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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."

A classic 1958 Psychological Thriller directed by Alfred Hitchcock, adapted from French novel D'entre les morts.

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 fear of heights.

Scottie goes on leave for a while, but is persuaded to go back on the job by Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore), a college buddy of his, who wants him to trail his wife Madeleine who has been behaving oddly. As he observes the beautiful, mysterious Madeleine (Kim Novak), he 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 as he finds himself watching helplessly as Madeleine plunges to her death from the roof of a bell tower, unable to reach her in time due to his vertigo.

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's haunted by 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 considered among the best films of Hitchcock and highly significant for film history.

If it's the comics company you're looking for, search no further than Vertigo Comics.

This film provides examples of:

  • 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.
  • 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: If Scottie had ever seen a picture of the real Madeleine, either before or after her death, Gavin would've been sunk.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Complexity Addiction: It's easy to overlook admidst 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.
  • Creator Cameo: Hitchcock appears walking past the entrance of Gavin Elster's shipyard.
  • 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.
    • On a more infamous note (no pun intended), 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.
  • Doppelgänger Replacement Love Interest: After Madeleine jumps off the bell tower, Scottie meets Judy Barton and has her made over to look just like Madeleine. Little does he know that the truth is a lot weirder.
  • 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 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.
  • 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 exactly 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."
  • Fake-Out Fade-Out: Not blatant, but the fade-to-black after the Orbital Kiss late in the film feels like it could be the end of the film, coming near the two-hour mark and after a seeming climax in the story. Hitchcock even holds it in black a couple seconds longer than you'd expect for a typical transition. But wait a minute: Scottie never found out that Judy was Madeleine? Then the next scene starts and the real climax begins.
  • Flaw Exploitation: Scottie's fear of heights is taken advantage of by Elster and Madeleine when they switch Elster's wife for Madeleine on top of the bell tower while Scottie couldn't follow up.
  • Foreshadowing: Midge's comment that "only another emotional shock" could cure Scottie's acrophobia foreshadows the final shot of the film.
  • Hand Gagging: Happens during The Reveal. Kim Novak 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 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: Try to listen to Midge's comments about "the gay old bohemian days of gay old San Francisco" without chuckling now.
  • Heroic B.S.O.D.: Scottie suffers a severe one about halfway through the film.
  • Hypnotic Head: The Dream Sequence, where Scottie's head floats over crazy geometric animation.
  • Idiot Ball: The plot comes apart because Judy kept the necklace Ellster 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.
  • I Need a Freaking Drink: Scottie, after Elster tells him about Madeleine's relationship to (and seeming possession by) Carlotta Valdes.
  • 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 gets to go scott-free with his crimes, while his partner-in-crime and lover, Judy/Madeleine, tries to repent and pays for it. This notably led to the Hays Code demanding an alternate ending, which was shot, but never released.
  • 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.
  • Meaningful Name: Many critics have noted the connection between Salina, Kansas (Judy's hometown) and Salinas, the city close by the San Juan Bautista mission, but this has been Jossed by screenwriter Samuel A. Taylor, who chose Salina simply because a friend of his was from there, and for Rule of Funny, since it's one letter away from "saliva".
  • Meganekko: Midge has large round glasses and fits the character type perfectly.
  • 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 actnote , but kept the main plot thread, the lead character's vertigo, and a prominent scene at a church tower.
  • Private Detective: Scottie Ferguson, after he left the police, although he's not a professional and only does it as a favour to Ellster.
  • Redemption Equals Death: For Judy in the end.
  • Replacement Goldfish: Sums up Scottie's entire relationship with Judy.
  • 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 him his acrophobia.
  • Scenery Porn: Lots of shots of beautiful Northern California countryside.
    • The film's visual treatment of 1950s San Francisco should qualify as "urban scenery porn" if there is such a category.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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 alternate deleted ending though). One of the rare cases with important characters when 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).
  • Why Did It Have to Be Snakes?: Heights for Scottie.
  • You Remind Me of X: Scottie's line to Judy: "Because you remind me of somebody."
  • Zip Me Up: Judy needs help with a necklace. This leads directly to the climax.