Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo - Movie Review
My Vertigo Obsession
It all started back in the '80s when I was a kid. WGN was showing a special, condensed version of Vertigo one evening, and since my mom was an Alfred Hitchcock fan from way back (except for Psycho), she decided to watch it and tape it (on our VCR).
I sat through the whole thing, rapt, and I've watched the movie many times over since then. It's one of the best Hitchcock movies I've ever seen (except I do really love Psycho. Here's a basic rundown of the plot:
Retired police detective John "Scottie" Ferguson (James Stewart) is hired by an old college friend to follow his wife, the beautiful Madeleine Elster (Kim Novak). Elster believes that his wife is in some danger from either herself or the spirit of her great-grandmother, Carlotta Valdes, so he wants Scottie to follow her and find out what she does all day while he's busy running her father's shipping business.
So begins Scottie's adventure through the streets of San Francisco (and beyond)... and also his love affair with the beautiful, haunted Madeleine.
Vertigo (1958) Movie Trailer
Did You Know?
There is at least one minor flaw in the movie. After Scottie fishes Madeleine out of the bay (see below), he's talking to Gavin on the phone, and Gavin says, "Scottie, Madeleine is 26. Carlotta Valdes committed suicide when she was 26."
Except... she didn't. Look carefully at the dates on her grave. She hadn't yet turned 26 when she died. She was barely 25.
And one other really cool little fact? Carlotta was born on my mother's birthday, and she died on my birthday.
Let's Talk About Carlotta
Carlotta Valdes was supposedly Madeleine Elster's great-grandmother who lived in San Francisco during the "gay old bohemian days," as Scottie's friend and ex-fiancee Midge called them in one scene.
Carlotta's story was a sad one. She became the mistress of a rich man who, I suppose, was responsible for commissioning the portrait of her that Madeleine visited frequently in the Palace of the Legion of Honor art gallery.
As a result of her relationship with this married man, she became pregnant. He dumped her soon afterwards and, since his wife was unable to provide him with any children, he took Carlotta's child. "Men could do that in those days. They had the power...and the freedom," as Pop Leibel, the owner of the Argosy bookshop and local historian told Scottie and Midge when she took him to get some inside information on Carlotta and her story.
It's interesting that those are two of the things Gavin Elster tells Scottie he misses about the "Old San Francisco" - the power and freedom men used to have. It's a bit of foreshadowing that's easily missed if you're not looking for it. In fact, I've seen the movie probably a hundred times or more, and I just caught it the last time I watched it a couple of weeks ago. Just one of the things I love about the movie - lines and actions take on different meanings each time you watch it. Pretty cool!
Now, let's go back to Carlotta's story: After her lover took their child, she went insane, wandering the streets in rags, stopping passersby and plaintively asking, "Where is my child? Have you seen my child?" At least, that's the story Pop Leibel told, and since no such person as Carlotta ever actually existed, that's all we really have to go on.
The Moment They Fell in Love
It's hard to say when, exactly, Scottie fell for Madeleine. Was it love at first sight at Ernie's that night? Or was it sometime later...on one of the days he was following her around? Maybe it was the day he saved her from drowning.
It was a normal day just like any other - Madeleine got in her car and drove, and Scottie followed her in his car. She went out to the Presidio - to the historic Fort Point, right on the bay. She walked down to the water and stood there for a few moments, holding the floral bouquet fashioned after the one Carlottta holds in the portrait, picking out the flowers and dropping them one by one into the water. Then she jumps. Scottie is right there to jump in after her. And then he takes her to his apartment.
She sleeps for several hours, naked. I always found that interesting - that he'd take off all her clothes. I mean, sure, her clothes were all wet, but she's somebody else's wife. Still, there's no indication that he took advantage of the situation at all, and he's quite the gentleman again when she wakes up and discovers that she is completely naked. He even gives her his own robe and invites her to come sit out in front of the fire. He sets some cushions down on the floor for her and maintains a respectful distance on the couch. And then they talk, and it's here, I think, that Madeleine actually falls in love with Scottie.
She's certainly in love with him by the time the next water scene comes up, after they've taken a trip out to Muir Woods (driving together now, instead of separately), and she says she wants to go "somewhere in the light." Scottie runs after her when she heads for the water, and she asks, "Why did you run?" He says, "I'm responsible for you now," because he'd already saved her once from drowning. I think it's his need to take care of her that attracts Madeleine to him. It's certainly a sharp contrast to the way her own husband treats her.
One of My All-Time Favorite Scenes from Any Movie, and Certainly From This One
Did you know Vertigo is actually based on a French book? This is a paperback English translation that came out roughly the same time as the movie.
The Intersection of Two Nightmares
Some time passes - we're not exactly sure how long - and Madeleine comes to Scottie's apartment very early one morning to tell him about a nightmare she's had. She describes the scene in detail, and he recognizes it as being the San Juan Bautista Mission. She assures him that she's never been there, but he thinks she's just forgotten. He decides that it will be a good idea to take her there later on that afternoon, and that's just what he does.
And this is where Scottie's nightmare begins. They kiss for one last time, Madeleine tells Scottie that she loves him and she wanted to go on loving him, but there was something that she "must do." She breaks away from him and glances up at the tower. His eyes follow her gaze, and he runs after her. But he can't catch her in time because his acrophobia triggers an incapacitating episode of vertigo. All he can do is stare, helpless, out a window as Madeleine's body falls to the church roof below.
He has a hard time coping after Madeleine's death, and he checks himself into a mental health facility to try to overcome his melancholia. And that's where he stays for the next year before trying to return to his normal life.
There's Something About Judy
Soon after Scottie returns to society, he's walking down the street and he happens to see a woman who reminds me an awful lot of Madeleine...except she's a brunette instead of a blonde. He follows her back to the hotel where she lives and even waits outside to make note of which room is hers when she opens the window. He goes up to her room and introduces himself.
She says her name is Judy Barton, and that she's from Salina, Kansas, but she's lived in San Francisco for three years. Scottie asks to take her to dinner. She hesitates at first, but then she later agrees because he's lonely and he seems nice enough. The pick-up happens a little too easily, and we find out why after Scottie leaves to give Judy time to get ready for their date.
At this point, the viewer is treated to a scene that Hitchcock almost left out of this film - the scene where Judy (aka Madeleine) writes a letter to Scottie, explaining everything that he doesn't. She is on the verge of running away because she doesn't know if she has "the nerve to try" to stay and make him love her for who she is instead of who he knew her as - Madeleine. But, at the end of the scene, Judy tears up the later and puts her things back in her closet, moving some of the clothes that she had worn once as Madeleine.
It's ironic, though, that after a few dates, Scottie decides he likes Judy okay, but he would like her better if she looked and acted more like Madeleine, so he begins his Operation Change Judy project, which leads us to the scene that I hate most in the whole film (even though I still love the movie). Judy's crying because Scottie's bought her clothes that match what he saw Madeleine wear, and he's trying to convince her to bleach her hair like Madeleine's, telling her, "It can't matter to you."
And that's when I want to stop the movie and throw the computer across the room (because I'm usually watching this digitally), except I don't. OF COURSE it can matter to her. It's HER hair! Grrr! I know Scottie's a damaged individual, but come on! That one line irritates the heck out of me. It always has, and it always will. But I still go back to watch this movie again and again and again because, despite that chauvinist comment, I still think it's a wonderful movie.
Apparently, as much as it WOULD matter to me, it doesn't matter to Judy, and she agrees to the hair bleaching. And, after she's let Scottie change her completely, she does something really unexpected, and even a bit brazen - she pulls out Carlotta's necklace (a payoff from Elster) and puts it on.
Scottie recognizes it immediately, and all the pieces finally start falling into place for him, which leads to the absolutely shocking ending of the movie back at the San Juan Bautista Mission, where Scottie's nightmare began. Turns out, this is one nightmare he would never be able to wake up from, and that's just one of the things that makes Vertigo so very unforgettable. I've been watching it for 25 years, and I'm sure I'll continue to watch it for the next 25 and beyond... if I live that long. I just love it that much.
My San Francisco Obsession
Though I've never been to San Francisco, I've always wanted to visit...and I hope I get to someday. But, for now, I'll just continue to watch movies and television shows set there.
Oh yes, and I am actually writing a story series with Helping Hands Press that is set in San Francisco. The first installment has just been released. It was a collaborative story featuring all the others in the series. The next phase of this series will feature separate character stories written by each of us individually. Then we'll wrap everything up with another collaborative story.
This project is very different from any I've worked on so far, but it's been a lot of fun. Of course, I'd love it if you checked out this first story. It's only 99 cents, and it's available for Kindle, Nook, and Kobo ereaders.
Just for Fun
I always sort of fancied that I was Madeleine Elster/Judy Barton. At least, I certainly identified with her - more Judy than Madeleine, but still...
I started thinking of the many women who had prominent roles in Hitchcock films and what they all had in common/what their differences were. I've recently begun taking a lot of the BuzzFeed, Zimbio, et al. quizzes that my friends post on Facebook, so I thought it would be fun to make up one of my own. Turns out it's a lot of work to create one of these, but it was fun.
I hope you'll do me the honor of giving it a try, and let me know which character you come up with/what you think of the test. I tried it myself and it seemed to work fine, but since this is my first time ever creating a quiz like this, I'd love some feedback.
Which Hitchcock Heroine Are You?
© 2014 Mishael Austin Witty
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