A man is tempted by an insidious, curvaceous force that feigns the feminine form and he slowly finds himself wound up like a ball of yarn for the cats’ night out. That’s how Vertigo begins, but only in the most superficial sense how it dissolves. It stars James Stewart as Scottie Ferguson, a private eye hired by a friend to spy on the friend’s wife Madeline (Kim Novak), whom the man believes is possessed by a familial specter who has long overstayed her tenancy in the human body. Soon enough, Scottie finds himself in love, and perhaps so too does Madeline. Things truck along in ghostly romantic chiller fashion from this point on, but director Alfred Hitchcock couldn’t resist slopping some blood on the tracks.
In 1958, Hitch was on top of the world, but he was about to blow the roof out. Over the next three years, he would release perhaps his tripartite masterpiece, spinning wildly from the psychoanalytic modernism of Vertigo to the boisterous, brash thrills-a-minute of North by Northwest, and sticking the landing with the black-hearted chiller Psycho, which would forever redefine horror filmmaking. All apologies to his latter two efforts, Vertigo is his time-capsule piece, and arguably the most singular and unclassifiable American film of released post-Welles. The reason for the film’s success is simple: it is quite clearly Hitchcock having the most fun he ever did behind a camera, cackling some of his most dementedly grotesque chuckles in the process. It’s a maddening, cataclysmic, ungodly little curio that plays a downright mean trick on the audience, and goes home laughing all the way.
When one thinks “Hitchcock” and draws a line to “fractured storytelling”, the shortest path will undoubtedly be through Psycho. Fair, but the most elliptical, angular, jagged, and altogether fun line to trace will be Vertigo, a work that trades on Orpheus, Shakespeare, Freud, and Wagner and subverts all of them. A mid-film tragedy sees the somnambulant Madeline out of commission and Scottie reeling from the psychosis. He awakes to find Madeline long-lost, and another woman fresh off the train from the Mid-West in her place. This Judy bears an unmistakable physical similarity to Madeline, and Scottie is taken aback. They meet, as men and women are wont to do in Hitchcock films, but things take a sharp turn to the right and and thrust directly into the core of our society’s heart.
The latter portions of Vertigo are a most naughty beast, a dissection of the entire Hitchcock mythos and the way American society squares its filmic gaze strictly at the masculine eye level, finding room for women only as object. Vertigo obliges us with its male gaze, but the film takes a step back behind Scottie and looks again. The film isn’t carried forth on the waves of romantic desire, but on Scottie’s pathological neuroses to shape and reshape the feminine form to his own desires. Hitch turns the lens back on Jeffries as a man who refuses to give up what he wants, and what he wants is a plaything brought back from the dead to do his bidding. Now that Madeline, if it is Madeline, has started anew, he finds room for agency in transforming her, reshaping her identity, and making her his.
Hitch draws us in like flies, using his patented formalism to retrace the steps of his older films, almost all of which are told from the male gaze, and then to double back and retrace again with a more scrupulous eye. We want the Scottie-Judy relationship to succeed, and Hitchcock knows we want it to succeed; after all, the movies tell us it ought to, huh? He implicates us in wanting Scottie to do what it takes to find love and pursue his Madeline. And then he pulls out the rug, keeling love into obsession and recasting romance with power.
Within, it’s hard not to parallel Vertigo with the director’s own past, as it was with Rear Window four years earlier. Both films deal with a main character whose obsession directly confronts the filmic gaze interpreting gender. Except while Rear Window’s LB Jeffries was openly confined to the theater of his camera, Scottie is free to skulk about society. Thus, Vertigo sees film suffusing life, getting up to walk around as it pleases. And it’s telling that the two both star Jimmy Stewart. There’s an old line about how Hitch cast the ever-anxious Stewart when his film centered Hitch the man, and he cast the easy-going, debonair Cary Grant when Hitch wanted to make a film about who Hitch wanted to be. In other words, Hitch’s movies went to Grant, his films to Stewart, if you forgive the uneasy and deliberately simplistic comparison. Vertigo is a film with a movie as its prologue, and it has as much fun as humanly imaginable toying with the relationship between the two.
It was with Stewart that Hitch most forcefully and openly dealt with obsession and most forcefully turned the camera back on himself, here not as the fantasy-man who could save the world through providing upbeat escapist entertainment and living vicariously through his characters. Instead, he was a shell of a man playing with others, and asserting himself onto human women like a bully or a predator. He spent his life constructing false roles for people according to his desires, living through his products and projects (the famously dry and maniacal director was once asked if he thought actors were cattle; his response, a cheeky “I never said all actors are cattle. What I said was all actors should be treated like cattle”). Vertigo directly connects Hitch’s domineering filmic gaze by way of Ferguson to the assertion of the male gaze onto the female body. Hitch merely found new tools to distill this gaze, to capture it in permanence by amplifying it through a lens. He crammed his camera into an Igor outfit and rendered it a tool of the male gaze, a tool of social oppression. If Vertigo is any indication, this position welcomed demons aplenty. Hitch wanted to battle them, and film was the only way he knew how.
If the film preys on the self-reflexive, the question of tone remains. Vertigo isn’t an indictment of Scottie and the male gaze, but an exploration from within. Hitch, after all, still made all of those films he’s critiquing here, and critiquing from the inside still entails a certain reaffirmation of those films to begin with. Scottie is treated as much like a victim as Madeline; Hitch fancies him a tormented soul of tragic hubris undone by the walls of society coming down upon him. When we meet him, Madeline is his tempter after all. If the film soon enough sees her the victim of another male party playing out his own power fantasy upon Scottie, it still feels a certain disdain for the way she fools with Scottie’s life in this social role. The film has a thing or two to say to Hitch’s undying anxiety about female agency, but he doesn’t quite draw out a furious line in the sand.
What’s left to question is the film’s often un-discussed tension: Judy herself. Analysis often emphasizes the male character’s relation to Judy, important in that it rescues her humanity from the stereotype of the conniving, devious femme fatale and reminds that, in fact, this image is itself found only within the vise grip of male privilege. However, this runs the risk of denying her agency and rendering her, in fact, agency-less, someone who purely conforms to male desires and has no will of her own. Hitch was still a grand ol’ boy’s director at the head of the big boy’s club that was and is Old Hollywood. If he can criticize himself, he still gets to walk home with the power at the end of the day. Thus, if we are to elevate Vertigo to the halls of confrontational classics, we ought to realize its limits, and understand that it is still the product of a man’s world, a product made by a male director. And try as it might, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.
All the confusion signals only one thing in truth: Vertigo is a film to dive into, the product of meticulous craft at its cryptic, elliptical height. Hitch was clearly a complicated soul at the time of its release, and one could lose oneself in the hellish onslaught of icy analytics and intellectual ardor on display here. In fact, Hitch clearly intends it. Visually, he constructs walls upon walls around us as he comes the closest he ever did to abstracting physical space and playing with color-hues to delineate character and location from one another. The film’s playfulness and geometric deductions play out most frightfully in the opening credits, when abstract lines unspool and hypnotize before they are rendered the physical world’s greatest portrait of truth, or faucet of lies: an eyeball. The film never explicitly abstracts itself quite to this level again, but the spirit of color and shape to define story and character is the film’s dear friend throughout. As is Bernard Herrmann’s grandest score, a work of diabolical, devious genius playing out like a calliope smashing together demented machinations, classicist edge, and jarring symphony.
Many more presents await the patient, embattled viewer. Vertigo is a film for unearthing. It does not wash over you. It jabs, stimulates, and thrusts forward with impenetrable drive and dares you to debate with it in agony, subsuming theater and classical music into its beguiling, silken smooth translucence and hinting at Shakespeare as it strangles you with its tapestry. Everything comes together in the most shredded, lascivious, perfect way: not simply the look and the sound, but the film’s disturbingly accurate, militant, symmetrical narrative structure, Stewart’s piercing double-take of a performance, and even Kim Novak’s oddly perfect alien-like inability to emote. Even its title, Vertigo, is ambidextrous. Ferguson suffers from panic and acrophobia, yes, but they are Hitch’s ultimate MacGuffin. Scottie’s undoing is as much of power as panic, and we can never be truly sure what fear the film suffers from most. Thus is its vivid, fluorescent, flaming, scandalous mystery, its dizzying and incandescent, insurrectionist lightning-in-a-bottle worry. It feels eternally alive with discovery, eternally finding new things in itself to draw out, always transitory even in its permanence and oblique but never didactic. It feels like a film forever in the making.