‘Vertigo’ was recently voted the best film of all time by the critics of ‘Sight and Sound’. So when I saw it was playing at my local repertory theater, I toddled along to take a look.
At the time of its release it met with a mixed reception, being described by one critic as ‘far fetched nonsense’. A point of view you might well share if I tell those unfamiliar with the film the plot.
Scottie Ferguson (Jimmy Stewart) suffers from vertigo. A condition not helped by witnessing the death of a policeman who falls off a San Francisco roof.
He is about to retire from his job as a detective when an old acquaintance requests him to tail (read ‘stalk’) his mentally unstable wife, Madeleine Elster (Kim Novak).
As he does so, he slowly but surely falls hopelessly in love with her, only to watch her take her own life by jumping from the bell tower of a Californian Mission. Scottie’s vertigo makes it impossible for him to follow her up the tower and save her life.
At this point it gets weird.
Ferguson has a breakdown, an event triggered by some superb Saul Bass graphics (Bass did the poster for the film, arguably the most famous piece of film graphics ever created.)
He recovers only to find a woman called Judy who bears a striking resemblance to his dead beloved. Smitten, he begins a romance with her and starts to creepily dress her to look exactly like Madeleine, something Judy is hardly comfortable with. His re-joiner to her protests ‘What can it matter to you?’ is one for the ages.
Of course, spoiler alert, Judy turns out to be Madeline for real. The death was an elaborate and in plot terms, scarcely credible, hoax. All for reasons I can’t even be bothered to go into (if you must know read the plot in Wikipedia)
Frankly, it isn’t important. All you need to know is this.
‘Vertigo’ is a film about the price women pay for being what men want them to be.
All the women in the movie be it sad ex-fiancée Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes) Madeline or Judy Barton, try and be the image of what Scottie Ferguson wants. Their reward for playing ball is to die, seem to go mad or live out their lives alone.
What makes it even more disturbing is this guy is played by Jimmy Stewart, a man hardly renown for being a cinema bad boy. If nice Jimmy Stewart can behave in this way, what hope for the rest of the male species?
The cry of all the woman in the film is ‘Please see me for who I am, not what I appear to be’
The answer from the male lead is effectively this. What you appear to be is what you are. At least as far as I’m concerned.
An attitude that makes the possibility of a genuine, loving relationship something of a non-starter.
It seems Scottie can only fall in love with an image. Not a real woman.
Then again Scottie is a character in a film and films can only deal with surface reality, for by their very nature, they are about images. Consequently, they feed men’s obsession with the superficial.
Even the director himself is not immune. Hitchcock is well known for casting a series of blondes for his camera to letch over, from Grace Kelly to Tippi Hedren.
This film takes the obsession to new heights. It has a blonde fiancée being thrown over for another blonde who is obsessed with an old nineteenth century picture of a blonde that sends her mad.
Finally, we have a character that is remade as a blonde by Jimmy Stewart in order to fulfill his fantasies about a blonde.
This is a fetish in overdrive. Something that I’m sure wouldn’t have been lost on Hitchcock.
There’s something mad about this idea and madness is at the heart of one of the most interesting twists in the film
It purports to be about a mad woman’s possession by a mad woman from the past but in reality the only mad person in the film is the male character. He’s so mad he has to be taken to a sanatorium after a breakdown and then insists on dressing up a living woman in the same outfits as his dearly departed beloved. He’s truly bat-shit crazy.
It took me a little while to realize this. So used am I to the idea of women being ‘mad’ that I missed the fact this film turns this notion on its head.
Delusion thy name is man.
There’s more to say about this film but I think I’ve said enough. Suffice to say if you want to think about why relationships between men and women are often so messed up, Vertigo might be a good place to start.