In this lesson we are going to examine Alfred Hitchock’s 1958 psychological thriller Vertigo. This lesson will be followed by a short quiz to test your knowledge of the film and its production. If you have not seen the film we instruct you to view it before proceeding to the lesson. If you have already seen the film, this may be a good time to revisit it.
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Vertigo is a 1958 psychological thriller film directed by Alfred Hitchcock based on the 1954 novel D’entre les morts by Boileau-Narcejac. The screenplay was written by Alec Coppel and Samuel A. Taylor.
The film stars James Stewart as former police detective John “Scottie” Ferguson, who has been forced into early retirement due to disabilities (vertigo and clinical depression) incurred in the line of duty. Scottie is hired as a private investigator to follow a woman, Madeleine Elster (Kim Novak) who is behaving peculiarly.
The film was shot on location in San Francisco, California, and at Paramount Studios in Hollywood. It popularized the dolly zoom, an in-camera effect that distorts perspective to create disorientation, to convey Scottie’s acrophobia. As a result of its use here, the effect is often referred to as “the Vertigo effect”.
The film received mixed reviews upon initial release, but has garnered acclaim since and is now often cited as a classic Hitchcock film and one of the defining works of his career. Attracting significant scholarly criticism, it replaced Citizen Kane as the best film of all time in the 2012 Sight & Sound critics’ poll and has appeared repeatedly in best film polls by the American Film Institute.
After a rooftop chase in which his latent acrophobia results in the death of a police officer, San Francisco detective John “Scottie” Ferguson (James Stewart) retires, spending much of his time with his ex-fiancée Midge Wood (Barbara Bel Geddes). Scottie tries to gradually conquer his fear but Midge suggests another severe emotional shock may be the only cure.
An acquaintance, Gavin Elster, asks Scottie to tail his wife, Madeleine, claiming she has been possessed; Scottie reluctantly agrees. The next day Scottie follows Madeleine to a florist where she secures a bouquet of flowers; next, she visits the grave of Carlotta Valdes; then she visits an art museum where she sits watching Portrait of Carlotta, a painting of a woman resembling her. Lastly, she enters the McKittrick Hotel, but when Scottie investigates, she is missing and the clerk insists she has not been there.
Midge takes Scottie to a local history expert, who informs them Carlotta Valdes tragically committed suicide. Another visit with Gavin reveals Carlotta is Madeleine’s great-grandmother, whom Gavin fears is possessing Madeleine. Gavin also says Madeleine has no knowledge of Carlotta. Scottie tails Madeleine to Fort Point (just beneath the Golden Gate Bridge), where she suddenly leaps into San Francisco Bay. Scottie rescues Madeleine and takes her to his home. The meeting is tense and leads to a strange intimacy between them, but Madeleine quickly slips out when Scottie receives a phone call.
The next day Scottie follows Madeleine to his own house, where she is hand-delivering a thank-you note to him for rescuing her, and they decide to spend the day together because Scottie fears Madeleine might attempt suicide again. The two travel to Muir Woods and then Cypress Point along 17-Mile Drive near Pebble Beach, where Madeleine, embarrassed from confessing that her dreams sound mad, runs to the ocean. Scottie chases after her and they embrace and kiss. Upon hearing the details of her nightmare, Scottie identifies the setting as Mission San Juan Bautista and takes Madeleine there, where they proclaim their love for each other. Madeleine suddenly runs into the church and up the bell tower. Scottie, halted on the steps by vertigo and paralyzing fear, watches as Madeleine plunges to her death.
An inquest declares Madeleine’s death a suicide, but Scottie feels ashamed that his weakness rendered him incapable of preventing someone’s death. Gavin does not fault Scottie, but in the following weeks Scottie becomes depressed. While undergoing treatment in a sanatorium, he becomes mute, haunted by vivid nightmares. Although Midge visits, his condition remains unchanged. After release, Scottie haunts the places that Madeleine visited, often imagining that he sees her. One day, he spots a woman who reminds him of Madeleine, despite the woman’s less elegant dress and heavier makeup. Scottie follows the woman to her hotel room, where she identifies herself as Judy Barton from Kansas. Though initially suspicious and defensive, Judy eventually agrees to join Scottie for dinner.
After Scottie leaves, Judy has a flashback revealing that she was, in fact, the woman known as “Madeleine”, but she is not Gavin’s wife. Judy prepares to leave and writes a confession letter to Scottie explaining that she was an accomplice to the real Madeleine Elster’s murder by Gavin, and how Gavin had taken advantage of Scottie’s acrophobia. She rips up the letter and decides to continue the charade because of her love for Scottie.
Scottie remains obsessed by his memory of “Madeleine” and their similarities. He transforms an initially unwilling Judy until she once more resembles Madeleine. Judy agrees to change on the chance that they may finally find happiness together. But Scottie realizes the truth when Judy wears a unique necklace that he remembered from the portrait of Carlotta Valdes. Instead of dinner, Scottie insists on taking Judy to the Mission San Juan Bautista.
There, he reveals that he wants to re-enact the event that led to his madness, admitting that he now knows Madeleine and Judy are the same. Scottie forces her up the bell tower and angrily presses Judy to admit her deceit. Scottie reaches the top, conquering his acrophobia at last. Judy confesses that Gavin had hired her to pose as a possessed Madeleine; Gavin faked the suicide by tossing the body of his already-murdered wife from the bell tower.
Judy begs Scottie to forgive her because she loves him. The two embrace when a nun, in shadow, emerges from the trapdoor; startled, Judy steps backward and falls to her death. Scottie stands on the narrow ledge while the nun rings the mission bell.
The screenplay is an adaptation of the French novel The Living and the Dead (D’entre les morts) byPierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac. Hitchcock had previously tried to buy the rights to the same authors’ previous novel, Celle qui n’était plus, but he failed, and it was made instead by Henri-Georges Clouzot as Les Diaboliques. Although François Truffaut once suggested that D’Entre les morts was specifically written for Hitchcock by Boileau and Narcejac, Narcejac subsequently denied that this was their intention. However, Hitchcock’s interest in their work meant that Paramount Pictures commissioned a synopsis of D’Entre les morts in 1954, before it had even been translated into English.
Hitchcock originally hired playwright Maxwell Anderson to write a screenplay, but rejected his work, which was entitled Darkling, I Listen (a quotation from Keats’s Ode to a Nightingale). A second version, written by Alec Coppel, again dissatisfied the director. The final script was written by Samuel A. Taylor — who was recommended to Hitchcock due to his knowledge of San Francisco — from notes by Hitchcock. Among Taylor’s creations was the character of Midge. Taylor attempted to take sole credit for the screenplay, but Coppel protested to the Screen Writers Guild, which determined that both writers were entitled to a credit.
Vera Miles, who was under personal contract to Hitchcock and had appeared on both his television show and in his film The Wrong Man, was originally scheduled to play Madeline. She modelled for an early version of the painting which features in the film. Following delays, including Hitchcock becoming ill with gallbladder problems, Miles became pregnant so had to withdraw from the role. The director declined to postpone shooting and cast Kim Novak as the female lead. Ironically, by the time Novak had tied up prior film commitments and a vacation promised by Columbia Pictures, the studio that held her contract, Miles had given birth and was available for the film. Hitchcock proceeded with Novak, nevertheless. Columbia head Harry Cohn agreed to lend Novak to Vertigo if Stewart would agree to co-star with Novak in Bell, Book and Candle, a Columbia production released in December 1958.
In the book, Judy’s involvement in Madeleine’s death was not revealed until the denouement. At the script stage, Hitchcock suggested revealing the secret two-thirds of the way through the film so that the audience would understand Judy’s mental dilemma. After the first preview, Hitchcock was unsure whether to keep the “letter writing scene” or not. He decided to remove it. Herbert Coleman, Vertigo’s associate producer and a frequent collaborator with Hitchcock, felt the removal was a mistake. However, Hitchcock said “Release it just like that.” James Stewart agreed with Hitchcock and said to Coleman: “Herbie, you shouldn’t get so upset with Hitch. The picture’s not that important.” Hitchcock’s decision was supported by Joan Harrison, another member of his circle, who felt that the film had been improved. Coleman reluctantly made the necessary edits. When he received news of this, Paramount head Barney Balaban was very vocal about the edits and ordered Hitchcock to “Put the picture back the way it was.” As a result, the “letter writing scene” remained in the final film.
Vertigo was filmed from September to December 1957. Principal photography began on location in San Francisco in September 1957 under theworking title From Among the Dead. In the driving scenes shot in the city, the main characters’ cars are almost always pictured heading down the city’s steeply inclined streets.
The scene in which Madeleine falls from the tower was filmed at Mission San Juan Bautista, a Spanish mission in San Juan Bautista, California. Associate producer Herbert Coleman’s daughter Judy Lanini suggested the mission to Hitchcock as a filming location. A steeple, added sometime after the mission’s original construction and secularization, had been demolished following a fire, so Hitchcock added a bell tower using scale models, matte paintings, and trick photography at the Paramount studio in Los Angeles. The original tower was much smaller and less dramatic than the film’s version. The tower’s staircase was later assembled inside a studio.
Following 16 days of location shooting, the production moved to Paramount’s studios in Hollywood for two months of filming. Hitchcock preferred to film in studios as he was able to control the environment. Once sufficient location footage had been obtained, interior sets were designed and constructed in the studio.
Hitchcock popularized the dolly zoom in this film, leading to the technique’s sobriquet, amongst several others, “the Vertigo effect”. This “dolly-out/zoom-in” method involves the camera physically moving away from a subject whilst simultaneously zooming in (a similar effect can be achieved in reverse), so that the subject retains its size in the frame, but the background’s perspective changes. Hitchcock used the effect to look down the tower shaft to emphasize its height and Scottie’s disorientation. Following difficulties filming the shot on a full-sized set, a model of the tower shaft was constructed, and the dolly zoom was filmed horizontally.
Hitchcock and costume designer Edith Head used color to heighten emotion. Grey was chosen for Madeline’s suit because it is not usually a blonde’s colour, so was psychologically jarring. In contrast, Novak’s character wore a white coat when she visited Scottie’s apartment, which Head and Hitchcock considered more natural for a blonde to wear.
A coda to the film was shot that showed Midge listening to a radio report describing the pursuit of Gavin Elster across Europe. When Scottie enters, she switches the radio off. They share a drink and look out of the window in silence. Contrary to reports that this scene was filmed to meet foreign censorship needs, this tag ending had originally been demanded by Geoffrey Shurlock of the U.S. Production Code Administration, who had noted: “It will, of course, be most important that the indication that Elster will be brought back for trial is sufficiently emphasized.” Hitchcock finally succeeded in fending off most of Shurlock’s demands (which included toning down erotic allusions) and had the tag ending dropped.
Music and titles
Hitchcock’s film is about obsession, which means that it’s about circling back to the same moment, again and again … And the music is also built around spirals and circles, fulfilment and despair. Herrmann really understood what Hitchcock was going for — he wanted to penetrate to the heart of obsession.
Graphic designer Saul Bass extracted Hitchcock’s spiral motif as an image that appears during the film to convey, what the documentary Obsessed with Vertigo labels, “Vertigo‘s psychological vortex”. The images features in the title sequence and on the poster.
Vertigo premiered in San Francisco on May 9, 1958 at the Stage Door Theater at Mason and Geary (now the Ruby Skye nightclub). While Vertigodid actually break even upon its original release earning $2.8 million in gross rental in the United States alone against its $2,479,000 cost, it earned significantly less than other Hitchcock productions. Reviews were mixed. Variety said the film showed Hitchcock’s “mastery”, but was too long and slow for “what is basically only a psychological murder mystery”. Similarly, the Los Angeles Times admired the scenery, but found the plot “too long” and felt it “bogs down” in “a maze of detail”; scholar Dan Aulier says that this review “sounded the tone that most popular critics would take with the film”. However, the Los Angeles Examiner loved it, admiring the “excitement, action, romance, glamor and [the] crazy, off-beat love story”. As well, New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther also gave Vertigo a positive review by explaining that “[the] secret [of the film] is so clever, even though it is devilishly far-fetched.”
Additional reasons for the mixed response initially were that Hitchcock fans were not pleased with his departure from the romantic-thriller territory of earlier films and that the mystery was solved with one-third of the film left to go.
In an interview with François Truffaut, Hitchcock stated that Vertigo was one of his favorite films, with some reservations. Hitchcock blamed the film’s failure on Stewart, at age 50, looking too old to play a convincing love interest for Kim Novak, who at 25 was half his age.
Hitchcock and Stewart received awards at the San Sebastián International Film Festival, including a Silver Seashell for Best Director (tied with Mario Monicelli for I soliti ignoti (Big Deal on Madonna Street aka Persons Unknown) and Best Actor (also tied, with Kirk Douglas in The Vikings). The film was nominated for two Academy Awards, in the technical categories Best Art Direction – Black-and-White or Color (Hal Pereira, Henry Bumstead, Samuel M. Comer, Frank McKelvy) and Best Sound (George Dutton).
In the 1950s, the French Cahiers du cinéma critics began re-evaluating Hitchcock as a serious artist rather than just a populist showman. However, even François Truffaut’s important 1962 interviews with Hitchcock (not published in English until 1967) mention Vertigo only in passing. Dan Aulier has suggested that the real beginning of Vertigo‘s rise in adulation was the British-Canadian scholar Robin Wood’s Hitchcock’s Films (1968), which calls the film “Hitchcock’s masterpiece to date and one of the four or five most profound and beautiful films the cinema has yet given us”. Adding to its mystique was the fact that Vertigo was one of five films owned by Hitchcock which was removed from circulation in 1973. When Vertigo was re-released in theaters in October 1983, and then on home video in October 1984, it achieved an impressive commercial success and laudatory reviews. Similarly adulatory reviews were written for the October 1996 showing of a restored print in 70mm and DTS sound at the Castro Theaterin San Francisco.
In 1989, Vertigo was recognized as a “culturally, historically and aesthetically significant” film by the United States Library of Congress and selected for preservation in the National Film Registry in the first year of the registry’s voting. Currently on Rotten Tomatoes it has a “certified fresh” rating of 98%.
Among international film critics, the film has experienced a similar re-evaluation. Every ten years since 1952, the British Film Institute’s film magazineSight & Sound has asked the world’s leading film critics to compile a list of the 10 best films of all time. Not until 1982 did Vertigo enter the list, and then in 7th place. By 1992 it had advanced to 4th place, by 2002 to 2nd. Vertigo was voted in first place in Sight & Sound‘s 2012 poll, displacing Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane from the position it had occupied since 1962. Commenting upon the 2012 results, the magazine’s editor Nick James said that Vertigo was “the ultimate critics’ film. It is a dream-like film about people who are not sure who they are but who are busy reconstructing themselves and each other to fit a kind of cinema ideal of the ideal soul-mate.”
In his 2004 book Blockbuster, however, British film critic Tom Shone suggested that Vertigo‘s critical re-evaluation has led to excessive praise, and argued for a more measured response. Faulting Sight & Sound for “perennially” putting the film on the list of best-ever films, he wrote that “Hitchcock is a director who delights in getting his plot mechanisms buffed up to a nice humming shine, and so the Sight and Sound team praise the one film of his in which this is not the case – it’s all loose ends and lopsided angles, its plumbing out on display for the critic to pick over at his leisure.”
The San Francisco locations have become celebrated amongst the film’s fans, with organised tours across the area. In March 1997, the cultural French magazine Les Inrockuptibles published a special issue titled Vertigo’s about the film locations in San Francisco, Dans le décor, which lists and describes all actual locations. In October 1996, the restored print of Vertigo debuted at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco with a live on-stage introduction by Kim Novak, providing the city a chance to celebrate itself.
Critics have interpreted it variously as “a tale of male aggression and visual control; as a map of female Oedipal trajectory; as a deconstruction of the male construction of femininity and of masculinity itself; as a stripping bare of the mechanisms of directorial, Hollywood studio and colonial oppression; and as a place where textual meanings play out in an infinite regress of self-reflexivity.”