Saturday, 23 July 2011

Movie Review: Vertigo (1958)

A Hitchcockian journey of doomed romance and tragedy, Vertigo is long-winded and meandering, with as many awkward moments as highlights. Stars James Stewart and Kim Novak strangely go through the motions, somewhat overwhelmed by a plot that spirals into a tightening loop of weirdness, and the real star emerges as the City of San Francisco, serving as a stirring backdrop. Hitchcock never claimed any hidden meanings behind Vertigo, but this is one film that works better when it is interpreted beyond its surface storyline.

John "Scottie" Ferguson (Stewart), a San Francisco police detective, suffers from acrophobia (fear of heights) that triggers vertigo. Involved in a rooftop chase, Scottie is left hanging from a ledge and witnesses a fellow police officer fall to his death. Now retired from active duty, Scottie is good friends with Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes), a painter and advertising artist. Scottie and Midge were once briefly engaged, a relationship that Midge broke off. Gavin Elster, a long lost college friend, resurfaces and offers Scottie an unusual private investigative opportunity: trail Elster's wife Madeleine (Novak), to find out why she is suddenly entering trance-like states. Elster believes that his wife is possessed by a dead spirit; Scottie is sceptical, but accepts the assignment.

Scottie spends long hours trailing Madeleine, and her behaviour is strange. She seems to have an obsession with her great grandmother, a woman called Carlotta Valdes. Scottie eventually saves Madeleine's life when she attempts to drown herself in San Francisco Bay. Gradually they are attracted to each other and fall in love. Madeleine reveals that she suffers nightmares set in the San Juan Bautista Mission ranch, south of the city. Scottie drives her there to confront her fears; instead she climbs the bell tower and seemingly falls to her death, Scottie unable to follow her to the top of the tower due to his vertigo.

Scottie is devastated and spends a long time in a mental hospital. Upon his release he imagines sightings of Madeleine all over the City, but finally spots Judy (also Kim Novak), a woman who looks incredibly similar to Madeleine. Scottie insists on getting to know Judy, and she agrees, although Judy is in fact hiding a terrible secret. Scottie and Judy anyway fall in love, but eventually Scottie appears to lose his grip on reality and starts to insist that she change her appearance to exactly resemble his recollection of Madeleine.

The straightforward narrative does not serve Vertigo well, with the central romance in particular creaking under the strain of implausibility. Setting aside the age difference between Judy and Scottie, what exactly is it that Scottie does to attract Judy, other than play the sap for her? And what woman will tolerate being molded into the image of another woman, and worse still for Judy, being sculpted into the form of a dead woman? The reality is that Judy would have fled to the furthest corner of the earth to stay away from Scottie, and his obsessive behaviour to transform her into Madeleine should have been enough for her to have him locked-up.

There are other large plot holes that make Vertigo's superficial narrative quite bumpy, and most of these holes have to do with sudden disappearances and one sudden appearance: where does Midge disappear to after Scottie's hospital stay? Central to his character in the first two thirds of the film, she drops out suddenly. Madeleine's disappearing act from her hotel room is never explained. Elster also disappears from the film. Would Elster be careless enough to allow Judy and Scottie, the only two people who can cause him trouble, to reconnect with each other? And finally, where exactly did that miraculously silent nun appear from at the end of the movie?

Vertigo is much more interesting as an exploration of a debilitated mind. In an alternative interpretation, Scottie's affliction is not the fear of heights: it's a deeply broken heart due to the death of Midge, from which he never recovered, and his emotional state has been in a fearsome downward spiral ever since. Scottie hanging from the ledge is a metaphor for his precarious emotional state, and all the events of the movie are occurring in his devastated mind, while he is incarcerated in the hospital.

There are some delicious clues to Midge being a ghost, and the real love of Scottie's life. In this interpretation, she unexpectedly died three weeks into their engagement, crushing him emotionally because he could not save her from committing suicide. Scottie's experiences with Madeleine and then Judy just become elaborate creations in his deeply grieving mind, the image of Madeleine being Scottie's imagination of a perfect Midge, his mind endlessly repeating the same painful arc: an impossible love heroically found and tragically lost in his helpless presence. The only real scene in the movie is therefore his close-to-catatonic stay in the hospital, imagining Midge hovering around him, neatly between the Madeleine and Judy episodes created by his conscience.

This interpretation allows Vertigo's puzzle pieces to fall into place: Scottie is endlessly doomed to re-living the destruction of his love, and rather than a quite hokey and unconvincing love story, Vertigo becomes a psychological tour-de-force about the devastating and everlasting anguish of those who cannot save their lovers.

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