I think I literally just watched this whole film without breathing once. Obviously false, but the point is that Hitchcock’s Vertigo is very suspenseful. It would be, being a Hitchcock film, but this once takes suspense to a whole new level.
John “Scottie” Ferguson (Jimmy Stewart) is a former detective, forced to resign due to a bad case of acrophobia (fear of heights) which triggers vertigo. His old college chum calls him up one day, and asks him to follow his wife, Madeline (Kim Novak). We are all thinking what Scottie is thinking here: there must be another man. In fact there is another woman, who is taking over Madeline’s body. Yup, he thinks his wife is possessed by her great grandmother, Carlotta Valdez, who went crazy and committed suicide back in the 1800s.
Scottie at first is reluctant to take the case. He’s retired, he’s got this debilitating fear of heights to deal with, and he doesn’t believe in possession. But, he agrees anyway for whatever reason, and ends up following Madeline around while she’s doing strange things that all relate to Carlotta Valdez. When she “falls” into San Francisco Bay, Scottie saves her and takes her back to his place. That leads to some emotional bonding and the two fall in love.
Alas! Their love does not last. This is probably the most ill-fated romance I have ever seen. It appears that Carlotta finally gets a hold of Madeline completely, and she successfully commits suicide this time. She jumps off a bell tower, so Scottie with his acrophobia is unable to save her. He spirals out of control and checks into a mental hospital. But all is not as it seems….
If you thought the previous hour of the film was messed up, just wait till this half. Scottie finally gets out of the institution and while wandering around to all of Madeline/Carlotta’s haunts, he comes across a woman who looks strikingly similar (also played by Novak). He follows her back to her hotel and finds out that her name is Judy and she’s from Kansas. Sorry, she is not Madeline come back from the dead. But not if Scottie has anything to say about it.
He soon relentlessly dominates Judy, demanding she change her appearance to match Madeline’s. He buys her the same gray suit she wore and dyes her hair from brown to blond. Judy repeatedly expresses her wish that Scottie would just love her for who she really is, not just because “[she] reminds [him] of her” meaning Madeline of course. She loves him regardless all of the crap he puts her through, and Scottie does not even care enough about her to apologize. I understand that he’s sad because he failed to save the love of his life, but that is no excuse to treat this poor woman this way. The truly horrifying part of this film to me is not possible possession, suicide, or heights; it’s the way Scottie just completely disregards any sense of Judy’s identity, and because she loves him and wants him to love her, she lets him get away with it.
That said, in Vertigo I never really got the warm and fuzzy feeling I used to when watching Jimmy Stewart. He is just such a fantastic guy in It’s a Wonderful Life, it’s sad for me to see him be such a jerk. He did a wonderful job, clearly reflected in my shifting attitude towards him. That’s a mark of good acting when you get the actors and the characters confused. As good as Stewart was, Novak was amazing. She had to play two completely different people, three if you count her “I’m being possessed by my great grandmother” trances as a separate person. Granted, she had more to work with, but even when Scottie was controlling Judy I felt that Novak was driving the scenes between them. The way her voice would change depending on the character was very eerie. Though they looked similar, those two characters were entirely different people and Novak played that brilliantly.
Of course, the greatest thing Hitchcock always does is suspense, and though I haven’t seen all of his films (yet!), I would venture to say that this is his most suspenseful. Even the second time around, even when I knew exactly what was going to happen, I could barely breath and my stomach was in knots. Now that’s quality film making.
“All right. All right then, I’ll do it. I don’t care anymore about me.”
Long story short: 4/4 stars
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