A detective falls for the woman he's trailing only for her to fall to her death from a tower. He tries to mould a strikingly similar looking woman into his lost love with unexpected results.
The mesmerizing title sequence for Vertigo is a collage of human eyes juxtaposed with Lissajous spirals, spidery whorls devised by a French mathematician to express numerical equations. It was Saul Bass’ first for a Hitchcock film, and as it fades out we are thrown into a scene that bears the Master’s signature as emphatically as the opening credits bear Bass’: Jimmy Stewart, as police detective Scottie Ferguson, and his partner in hot pursuit of a fugitive across the rooftops of San Francisco. In classic Hitchcock fashion, the chase culminates in Scottie losing his footing on a steeply sloping roof and dangling by his fingertips from a flimsy gutter. Attempting to save him, his partner falls to his death, leaving Scottie staring in horror at his crushed body on the pavement below. How Scottie escapes from his predicament is never explained, but the image of him clinging desperately to the feeble lip of the building stands as a metaphor for his perilous mental state throughout the events that follow: in keeping with a well-founded terror of heights, Scottie is a man suspended over an emotional and psychological abyss, into which he is doomed to plunge by a macabre obsession with a woman who doesn’t exist.
The crowning artistic achievement of Alfred Hitchcock’s incomparable career as a director, Vertigo is a strange and haunting film of breathtaking beauty, one that lingers in the memory like a disturbing dream. It was based on a novel by French writers Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac called Sueurs Froides (D’entre Les Morts). Hitchcock and the two writers who worked on the script (Alec Coppel and, most productively, Sam Taylor) transferred events from post-War Marseilles to contemporary California but kept the basic plot intact.
The many intricacies of the plot prevent a detailed summary, but in essence it is the story of a detective who falls in love with an enigmatic young woman he is tailing. The woman, Madeleine, seems to be drawn towards suicide by an ancestral curse. When she leaps to her death from the tower of an ancient Mission, the distraught detective develops a dark fascination, and in seeing Madeleine’s likeness in another woman, Judy, he attempts to recreate his lost love by moulding her into the image of Madeleine. Amid a plethora of plot twists, it transpires that Judy and ‘Madeleine’ are, in fact, the same woman (both played with icy precision by Kim Novak), the former impersonating the latter in an elaborate scheme to cover up the murder of the real Madeleine. In the book the revelation that Judy is — or was — the phantasm he is seeking drives the detective mad and he strangles her in a frenzy; in the film Scottie, battling his fear of heights, watches her fall to her death from the tower of the same Mission where he witnessed ‘Madeleine’’s fake suicide. It’s a stunning bookend to the opening prologue, poetic justice for Judy’s complicity in the real Madeleine’s murder and, for Scottie, having seen his chimerical lover die twice, a sanity-shattering cataclysm.
Part murder mystery, part twisted love story, Vertigo was an intense experience for all involved. Plagued by endless delays, partly due to Hitchcock’s ill health (following emergency surgery for gallstones he interviewed actresses and chaired script conferences from his sickbed), it was not a happy shoot. In the course of the movie’s prolonged gestation, Vera Miles, Hitchcock’s original choice for Madeleine/Judy, became pregnant and was replaced by Novak. Hitchcock took an instant dislike to her, partly because she high-handedly informed costume designer Edith Head that she would wear any colour except grey (Hitchcock insisted that Madeleine be dressed in a tightly constricting grey suit), but mostly because she was not his Madeleine, and he could never fully forgive her for it. He bullied her on set, ordering her to walk in a specific way and, exercising his notorious streak of sadism, stitching her into deliberately uncomfortable, tight-waisted costumes. There is an eerie symmetry between Hitchcock’s treatment of Novak and Scottie’s moulding of Judy. Nevertheless, the physical and emotional pressures of the shoot contributed to the uncanny tone of the film and to the superb performances of the lead actors. Stewart in particular, a Hitchcock stalwart, reveals hitherto untapped reserves of vulnerability, anguish and rage. Novak too excels herself in a dual-dual role, the identity crisis implications of which boggle the mind.
The entire film, its bright San Francisco locations given a gauzy veil of unreality by cinematographer Robert Burks, is steeped in portentous melancholy. Certain scenes have an overtly spectral quality that preys on the imagination. When we first see ‘Madeleine’ in the cemetery, she is bathed in a ghostly green light. Later, when at Scottie’s behest Judy finally emerges as Madeleine, she is illuminated by the green neon lights of a theatre marquee (inspired by Hitchcock’s memories of theatregoing as a boy). The scene ends with the famous ‘revolving kiss’. In extreme close-up, Scottie grabs Judy and kisses her violently, the camera appearing to whirl around them as Scottie is transported by memories of Madeleine (in fact, it was the scenery that was spinning). Here, as at other key moments, the recurrent theme of Bernard Herrmann’s achingly poignant score swells to a crescendo. Herrmann’s music is absolutely integral to the minor-key mood of the entire movie. The main theme has often been compared with ‘Liebestod’ from Wagner’s Tristan Und Isolde, a favourite of Hitchcock’s.
As was his wont, Hitchcock chose to shoot the most demanding scenes towards the end of principal photography; the rooftop prologue was thus filmed almost on the last day. The cameras rolled for the final time, however, on this:
“Sc. 21. Ext. Shipyard. Mr. Hitchcock walks camera left to right & out passing Scottie entering. Scottie pauses to speak to Gateman who gestures and Scottie walks on & out.”
An essential component to be sure, but still for some reason an incongruously droll and jaunty bit of business for a film as troubled, troubling and impossible to shake off as this.
Hitchcockand his accomplished cast at their very best.