March 2, 2024

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AFI Countdown Challenge #61: Vertigo

Jimmy Stewart fights a fear of heights to find the truth about the woman he loves in this Alfred Hitchcock-directed classic.

Alfred Hitchcock is considered the master of suspense for a very good reason.  Though he might have a reputation as a horror film director, he only made two movies that fit that particular criteria.  Both of them are great films in their own right, and we’ll be seeing one of them before the Countdown is over.  However, it might be better to describe his work by saying it often features an ordinary man thrust into a situation where he is in over his head, often through no fault of his own.

Vertigo doesn’t quite fit that criteria in part because the ordinary man in this case was selected to fulfill the role due to his special condition.

Vertigo is the story of one John “Scottie” Ferguson.  In the film’s opening, we see him working as a plainclothes cop.  When he and a uniformed policeman are in the middle of chasing down a suspect along the rooftops of San Francisco, Scottie falls off a ledge and has only a gutter that doesn’t seem able to hold his weight to keep him from falling to the street below.  The policeman goes back for him and, while reaching for Scottie, loses his footing and falls to his own death.  Though whatever physical trauma Scottie may have undergone can heal on its own, he now has a bad case of acrophobia, where he is overcome by dizziness while standing at certain heights.  The doctors think it’s temporary, but in the meantime, he’s happy to more or less retire and live off his own personal wealth since he is something of a man of means even without his job.  Maybe someday he can go back and make commissioner once he gets past whatever it is that’s bothering him.

By the by, much of the exposition for the early part of the film comes from a conversation Scottie has with his female friend Midge.  Though it does come up that the two were engaged before Midge broke it off, it sure is nice having a man and a woman who are friends and nothing more in a movie.  That just doesn’t seem to happen very often.

As it is, Scottie has an old college friend named Gavin Elster.  Gavin is running a shipping company and he has a request for Scottie:  Gavin thinks his wife Madeline is possessed by a dead person.  Though Scottie scoffs at the idea, he does agree to follow Madeline around and see if he can account for her odd behavior.

It helps that Madeline is a knock-out played by Kim Novak, but then again, Hitchcock had a thing for young blonde actresses in his movies.

It does seem that Madeline is possessed.  She’s visiting a century old grave and looking at a portrait of the woman buried there at the local art museum.  Everything about Madeline suggests she is possessed by the long dead Carlotta Valdes, a woman who even looks a lot like Madeline.

So, is Madeline possessed?


Hitchcock didn’t make those kinds of movies.

After Madeline seems to drop to her death, putting Scottie into a deep depression, he meets Judy Barton, also played by Kim Novak.  How can that be?  Well, it’s because Scottie never met Madeline.  Gavin had killed her earlier and had his mistress, Judy, impersonate her for the vertigo-affected detective he had following his “possessed wife”.  Then Gavin tossed the real Judy’s body off a church tower to make Scottie think Madeline was dead from the fall.  Of course, by then Scottie had fallen for “Madeline”.  And it did seem weird that Gavin wasn’t bothered that his friend fell in love with his wife…

They didn’t do much in the way of autopsies back then, did they?  I would think they could tell a corpse’s cause of death if they just checked it, but what do I know?

The thing is, Scottie isn’t stupid.  He’s actually good at his job and he figures out what happened on his own with a few clues left behind by Judy.  Truth be told, this whole second half is mostly a love story.  Scottie has been living alone for his whole life, something Midge and Judy both comment on.  He falls for “Madeline” and then for Judy later.  And while Scottie, taking Judy up to the spot where he figures Gavin tossed Madeline’s corpse from, seems to be over his vertigo, Judy isn’t over her guilt for her part in the whole thing.  She had also fallen in love with the good man that is Scottie, and when a nun comes up to ring the bell, she panics and falls to her death.  Crime doesn’t really pay, and Scottie is alone again.

Hitchcock’s frequent collaborator, composer Bernard Hermann, went with a score brimming with the sort of music that plays in the background for a romantic movie, not a thriller.  This film is more about Scottie finding love with a doomed woman on multiple levels.  Carlotta was put aside by a rich boyfriend a century earlier, Madeline was dead for real when he fell for “her,” and Judy ends up likewise falling to her death at the film’s conclusion.  Scottie may be over his acrophobia, but he has a long way to go for his broken heart.

That said, if I were to fault Hitchcock for anything, it’s how abrupt his films seem to end.  Judy falls to her death as the nun rings the bell and Scottie looks down to the ground in shock and horror and…that’s it.  Roll credits.  There’s little sense of a epilogue to a Hitchcock film in many cases as they show some brief sort of a resolution and then they end.  Hitchcock has three more films on the AFI list, so it will be interesting to see how many of them give off this sense of finality at the end.

NEXT UP:  In the meantime, we’re back to Spielberg for some straight-up adventure as we meet archaeologist Indiana Jones in 1981’s Raiders of the Lost Ark.