When first released in 1958, Vertigo was not a success. It’s only in recent years that critics and audiences alike have come to recognize its genius as a psychology study of obsession, centered around Scotty (Jimmy Stewart), a detective who retires after witnessing another cop fall to his death in a rooftop chase. The incident has left him with severe psychological trauma and a bad case of vertigo, which makes him incapable of standing heights.
An old friend calls upon his detective skills and asks him to investigate the mysterious actions of his wife, Madeline – while convinced she is not having an affair, he is concerned about her state of mind and wonders if the spirit of a dead woman may be possessing her. Scotty is a skeptical observer to these events, but gets sucked into them when he falls in love with Madeline and becomes determined to save her from her delusions. After she leaps to her death from the top of a bell tower – an incident he is powerless to prevent due to his vertigo – he spirals into a prolonged depression that only ends when he sees a woman on the street who looks exactly like Madeline. Obsessed with her, and unable to let go of his past, Scotty makes over “Judy” into an exact replica of his dead love. (If you have no interest in having the twist spoiled for you, don’t read on.) Along the way, he discovers it has been a nefarious plot by Madeline’s husband to get away with her murder (and her money). Judy has been Madeline all along.
The story is one of unrequited love – of three people incapable of being satisfied within a romantic relationship. Scotty seems unable to be intimate with a woman – held back by his obsession, his need to make her over into an ideal rather than to hold a living girl in his arms; his best friend Midge has been in love with him for many years, but he is always out of her reach; and Judy cannot be loved for herself – first used and abandoned by a man who made her over into his wife for murderous purposes, and then unable to get Scotty to love her for herself, rather than the illusion she wore for him as Madeline.
In many ways, this is the film most closely associated with Alfred Hitchcock’s own psychology; the ‘altering’ and ‘control’ Scotty shows toward Judy/Madeline parallels Hitchcock’s own obsessive desire to make over his leading ladies to fit a certain persona – a pattern he repeated again and again. Here, he wanted Grace Kelly and got Kim Novak instead, but he made her over as much as he could into Grace – giving her a lavender blonde hairstyle and dressing her in a lovely dove gray suit to accent her porcelain skin. He did much the same with Tippi Hedron, whom he cast in Marnie and The Birds; she did not like his attempts to control everything from her hairstyle to her wardrobe—including off the set. Hitchcock fantasized about all his leading ladies as sexual objects, but he kept them at a distance, as Scotty does – unable to hold them, caress them, he contented himself with making them fit a fantasy ideal in his own mind, that of the glamorous blonde who seems just out of reach (a mantra repeated in many of his films, from Doris Day to Tippi Hedron).
Of her part, Kim Novak said this:
“I identify so very completely with the role because it was exactly what Harry Cohn and what Hollywood was trying to do to me, which was to make me over into something I was not. In the beginning, they hire you because of the way you look, obviously, and yet they try to change your lips, your mouth, your hair, every aspect of the way you look and the way you talk and the way you dress. So it was constantly fighting to keep some aspect of yourself, trying to keep some of you. You feel: There must have been something in you that they liked, and yet they wanted to change you.”The Spokesman Interview
The climactic confrontation between Scotty and Judy makes up the tense final ten minutes of the film, in which he forces her to tell him the truth as he drags them both up the staircase to the bell tower—finally able to overcome his vertigo and erase his demons. Even though Hitchcock blamed Stewart for the failure of this film, it wasn’t his fault – it’s a slow-moving psychological study with a shock ending that leaves everyone, once again, unable to receive love; Judy has fallen to her death, Scotty cannot have either the real girl or the one he made her over into, and Midge is still “second-best,” since he will forever be in love with a ghost. (The ending makes it unclear if Scotty will also jump to his death or not.)
Kim Novak is brilliant in the dual parts of the dreamy, glamorous Madeline, all glassy-eyed mystique and romanticism, and in the brass “showgirl” Judy, who struggles against her own self-preservation instinct, torn between her need to escape and her enormous desire to reconnect to a man she genuinely loves. Her mounting terror, as Judy slowly realizes Scotty intends to make her play her old role once again, is palpable; she tries desperately to steer him away from it, to let her be her “own self” (“Can’t you love me for myself?”), but gives in and surrenders, out of a desperate need to possess his love and approval. In her own way, she had greater power as her false self, as the cool, confident, and sophisticated Madeline, than she has as the love-hungry Judy. She defies him in her own small ways, but always gives in at the end of an argument—perhaps a hint of subtle wish-fulfillment on the part of the director, a desire to mold his leading ladies to suit his inner vision for their exact appearance.
Seeing this through modern eyes, Vertigo is disturbing not only for the psychosis of its leading characters, but also for the willingness of its heroine to be ‘made over’ into someone else, just to receive the love she craves. She is now free of her façade, but doesn’t get to live to see whether it has redeemed her in Scotty’s eyes. Love it or hate it, you will never forget it, and that’s what makes it so great.