Vertigo is the archetype for the later Hitchcock films through the mid-60s. The cool, aloof blonde at the center of the story is as dangerous as she is alluring. It is simultaneously Hitchcock’s most romantic film while being primarily concerned with self-destructive obsession. I don’t think any film more accurately summed up the director’s cynical attitude toward male-female relationships. Hitchcock did not believe in happily-ever-after, at least not as this stage of his career.
The film begins with a foot chase across a San Francisco rooftop, a suspect being pursued by a uniformed officer and Detective John “Scottie” Ferguson (James Stewart). The suspect and officer leap across the divide between two roofs. Scottie’s attempt falls short and he’s left dangling from the buildings rain gutters, several stories off the ground. The officer tries to help him but slips and falls to his death. The trauma leaves him with a paralyzing fear of heights that forces him to quit the police department.
Several months later, he’s finishing his recuperation at the home of his old friend (and former fiancee), Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes). Scottie’s on his way to meet an old college friend, Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore), who’s now a shipping magnate and knows that Scottie has left the police. Elster has a job for him: following his wife, Madeline (Kim Novak), who he says may have fallen under the spell of a dead woman. Scottie naturally scoffs but eventually Elster convinces him that, if nothing else, his wife is ill and he needs as much information as he can get before sending her to the doctors.
Scottie begins following Madeline around as she drives around San Francisco. First she visits a mission and the grave of a woman named Carlotta who died 100 years earlier. Then at the museum, she spends a long time just staring at a portrait of a woman to whom she bears an uncanny resemblance. Finally she goes to an old mansion, which is now the McKittrick Hotel. Through a historian friend of Midge’s, he learns that the woman in the painting lived in the old house and was buried at the mission. She went mad and killed herself after she was abandoned by her husband. He learns from Elster that the woman, Carlotta, was Madeline’s great-grandmother, whom she supposedly never knew about.
The next day, Madeline repeats the trip around the city, but this time goes down by the bay, under the Golden Gate Bridge, and throws herself into the water. Scottie dives in after her and drags the catatonic woman back to her car and takes her back to his apartment. Once she recovers from the surprise of waking up in a strange man’s bed with no clothes on, Scottie asks her what happened, keeping up the facade of a stranger who just happened to be down by the bay himself. She claims to not remember jumping in or knowing why she did it. When Elster telephones to find out what happened, Madeline runs off, only to return the next day. From that time forward, Scottie can drop the pretense of tailing her and accompanies her on her wanderings around the city. As the spend more time together, it’s clear that Scottie is in love with her, prompting a jealous reaction from Midge.
Madeline’s thoughts seem to steer toward a morbid fascination with her own mortality, and an obsession with the idea that the spirit of Carlotta is driving her to kill herself. She speaks of dreams about her own death. When she describe one particular dream, Scottie recognizes the place as a mission about 100 miles south of the city. Determined to prove that it’s just a memory, and not a prophetic dream, Scottie takes her there. While they are there, she seems to slip into another trance and breaks away from him, running into the church’s bell tower. Scottie takes off after her but his acrophobia leaves him helpless to prevent her from plunging to her death.
After the inquest into her death assigns him at least partial blame for her suicide, Scottie slips into a depression and is institutionalized. After he gets out, some months later, it’s clear that he is not quite over Madeline. One day on the street, he encounters Judy (also Kim Novak), a young woman who bears a striking resemblance to Madeline, except for having dark hair instead of blonde. Scottie practically bullies his way into a relationship with her and begins slowly making her over in the image of her dead doppelganger.
Despite her being Hitchcock’s second choice for the role of Madeline after Vera Miles bowed out due to pregnancy, it’s hard to imagine anyone but Kim Novak in this role. She does a marvelous job of suggesting the emotional turmoil under an exterior of icy remove. Jimmy Stewart’s portrayal of the likeable Scottie goes from excellent to remarkable as he plays against his good guy image later in the film. Finally, Barbara Bel Geddes is appealing as the kind of a sensible girl that Hitchcock’s flawed heroes would take up with if they had any sense, rather than being drawn away by the platinum-haired sirens that always seem to get them into trouble.
Hitchcock’s use of San Francisco is also noteworthy, making the city as much a character in the film as Scottie or Madeline. The image of Kim Novak plunging into the water under the Golden Gate Bridge is one of the most iconic in all of Hitchcock’s films.
If there is any flaw in Vertigo, it’s that the final resolution of the story hinges on a plot that requires too many coincidences and unasked questions to be believable, such as how does Elster know that Madeline truly isn’t aware of Carlotta. Still, the deep characterizations and haunting, dreamlike atmosphere make Vertigo one of the highest achievements of Hitckcock’s career.