Vertigo is a masterpiece. Or is it problematic? Why not both?
I got to watch Alfred Hitchcock’s 1958 thriller again this past weekend, on the big screen for the first time, and it never fails to amaze me with its bold colours and dazzling imagery. It’s one of Hitchcock’s most perverse works, on the surface another glossy, stylish tale of murder and mystery but underneath, it plunges deep into the depths of sex and longing.
(Spoilers ahoy for a 63-year-old movie follow:)
Vertigo starts as a thriller, turns into a mystery, pivots into a love story, and then goes right back around to where it began again. It’s about the cruelty love can create, in the perils of obsession. Vertigo‘s reputation has risen over the years, and it was named the best movie of all time in the critics’ Sight and Sound poll a few years back. But some also say that Vertigo is overrated and rather, well, problematic in its take on women.
“Problematic,” like “woke,” can sometimes turn into one of those words that doesn’t really mean any more than “I don’t like this thing.” Vertigo is problematic, but a problem means something you’re supposed to figure out, something you twist and examine in your head and come to your own conclusions about.
Jimmy Stewart’s Scottie is a haunted man, a former police detective traumatised by his near-death on the job, laid out in the smashingly tense opening sequence, and the resulting fear of heights it’s given him. When old friend Gavin approaches him and asks him to spy on his peculiar-acting wife Madeleine, Scottie is hesitant, but takes the case. But Scottie finds that distant, mysterious Madeleine (a luminous Kim Novak, perhaps the ultimate Hitchcock ice queen) ends up captivating him far more than he’d ever dreamed. He falls for her, but then she apparently dies in a hideous suicide/accident.
Scottie is shattered, sinking deep into his fixations, seeing Madeleine everywhere. When he stumbles across a woman named Judy who vaguely resembles her, he falls for her and takes control of her life, remaking her hair, wardrobe and style so she’s a dead ringer for Madeleine. Spoiler alert: She actually is Madeleine, in hiding after one of those typically twisty Hitchcock murder plots. She was hired by Gavin to pretend to be his wife and suck Scottie into being a witness, and is actually a cog in a conspiracy to have Gavin’s actual wife murdered (she was the one killed in the “suicide”). It’s convoluted and far-fetched, but basically the plot is an excuse for Hitchcock to delve deep into the tropes of obsession, and boy does Vertigo deliver.
There’s been a lot written about Hitchcock’s relationships with his actresses, and his unpleasant habit of moulding them like clay into his blonde, icy vision of what a woman “should” be. Certainly a lot of what he apparently did was utterly wrong, but the obsessiveness of his art itself still created a potent cinematic world, never more layered in meaning than it was in Vertigo.
Casting good ol’ Jimmy Stewart, well on the way to losing the aw-shucks charm of his earlier work with nuanced portrayals in movies like Rope and Rear Window, was Hitchcock’s masterstroke. He’s the embodiment of the male gaze here, at first passive and objective, but gradually invading Madeline/Joan’s “new life” and remaking her to fit the girl in his head. The scenes where “victim” Scottie turns the tables to prod Joan are still hard to watch today. It’s one of his best performances. If Hitchcock saw himself somehow as the hero in his films, then he’s revealing an awful lot about his own predilections and flaws here.
In something like North by Northwest, there’s a clear hero in Hitchcock’s tale. But Scottie’s behaviour in Vertigo pushes back against the hero role. You’re set up to identify with him as genial Jimmy Stewart at the start, but over the course of the film, Stewart’s amiable grin develops into a creeper’s unnerving stare. He abuses his “new” Madeleine Judy with persistence, not with a slap but with mental cruelty, shaping her into the woman he thinks he lost. But like all relationships, it’s complicated, and Hitchcock here makes both parties culpable in their obsessive dance.
While Scottie acts wrongly, let’s not forget that in Vertigo, Judy/Madeleine is a character who aided in an innocent woman’s murder, so she’s no angel here. But is she the villain?
The real villain is probably the dodgy husband Gavin, who vanishes to Europe and doesn’t pay a price for his sin. He’s simply a plot element in Hitchcock’s little pantomime of obsession. Vertigo is a murder mystery where the murderer barely matters.
Madeleine/Judy pays a price at the end of Vertigo, as the plot drives her back to same place she assisted in her double’s murder, and a spooky bit of vengeance (actually, a baffled nun with an amazingly poor sense of timing) leads to her own death. She pays a price for the sins orchestrated by the men in her life.
But what about Scottie? The last shot of Vertigo is of him standing, aghast, at a great height, contemplating the ruin of his own life. Perhaps he’s conquered his vertigo and perhaps he hasn’t. Perhaps he falls. Perhaps he doesn’t. It’s no heroic epiphany.
Is he the villain here? Sometimes he is, sometimes he’s not. The pleasures of Vertigo after all these years is how dizzy it leaves you with ambiguities, and how the heart can make the head spin, over and over. Hitchcock was a flawed human being for sure, but in Vertigo, he turned those flaws into unforgettable images.