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Alfred Hitchcock's 'Vertigo' (1958) - Movie Summary and Analysis

Updated on September 15, 2015
Kim Novak and James Stewart star in Hitchcock's  "Vertigo".
Kim Novak and James Stewart star in Hitchcock's "Vertigo". | Source

Summary:

The film tells the story of John “Scottie” Ferguson, a San Francisco detective who suffers from a crippling fear of heights. In the early scenes, we find out that he retires after being involved in an incident in which a policeman falls to his death. However, Gavin Elster, an old college friend, asks him to follow his wife, Madeleine, as he believes she has been possessed by the ghost of an ancestor. Intrigued, Scottie begins to monitor her activities throughout the city of San Francisco, and eventually saves her from drowning. The two eventually kiss and fall in love, and this is when tragedy strikes – Madeleine dies after falling from a church tower. Despondent, Scottie tries to return to normal life. However some time later he sees a woman in the street that is the spitting image of Madeleine – a shop girl named Judy, from Kansas. He starts a relationship with her, however he is still haunted by the image of Madeleine, and does everything in his power to ‘recreate’ her by changing Judy’s appearance.

The three characters crucial to the plot: Madeleine, Scottie and Judy.
The three characters crucial to the plot: Madeleine, Scottie and Judy. | Source

Film Analysis:

At first, it may seem like your regular sappy romance, but there is a twist – it is revealed that Judy was actually Madeleine, hired by Gavin in an elaborate plot for his wife’s murder. This is all revealed to the audience in a flashback by Judy in her apartment just after she ‘meets’ Scottie for the first time. She initially wants to explain everything to him, but in the end doesn’t as she has fallen in love with him.

The scenes in which Scottie follows Madeleine are practically wordless, and have an almost hypnotic feel – he is indeed mesmerized by her. This hypnotism continues even after her death, when he continues to visit the places she frequented, still seeing visions of her. I find that the music used in these scenes especially add to the dreamlike sequence. The composer Bernard Hermann’s score is effective and almost haunting and surreal.

“The gentleman seems to know what he wants.” comments a shop lady during a shopping trip . This is true – Scottie obsesses over every minor detail, even making sure that Judy wears the same shoes, clothes and hairstyle that Madeleine once wore. Judy from Kansas simply doesn’t have the same refinery, and he does everything in his power to change this. Despite her cries and questions why, he obsessively continues. There is even the following dialogue between the two:

 
 
Judy:
“If I let you change me, will that do it? If I do what you tell me, will you love me?”
Scottie:
"Yes."
Judy:
“All right. All right then, I'll do it. I don't care anymore about me.”

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She realizes that he just sees her as an object, but because of her affection for him, she allows him to continue.

When Judy’s transformation into Madeleine (in truth, then unknown to Scottie, it’s really her second time playing the part) is complete, Scottie enters into another dreamlike trance. This is indicated by the green, foggy effect around the woman as she enters the room. He does not see Judy, but a reincarnation of the woman he truly loves. The two kiss passionately, and in his mind, he is back in the coach house with Madeleine.

However, the story does not end well for the couple. Once again in the bell tower where Madeleine lost her life, the whole scheme is revealed to Scottie – how Gavin tricked and manipulated him and how it was really Judy all along. He screams in rage at the deceit. “Did he train you? Did he rehearse you? Did he tell you exactly what to do, what to say?” He screams at her. “Why did you pick on me? Why me?” His pain is evident at this point. She begs him to forgive her as she truly loves him. However a nun steps out of the shadows, causing Judy to step back in fright, and Scottie has to watch yet again as the woman he loves falls to her death.

In the end, while standing in the bell tower, Scottie comes to the realization that he has lost both women – the refined Madeline, who was cruelly murdered, and Judy, who truly loved him in spite of her initial involvement in the trickery.

In the very last scene, Scottie is able to look down from the bell tower without his acrophobia kicking in, leaving the audience to wonder if he really has gotten over his fear of heights. “I asked my doctor. He said only another emotional shock would do it.” mused Midge, his ex-fiancee before in an earlier scene. Well, maybe this was the emotional shock that he needed to truly overcome the fear?

In my opinion, this is a very powerful film, both in its use of image and sound, as well as the story itself. The director uses interesting camera techniques and manipulations to induce the effect of ‘vertigo’ that the main character suffers with during critical points of the film. Hitchcock relies on universal feelings to help the audience identify with the characters’ situations. Loss and regret are universal human ordeals, and we can certainly understand how Scottie feels when he loses not one, but two women that he loves. Certainly all of us, at one stage in life, have tried everything in our power to get back something (or someone) that we once lost? We can also empathize how Judy feels – that is, not being “good enough” for the man she loves.

“Vertigo” basically tells the story of a man who loses the woman that he loves, and of his attempts to recreate her at any cost. The American film critic Roger Ebert praises it, declaring the film to be “one of the two or three best films Hitchcock ever made” in his online review (which can be read here). The film has also gained other recognition throughout the years, and is considered an essential part of American classic film history.

Vertigo's Movie Trailer #1 (from MovieClips)

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    • Al Greenbaum profile image

      Al Greenbaum 

      4 months ago from Europe

      This was one of his best, no doubt about that. Despite the fact James Stewart is far too old to play a romantic lead opposite Kim Novak, the film works on many levels. The technical expertise is what stands out for me. The opening scene, James Stewart following Kim Novak round town ( no dialogue) and the whole of the last part of the film when Stewart "falls" for Judy are highlights.

    • MandiGirl profile image

      MandiGirl 

      3 years ago from Arkansas

      Great article! One of my favorite Hitchcock films.

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