Alfred Hitchcock himself said that Vertigo is a movie that follows a man who is having a total emotional breakdown. This man, John ‘Scottie’ Ferguson, was a lawyer who had become a police officer so that he could hopefully realize his dream of becoming the chief of police in San Francisco. Based on the Pierre Boileau-Thomas Narcejac novel D'entre les Morts1, Hitchcock moved the story from Marseille to San Francisco, a city with fabulous natural scenery and ideal for chases of all descriptions. During a roof chase Scotty tripped due to his vertigo and was left dangling. Another police officer tried to pull him up but lost his footing and fell to his death. Scottie consequently lost his entire career path, having to retire due to his vertigo and his leg injury from when he also took a fall off the building. His friend from college, Gavin Elster, hires Scottie as a P.I. as he is convinced that his wife Madeleine is possessed by her grandmother’s ghost, and he wants Scottie to figure out what is going on.
In the first encounter between Gavin and Scottie, Gavin says, “This is really about someone dead,” 2 and as the film progresses we realize that this is a ghost story without a ghost. Gavin describes to Scottie the strange things that overtake his wife and why he needs Scottie so desperately: ”She’s somewhere else, then with a long sigh she’s back. Scottie, I need a friend, someone I can trust.” 3 Scottie is intrigued by the perceived mysticism, and his ex-fiancée Midge leads him to a bookshop owner who can give him some background history. He gives them the in-and-out of the history of San Francisco - not the actual documented history, but the people history. What is going on is that the grandmother of Gavin’s wife Madeleine was her wealthy grandfather’s mistress. Her grandfather’s legal wife had been barren so he took the child he had with his mistress and raised it as his own without her. Madeleine’s grandmother would walk the streets asking, “Have you seen my child?”4
We soon realize that Scottie is a lonely person. He does not keep up with his college friends, and the only person he is close to is his ex- fiancée Midge. It appears that he was obsessed with his job and then he lost it, so now he is just mulling around, not really knowing what to do with his life. Part of the reason he becomes so obsessed with Madeline is that it gives his life meaning again. Madeleine seems just as open as him to their budding romance. Scottie saves her from a suicide attempt when in one of her trances she dives into the San Francisco Bay, but his vertigo stops him from saving her when she jumps off the Mission tower.
Scottie then is lost and spends his days searching for women that look like Madeleine. He eventually finds her exact double, a young lady from Kansas called Judy Barton, and he tries to resurrect Madeleine through her. In a six-day interview with the great French director Truffaut, Hitchcock calls Vertigo essentially a form of necrophilia. Scottie is trying to recreate a dead love with a new one. So he is essentially trying to have sex with the dead. In the interview Hitchcock explains the implications of some of his filming and what he thought was the story. He describes a scene between Scottie, played by Jimmy Stewart, and Judy, played by Kim Novak: “The basic situation – cinematically all Stewart’s efforts to recreate the dead woman are shown in such a way that he seems to be trying to impress her …. What I like best is when the girl came back after having her hair dyed – Stewart is disappointed because she hadn’t put her hair up in a bun, but what this really means is that the girl has almost stripped, but she still won’t take her knickers off.” 5
The film was released in 1958, a time when life in the U.S. was moving along with no wars to worry about, as the “booming prosperity of the 1950s helped to create a widespread sense of stability, contentment and consensus in the United States.”6 People were enjoying all that life had to offer, certainly a suspense thriller at the movies. This was also a time when the studios were looking for another Marilyn Monroe, and for a while they were trying to sell Kim Novak, the lead actress, as a Marilyn Monroe. Hitchcock was never that thrilled to have Novak in the role as Madeleine as he was disappointed not to get Grace Kelly. Novak also did not in some ways suit Hitchcock’s directing style. He was always very concerned with wardrobe, almost obsessive about it, and one reason he had conflicts with Novak was because she had opinions about what she wanted to wear. Hitchcock’s reaction was: no, I have been thinking exactly about what you are going to wear, and you are going to wear it.
Also at this time the studio system was beginning to weaken and directors were able to make movies that were more personal. This was definitely not New Hollywood, but it was indicative of what New Hollywood would become – slower and more about the nature of reality. Vertigo was like many movies that were starting to be made - slow with a more hypnotical pace, with characters being visually framed, often against interesting city landmarks, and now Hitchcock was doing this in a thriller. This was Hitchcock’s last movie though with Jimmy Stewart because he thought he was too old for the role. The audience though did not seem to mind his age, perhaps thinking that his age worked, as with a younger man it may have been more about lust than love. What does this movie say about Hitchcock? This was a movie he was totally dedicated to, and he wanted to make it a masterpiece. It feels more like an artistic statement that Hitchcock wanted to make more than anything else. This is a point in Hitchcock’s career where he could pretty much do as he wanted. In the next few years he would make four of his most successful movies, one after the other.
Vertigo was likely not considered a huge financial success, as it grossed $3.2 million with a $2.5 million budget7, and the best picture of the same year, The Bridge On the River Kwai, grossed $27.2 million with a $3 million budget8. Also, although Vertigo is now often on the best ever movies list, it was not considered a great critical success at the time. As a reliable source, Turner Classic Movies, stated, “When it first appeared in May of 1958, Vertigo was considered a disappointment by most critics and moviegoers who thought the movie was too slow.” 9. The Los Angeles Times said that it got bogged down in a mass of detail. As Hitchcock said in Truffaut’s book Hitchcock, “One of our whimsies when a picture isn’t doing too well is to blame it on the faulty exploitation. So let’s live up to the tradition and say they just didn’t handle the sales properly.”10
Aesthetically this ranks high on my list of favorite films. The opening is a classic, with the graphics created by one of the greatest graphic designers in film, Saul Bass, who is almost as famous as the movie itself. He would design posters and do opening credits, which were always inventive. The most famous ones he did were for the Pink Panther movies. In Vertigo “Bass did the wild, hypnotic opening sequence.”11 We also notice how dreamy and airy the opening music is. The score was written by Bernard Herrmann, one of Hitchcock’s favorite composers, who also did the music for Twilight Zone. In addition, for the opening shot there is a match cut. A match cut is when the shot from one echoes the shot from the other, and is usually done by similar locations or somebody in the exact positon. This was created in the running-on-the-rooftops scene, an admirable feat, and appears at 4:22 in the movie. Also, one of the recurring symbols in the movie is spirals, and in the opening scene there are fantastic spirals.
This is a film that is visually striking, and according to Hitchcock “the story was of less importance to me than the over-all visual impact on the screen”.12 The visuals are accentuated by the use of colors - characters are color-coded. It is clearly documented that there is a color symbolism of green associated with Madeleine and Judy.13 According to Hitchcock it is because green is both used as a ghostly color and is death-like.14 The motif with Madeleine is green. There is always going to be something green associated with her. If she is not wearing green, she will be driving a green car, or there will be green plants around her. Hitchcock specifically talks about the graveyard scene in Truffaut. He is actually shooting this with a fog filter to give her a green tint. Another instance of using green for Judy is mentioned by Hitchcock in Truffaut when describing the Empire Hotel scene: “I decided to make her live at the Empire Hotel on Post Street because it had a green neon sign flashing continually outside the window, so when the girl emerges from the bathroom, the green light gives her the same type of ghost-like quality.”15 Other colors are used for a number of the other characters. Midge’s colors are definitely yellow and beige - calming colors. Gavin’s color appears to be red, perhaps symbolizing the color of blood. The chairs in his office are red, and the necklace that he gives to Judy, and which is so pivotal to the story, is red. There was a special color procedure they did with Vertigo to make the colors pop so dramatically; the colors are beautifully bright.
Another dramatic aesthetic is Hitchcock’s use of framing. He has a master control over the screen. An early instance of framing is when Madeleine is looking at the portrait of her grandmother at the museum. She is in the left third of the screen and is framed by the wall and the painting. Directors will put characters in the left third of the film to make the audience uncomfortable, and this is happening here. She is further framed in the screen by the columns, and then our eyes are drawn to her because we follow Scottie’s eye-line to her. This is incredibly masterful framing. Hitchcock likes to use mountains to create an eye-line and he does it in the bridge scene. Madeleine is in the right with the mountain sloping down from the left, directing your eyes down to her. He then creates depth with the Golden Gate Bridge.
There are also a number of other filming techniques that are particularly appealing and clever. Foreshadowing is one. When Madeleine goes to the hotel and puts olive oil on her fake plants this is a hint of what is going to happen - she is a fake; they are faking it all. Scottie’s dream sequence is also a type of foreshadowing. Scottie’s dream shows that he suspects that Madeleine is not dead. In the dream Madeleine is not in the grave, and the flower bouquet breaks apart. This famous scene climaxes with the red necklace that Madeleine’s grandmother had on in the portrait in the museum. His subconscious mind knows something that his conscious mind cannot accept. Hitchcock also uses nature to indicate when the truth is being told. Whenever Scottie and Madeleine tell each other truths they are surrounded by nature.
This movie with the great visuals and the nature of identity has turned out to be a movie for the ages. There is a repurposing from a horror movie into more realistic genres. There is genre mashing. There is a romantic drama, a thriller aspect, an investigative element, and there is the utter lingering presence of the ghost story that seemingly this story wants to constantly turn into but is playing coy with. Perhaps the most touching part of this film was the dialogue. Gavin’s reason for hiring Scottie, a supposed good friend from his college days, was chilling to the bone. He said, “Scottie, I need a friend, someone I can trust.” And the most heart-breaking dialogue of all was when Scottie said to Judy, “Why me? I was the setup.” With Vertigo Alfred Hitchcock created a suspense thriller centered on necrophilia and obsession. What made it most appealing though was the tender heart of John ‘Scottie’ Ferguson.
1McGilligan, Patrick. Alfred Hitchcock. (Barnes & Noble, 2003), Location 12310.
2,3,4Movie: Vertigo. Released: May 09, 1958. Director: Alfred Hitchcock
5Truffaut, Francois, and Scott, Helen G. Hitchcock (Revised Edition). (Simon & Schuster, 2015), Location 4503.
6https://www.history.com/topics/1950s Retrieved. November28.2016
7http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0052357/ 19 July 2009 Retrieved. November28.2016
8http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0050212/ Retrieved. November28.2016
9http://www.tcm.com/tcmdb/title/94742/Vertigo/articles.html Retrieved. November28.2016
10Truffaut, Francois, and Scott, Helen G. Hitchcock (Revised Edition). (Simon & Schuster, 2015), Location 4036.
11 http://www.csmonitor.com/Technology/2013/0508/Saul-Bass-Designer-artist-and-auteur-of-the-opening-credits-video Retrieved. November29.2016
12Truffaut, Francois, and Scott, Helen G. Hitchcock (Revised Edition). (Simon & Schuster, 2015), Location 4038.
13Truffaut, Francois, and Scott, Helen G. Hitchcock (Revised Edition). (Simon & Schuster, 2015), Location 3996.
14Truffaut, Francois, and Scott, Helen G. Hitchcock (Revised Edition). (Simon & Schuster, 2015), Location 3996.
15Truffaut, Francois, and Scott, Helen G. Hitchcock (Revised Edition). (Simon & Schuster, 2015), Location 3996.