badly it hurts her. Vertigo indulges in the male gaze when it views Novak from the main character’s perspective, but it is progressive and sensitive in its exploration of the sadism of the male gaze, the pain and suffering it inflicts upon the object of that gaze, so much that it kills her twice. Hitchcock accomplishes this revisionist inversion with the spirit of an experimentalist attitude unbecoming of the Golden Age Hollywood assembly line for picture making, a directorial flair he cultivated early in his career, making the film ahead of its time in many ways.
Professionally, Hitchcock got his start designing title cards for silent films in London when cinema was still at its most primitive, and the sequence of Scottie tailing “Madeleine” is notably free of any dialogue, a purely visual, “cinematic” moment of image and sound without the literary qualities of writing or the dramatic qualities of speaking to interfere with the wholly filmic phenomenon of a tormented Stewart seeing the world in Technicolor as he becomes more obsessed with a tortured Novak, two lost souls who can never quite find each other for all their movement. Either because it has music to help stimulate the audience or because “motion pictures” help generate a lifelike verisimilitude like no other fiction can, film is an art form which not only conveys emotion, but also inspires emotion, a principle Hitchcock borrowed from unapologetically manipulative Soviet montage theorist and propagandist Sergei Eisenstein.
But maybe more influential than his “silent” roots is the time Hitchcock spent shooting The Pleasure Garden (1925) in Germany, when the fantastical Expressionism of Robert Wiene’s Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (1920), F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens (1922), and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) – the German precursor to noir – were impacting world cinema with their theatrical aestheticism. The jagged rooftops and zigzagging hillsides in Hitchcock’s San Francisco are not at all unlike the sets designed by these German filmmakers, but to what significance? If World War II molded Stewart’s depiction of Scottie Ferguson, then World War I (when Hitchcock’s weight got him rejected from the British service) fashioned the Expressionist psyche, introducing German artists to an outside world twisted by conflict and an inside world twisted by the memory of it, so they were armed with neither the materials nor the impetus to beautify their… well… expressions. As bright as Hitchcock’s color palette is for Vertigo, San Francisco is still rough around the edges, and, for that matter, so is the film’s other SF, Scottie Ferguson, an iconic movie star (Stewart) with the phantom of war raging inside him long after it’s done raging outside of him and manifesting itself as a heterosexual masculinity so violent it can only “love” women when they’re dead (Carlotta Valdez inhabiting “Madeleine Elster,” and then “Madeleine Elster” inhabiting Judy Barton), meanwhile under the direction of a beloved pop culture juggernaut (Hitch himself) whose behind-the-scenes personal life was less than PR-friendly.
As “Madeleine Elster” proves, the prettier something is to look at, the deadlier it can be, the more likely it is that it’s a siren’s song tempting sailors to crash into the rocks, and the choice itself to film on-location in San Francisco is reminiscent of the postwar Italian neorealismo pioneered by the likes of Ladri di biciclette, when De Sica and his peers had no resources to build indoor sets, so they found stories to tell in the cultural ruination already surrounding them across the wreckage of World War II in Italy. Conversely, it is not a lack of budget that brought Hitchcock to San Francisco, but, instead, a morbid curiosity to unpack the agonizing reality behind the bourgeois ideal of the setting, to uncover the mutual humanity between peacetime California and wartime Europe. The war stayed out of San Francisco, which devastated it in its own way, for prosperity comes with its own cost to bear – the architecture may have stood intact while Rome’s crumbled, but, as Italian nationalists labored to reconstruct their identity in the aftermath of Mussolini’s fascism by tapping into the everlasting well of intangible social wealth, Americans were left with no other identity than materialistic fiscal wealth, displacing personhood along the shift of free-market currency and compelling Carlotta’s lover to cast her aside for his inheritors, Elster to murder Madeleine for that very inheritance, Judy to impersonate her for Carlotta’s jewelry, and “SF” to lose himself, piece by piece, through it all, until he’s left with nothing but nostalgia for a lie and his mere existence passively consumes another soul (Judy Barton).
Similarly, Hitchcock himself was the author of many a “fictional” person’s demise for the fulfillment – both financial and psychosomatic – he got out of them, and, as a filmmaker, his artistic decisions were purposefully edited into the final product and collaboratively brought to fruition, visually and sonically. His European take on an American vortex of tragedy – as inescapable as the gravity which paralyzes Scottie with terror – becomes neither “European” nor “American,” but rather human with the presence of other artists’ talents in the same piece, which is in keeping with the spirits of “greatness” and “filmmaking” in “the greatest film ever made.”
Bernard Herrmann’s Score
Like Stewart, Herrmann was a Hitchcock veteran (and a former Welles partner – Herrmann’s accompaniment for Citizen Kane is testament to his uncanny ability to aurally set the tone for the all-time greats). Due to his rapport with Hitchcock and his own classical virtuosity, Herrmann’s Vertigo composition is tellingly circular in its arrangements, as visualized by yet another frequent Hitchcock collaborator, graphic designer Saul Bass, who programmed the spirals between the close-ups of a fearful Novak in the opening titles accompanying Herrmann’s prelude for the film. The notes first rise as high as a precipice, as high as Scottie and Judy’s erotic joy, then drop as suddenly and as low as “Madeleine” and Judy falling to their deaths, as low as Scottie’s heartbreak, in a hypnotic rotation of obsession, moving backward toward a cherished past that’s gone only to move forward again into the anguished present without it because the past can never really be resurrected, but such is the futility of obsession that the past cannot stay passed.
Although Herrmann’s “Scene D’Amour” is the leitmotif heard on the soundtrack, its romanticized movements are decidedly distinct from the dizzyingly cyclical theme, which occurs at one other point during the film, again with Novak photographed in close-up at the salon as Judy is changed back into “Madeleine.” The effect is vertiginous and unsettling, and cues the audience in on the true message of the film, which is not the love story itself but how sick it is, and how helpless the characters are to resist the cyclone of it.
If this is the truth of the human experience, then it’s never sounded better than it does with Herrmann.
Robert Burks’s Cinematography
And it’s never looked better than it does with Burks, another favorite of Hitchcock’s. His fluid camera pans, faded together with Herrmann’s quixotic score by recurrent Hitchcock editor George Tomasini and painstakingly restored in a 1996 print by Robert A. Harris and James C. Katz, lend the film a dreamlike landscape whereupon Hitchcock paints the portrait of a waking nightmare.
Most remarkable is how Burks etherealizes Novak, as illusory as the fogs of San Francisco. The ghostlike shot of Judy emerging from the bathroom as “Madeleine Elster,” washed out in the neon light of the Empire Hotel, underscores the fact that Judy Barton is a dead woman walking, which is precisely what draws Scottie toward her in one of the most lyrically assembled yarns of necrophilia ever woven.
But Burks’s camerawork is not always strikingly gorgeous – at times, it is strikingly tragic. His out-of-focus glimpses of blonde Madeleine Elster lookalikes in the backdrop of his photography after her death, revealing themselves in the foreground to be other people, are the graphical harmonization to Herrmann’s musical spins: irrationally raising our hopes that Madeleine may not actually be dead (because, little do we know here, she never actually lived), only to dash those hopes in a crash akin to Madeleine’s body hitting the church roof. At this moment in the film, we still sympathize with Scottie because he’s a victim of lost love and not yet a victimizer against that same lost love, and Burks’s cinematography, Herrmann’s score, Stewart and Novak’s performances, and, of course, the Master’s direction, all serve in concert to bring Coppel and Taylor’s screenplay to life (and death).
And this script is where Vertigo soars to its greatest heights… and sinks to its most puzzling depths.
The Letter-Writing Scene
The first masterstroke is the most divisive. At the end of the second act and the beginning of the third, the film takes the bold gamble of transferring its point of view from Scottie to Judy and giving away the “big reveal,” that Judy Barton is the woman Scottie knew as “Madeleine Elster” and Madeleine’s death was an uxoricide and not a suicide, information which would traditionally be disclosed in the climax of a suspense picture as a “twist ending.” Opponents of Judy’s confession to the audience accuse the last third of Vertigo of being overlong, since the “surprise” is “spoiled” prematurely (according to them, at least), but what these critics oversimplify is the fact that the tension in Vertigo lies not in its murder mystery (the viewer isn’t even meant to know there is a murder mystery – initially, we only know what Scottie is led to believe, which is that “Madeleine Elster” killed herself), but in the obsession lullingly and repetitively poisoning this cast of characters’ lives, as addictive and caustic as any drug. Judging Vertigo based on other thrillers is a logical fallacy – if it were like them, then it would be “great,” but it surpasses them because it’s “the greatest,” and it’s the greatest because it speaks to everyone, not just fans of the genre. It makes us all question what we really know about the people we think we know, what we really know about ourselves, and realize these are questions that cannot and will not ever be answered as cleanly as who killed Madeleine Elster and how and for what reason – questions which in and of themselves become a cause for obsession – and any film that can recreate in the moviegoer the same playacted feelings as its fictitious characters (even if those feelings are as exhausting and unpleasant as obsession) is a potent film indeed.
Vertigo is special not because of its far-fetched and (meaningfully) slow-paced crime story (the alluring masochism of obsession, like the proverbial frog in a pot of boiling water, is gradual, not rushed), but because of its blackly romantic love story, and its achingly elegiac artistic statement that the uncontrollable and ubiquitous urge to love and “possess” something so broken as another person is conceivably the human curse that condemns us all to die. We learn through Novak’s voiceover that Judy is so in love with Scottie (in her own dysfunctional but undeniable way), she’s willing to risk prison or worse just to be with him, even as he unmasks her bit by bit. She can’t be with him like she was before as “Madeleine,” in all the aloof ways she carried herself and the refined manner of her speech, because she has to be different enough from “Madeleine” to evade suspicion, and though Scottie will never completely love her unless she’s completely “Madeleine,” being with him is enough for her. In the months since Madeleine’s death and Scottie’s institutionalization, Judy could’ve easily fled San Francisco, the scene of the crime, but she didn’t, and she brings Scottie closer and closer to the truth and puts everything on the line by slowly returning to her “Madeleine” guise, only to keep him around. This isn’t anti-suspenseful – it’s suspenseful, and Judy’s actions wouldn’t make sense to the audience without her inner monologue to clarify them. Why would this woman who (seemingly) has nothing to do with Carlotta Valdez and Madeleine Elster let Scottie Ferguson morph her into Madeleine’s body double when she gets nothing out of it, when she has no cause to love him because in the time we think they know one another, he’s profoundly unlovable toward her? Sure, she acts like she’s seeing him because she feels sorry for him, but, if she’s outed to us at the same time as she’s outed to Scottie, she comes across as incredibly stupid for sticking around till she’s caught, when she’s not – she’s incredibly damaged. By granting her the opportunity to flee, Hitchcock permits us to watch her choose not to flee, and seeing Judy exit the bathroom as “Madeleine” and knowing the “Madeleine” Scottie sees (unbeknownst to him) is the same “Madeleine” he held in his arms, but not the same “Madeleine” he fell for, because the “Madeleine” he fell for never was, makes Vertigo a film unlike any other.
In the meantime, Coppel and Taylor are orchestrating the trappings of a (nearly) perfect finale.
The abrupt ending of Vertigo isn’t flawless. The nun ascending from the trapdoor, the startled Judy taking a misstep too far and falling to her death, the nun crossing herself and ringing the church bell, and Scottie standing at the edge of the tower all take place in such rapid succession, the staggering enormity of the creative genius going on behind the dénouement is lost on all but the most discerning of viewers who can grasp the disconnect between Hitchcock’s noble intention (shocking us with the ironic suddenness of Judy’s death) and his lost-in-translation execution (alas, high drama does not always adapt believably to the real world, but what better method could there have been to support such divine brilliance? Hitch was only human, after all).
What does work about the ending, first of all, is the ambiguity of the fade to black. Does Scottie jump and join Judy in death, consummate their undead romance in the purest possible way? His only other alternative is going back to the mental hospital – she was his second chance at loving “Madeleine,” his second chance at saving her life, a once-in-a-lifetime gateway to a long departed past he holds so venomously close to his heart, and she’s dead because of him. Not only that, not only does he have to lose “Madeleine” twice when losing her once already came at the expense of his sanity, but Judy’s death wish to turn back into “Madeleine” comes true only when she dies the same was as “Madeleine,” since Scottie fell in love not with a living person, but with the specter of Carlotta Valdez.
It’s a miracle of a resolution, an artistic revelation – and it’s a shame that Coppel and Taylor couldn’t tie up their loose ends with as much dexterity.
The McKittrick Hotel Scene
Judy’s disappearing act at Carlotta’s old mansion isn’t entirely necessary to the film, and it raises more questions than answers (and not philosophical inquiries, either, but enigmas that only Vertigo can unravel and doesn’t). Is the innkeeper (Ellen Corby) somehow in cahoots with Elster’s strategy, denying to Scottie’s face that “Madeleine” checked into her room before his very eyes while Judy sneaks out some back way? But why? No doubt, it adds to “Madeleine’s” mystique – could she really be a vessel for Carlotta’s soul? – and it throws us off Elster’s trail by posing false evidence of the “supernatural” when what’s actually going on is “criminal,” but deliberately misinforming the audience isn’t the same thing as surprising us (the result is more “bewildering” than anything), and for a film which aspires to dispel myths like “love” as a dressed-up euphemism for “obsession,” Vertigo neglects to “undress” the fanciful hotel.
This oddity of a passage also begs the question of whether the film happens in our world or in Scottie’s deranged mind. He’s something of an unreliable narrator, knowing only what Elster wants him – and us – to know. Is he so starstruck by “Madeleine” that he hallucinates this encounter at the McKittrick? Or is she really possessed and the rest of the film after her death is his way of mentally reconciling it with the real world? Or is the first half of the film just a dream and the second half is how he makes it come true? Or is all of it a dream? Does Judy actually take over as the main character or is she just an extension of his insanity, an entity to which he can assign an alternate theory about the death of Madeleine Elster? Thought-provoking queries, to be sure, but they come closer to speculative trivia than they do to any truth about the film, the people who made it, and the people who enjoy it.
In any case, the McKittrick Hotel isn’t the only unsolved mystery of Vertigo.
Barbara Bel Geddes and Margaret “Midge” Wood
Bel Geddes had a working relationship with Hitch dating back to CBS’s Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1955-1965), and he knew how to direct a pitch-perfect performance out of her for the clever, bouncy Midge, but, like the McKittrick Hotel, she is not altogether essential to the film upon closer inspection, even though you accept both without thinking too much about it.
Sometimes, she appears to be no more than an expositional device, somebody for Scottie to talk to and reveal pieces of information to the audience, and she walks right out of the film after visiting Scottie in the hospital two-thirds of the way through, never to be seen, heard from, or spoken of again. Yet she is given a sizable amount of screen time and character development, and Bel Geddes is billed above Helsmore, the main antagonist of the film.
Midge is a lingerie designer who went to college with Scottie and Elster (but claims she doesn’t remember Elster), and she was engaged to Scottie for three weeks, but she still wants to be more than friends with him. She’s the only one who calls Scottie by his birth name, “Johnny,” and she has heavy-handed oedipal interactions with him, with Scottie telling her not to be so “motherly” and with Midge telling Scottie, “Mother’s here.” She paints her face over Carlotta’s in her portrait and it offends Scottie, leaving Midge to throw her paintbrush at the window and violently pull her own hair.
Carlotta kills herself over her man, Madeleine is murdered by hers, Scottie is responsible for Judy’s death, and Midge harms herself. It’s not easy being a woman in Vertigo.
Scottie also believes Midge is referring to Carlotta when she asks him if he thinks Elster’s wife is pretty, indicating further that it is not “Madeleine” he is attracted to, but Carlotta (his nightmares after Madeleine’s death are about Carlotta, not “Madeleine,” and he’s enraged with Judy over her “beautiful, phony trances”). “Madeleine” is but a form for Carlotta to occupy like Judy is a figure for “Madeleine” to occupy, and when Midge paints her face onto Carlotta’s body out of jealousy, in an effort to direct his lust toward herself, Scottie rejects it because Midge’s maternity (“mothers” being “givers of life”) is at odds with Scottie’s wanting a dead woman. As a blonde, she resembles “Madeleine” and Carlotta, but her Lord of the Flies-esque glasses are evocative of an intellect counterbalancing the emotional Scottie, Carlotta, and “Madeleine,” an independence and self-sufficiency none of these other characters have (they all need other people), an agency which won’t betray her (Carlotta and “Madeleine” are all but resigned to self-destruction), and each of these things threatens Scottie’s manhood, since there isn’t very much manhood to begin with – staircases and stepladders terrify him, and it’s not enough for him to rescue damsels in distress, they have to already be dead, too dead for his impotence to make any difference in “saving” them, but irrespective of how happy he’d be with Midge, he can’t help that he doesn’t love her, and even someone as rational as Midge can be given to the illogic of Scottie Ferguson’s obsessions.
However, Midge could also be read as a red herring, like the McKittrick Hotel. When she drives by Scottie’s apartment and sees “Madeleine” leave after jumping into San Francisco Bay, the film introduces a conflict that goes… nowhere, but still suggests that Midge may be more sinister than meets the eye. She does have a history with Elster (whether she admits it or not) – might she be in on his plot? Judy writes in her letter that the love between herself and Scottie “wasn’t part of the plan” (love seldom is), because, if it had been, Midge surely wouldn’t have agreed to participate (assuming she even participated). Her taking Scottie to see Pop Liebel (Konstantin Shayne) about Carlotta Valdez, she advances Elster’s tall tale without pushing it toward him, but what would she get out of helping kill Madeleine? She doesn’t need money and all she really wants is Scottie, and Elster’s plan, on paper, wouldn’t drive Scottie into Midge’s arms. We simply don’t know enough about her to say, but Coppel and Taylor still tell us a lot of nothing about her, and it can be argued (as with the McKittrick Hotel) that the film is a roadmap of Scottie Ferguson’s psychologic and Midge is a personification of his Oedipus complex, but, again, that’s conjecture.
Midge and the McKittrick Hotel aren’t distractingly questionable, but still, they’re where the film falls short of perfection, and, as far as this essayist is concerned, an unflawed film speaks for itself, but there’s a lot more to be said about a flawed one, and Vertigo arms the Sight & Sound critics with an infinity to say.
“If I Could Just Find The Key, The Beginning, And Put It Together…”
Overall, Vertigo is a look at human nature as problematic as human nature itself, like looking for your own reflection and seeing the painting of a dead woman staring back at you. It is an artistic masterpiece of the twentieth century. It is an illustration of modern life through the inherently post-industrial technology of cinema, a story of people trapped in an urbanized location where their identities are so anonymous and dehumanized that even the line between “dead” and “alive” can be blurred, and human relationships are mediated via the unnatural apparatus of sexual fetishism. Like the elusive “Madeleine Elster” running up those stairs to her doom, the film is impossible to catch, to “possess,” and it is just as endless in its nadirs beneath the pristine surface as she is.
Take the plunge – by the time you hit the bottom, you’ll already be dead.