Some analysts attacked me while I watched Vertigo
Tonight I watched Vertigo (1958), and some of my friends couldn’t stop rattling on about how great this movie is. It does have a lot to like, but somehow it’s not my favorite. It doesn’t have the flavor or charm of The Man Who Knew Too Much or the intrigue of North by Northwest. Then there’s the pace, because even The Wrong Man seems speedy by comparison. However, Vertigo is a deeply personal movie, and the characters show it. Jimmy Stewart puts on another great performance, as the deeply twisted and manipulated John. By the way, it has symbolism and allegories and deep meanings. Maybe I do like this movie, after all.
John develops severe vertigo after the death of a colleague, who himself tried to save John as he was clinging to the side of a roof. John retires from the police force. He seems restless and uneasy at the beginning of the movie, defensive about his condition as he talks to his friend, Midge. He is single-minded and obsessive, but overlooks the simplest things, like his friend Midge, who is obviously in love with him.
His friend Gavin decides to manipulate John in order to cover up a murder. John is in a weak state, so he’s easily overcome by Gavin’s beautiful mistress, who is posing as his wife “Madeline”. She creates a blonde persona for herself in order to seduce John and fake her own suicide, so John can be a witness to a body falling off a roof, when in fact the body was Gavin’s wife being thrown off. Since he knew John would struggle up the stairs to reach “Madeline”, John was the perfect patsy.
The interesting part of this movie isn’t the murder plot, which I’ve just summarized, although that takes up most of the movie’s runtime. No, the strange part is the latter half, where John encounters a woman who looks almost exactly like Madeline, the woman he fell in love with who was posing as Gavin’s wife. John is not aware of the ploy, so he doesn’t realize until the end that the woman is Judy, the deceptive liar who was dressed up as Madeline. In the meantime, John meets the real Judy by accident and starts dating her, forcing her into his vision of what a beautiful woman should look like. She dresses Judy up to look like “Madeline”, forcing her to wear the same clothes and dye her hair blonde. What a weirdo.
The symbolism in Vertigo is maybe the strongest in any of Hitchcock’s yarns. His best buddy Midge represents practicality and comfort. She’s the best friend and confidant, but never the lover. Madeline is the dream girl, albeit a fabrication. Ironically, her character is a fabrication, since Judy is really Madeline in disguise. Madeline only exists in John’s mind, which makes the latter half of the movie kinda uncomfortable, because she continues to exist in his mind after her death. Madeline is unattainable. John doesn’t love Judy, only his vision. Only by dressing up as Madeline, can Judy hope to make John happy, which is kinda stupid and idiotic if you ask me.
In fact, most of this movie deals with the themes of perspective and artificiality. There’s all kinds of allusions to brainwashing and the domineering male figure, which is duped by false promises and unattainable goals. I’ve seen no other movie where a man is so utterly duped, hopelessly lost in an illusion. The movie certainly isn’t kind to women either, if you want to read it that way. They use men like objects and are used like objects, all the same.
The movie also deals with slaves to illusion, much like society covets fiction every single day of the year, through books, television and movies. John is obsessed with Madeline, or at least the idea of Madeline. Judy’s feelings change to pity for John, and she becomes obsessed with making him happy, for whatever stupid reason. They are both slaves to an image of something unattainable, something more perfect than they have. Hitchcock’s most common character is an innocent man wrongly accused or put into a nightmare situation, which certainly works well here.
There are several unanswered questions in this movie. Why does Gavin kill his wife? Why does he select such a complicated cover-up plot for John to be involved in? Why is the murderer of the fake Madeline never caught by police? Most importantly, why does the plot involve a strange story of possession? None of these are ever answered. Madeline claims to be possessed by the ghost of a Spanish woman, and Gavin hires John to find out more about what is going on, which is the introduction to this movie. This use of a doppelgänger can be seen throughout the movie.
Women as objects is a theme more and more common throughout the movie, as characters are depicted in art, or in profile as they walk by John. This is probably a reference to the theme of illusion, once again. Nothing is as it really seems. There have been whole psychoanalysis papers written at Stanford about this movie and my stupid summary is only scratching the surface.
Overall, this is a great movie. It touches on a lot of themes, but all of them seem related and seamlessly flow together to form an entertaining narrative. Jimmy Stewart and Kim Novak both are great. The pace might be much slower than The Man Who Knew Too Much, but there’s still a lot to take in. If you like movie analysis, this is the one to study. I will say of the ending, the movie makes clear that John is deranged. His downfall is from within himself, with his inability to cope with his fear of heights and his reprehensible behavior in treating Judy like a collector’s item first issue.