Review by Rumsey Taylor
Posted on 11 July 2004
Source Universal Studios VHS
Vertigo’s opening sequence displays a female face in obsessive close-up. The view pans across her lips, and up to her eye. The scene is an idolization of the female form, mirroring the sexist regard that distinguishes the film’s male protagonist.
This view is cautiously deliberate, pausing at times over the human landscape as if to notice specifics, to reveal an identity. The face, however, is anonymous; the female face is being used to forward a generic depiction of femininity. Moreover, borrowing from acknowledged themes in Vertigo (and other Hitchcock films), it can be seen as sexist. At the same time, the shot summates director Alfred Hitchcock’s female regard: in a career distinguished for subverted sexist masochism, Vertigo is the most revealing entry.
Kim Novak, in a dual role, is the pawn in this scenario. As Madeleine, she is married to Gavin Elster, who hires Scottie (an acrophobic private eye) to follow her. Elster has noticed odd behavior in his wife: she wanders without caution upon whim, and seems to mimic her Spanish great-grandmother — whom Elster states she has little knowledge of.
Scottie finds Madeleine rooted silently and still below a painting of a woman in a museum. In a suggestive manner, the view frames a bouquet in the painting, and pans to an identical one beside Madeline. In the same manner, the view finds their matching hairstyles. In a previous master shot, the pair is seen in the same pose. Madeline is a reflection in an abstract mirror, thoroughly replicating a woman who committed suicide roughly a century prior.
Scottie’s interest progresses as Madeline’s activity grows questionable (this is the founding of his obsession). Invariably, the two meet once Scottie rescues her in an intended suicide from the picturesque foot of the Golden Gate Bridge. Even if this joining was intended by Elster, who has manipulated the situation in order to veil the murder of his actual wife, their culminating association would not be: Madeleine and Scottie fall in love, and their union would potentially incriminate Elster in his otherwise meticulously planned scheme.
The pair’s interest is mutual, yet they are diverged by an unreality that delays the completion of their romance. A meticulous caricature of an existing woman, Madeline is in actuality a different woman altogether, hired to portray Elster’s wife. Completing her role, the faux Madeleine leads Scottie to a bell tower in a Spanish mission. Scottie’s attempt to follow her is suppressed by his vertigo. Perched midway on spiral staircase, he sees her body fall past him.
The woman he loves, or literally, the object of his obsession is robbed, and his obsession impetuously lingers. Scottie is psychologically entrapped. He has fashioned a romantic ideal he is incapable of meeting. There is a complexity to this action, as the woman his ideal is based upon is a fabrication (she is by function human, yet is a mere facsimile of details that comprise a woman who does not exist). The only manner in which to satisfy his longing is to reproduce the image of Madeline in the same manner as Elster.
To serve this end Scottie finds a distinct likeness of Madeline in Judy, a woman he meets at random. Fortunately, and unbeknownst to Scottie, Judy is the very woman used to portray Madeleine in the previous scenario, though he has searched for the likeness of his lost love in every female face in sight since her presupposed death. Judy and Scottie date, and she withholds the truth of her collaboration in Elster’s murder scheme. The collaboration is revealed to the audience shortly after Judy’s introduction — this occurs two-thirds through the film, and ends the motion of the film’s suspense mechanism. Because she embodies the emotional personality of Madeleine, Judy’s interest in Scottie resumes. Scottie, however, is incapable of reciprocating. He is not in love with Judy, though she is essential in producing Madeline.
Judy’s ultimate role in Vertigo is that of an actress: she is manipulated, made up, and ultimately used to fulfill a masculine fantasy. In a later sequence, Scottie takes Judy to an upper class clothier, and has models exhibit various grey suits. He has an exact perception of what the suit should look like. Judy is so affronted by his demands that she does not admit that the very dress he desires resides in her closet. It is a particularly masochistic sequence, and mimics Hitchcock’s role as a director.
The title Vertigo is principally a plot device. Scottie’s vertigo renders him incapable of rescuing Madeline as she climbs the bell tower (other phobias would supply the same inability). Abstractly, the title cites the notion of dizziness induced by fear of heights. The opening sequence has revolving spiral drawings, they are a reference to Scottie’s handicap, and found a motif. The spiral manifests notions of repetition, which are available throughout the film; foremost is the frequent assignment of roles: Judy (as Madeleine) emulates another woman; Elster has Judy portray his wife; Scottie makes Judy match Madeleine. Finally, the spiral design is manifested literally in the shape of the bell tower staircase.
It is referenced following the trauma that founds Scottie’s vertigo that only a similar trauma is capable, and unlikely, to reverse the condition. Once Madeleine is reproduced, he reenacts the events preceding her death to dissolve his weakness. At this point, the repetitive structure of the film becomes apparent as Judy (or Madeleine, for the second time) falls from the bell tower top. The film ends with the tragic, dissatisfying image of Scottie, having overcome his debilitating fear, viewing downward from the tower. It is a triumph that results in loss. Scottie’s obsession will continue and intensify like the distant revolutions of a departing spiral.
Subjective commendations aside (though it is cited frequently as Hitchcock’s greatest film), Vertigo is an exclusive and significant achievement for Alfred Hitchcock. It was a critical and financial failure upon its 1958 release. Justifying its initial performance, it is a film that requires distance, as well as the completion of Hitchcock’s career. It is a moment of acknowledgment in the final, retrospective establishment of the director’s frequent themes.