Vertigo: Acrophobia Is Just The Beginning

Det. John ‘Scottie’ Ferguson (James Stewart) is asked by college friend, Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore) if he would investigate his wife Madeleine (Kim Novak). Her behaviour has been rather strange. At the present, she’s started believing that she is the reincarnation of a lady who died years ago and Elster is worried that she isn’t of a sound mind. Scottie tails her and saves her from a suicide attempt when she jumps into San Francisco Bay. Eventually, he gets to know her and they fall in love.

They head to an old mission church and he couldn’t stop her from climbing to the top of the steeple because of his vertigo. And she thus jumps to her death. In the aftermath, an investigation concludes that she took her own life and the fault is with Scottie for not stopping her in the first place. Months later, he meets a woman called Judy Barton (Kim Novak), very much a doppelgänger of Madeleine. He can’t explain why, but she is identical to the woman who died. Vertigo is another Hitchcock classic, riddled with intrigue, mystery, romance and of course, the classic Hitchcock twist.

Scottie (James Stewart) and

Scottie (James Stewart) and Madeleine/Judy Barton (Kim Novak) in Vertigo
(Vertigo, Paramount Pictures)

Hitchcock has a reputation of making movies that either bomb and/or are panned by the critics at the time of their release or make a buck ton of money, but years later, the very same films are now often looked at as classics and the pinnacle of 20th century filmmaking, depending who you ask. Heck, Vertigo was named the best film of all time by the BFI in May 2016, displacing Citizen Kane (another gem). It is a classic love story: man meets woman, then loses her, meets her again and then loses her one more time. I felt lust is one of the main themes of the film, as is female commodification. It was made in a time before “feminism” was a thing, and a woman who wasn’t a damsel in distress (had an opinion) was either angry or disobeying her husband.

Vertigo wins, and loses with its characters. I don’t like how the way Scottie treats Judy. It’s rather callous if you ask me. He tries to sculpt her into his own image, and you could compare that to Hitchcock’s treatment of his renowned actresses, who came to be known as the Hitchcock Blondes, such as Janet Leigh (Psycho), Tippi Hedren (The Birds), Grace Kelly (Dial M For Murder) and Vera Miles (The Wrong Man). Kim Novak in Vertigo is a direct representation of how female actors were treated in Hollywood at the time, and somewhat now. All that being said, the performances from Kim Novak playing two characters is very good and James Stewart as Scottie is equally good. They’re no Leigh/Perkins in Psycho but they’re competent in their roles.

Shots like this are the reason why I love the Golden Age and Hitchcock pictures (Vertigo, Paramount Pictures)

Shots like this is the reason why I love the Golden Age and Hitchcock pictures
(Vertigo, Paramount Pictures)

Is Vertigo one of the best films ever made, or the best as the BFI like to call it? In my opinion, I don’t think so. But it arguably has one of the best set designs of any motion picture. It has good performances from our leading pair and an excellent score from Hitchcock’s resident composer Bernard Herrmann. But this film’s standout feature are the sets, technical camerawork as well as its take on the psychology behind vertigo itself.

Whatever you do, don’t look down!