I could be convinced that when you think of Alfred Hitchcock, if you think of him at all, the first movie that comes to mind is Psycho (1960). The only reason I can think of for why that would be the case is the fact that it has the iconic murder scene in the bathroom, with the jarring music and the slashing. It was a film that changed what was acceptable to show on a big screen to an audience, and as well made of a film as it was, I cannot help but feel we are all worse for the wear, cinematically speaking. I say this as somebody who recently endured Scream 6. Please note the six on the end of that title. While Psycho is up there on the American Film Institute’s (AFI) 100 Greatest American Films of all Time, coming in at number fourteen, five spots ahead of it is a better example of Hitchcock’s work, Vertigo (1958). There are some strange aspects to this one too, but overall, I find it to be a more satisfying experience.
One can hardly blame Detective John “Scottie” Ferguson (James Stewart) for having feelings of Vertigo. The first scene features him and another police officer chasing a suspect over building tops in San Francisco. When Scottie does not quite make a jump and is left hanging onto a ledge for his life, the other cop plummets to his death trying to save Scottie. Though he is cleared of any wrong doing, the guilt he feels is what brings on the title condition, not necessarily his acrophobia. That is the actual term for an intense fear of heights, of which vertigo is but one of the possible symptoms. While recuperating, Scottie visits his college friend, Marjorie “Midge” Wood (Barbara Bel Geddes). They have an easy friendship, and had once been engaged, though it seems she is more hung up on him than vice versa. In the course of their conversation, Scottie tells Midge that he had received a message from another college acquaintance of theirs, Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore), though she claims not to remember this individual. Scottie goes to meet Gavin, and Gavin has a strange request for his former detective friend: follow his wife, Madeleine (Kim Novak). Because of his vertigo, Scottie claims that this is no longer his line of work. What convinces him to reconsider is an odd line said by Gavin that his wife is possessed by someone else. With this, Scottie begins following Madeleine the next day. What he discovers lends credence to Gavin’s outlandish theory. It starts off innocuous enough, at first, with her doing some shopping. Still, all the while she has this vacant, far off look on her face. Scottie witnesses her go to a graveyard where she looks at a headstone belonging to Carlotta Valdes. Later, she goes to an art gallery and sits for hours staring at a painting of the same person whose burial they had just visited. It gets even spookier when she goes to an old boarding house. He watches as she goes inside and into the rooms, observing her through the window. But when he prevails upon the clerk to let him into the room, she is gone and so is her car. He then prevails upon Midge to introduce him to someone with knowledge of local San Franciscan history and learns that the boarding house once belonged to Carlotta in the nineteenth century, and that she had committed suicide. With this knowledge in mind, Scottie reacts suddenly when he sees her jump into San Francisco Bay, diving in to bring her to safety. He brings her back to his place and they are properly introduced to one another. It is in this exchange that he begins to fall in love with her. In the proceeding morning, she comes back to give him a thank you note, and they end up spending the day together. It is at this time that she reveals to him these dreams she has that suggest some connection to Carlotta. To him, it is the setting for a Catholic mission south of town, and they go there the next evening. The experience seems to do something to Madeleine, making her more distressed. The first opportunity she gets, she runs into the church and climbs the steeple. Scottie tries to go after her, but his acrophobia gets the better of him. It is all he can do to spot her form as she falls to her death. Once more, Scottie is cleared of blame, but he takes it harder. Not even Midge can bring him cheer. He is released from psychiatric care a year later. While wandering the downtown area he spots Judy Barton (Kim Novak). He follows her up to her hotel room and is able to convince her to let him take her out to dinner. Despite her claims, as soon as he departs to change for their date, she begins writing a letter admitting what happened. You see, Judy is her real name, and she had been hired by Gavin to impersonate her wife so that he could kill his real wife and get away with it. For now, Scottie is blind to this, wanting only to relive his love for Madeleine through Judy. This is where things get a little creepy as he begins insisting that Judy wear the same clothes as did Madeleine, even demanding that she dye her hair blonde. She goes along with it because she loves him, too. What gives it away, however, is a necklace she wears for the last evening out, one that he remembers from the painting she had spent so much time viewing. He then proceeds to take her back to the mission, managing to get all the up to the top of the bell tower despite her fears. She admits everything, but is startled when a nun appears asking what is happening. Judy leaps to her death with a shocked Scottie looking down, no longer afraid of heights.
Vertigo would have been a much different movie had Scottie done what I thought he should, and that is forget about the vacant Madeleine and stick with Midge. My Catholic heart was somewhat scandalized by the main character falling for a married woman, or who we think is married for a large part of the film. Perhaps this is due to how I think of James Stewart, but I have a hard time seeing him so crazed. Then again, he has his moments in It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). So, why should Vertigo be any different? Indeed, it is not, and ultimately it is a great film with a nice build up and pay off at the end. Scottie is a tragic figure who cannot let go of the past. This is something that Faith says we should do, particularly when it is disordered and leads us to behave as he does. Nonetheless, this is not where I would like to devote my Catholic energies. Instead, there is something about the nun at the end that struck me. In the beginning, I mentioned how Psycho, it can be argued, inaugurated the slasher genre. I wonder if Vertigo instituted the evil female religious archetype. Before the nun speaks, you just see the outline of her in her habit in the shadows. The way it is filmed is frightening enough, but then there is a voice from that dark corner that is equally haunting. You would not have had anything like this before this time because the Production Codes governing Hollywood specifically said that members of the cloth could not be portrayed negatively. This film is evidence that these strictures were beginning to loosen. I am not arguing for the codes to be reinstituted. All I am suggesting is that the timing is interesting, and that I am not sure it is something positive.
Luckily, this moment with the nun at the end of Vertigo is brief. If you want to masterclass in moviemaking, watch this film. There is not an element out of place and the performances are superb. If only there were more like this one.