This article is part of our Classic Film Throwback series
– By Sam Hendrian –
Captivating performances. Entrancing cinematography. Hauntingly seductive and beautiful music. Compelling and relevant themes. Masterful direction. These are just some of the many characteristics that make Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo one of the greatest movies ever made. Released in 1958, it was not initially hailed as a masterpiece by most audiences and critics, but time has been kind to it, and now it sits in the #9 slot of the American Film Institute’s list of the 100 greatest films of all time. Its depiction of love gone awry is unforgettably chilling and thought-provoking, and it will remain in your head long after the haunting final image fades into the Paramount Pictures logo.
Newly-retired detective John “Scottie” Ferguson (James Stewart in arguably his greatest performance) is an emotionally and psychologically wounded man. A rooftop chase during which his partner fell to his death trying to save him has left his soul tortured with guilt and his mind possessed by acrophobia whenever he looks down from a lofty height, and he has only the company of his best friend and ex-flame Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes) to give him some semblance of consolation. When an old college acquaintance named Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore) asks him to unofficially come out of retirement and follow his wandering and mentally-troubled wife Madeleine, he accepts on the incentives of doing an old friend a favor and re-finding some sort of meaning in his guilt-shadowed life.
When Scottie first lays eyes on Madeleine Elster (Kim Novak) at the fancy restaurant Ernie’s, he is immediately entranced by her beauty and enigmatic demeanor; his “friendly favor” has just become more interesting. Gavin had previously told a doubtful Scottie that he believes Madeleine may sometimes be possessed by her suicidal grandmother Carlotta Valdez, and Scottie starts to see potential implications of this as he follows her through the city of San Francisco and watches her mysteriously stare at a portrait of Carlotta in an art museum and linger around the cemetery where she is buried. Concerned by her apparent madness, he also cannot help but be romantically intrigued by her independence and vulnerability, and his obsession with uncovering what is wrong with her causes him to neglect his friend Midge and think about little else.
Forgetting that it is another man’s wife he is trying to help, Scottie falls madly in love with Madeleine. Her vulnerable and desperate demeanor brings out the nurturing side of his soul, and he longs more than anything for her to be free of whatever is possessing her mind with thoughts of death. When she suddenly runs up to the top of a mission bell tower one day and hurls herself to the ground, Scottie is heartbroken and guilt-ridden. He tries to run up the tower to stop her, but his acrophobia hinders him from going very far, and all he can do is stand on the stairs horrified as he hears Madeleine’s piercing scream before hitting the pavement. Quickly falling into a state of shock, he is admitted to a mental hospital and does not return to his normal life for quite some time.
Upon his release from the mental hospital, Scottie wanders the streets of San Francisco with a melancholic slowness in his step, hoping against hope that he will somehow find Madeleine waiting for him in the art museum or in the cemetery. One day, he spots a young woman who bears an uncanny resemblance to Madeleine, albeit with a different hair color. He follows her up to the hotel room where she lives and tells her how much she resembles the woman he loved and lost. While initially resistant to his advances, she feels sorry for him and is inwardly desperate for love and attention, so she agrees to start going out with him.
It is here that the story’s thematic richness is brought most compellingly to the surface. Without revealing the major plot twist that occurs for the sake of those who have not yet experienced the film, it will suffice to say that Scottie becomes creepily obsessed with transforming Judy into the exact image of the woman he loved. He does not give a damn about Judy as a person; he merely desires to use her to amend his heartbreak and re-fulfill a sexual longing that he knows deep down can never really be filled again.
Judy knows that she is being used, and she is initially resistant to it. “Couldn’t you like me just the way I am?” she asks Scottie with eyes that convey a heartbreaking longing for genuine love. But Scottie does not want to like Judy; he wants to like Madeleine, and he will not be satisfied until Judy throws away every trace of herself for the sake of his fantasy. Sexual obsession has frozen over his once-warm heart and rendered him incapable of genuine love.
While Judy is heartbroken that Scottie will never like nor love her for the way she is, she does not run away from him; rather, she consents to let him use her as an object and fulfill his obsessive fantasy of bringing Madeleine back from the dead. Like all human beings, she has a deep-rooted thirst for love and affection, a thirst that so far no person in her life has ever quenched. She knows that if she allows Scottie to transform her into Madeleine, he will at least give her a simulation of what it is like to be passionately cared for, and after years of loneliness and being used by other men, she has decided to settle for a simulation. “If I do what you tell me, will you love me?” she asks Scottie with acute desperation in her voice. “Yes, yes,” he replies with all-too-insincere eagerness. Then come Judy’s tragic words: “Alright. Alright, then, I’ll do it. I don’t care anymore about me.”
Scottie and Judy are both tragic victims of a sinister spiritual attack on their natural human desire to love and be loved. Scottie develops genuine compassion and concern for Madeleine as he does his best to protect her from harm, but this genuine compassion and concern is imbalanced by a carnal, semi-adulterous sexual obsession that is eventually shaped into outright lust when he later uses Judy to fulfill a fantasy of Madeleine. His desire to love is twisted by heartbreak and his own human frailty; on the other hand, Judy’s desire to be loved is mangled by discouragement and her all-too-human willingness to embrace what feels like love even though it is not. These two lost souls collide at the wrong time, and the results are ultimately devastating.
Vertigo is a haunting and much-needed work of art that speaks to the rampant societal problem of people using and being used by each other for the sake of satisfying imposterous feelings of love in their fragile hearts. Each human being is a priceless treasure and needs to be genuinely loved and valued as such. While sin may sometimes blind us on the path to true and fulfilling love, our sight can always be restored with the help of our Heavenly Friend.
About the Author
Sam Hendrian is a student at John Paul the Great Catholic University (Class of 2019) pursuing a double emphasis in Screenwriting and Directing.