We begin with a plunge into a human eye, and the hypnotic, whirling spirals in its depths. Vertigo (1958) is all about that plunge, that being caught in the combination tangle-and-embrace of an ever-revolving spiral, be that spiral love or deception, the frailties of one’s own mind, or the darkness and mysteries of another’s.
Vertigo is a lush film, and lushness is the invitation to plunge in, to immerse. The cinematography is lush, with its bold, smouldering colours, such as the almost supernatural green Hitchcock keeps bathing his leading lady in. Bernard Herrmann’s music is lush, with its teetering-on-the-edge arpeggios at the start, and the deep, romantic surrender-sigh of its love theme. And it may sound odd, but I think the plot is lush, too. How can a plot be lush? Because it tangles you in its ever-whirling spiral, pulling you deeper and deeper, and the deeper you go the richer it gets, increasing in questions, complications and implications the more you give in to its embrace.
Usually when a film has one of those mid-point reveals which throw a new light on everything that went before, it makes the plot clearer. If you watch the film again, it’s with a series of mental tumbler-clicks. “Ah, so that’s why-so-and-so did such-and-such…” But when Vertigo passes through its central reveal, it only seems to make things clearer. Once you start to think about it, it actually makes everything that’s been going on even stranger.
I’m not going to lay out the whole plot (though what follows contains spoilers), but it begins with Scottie (Jimmie Stewart), retiring from the police force after a roof-top chase proves him to have a debilitating fear of heights, and results in the death of a fellow officer. Jobless and aimless, he’s contacted by an old college acquaintance, Gavin Elster, who needs someone to follow his wife — not because he thinks she’s having an affair, but because he believes she’s come under the influence of a past she never knew about. Somehow, she’s being possessed by the spirit of her long-dead great-grandmother, Carlotta Valdes, who took her life at the age Madeleine Elster (Kim Novak) is now. Though initially reluctant, Scottie takes the job, and does so because Madeleine is beautiful. As he follows this dreamy young woman in her wanderings about San Francisco, he falls in love with her.
Why does he fall in love with her? Not only because she’s beautiful, but because she’s in need of being saved, and Scottie is very much in need of saving someone, because that’s the only way he can redeem himself. His masculinity took a blow when he was forced to leave the police, and what he needs to restore it, to feel like a hero again, is to save some beautiful, haunted young woman from… whatever it is she needs saving from, be it her own psychology, a darkness from the past, or the ghost of dead Carlotta.
The thing is, this story about Madeleine being possessed and death-obsessed isn’t true. The Madeleine Scottie follows isn’t haunted by the past, she’s not Gavin Elster’s wife, she’s not even called Madeleine. It’s an act, part of a murder plot to do away with someone Scottie never meets, but for whose death he is going to be made to feel responsible.
Can the love for someone who’s not real be real? If you judge by its effects — losing the unreal Madeleine plunges Scottie into a near-catatonic combination of melancholia and guilt — it is real. And anyway, even though “Madeleine” is an act, there’s something about the act that is true. Because this woman does need saving. Not from the spirit of dead Carlotta, but from the tangles of Gavin Elster’s murder plot. So perhaps Scottie does love the real woman behind the Madeleine-facade, the woman who needs saving, and whose redemption can, in turn, save him.
And perhaps another proof his love for her is real is that Madeleine — or the woman who’s only pretending to be Madeleine, but who nevertheless is on the receiving end of Scottie’s love — falls in love with him. Which is even stranger, because that means she’s fallen in love with a man who loves her because he thinks she’s someone else.
After things go wrong and Gavin gets away with murder, and the real Madeleine is dead and Scottie thinks he’s to blame, he meets Judy (Kim Novak, again). Distraught over the death he thinks he caused, he sees enough of his Madeleine in Judy to make him think he can remake this young woman in her image. Which, of course, he can, because she’s the same woman. And when he turns up at her door, Judy, who has made an obvious effort to look and act as unlike Madeleine as she can — brunette as opposed to blonde, gaudy makeup and chunky jewellery as opposed to elegant understatement, homespun, high-voiced innocence as opposed to deeper-voiced, smouldering refinement — Judy at first thinks she has to run away, because she is, after all, accomplice to a murder. But she doesn’t run away, and that’s because she’s genuinely in love with Scottie.
Or is she? This Judy that we meet in the second half of the film is also an act. She’s doing her best to be as unlike Madeleine as she can, so as not to be discovered. She has been cast off by her former lover/accomplice Gavin, so she might well be looking for a protector, and she knows enough about Scottie — now a vulnerable, broken man clearly capable of being manipulated — to play him. She may have seemed to be falling in love with him even when she was still playing Madeleine, right before the murder, but was she, really? She later claims she ran to the bell-tower of the church to prevent the murder of Elster’s wife, but how can that be true? She must have known that, the moment she appeared in the tower’s top chamber, Elster would throw his already-dead wife’s body off the top of the tower. And the key thing is already-dead. The murder, by that point, would have already taken place. If she’d really fallen for Scottie, and wanted to prevent the murder, she should have taken him away from the tower and explained everything. He was an ex-policeman, he’d have known what to do. But she didn’t. What she did gives every appearance of going ahead with the plan.
At no point in the film can we be sure we meet the real Judy. But it could be, in a mirror-image of Scottie’s story from the first half of the film, that she might be trying to redeem herself for her role in the murder by trying to save this broken man from his lovelorn melancholia. She may also truly love him. Or it could be that, though she might not (like most of us, with regards to both Vertigo and life) understand this complex, ever-deepening spiral she’s found herself caught in, but she’s doing what, in this film at least, is the one thing human beings can do in the face of so much confusion and deception: she’s finding someone she can cling to.
This is what Vertigo is about. It’s about clinging to whoever’s there to cling to. There are several long sequences in Vertigo where Jimmie Stewart’s Scottie and Kim Novak’s Madeleine/Judy are caught in an extended clinch — it’s the only word for it — a constantly moving, restless mix of kiss, embrace, controlling hold, and don’t-leave-me grip. At times, they’re struggling against one another, at others they’re just sort of pressing helplessly into one another as though no hold could ever be close enough. (In the final sequence, they spend over five minutes in near-constant physical contact, even as they cross a quadrangle and climb the steep, spiralling steps of a church tower.) The first time I saw the film, I was left for some time afterwards with a lingering, almost physical feeling of touch, and it was these intense clinging/clinching scenes that did it.
Despite the labyrinthine tangles of its plot and its characters’ deception-based identities and constantly-questionable motives, what’s real in Vertigo, both for the characters and the viewer, is that moment of finding something to cling to amidst all the whirling spirals and vertiginous plunges. That’s why they cling — because they’ve finally found something solid, something real, a living presence in a world of shadows and ghosts and lies.
Vertigo’s is a world in which there’s no solid ground, and only the feeling of falling is real. You find someone to cling to who’s falling with you, or you do it alone. Obsession isn’t, in this world, an aberration, it’s the only workable response. Scottie’s pal Midge’s lukewarm attempts to get him to love her aren’t anywhere near enough. What’s needed is superheated, Gothic Romantic Noir levels of obsession. Love, in Vertigo, is utterly irrational and absurd — the idea of trusting anyone in a world so full of deception and lies is impossible — so, even if it springs to life on the back of a lie, as long as it does spring to life, you cling to it for all your life and sanity are worth.
This, I think, is the way to watch Vertigo — and re-watch it, and re-watch it, ever deepening the obsession. As you watch it, you know you’re being presented with lies and deceptions, magic tricks and hypnotic passes — not just in the film, by its characters, but by its director, the arch-manipulator of audiences, Alfred Hitchcock. Vertigo is, I’d say, his most potent spell. So the best thing to do is give in to the plunge, cling to the cling of Vertigo, obsess with the obsession, otherwise you’ll be lost, alone, in an ever-whirling fall…