I can’t see how people could caricature James Stewart as an amiable aw-shucks grandpa after they’ve seen Vertigo, Alfred Hitchcock’s perverse romantic thriller. Stewart’s John “Scottie” Ferguson starts out as a straight arrow, a retired detective recuperating from a rooftop trauma that has left him with acrophobia. Gradually, though, this arrow develops a few kinks — or maybe they were there all along.
Vertigo will undoubtedly strike some as slow and baffling, but it has a genuine air of insanity — the one time Hitchcock truly implicated himself, laying out his obsessions for all to see. Hitchcock was elsewhere an entertainer, often a great one, but Vertigo finds him working as an artist, as driven as his protagonist, and also, in the end, as humorless. There are no lovely, witty “Hitchcock moments” here, no sense of the Master cackling to himself behind the curtains as he pulls the strings of the characters and the audience. Here he pushes James Stewart into being his surrogate as he takes Kim Novak and makes her into Grace Kelly, not once but twice. One theory, probably facile but appealing nonetheless, is that Hitchcock never forgave Kelly for marrying a prince and abandoning acting, and that Vertigo was his poison-pen love letter to her: “See,” he might have been telling Kelly, “I can turn anyone into a cool blonde.”
Scottie is hired by an old college acquaintance, Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore), to tail Elster’s unstable wife Madeleine (Novak), who suffers from dire fantasies of suicide in the manner of her grandmother. Scottie promptly becomes obsessed with Madeleine, her vulnerability and madness, and ignores the sane love of his ex-fiancée Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes). Shot after shot puts us in front of Scottie’s windshield as he drives, drives, drives around the maze of San Francisco, following Madeleine everywhere. Once he catches up with her, saving her from drowning in the bay, she seems to accept his increasingly heated attentions as another part of the whirlpool of emotion drawing her down into death.
Vertigo is a painfully beautiful movie, circling slowly around the elegant heart of the great city, its colors sharp and rich. Bernard Herrmann’s score, woozy and menacing, completes the tapestry of this romance of doom. Part of the queasy fascination of Vertigo, of course, is that it’s essentially about ungovernable desires — specifically, necrophiliac desires. The beloved James Stewart wants to have sex with a dead woman. When Madeleine exits the picture and is replaced by dead ringer Judy (also Novak), a shopgirl as ordinary and brash as Madeleine was classy and mysterious, Scottie is struck dumb with renewed obsession but can’t resist making Judy over in Madeleine’s image. She fights it, but ultimately loves him too much to protest. Vertigo is about a man who can never allow himself normal love. Acrophobia is the least of his problems.
Early audiences expecting another ingenious Hitch thriller must have been dumbfounded — Vertigo rattles right through the standard exposition, the explanation for everything. Hitchcock seems almost irritated by the necessity to spell things out for the paying customers. It’s not what he’s interested in this time. The twists are perfunctory; this entire weird movie, impacted with thwarted desire (not just Scottie’s), is pretty twisted right from the start. Hitchcock may have felt he got a little too close to the flame. After Vertigo he retreated into formalism, taking on the TV-studio look of Psycho, the intentional cheapness of The Birds, and the handful of deadly dull thrillers that closed out his career. I love Psycho, and The Birds is fun, but one could fairly say that no film after Vertigo really seemed to matter much to Hitchcock except as an exercise. Vertigo is no exercise. It’s an eccentric anomaly in his work, heavily morbid and damp with the sweat of obsession.
Someone said that there could be no Brian De Palma without Psycho, and one could also say there could be no David Lynch without Vertigo — Lynch’s Blue Velvet bites large mouthfuls from the film, including the trio of guiltily sexually obsessed detective, pure-of-heart girlfriend, and dangerously erotic siren. Reviewing Blue Velvet, Pauline Kael quoted Laura Dern’s line to Kyle MacLachlan, “I don’t know if you’re a detective or a pervert,” to which Kael added, “She’s a kid; she thinks it’s either/or.” It sure as hell isn’t either/or in Vertigo.