Vertigo (1958)

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Written by Alec Coppel and Samuel A. Taylor from a novel by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac
Alfred J. Hitchcock Productions
Repeat viewing/Netflix rental

Madeleine: Only one is a wanderer; two together are always going somewhere.

The definition of a movie you must see before you die.

The setting is San Francisco.  Detective John “Scotty” Ferguson (James Stewart) is hanging from a roof gutter several stories above ground.  He must watch helplessly as a policeman who is coming to his rescue slips and falls to his death.

We segue to several months later as Scotty has recovered from his physical injuries.  His psychological trauma may never heal.  He has been left with a disabling fear of heights and vertigo.  His close friend and ex-fiancee Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes) encourages him to get on with his life.  The independently wealthy Scotty prefers to wander aimlessly for the moment.  Midge clearly is still in love with Scotty but broke off the engagement because he seemed lukewarm at best.


Scotty gets a call from an old college friend, Gavin Elster.  Elster tells him a fantastical tale about his wife Madeleine who he believes has been possessed by the spirt of her ancestor Carlotta Valdes.  He wants Scotty to tale her and find out how she spends her time. Scotty is reluctant to get involved but agrees to have Elster point her out at a restaurant.  Madeleine is played by an icy blonde Kim Novak and Scotty is instantly hooked.

Scotty follows Madeleine on her own wanderings through Carlotta’s history.  After he saves her from a jump into San Francisco Bay, the two fall in love.  But nothing in this movie is what it seems.


This film amply demonstrates all Hitchcock’s genius at its very height and throws in psychological depth to boot.  It is perhaps the perfect film about obsession and twisted desire.  All the elements are virtual perfection.

That said, this is neither my favorite Hitchcock film nor my candidate for best film ever.  I’ve been thinking it over and perhaps my niggling failure to suspend my disbelief in the plot is to blame.  As a murder plan it makes absolutely no sense to me even though the film explains how it was supposed to work a couple of different times.  It seems like too much trouble and too likely of failure to cross anyone’s mind.  As a plan to drive Scotty insane, it has more merit, but the author of the conspiracy has no motivation to do that.   There’s also a certain coldness and cruelty to the film that prevents it from being my favorite.

The DVD contains a commentary by the restoration team and various members of the production.  Kim Novak explains how she related Judy’s need to be accepted for who she was.  I find that very touching.

Vertigo was nominated for Academy Awards in the categories of Best Art Direction-Set Decoration and Best Sound.


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