Saturday 23 July 2011

Movie Review: Vertigo (1958)

An Alfred Hitchcock journey of doomed romance and tragedy, Vertigo is convoluted and meandering, with perplexing puzzles hidden within a maze. Stars James Stewart and Kim Novak are suitably cold, navigating a plot spiralling into a tightening loop of weirdness with San Francisco serving as a stirring backdrop. Hitchcock never claimed any hidden meanings behind Vertigo, but this is one film that works better when 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 his wife is possessed by a dead spirit; Scottie is sceptical, but accepts the assignment.

Scottie spends long hours trailing Madeleine. She demonstrates an obsession with her great grandmother Carlotta Valdes. Scottie eventually saves Madeleine's life and gradually they are attracted to each other. Madeleine confesses to experiencing 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 Scottie is unable to prevent tragedy. 

Scottie is devastated and spends time at a mental hospital. Upon his release he imagines sightings of Madeleine all over the city, but finally spots Judy (also 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 script by Alec Coppel and Samuel Taylor is full of teasers and tests the outer limits of human behaviour. Setting aside the age difference between Judy and Scottie, what exactly is it that attracts Judy to Scottie? 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?

Other conundrums in the form of sudden disappearances and appearances contribute to Vertigo's cerebral obstacle course. 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?

Vertigo is fascinating as an exploration of a debilitated mind. In one alternative interpretation, Scottie's afflictions include a deeply broken heart due to Midge abandoning him, his emotional state in a fearsome downward spiral. His hanging from the ledge is a precarious hold on reality, and most events are occurring in his devastated mind, while he is incarcerated in the hospital.

There are some delicious clues to Midge as the real love of Scottie's life. His experiences with Madeleine and then Judy become elaborate creations in his deeply grieving psyche, 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 may be his close-to-catatonic stay in the hospital, imagining Midge hovering around him, neatly tucked between the Madeleine and Judy episodes created by his conscience.

Vertigo's shattered pieces are never intended to fall into place, but rather form an intentionally dizzying series of loops with more questions than answers, a psychological tour-de-force about the devastating, everlasting and disorienting anguish of loss.

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