A Vertiginous Horror

Review of Vertigo, Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

Alfred Hitchcock made famous movies, lots of them. Four of his films are on the American Film Institute’s list of greatest movies of all time; five on BFI’s list, six on Roger Ebert’s, and nine on IMDB.com’s. Volumes have been written about the man and his movies, and a movie has been made about the man making his movies. His stuff has become so iconic that it has entered into the cultural atmosphere. Even if you have never seen it, you know the infamous shower scene in Psycho (1960).

Hitchcock got another jewel in his crown a couple years back when the decennial BFI poll dethroned Citizen Kane (review) from its long-standing perch as the official Greatest Movie of All Time, and anointed Vertigo (1958) in its place.

Which is strange, because while Kane can at least claim to tell a universal story–about the loss of innocence, the yearning for a mother’s love, and the betrayal of wealth–Vertigo is a bizarre psychodrama about a man’s obsession with heights and blondes.

I.

The plot of Vertigo is famously convoluted. It revolves around a murder the details of which are insanely contrived and implausible and to which we, as viewers, don’t have access until the film is nearly over. We learn the details in a perfunctory thirteen-second flashback one hour and forty minutes into the movie.

That makes watching Vertigo for the first time maddening: you have no idea what’s going on or why characters act as they do. Long stretches of worldless action on screen seems pointless. That’s because Vertigo isn’t really about murder. The plot device is incidental to a truly weird love story–or, more accurately, a lust-and-obsession story. True love is nowhere to be found here.

[Spoilers ahead. But, really, here is a movie you might actually enjoy watching with some foreknowledge of the plot].

The obsession is between Scotty (Jimmy Stewart) and a distant blonde whom he initially knows as Madeleine (Kim Novak). The problem is that “Madeleine” is a fiction, a role played by a woman named Judy as part of the overly-complicated murder plot (just go with me on this). The further problem is that Judy falls in love with Scotty, while Scotty is in love with (or obsessed with), not Judy, but the character she plays.

The film’s themes–obsession and manipulation–only come into focus on the last thirty minutes or so. Scotty tries to manipulate Judy into playing the character again. He presses her to wear the right clothes, dye her hair and style it just right. All he wants is to experience being with “Madeleine” again. Even though he knows Judy isn’t her, he feels like he can recapture the feeling of being with her if Judy looks just right.

I remembered Jay Gatsby and his pursuit of Daisy (see my reviews of the book and movie). These men chase their women not because they love them, but because they have put the women on a pedestal, treated them as an unattainable object, and the chance to possess the ideal stokes their male drive.

Hitchcock is dramatizing how men so often fabricate an image of perfect femininity in their imaginations and then try to manipulate actual women to conform to that image (a dynamic which Hitchcock would be intimately familiar with as a director of actresses). Thus the allure of pornography, the perfectly controlled woman.

Judy allows herself to be reshaped by Scotty’s obsession because she wants him to like her. Several times she presents herself as asks, “Do you like me?” or “Like me now?” Women play into the game of men’s imagination because, too often, they feel it’s the only way to be loved.

C.S. Lewis wrote in The Great Divorce “What we called love down there was mostly the craving to be loved.” Scotty and Judy do not love each other, but they cling to one another because each is addicted to the way the other makes them feel. I remember again that the Bible regularly equates idolatry with adultery.

II.

This is a weird movie, but there is no denying its power. The movie creates an atmosphere of creepy intrigue, in no small part through its haunting score. Vertigo without its music would be dull stuff. We spend a lot of the movie watching Scotty watch Madeleine/Judy, while the music tells us how Scotty is feeling. It breathes an air of wistfulness and dread. I felt like a voyeur, dirty and furtive. 

Ultimately the movie got away from me. I could no longer follow its emotional path; Scotty was too far gone in his obsession that I couldn’t relate. Or, more accurately, I no longer wanted to. Scotty delves so far into his obsession, going to lengths most men only go to in their imaginations, that he becomes repulsive, bullying, and manipulative. He starts the movie as your friendly neighborhood push-over and ends as a domineering and creepy stalker. I felt myself pulling away from the movie as Scotty deteriorated.

The finale struck a wrong chord. Judy ambiguously falls to her death–it isn’t clear if it was an accident or a suicide, but I think by the logic of the movie Scotty should have pushed her. His descent into villainy should have culminated in her murder and his guilt. I’m not sure why Hitchcock chose the ending he did–which is, in any case, abrupt in the extreme. 

I’m also baffled as to why this movie is counted as the Greatest Movie of All Time by BFI. This is probably an example of afficionados being so impressed by how a movie is made that they no longer care what it is about. No doubt, Vertigo is an expertly-made film by a master of the form at the top of his game. But it is also a deeply disturbing look at the terrible things men and women do to each other under the pretense of love, at the end of which there is only despair. True greatness should make room for hope.


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