“The gentleman seems to know what he wants,” deadpans a saleswoman in the final act of Vertigo, Alfred Hitchcock’s rich and strange masterwork, as she observes James Stewart’s round-the-bend retired detective monomaniacally outfitting his shopgirl squeeze (Kim Novak) in high-end threads identical to those of a lost woman—the young lady’s spitting image—whose love and life slipped away from him. While the scene, echoing the Orpheus myth (plus a hint of Frankenstein) in its imagery of a man trying to revivify the dead, helps to qualify this morbid romance as perhaps the classiest fetish movie produced in Hollywood, Vertigo is greater than even the sum of Bernard Herrmann’s versatile, indispensable score, its evocative use of San Francisco locations, and Stewart’s earnest, anguished performance as the increasingly unhinged John “Scottie” Ferguson. Perverse, poetic, steeped in emotional desolation and destructive obsession, it delivers a fearlessly dolorous view of longing and betrayal in the guise of an acrophobia thriller, making through its classical ambitions (referenced by Herrmann’s swelling variations on Wagner’s “Liebestod”) and enduring fascinations a splendid case for Hitchcock as a grand experimental artist who labored in commercial genre cinema.
Freely adapted from a French novel written in homage to the director himself, the film’s dream logic has never cast a universal spell; mulish literalists, whom Hitchcock once bitingly dismissed as “the plausibles,” can endlessly pick apart its convoluted plot, but that’s to neglect the prosaic resolution of many of its enigmatic mysteries. Sidelined from police work by a fear of heights, Scottie reluctantly takes a private job from shipbuilder and former college chum Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore, an unsettling cipher) to follow his young wife Madeleine (Novak, a bleached, porcelain icon in her first incarnation). The problem is “not that,” but Elster’s suspicion that Madeleine is spellbound or even possessed by the spirit of her Mexican great-grandmother, a mid-19th-century suicide after a sorrowful affair, whose museum portrait and mission grave transfix the gray-suited blonde phantom Scottie trails across the city in long, hypnotic pursuits by car and foot. Once he has to pull his quarry out of the bay after she somnambulantly jumps in, Novak and Stewart share their first dialogue—after Scottie has stripped and dried the unconscious but corporeal specter whose unearthly aura he’s succumbed to.
The ensuing psychodrama is Scottie’s, as he attempts to find a “key” to Madeleine’s inchoate pain, suffers a traumatic blow when his vertigo paralyzes him on the stairs of a bell tower, and withdraws into mute melancholia before reemerging to find Judy, a forthright Kansas emigrant with Madeleine’s face but none of her finishing-school diction. As the most unreadable of Hitchcock’s femmes fatales, Novak’s limited range initially seems inadequate for the role of an idolized madwoman, but when the film solves the Madeleine/Judy paradox for the audience in advance of Scottie’s climactic awakening, her alternating currents of stiff passivity and overheated panic seem retroactively apt. And Stewart, going even further afield from his (now overemphasized) Middle-American everyman persona than he did as the voyeur hero of Rear Window, embodies helplessness, guilt, and in Vertigo’s astonishing final movements, a successive tour-de-force of mania, rage, and heartbreak that climaxes in his broken “Madeleine, I loved you so” upon returning to that fateful mission bell tower.
Stewart’s great performance doesn’t fully delineate Scottie anymore than Hitchcock attempts to tell a naturalistic story, and his elusive affliction(s) are a large part of what makes the film compelling on re-viewings. Is his vertigo a metaphor? For what? Barbara Bel Geddes, as his saucy and jealousy-prone friend Midge, gets a somber, eloquent close-up when Scottie reminds her that she ended their collegiate engagement, strongly indicating that she saw an impediment to their happiness in him then. Certainly Scottie’s ambivalent relationships with his two love interests suffer from an imbalance of power; he’s willingly lured by Madeleine’s beauty, danger, and seeming neediness, but as an insistent, nearly sadistic Pygmalion in transforming Judy, says of dyeing her hair, “It can’t matter to you.” (A minor character says that Madeleine’s 1850s forebear was discarded because men of the era “had the power” to do so; it seems undiminished when Judy’s beaming hairdresser tells Scottie, “We know what you want, sir.”) In genre terms, Scottie is played for a sap, but his downfall comes from within, after failing to heal Madeleine and treating Judy as merely an objet d’art. Left haunted, staring down from the edge of an abyss, Vertigo’s stunted antihero is a figure of pathos in need of benefit from its closing supplication: “God have mercy.”