One of the strangest and most hypnotic motion pictures ever made, Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo combines elements of mystery, romance and something wrapped in supernatural fear. A man named Scottie (James Stewart) has fallen in love with a woman who does not exist and as the narrative concludes, he cries out harshly against the real woman who has impersonated her.
There is a whole lot more going on than this. The real woman has fallen in love with him! In tricking him, she tricked herself. And the man, by preferring his dream to the woman standing before him, has lost both. But of course the woman he is shaping and the woman he desires are the same person. She was hired to play the dream woman ‘Madeline’ as part of a murder plot that the James Stewart character does not even begin to suspect. When he does find out he was tricked, his rage is uncontrollable. The other man has taken not merely Scottie’s woman, but also Scottie’s dream. This creates a complex moral paradox that inhabits the entire storyline.
The other man (Gavin, played by Tom Helmore) has after all only done to this woman what Scottie also wanted to do. While this process is unfolding, the real woman at the heart of Scottie’s affection, Judy, has transferred her allegiance from Gavin to Scottie, and by the final frame was not playing her role for money, but as a sacrifice for love. During their strange, stilted courtship, she begins to pity and care for Scottie so that when he asks her to remake herself into Madeline, she agrees – playing the same role the second time. We see Scottie in a rapture of lust and gratified control. We sense Judy in pain, with such a will to please. We feel hearts being torn apart. They are both slaves to an image fabricated by a man who is not even in the room – Gavin, who created Madeline as a device so he could get away with the murder of his wife.
One of the few sane voices in this dizzy tale comes from the throat of Barbara Bel Geddes, the charismatic character actress who plays Scottie’s platonic girlfriend. She senses his angst and offers real support and guidance. She also suspects, as we learn, that something must be amiss.
Based on the 1954 novel D’entre les morts (From Among the Dead) by Boileau-Narcejac, the film centers around a former police detective, John ‘Scottie’ Ferguson (James Stewart), who is forced into early retirement because an incident in the line of duty has caused him to develop acrophobia (an extreme fear of heights) and vertigo (a false sense of rotational movement).
The dramatic structure of the film is built on three parenthetical devices that open at the start of the movie and close at its end. These lend a karmic sort of framing to the story’s basic themes. The first is the suspicion of crime. The first shot of the movie is of a man being pursued by the police and chased over the rooftops of San Francisco by an officer and a plainclothes detective (James Stewart). The detective misses his leap and is hanging onto a rain gutter for dear life. The officer, attempting to help, falls to his death.
The second device utilized in Vertigo is mental illness. As the detective, Scotty tells his good friend Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes), “I have acrophobia, which gives me vertigo, and I get dizzy.” Some may want to chime in: Don’t we all?
The third structural device visible throughout the movie is sexual desire. Scotty is using a cane and bound in a corset that comes off just as he’s asked by a college friend, Gavin Elster, to do some detective work. This, of course, is a plot – the plot that sets the movie’s plot in motion. Scotty is asked to keep an eye on Elster’s wife – actually, his mistress, who is dolled up to resemble his wife, and who impersonates someone in the grips of a mental illness that plays out like a curse; her act (including her seduction of Scotty) is part of Elster’s plan to murder his actual wife.
Now what is especially interesting is that all three of these parentheses close at the end of the movie, with its crude and partial justice (a woman who is an accomplice to murder, albeit not its master plotter, ends up dead) and its psychological cure (Scotty loses his acrophobia and his vertigo). As for desire, the woman who dies is Scotty’s beloved, and with her death, his sexual desire – which made him an accomplice, albeit an unwitting one, to the same murder vanishes into memory.