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Film / Vertigo

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"Vertigo: a feeling of dizziness...a swimming in the head...figuratively a state in which all things seem to be engulfed in a whirlpool of terror."
— from the trailer

Vertigo is a 1958 Psychological Thriller directed by Alfred Hitchcock, adapted from the 1954 French novel D'entre les morts ("The Living and the Dead") by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac.

Jimmy Stewart plays John "Scottie" Ferguson, a San Francisco detective who, because of a rooftop chase which leads to the death of one of his fellow officers, develops a paralyzing fear of heights. Having retired from police work, he is persuaded to go back on the job by his old college friend Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore), who wants him to trail his wife Madeleine who has been behaving oddly. As he observes the beautiful, mysterious Madeleine (Kim Novak), Scottie begins developing feelings for her — feelings that are reciprocated by her. However, Madeleine appears to be possessed by the spirit of her dead ancestor Carlotta Valdes, who is trying to get her to commit suicide. Scottie tries to help her out of this apparent madness, but in vain; he finds himself watching helplessly as Madeleine plunges to her death from the roof of a mission's bell tower, unable to reach her in time due to his acrophobia.


Scottie suffers a mental breakdown after his love's death, to the point of being institutionalized with a near-catatonic depression and "nursed" by his friend and former fiancée Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes). Even after returning to some semblance of a normal life, he is haunted by his grief for Madeleine, constantly seeing her in women he meets. It turns out that there is one woman who really does look a lot like Madeleine: a sharp-tongued brunette named Judy Barton (Novak again). Still haunted by the memory of his dead love, Scottie pursues a relationship with Judy. But the ghosts of the past never die, and their consequences prove to be what no one expected...

The film was released to mixed reviews and modest box office results. Critics complained of the film being overly long, slow and too "bogged in detail." However, by the late 1960s scholar Robin Wood re-evaluated the film to be "one of the four or five most profound and beautiful films the cinema has yet given us." Removed from circulation in 1973, it remained somewhat obscure.


The movie was re-released to cinemas in 1983 and on home video in 1984. This time it was a commercial hit and reviews were overwhelmingly positive. By the end of the 1980s, Vertigo was regarded as one of Hitchcock's best films and highly significant in film history.

If it's the comics company you're looking for, search no further than Vertigo Comics. For the record label, see Vertigo Records.

This film provides examples of:

  • Adaptation Title Change: The movie is based on a French novel that was called D'entre les morts (literally "From Among the Dead" but localized as "The Living and the Dead").
  • American Kirby Is Hardcore: Check out the poster for the movie as as it appeared in Poland compared to the original. Polish designers are famous for making their movie posters much edgier than the original and this stays true here.
  • Amicable Exes: Scottie and Midge were once engaged but are now Just Friends, although she still retains obvious feelings for him.
  • Anguished Declaration of Love: Judy delivers one to Scottie in the final scene.
  • Animated Credits Opening: This was actually the first film to utilize a digitally crafted title sequence (designed by Saul Bass), as the effects in the sequence were done on a computer converted from an old anti-aircraft locator by effects artist John Whitney.
  • Artistic Title: The camera zooms into a woman's eye to reveal spirals of different colors.
  • Ascended Meme: San Francisco's Empire Hotel, where Judy lived, is now called Hotel Vertigo, with the film playing on a loop in the lobby and numerous other references to it in the decor.
  • As You Know: Scottie's line to Midge near the beginning, "Hey, we were engaged once." As one reviewer put it, "Who would say that if there wasn't an audience listening?"
  • Batman Gambit: Gavin knew that Scottie's acrophobia would prevent him from stopping "Madeleine's" final fake-suicide. Not as overtly explained (and less plausibly), they also evidently knew that Scottie's reaction to hearing "Madeleine's" dream would be to take her to the mission and that Scottie would never get a chance to get a closer look at the real Madeleine's body or picture.
  • Betty and Veronica:
    • Deconstructed and played with in fascinating ways. Madeleine is the Betty, even after she dies, while Judy is the Veronica that Scottie makes over in Madeleine's image.
    • Midge also likes to see herself as the Betty to Madeleine's Veronica but Scottie has no interest in her.
  • The Big Damn Kiss: Waves are crashing in the background while Scottie and Madeleine share their first kisses.
  • Bilingual Bonus: Intersecting with Meaningful Name. "Elster" is the German word for magpie. Besides the Thieving Magpie stereotype, it's a bird that also symbolizes trickery and deception.
  • Bitch in Sheep's Clothing: It's easy to forget that the sweet, vulnerable Judy was part of Elster's conspiracy to murder the real Madeleine, causing Scottie enormous suffering in the process.
  • Briefer Than They Think: As in It's a Wonderful Life, the part of the movie that everyone remembers is actually the last act rather than the main storyline—Judy Barton only appears in the final 36 minutes of the film.
  • Canon Foreigner: There wasn't a Midge-type figure in the novel. She was added to the screenplay and written specifically for Barbara Bel Geddes to play.
  • Catapult Nightmare: Scottie does this after the haunting dream sequence.
  • Climbing Climax: Scottie carries Judy up the bell tower at the climax.
  • Color Motif: Green recurs over and over as a significant color.
  • Complexity Addiction: It's easy to overlook amidst all of Scottie's psychodrama, but Elster's plot to murder his wife has to be one of the most implausibly convoluted in film history, requiring a woman who's an Identical Stranger to Madeleine, knowledge of the stories of Madeleine's ancestors, a friend with a fear of heights to act as a patsy, an acute understanding of his thought processes, and access to a church's bell tower, and it could all have been sunk easily had Scottie done even a cursory amount of sleuthing beyond simply following Madeleine around.
  • Creator Cameo: Hitchcock appears walking past the entrance of Gavin Elster's shipyard, enigmatically carrying a bugle case.
  • Deliberately Monochrome: The opening credits from the Paramount logo up until the title card, which has a red background.
  • Diabolus ex Machina: Just as it seems Earn Your Happy Ending ensued, a nun enters, scaring Judy who falls to her death. Probably justified, as the whole scene seems to be symbolic and is much more neatly woven in the overall tone and narrative than any happy ending would be.
  • Dictionary Opening: The trailer opens with a zoom-up on the description of "Vertigo" in a dictionary.
  • Digital Destruction:
    • The version included in the Alfred Hitchcock Masterpiece Collection DVD box set boasts a colorized version of the opening shot, a woman's face. Fortunately, the Blu-Ray features this scene in its original black and white.
    • When Robert A. Harris and James Catz restored the movie for the 1996 re-release, Universal had the soundtrack remixed into six-channel DTS by mixing new (and jarringly modern) sound effects with the original music and dialogue. However, by the time Universal decided to restore the movie again, for its 2012 re-release and Blu-Ray debut, technology had evolved to a point where they could remix the soundtrack while keeping the original sound effects.
  • Disney Villain Death: Sort of. Judy was an accomplice to murder and has become The Atoner; she falls to her death at the end of the film.
  • Downer Ending: Scottie conquers his acrophobia.... only for his love to die for real this time as a result of his actions.
  • Dreaming the Truth: There's a moment in the dream where Scottie flashes back to the moment after the inquest when Elster is talking to him except in the dream Elster is embracing Carlotta, hinting that Elster is a villain and Carlotta (or rather her story) is his accomplice. Scottie's conscious mind doesn't accept this however, until much later when he spots Carlotta's necklace in the mirror in the third act.
  • Driving a Desk: Particularly noticeable, to the point where Scottie seems to be driving on the wrong side of the road sometimes.
  • Dude, Not Funny!: Invoked by Scottie after Midge gives him the painting of Carlotta with her own face on it.
  • Emerging from the Shadows: The nun in the final scene.
  • Empathic Environment:
    • As Pop Liebel tells the story of Carlotta at the Argosy Book Shop, it gets noticeably darker both inside and outside the store.
    • When Judy leaves the bathroom after getting her hair done in Madeleine's style, there is an intense fog around her as though Madeleine has "come back from the dead." Which she technically has.
    • When Scottie and Madeleine kiss for the first time on a beach, a huge wave hits the shore at the exact same moment underlining the culmination of their feelings.
  • Epiphany Therapy: Massively subverted, perhaps even deconstructed.
  • Ethical Slut: Judy is forthright about this when Scottie appears in her apartment and wants to take her out, saying "Matter of fact, to be honest, I've been picked up before."
  • First-Name Basis: When Madeleine says that she'll call Scottie "Mr. Ferguson," he says that acquaintances call him "Scottie," but true friends just call him "John." It's notable that Elster calls him Scottie and ultimately is revealed to have manipulated him, so he was never a true friend.
  • Flaw Exploitation: Scottie's fear of heights is taken advantage of by Elster and Judy when they switch Elster's wife for Judy on top of the bell tower while Scottie couldn't follow up.
  • For Doom the Bell Tolls: After Judy falls to her death from the church tower, a nun rings the bell to note it.
  • Foreshadowing:
    • Early on, Elster asks Scottie is he believes someone dead could enter and take possession of a living being. Scottie is incredulous, but this is precisely what he encounters later but not really.
    • Midge's comment that "only another emotional shock" could cure Scottie's acrophobia foreshadows the final shot of the film.
  • Gambit Roulette: See Complexity Addiction, above. Among the many, many other things that could have gone wrong, if Scottie had ever seen a picture of the real Madeleine, either before or after her death, Gavin would've been sunk.
  • Hand Gagging: Happens during The Reveal. Judy has just seen her doppelganger (the real Madeleine) fall to her death and we see Gavin muffling her scream.
  • Halfway Plot Switch: The driving plot thread of the first half of the film is the mystery behind Carlotta Valdes and whether or not Madeleine is possessed by her. The second half of the film (after Madeleine's "death") is centered around Scottie's obsession with Madeleine and the lengths he'll go to in order to be with her again.
  • Have a Gay Old Time: Midge's refers to "the gay old bohemian days of gay old San Francisco," probably directly referring to The Gay '90s.
  • Heroic BSoD: Scottie suffers a severe one about halfway through the film.
  • Hypnotic Head: The Dream Sequence, where Scottie's head floats over crazy geometric animation.
  • Hypocritical Humor: An unusual Played for Drama example. Scottie, who's spent the second half of the film obsessively sentimentalizing Madeleine, telling Judy "You shouldn't have been that sentimental!"
  • I Need a Freaking Drink: Scottie, after Elster tells him about Madeleine's relationship to (and seeming possession by) Carlotta Valdes.
  • Idiot Ball: The plot comes apart because Judy kept the necklace Elster gave her in order to pose as Madeleine. If she'd disposed of it, Scottie might never have realised the plot.
  • Impairment Shot: This is how the Vertigo Effect is used in the movie—to show Scottie's attacks of vertigo.
  • Impersonation-Exclusive Character: Madeleine Elster appears to be a major character during the first half of the film, but is actually an imposter. The only time we see the real article is as a dead body whose neck has been broken.
  • Internal Reveal: The audience finds out that Judy and Madeleine are one and the same shortly after Judy's introduction. Scottie only figures it out when he sees Judy wearing Madeleine's necklace.
  • Is That the Best You Can Do?: Line delivered by Judy when she presents herself to Scottie in the black dress but his reaction remains underwhelming.
  • Jerkass: The judge, at least towards Scottie.
  • Karma Houdini: Gavin Elster is never punished for murdering his wife. This notably led to The Hays Code demanding an alternate ending, which was shot but never released. In this ending, we see Midge listening to a radio news report which states that Elster has fled the country but will be extradited back to America for trial. Scottie shows up for a drink, implying that they might get back together.
  • Karma Houdini Warranty: Zig-Zagged Trope. Gavin never repents and gets off scot-free for his crimes, while his partner-in-crime and lover, Judy/Madeleine, tries to repent and pays for it.
  • Laser-Guided Karma: Judy meets the same fate as her sham Madeleine persona.
  • Last Kiss: Ultimately subverted. After Madeleine ominously tells Scottie "If you lose me, then you'll know I loved you and wanted to go on loving you," she gives him a final kiss before heading off to the clock tower. Ditto for Judy, albeit it manages to be even more tragic this time. So one can probably say this trope was Double Subverted in the end...
  • Light Feminine and Dark Feminine: Madeleine is the light feminine, the icy, reserved blonde in conservative gray suits. Judy is the dark feminine, with dark brown hair, a lot more makeup, and figure-hugging dresses and sweaters that show off her curves.
  • Literal Cliffhanger: The opening chase scene ends with Scottie hanging from a storm drain by his fingertips. This activates (or even causes) his acrophobia and vertigo.
  • The Lost Lenore: Increasingly subverted.
  • Love Martyr: Judy, who is so besotted with Scottie that she lets him completely make her over into Madeleine.
  • Loving a Shadow: It's clear that Scottie never would have given Judy a second glance if she hadn't so strongly resembled Madeleine. And considering that the only Madeleine he ever knew was part of an elaborate con, this makes it all the more tragic. He never really loved a real person but a projection and a fantasy.
  • Make It Look Like an Accident: Elster kills his wife and makes it look like suicide.
  • Meganekko: Midge has large round glasses and fits the character type perfectly.
  • Minimalist Cast: Vertigo has a pretty small cast. There's Scottie, Maledeine, Judy, Midge, Gavin, and a handful of minor characters that get like one scene each.
  • My God, What Have I Done?: Judy regrets her role in the murder plot and gets cold feet by the time she reaches the top of the bell tower. She attempts to stop Elster’s plan by screaming, but it’s too late.
  • Necromantic: Hitchcock stated in his interview with Truffaut that Jimmy Stewart's character was essentially this.
  • Nuns Are Spooky: Especially when they come out of the shadows and scare the bejesus out of you.
  • Orbital Kiss: A long one between Scottie and a made-up Judy in the third act.
  • Pragmatic Adaptation: In turning the novel D'entre les morts into Vertigo, Hitchcock and his writers shifted the setting away from France, changed the names of the characters (except Madeleine), and altered the third act,note  but kept the main plot thread, the lead character's vertigo, and a prominent scene at a church tower.
  • Private Detective: Scottie Ferguson is a former police detective convinced by Elster to do one last job for him. Scottie even suggests some other private eyes to help his friend out, but since Elster needs someone he can trust, Scottie is the one tailing people, researching leads, and interrogating people.
  • Red/Green Contrast: Madeleine is first introduced in a green dress, which contrasts starkly against the red of the wall's rooms and other details.
  • Replacement Goldfish: Scottie molds the brunette Judy into the image of the elegant blond Madeleine after the latter woman breaks his heart.
  • Rewatch Bonus: After The Reveal obviously.
    • You'll notice that Scottie gets all the information about Madeleine from Elster. There is a turn-of-the-century painting of San Francisco that Elster hangs in the office because he associates the image with total "freedom", his probable motive for killing his wife. As pointed out in this video, half of Elster's office is on an elevated level which Elster steps into as he talks about Madeleine's supernatural possession, while Scottie sits in the lower half of the room, as if he is watching a performance on stage.
    • Madeleine seems to flirt with Scottie rather a lot for a married woman.
    • Madeleine's words to Scottie before her apparent death can now be read as Judy saying goodbye to a man she loved.
    • Right before she runs into the church, you hear Madeleine's posh voice slip a little. Judy slips up and can't keep her accent up because she's so distressed at what she's about to take part in.
    • In addition to the heading into the church, Madeleine asks him to let her go into the church alone. This could be seen also as Judy trying to keep Scottie from falling into the trap of making him witness the "suicide" and trying to stop Gavin's plan from being complete. When she tells him in the last scene that she wanted to stop it, what she was telling him may have been the truth.
    • Judy's reaction when Scottie knocks on her door. Sure, she seems suspicious and annoyed, but she easily could've just said "get lost!" and slammed the door on him, rather than let him in. And her sassy attitude toward an obviously troubled man seems insensitive until you know that she's secretly overjoyed that he found her again and she's trying maybe a bit too hard not to show it, since she's not sure if he's figured out the truth yet—her mean act is a Secret Test of Character to make sure that Scottie's really interested in her and not suspicious; once she's satisfied that he's being genuine, she warms to up him.
    • Judy's tearful resistance to Scotty making her over isn't just because it's abnormal in the first place, it's because it's what Elster made her do.
  • Roof Hopping: The intro. Scottie and a policeman pursue a suspect through the rooftops. The policeman makes it, but Scottie almost falls off the ledge; the cop comes to his aid, only for the roof to shift and throw him to his death, giving Scottie his acrophobia.
  • Rule of Symbolism:
    • The phrase "fall in love" takes on a double meaning in the film both literal and figurative. Characters are always falling off buildings in Hitchcock's film: Scottie's colleague, Elster's wife, Judy Barton, Scottie himself in his bad dream midway through the movie. However, the main fall, the one the whole film depends on, is Scottie's falling in love with a woman who's obsessed with death. This take on "fall" is treated as being just as lethal as actual falls.
    • In a key scene, Scottie and Madeleine visit California's Muir Woods National Park. Madeleine is enthralled by the giant redwoods, but suddenly Carlotta's spirit takes over. She walks to a cross-section of one of the trees that illustrates all the ring markings with the dates in history that the different rings were formed. She shows Scottie when "she" was born and when she died. The trees, whose average age in Muir Woods is about 600 years old, are meant to represent the ancient past. They're one of the film's many visual symbols of the past, like the old Mission Dolores and Mission San Juan Bautista, the Palace of the Legion of Honor, the graveyards that Madeleine visits. Even Madeleine's name is symbolic. In Marcel Proust's uber-famous memoir Remembrance of Things Past, the pastry that uncorks his 3000-page flood of memories was called a madeleine.
    • From the opening titles to the bun in Madeleine's hair, swirly shapes (or spirals) are everywhere in the film. The camera swirls around Judy and Scottie as his mind goes spinning back to his memories of Madeleine. These swirls are like whirlpools. They signal danger. The policeman who dies trying to save Scottie falls to his death with his limbs splayed out in a spiral. The spiral staircase at the mission is a stairway to doom. The visual images all support the theme of the film—the dizzying distortion of reality when you're under the influence... of love.
  • Scenery Porn: The film's visual treatment of 1950s San Francisco should qualify as "urban scenery porn" if there is such a category. And there are lots of shots of beautiful Northern California countryside, as Scottie and Madeleine visit Muir Woods and Mission San Juan Bautista.
  • Sexy Discretion Shot: Judy and Scottie embrace passionately. . .the next scene is of him waiting for her to finish dressing for dinner. It's not hard to imagine that they had sex in the unseen interim.
  • Small Role, Big Impact: Both the fugitive at the beginning of the film and the policeman that ended up falling to his death are huge factors to Scottie's fear of heights throughout the film.
  • Spell My Name with an "S": Since the character names aren't listed in the credits, there's some confusion on the spelling of the two leads. According to the screenplay, it's Scottie and Madeleine.
  • Stairwell Chase: The first scene in the belltower sees Scottie chasing after a suicidal Madeleine up the tower, all while fighting against his ever-growing terror of heights.
  • Sweater Girl: Judy Barton's standard tight-sweater-and-bullet-bra ensemble contrast Judy's earthy sexuality with Madeleine the icy blond in the gray suit.
  • Take My Hand!: Used and subverted in the opening scene, where the rescuer falls to his death.
  • Through the Eyes of Madness: Scottie is obsessed with the memory of Madeleine.
  • Undressing the Unconscious: Scottie undresses Madeleine and puts her in his bed after she jumps into San Francisco Bay and loses consciousness.
  • Vertigo Effect: Trope Maker and Trope Namer. The shot invented for this movie—zooming in while pulling the camera back at the same time—has become an iconic and much-used visual shorthand to indicate disorientation, shock, or fear. Here it is used for Scottie's vertigo attacks.
  • Voiceover Letter: We hear Judy's voice as she writes her letter to Scottie.
  • Wandering Walk of Madness: In the backstory to Vertigo, Carlotta Valdes went mad after her child was taken from her, and took to aimlessly wandering the streets of San Francisco in a confused daze, continuously asking passers-by if they'd seen her child. So, when Madeleine Elster begins suffering fugues in which she journeys to locations that were important to the long-dead Carlotta, it's assumed that she's either inherited her ancestor's madness or possessed by her spirit - either way worrying, given that Carlotta committed suicide. The big twist is that she's neither insane nor possessed, and isn't actually Madeleine at all: she's an actress hired by Gavin Elster to pose as his wife and feign insanity - just so it won't look strange when the real Madeleine turns up dead of an apparent suicide.
  • Wham Shot: When Judy flashes back to pretending to be Madeleine to help fake her suicide.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: Midge disappears around the two-thirds point (she's present in the deleted alternate ending, though). One of the rare cases involving an important character where it's probably justified: Midge's disappearance symbolizes that there's no more room for her in Scottie's obsessed mind, nor for the common sense and cold reason she personifies in the film itself. (It's hardly a coincidence that the last we see of Midge is her literally exiting.)
    • Gavin Elster disappears midway as well after Madeleine's death was declared a suicide. We never find out if anyone finds out the truth his plan. Although, there's an alternate ending where he fled to Switzerland and gets caught by the authorities. And Midge is also featured in that one.
    • And if you want to get really technical, there's also that nameless fugitive who only appears during the scene at the beginning and is never seen or mentioned again. It's another justified example, since he's meant to be a Small Role, Big Impact character, partially responsible kick-starting Scottie's acrophobia.
  • Why Did It Have to Be Snakes?: Heights for Scottie. And it's not only a justified trope - in fact, it's practically the only reason why it had to be Scottie in the first place.
  • You Remind Me of X: Scottie's line to Judy: "Because you remind me of somebody."
  • Your Princess Is in Another Castle!: At around the two-hour mark, Judy's makeover into Madeleine is complete, Scottie is happy (the same can't be said for Judy), and they have an Orbital Kiss, then we fade to black. So, movie's over, right? But wait a minute: Scottie never found out that Judy was Madeleine. Hitchcock even holds it in black a couple of seconds longer than a typical transition, to turn it into a Fake-Out Fade-Out. But we fade back up to Judy and Scottie, then Scottie recognizes her necklace and the real climax begins.
  • Zip Me Up: Judy needs help with a necklace. This leads directly to the climax.

I heard voices!...God have mercy...