Vertigo: A Retrospective Review

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For my first look back, I’d like to kick things off with one of the greatest films (in my opinion) from one of the most significant filmmakers of cinema, Alfred Hitchcock. It’s called Vertigo.

Out of Hitchcock’s 52 iconic films, ‘Vertigo’ (1958) claims the number one spot, just peaking ahead of ‘Psycho’ (1960) and ‘North by North West’ (1959), which are nevertheless still remarkable films.

Alongside many other things that made Hitchcock the master of suspense and a great director is that each of his films are characterised by a unique feel, all dissimilar to each other in one way or another. ‘Vertigo’ is no exception and is particularly distinctive, compiled of a complex and intricate plot filled with gripping tension and unexpected plot twists, as well as being a captivating psychological thriller.

Unlike some of his other films,  the character progression in can at times move rather slowly, yet will definitely not bore you. As Hitchcock wanted the audience to be entrapped within a pool of suspense and question if each character is living truthfully or not, or better yet, has something dark and mysterious to hide.

Unlike some of his other films, Vertigo’s character progression can at times move rather slowly, yet will definitely not bore you. Hitchcock wanted the audience to be entrapped within a pool of suspense and question if each character is living truthfully or not, or better yet, has something dark and mysterious to hide.

The film follows the life of former police detective John ‘Scottie’ Ferguson (James Stewart), who enters the detective world to take on one more case after retiring from the force due to high anxiety and excessive vertigo from heights.

This case was set aside for him by an old friend, Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore). Scottie is persuaded to snoop around and follow Elster’s wife Madeleine (Kim Novak) and her very odd and unexplained behavior.

Madeline has recently been convinced that she is the living reincarnation of her great ancestor Carlotta Valdes, who died years prior after suffering from depression, then insanity and eventually taking her own life. Concerned about Madeleine’s sanity, Scottie attempts to investigate the matter, eventually rescuing her from a suicide attempt when she tried to drown herself in San Francisco bay.

An unusual and somewhat secretive relationship forms between the two and they begin to slowly fall in love, however, it remains clear that Madeleine’s abnormal behaviour is hidden behind a wall of secrets where nothing is what it seems. Scottie is ultimately left beyond distraught, after being unable to stop Madeleine from jumping to her death from the top of the church tower due to his overpowering acrophobia (extreme fear of heights).

Scottie’s sense of reality is further tested, when several months later he meets a woman named Judy Barton, who to his suspected imagination, is the splitting image of his deceased lover Madeleine. He appears to lose his sense of reality and tries to re-create Madeleine’s image by forcing Judy to dye her hair blond and wear the same ‘simple gray suit with white gloves’ so to appease Scottie’s dead obsession. His fixation with recreating his ideal image of Madeleine takes over his life, however after significant events that trigger images from the past, Scottie begins to piece together the ultimate puzzle of Madeleine’s death and insanity.

For those of you who don’t know too much about Alfred Hitchcock, he was notorious for being one of the most (if not, the most) controlling and misogynist directors.

Interestingly, ‘Vertigo’ somewhat reflects Hitchcock’s means to use, fear and control women. To some degree, Hitchcock himself is represented by the main character Scottie, a character whose kryptonite is Hitchcock’s perception of a quintessential woman. One that is blond, feisty, keeps to themselves and easily able to mesmerize weak men and thus take advantage of them. Essentially, just as Scottie demandingly tries to change Judy to become his deceased Madeleine, so too does this mirror Hitchcock’s willingness to sacrifice women of the film industry to pursue his own ambitions.

Ferguson and Madeleine Thanks to jasonbovberg.com for the image.
Ferguson and Madeleine
Thanks to jasonbovberg.com for the image.

One of the most amazing things about Hitchcock’s ‘Vertigo’ is the visual array of delicate subtext surrounded by classic apparent and obvious imagery.

For example, consistently throughout the film, we are confronted with Scottie’s tormenting visuals that highlight the extent of his vertigo. Hitchcock cleverly demonstrates Scottie’s dread by creating the now famous shot that is used frequently in film today.

He does so by zooming in the camera lens while at the same time physically pulling the camera back from the object, depicting the walls or floor approaching and receding at the same time; capturing Scottie’s tormented nightmare from a first-person perspective. Furthermore, to add to his stunning visual emphasis on Scottie’s fear of heights, the film subtly displays various concepts of falling, seen as Scottie constantly drives down San Francisco’s hills, but never up.

If you have never seen ‘Vertigo’ or other Alfred Hitchcock films, please do yourself a favor and watch as many as you can. I promise you will not regret it. ‘Vertigo’ includes a complicated and intricate story, one that is complete and comprises highly interesting characters, detailed visual effects, and a complimenting musical score; all in favor to produce a mystifying, eerie and anticipating atmosphere. The suspense is endless, while the overall film makes you leave a Hitchcock lover.

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