1 Year, 100 Movies: #9 Vertigo (1958)


For 1 Year, 100 Movies, I will watch all of AFI’s 100 Years, 100 Movies list (compiled in 2007) in one year- and will complete a goal on my 2013 Manifesto. Come along on the ride with me- oh, and please pass the popcorn!

In “Vertigo“, John Ferguson (James Stewart), is a detective forced to give up police work when he develops acrophobia (the fear of heights) after a traumatic event where a fellow police officer falls to his death. Because of his acrophobia, John takes early retirement from the police force, but soon an old friend, Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore), asks John for a favor. Gavin explains to John that his wife, Madeline (Kim Novak), has been acting strangely. She seems to have been possessed by a malevolent spirit of a past ancestor, and Gavin believes that while in one of her trances, Madeline may hurt herself. Gavin wants John to follow Madeline to accumulate evidence, so that Gavin may be able to commit her to an institution, if needed.

John begins to follow Madeline’s every move. First he follows her to a florist where she purchases a small arrangement. From there she visits an old grave at the Mission Dolores, before going to the Legion of Honor, where she sits and stares at a large portrait. John finds out that the woman in both the painting and the grave are the same, Carlotta Valdes- who in the portrait is holding a flower arrangement just like the one Madeline purchased. She was a tragic figure, the great great grandmother of Madeline, and the discarded mistress of a wealthy businessman, Carlotta took her own life when she was the same age as Madeline. Gavin tells John that he fears for Madeline’s life, and as if on cue, Madeline jumps into San Francisco Bay. John, who has become enamored of Madeline, rushes to pull her from the watery depths. He rushes the unconscious Madeline back to his apartment, and puts her to bed. When she wakes, they have an awkward chat by John’s fire. John’s growing obsession with Madeline is becoming clear. She seems to share his affections, if not his obsession. Madeline leaves abruptly, but searches him out the next day. As the two wander the city together, it seems like it was only a matter of time before they kiss.

Madeline and John now go about the town together, and Madeline continues having her visions. In them she sees a Spanish mission, which she believes she has never been to before, but John tells her she was having one of her spells- she really has been to the Mission San Juan Bautista. They plan a day trip, but everything seems to be unraveling. When Madeline (overcome by Carlotta) runs off to the bell tower, John runs after her, but he struggles up the stairs because of his fear of heights, and doesn’t make it far enough before Madeline throws herself from the tower’s heights, just as Carlotta had done before. This scene is an amazing moment of cinematic imagery, the beautifully lit tower in the center of the shot seen from above, on the left side, folks climbing a ladder to retrieve Madeline’s body from the roof, and on the right side, John leaving the scene. Madeline’s death doesn’t occur until over halfway through “Vertigo.” The first half is all tone and character development.

Consumed by guilt, John succumbs to a feverish dream where he sees Carlotta framed in such a way as to accentuate her necklace. At this point, we see it as an image of Carlotta’s spirit haunting John. He did after all follow Madeline as she wandered from relic to relic marking Carlotta’s life and death. After John’s psychological break he is admitted to a mental hospital. The trauma of almost falling from a rooftop, coupled with the grim image of his dead lover has proven too much for him. Ever the dutiful standby, John’s friend and ex, Midge Wood (Barbara Bel Geddes) visits, though John is despondent and unresponsive. This moment is ironic as this is where we as viewers thought Madeline should be, but now John is the one broken.

After John recovers enough to leave the institution, he still haunts the locations where he and Madeline used to go. One one of these outings he runs into Judy, a shop girl who bears a remarkable likeness to Madeline. John follows her back to her apartment where she proves her identity to him- he thinks that maybe Madeline somehow survived. Once John has left- with the promise of dinner- Judy composes a letter that we are privy to. She reveals that she was the Madeline whom John fell in love with, though she is not the real Madeline Elster. Gavin had employed Judy so that he could murder his real wife, and have a convenient witness to her “suicide” who would testify to her mental state. Judy destroys the letter, but the images of the murder and her role still come to her. We see her picking her outfit for the dinner, and she hides the suit that “Madeline” perished in toward the back of the closet.

John wants to mold Judy into Madeline, to change her clothes, her hair, and her makeup. He cares little for the woman in front of him, and instead yearns for the lost idealized woman that haunts his mind. His obsession becomes uncomfortable for Judy and the viewer, but Judy, out of love for John or possibly just the desire for love, gives in to John’s demands. When the transformation is complete John’s obsession with Judy/Madeline is realized. As they plan to go out, Judy makes a mistake choosing her accessories. Judy puts on the necklace that Carlotta wore in her painting, and that John saw in his delusion.

John sees he’s been duped, and now the creepy control that he’s exerted over Judy to this point steps over the line into madness. John drives Judy to the scene of the crime, and forces Judy up the steps in the mission bell tower, as he describes the crime to her. She is scared of him- and likely of the tower also. Once they reach the top, John is overjoyed that he has overcome his fear of heights, but as a nun comes up the steps, Judy is frightened, looses her footing and falls just as the real Madeline did when Gavin pushed her over. The brilliant Hitchcock leaves us with a final image of John, shocked looking down at Judy.

This is Jimmy Stewart, folks. The likable, bumbling, guy next door that won us over in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” “The Philadelphia Story,” and “It’s A Wonderful Life.” Here he is a crazed, weak, angry, insecure, despicable character, who still manages to illicit our sympathy. Stewart rises to the challenge and gives an honest and believable performance. His character is an utterly broken individual, and though his actions are often questionable, we can understand why such a person would act in this way.

“Vertigo” is sadly Alfred Hitchcock’s final film on AFI’s list, but seeing his films in this manner has cemented for me that his directing is legend, having dominated the list with with three prior appearances, “North By Northwest,” “Rear Window,” and “Psycho,” all powerful films. “Vertigo” will stay high on any list of great films, because its complexity does not stem from the plot points, but from the motivation and intent behind actions that we see on screen.

In my humble, non-professional, average movie-goer opinion this movie earns:



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