Horror through the decades presents: Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958)


Horror Through The Decades returns with an examination of one of the most influential psychological thrillers of all time, Alfred Hitchcock’s 1958 classic, Vertigo.

Don’t judge me for not seeing Vertigo til recently! 

So, before I begin, I’ll have to admit something that some of you may find shocking. Up until a few days ago, I had never seen Vertigo. I couldn’t tell you why.

I had always wanted to. I have loved every Hitchcock film I’ve seen, particularly Strangers On A TrainRope, and of course Psycho. I also know that Jimmy Stewart and Kim Novak have a great on-screen chemistry, from one of my absolute favorite films that came out the same year as Vertigo, which is Richard Quine’s Bell, Book, and Candle (If you want to see Jack Lemmon as a bongo-playing warlock, check that film out).

Basically, what I’m saying here is that there is no real reason why I’ve never seen this classic film until a few days ago, and, man, what a film this is. It’s so complex, so unnerving, so beautiful. It’s hard to really navigate a response that can fit within the context of a short article, considering the fact that one could write an entire dissertation about this film if one wanted.

The number one thing that I can say that disturbed me the most about Vertigo, and this may sound a little silly to some of you, but bear with me, is that this is the first film I’ve seen Jimmy Stewart as anything less than lovable. Stewart’s character of John “Scottie” Ferguson, starts out innocently enough, a former detective who is on leave from his job, following an incident where he almost fell off a roof during a chase, leaving him with..you guessed it…vertigo.

However, as the film progresses, and Scottie gets thrown into the abyss of obsession, he becomes less and less of Mr. Smith or George Bailey, and more and more of a madman that one wouldn’t want much to do with at all, really.

John “Scottie” Ferguson (James Stewart) and Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore) discussing the job that’ll push Scottie over the edge in Vertigo. Image courtesy of Universal

At the beginning of the film, John Ferguson is visiting with his friend and ex-fiancee, Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes, Dallas) trying to figure out what his next steps are since he can’t work in the police force anymore. At this point in the film, it seems as though John still has some lingering feelings for Midge, but she probably only considers him a friend and they both seem okay with that arrangement.

Shortly after his visit with Midge, John goes to visit an old friend from his younger days who just moved to San Francisco from a long stay in Europe. His name is Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore, The Time Machine). When John goes to visit him at his office, he doesn’t quite know what to expect, but it certainly wasn’t what ended up happening.

Elster has a feeling that his wife, Madeline (Kim Novak) is possessed by the spirit of someone who has since passed away. He hires John, or as Gavin calls him, Scottie, to use his detective skills to follow his wife to see what she is up to and what is actually happening with her. Scottie is reluctant, as he is trying to distance himself from his past as a police officer. He also thinks the whole thing sounds insane, which is understandable, frankly.

Vertigo – Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

At this point, Scottie begins following Madeline all around San Francisco and it’s surrounding small towns. It’s very interesting to see what certain parts of San Francisco looked like sixty years ago. As Scottie continues to follow Madeline, he gets more and more invested in the story that Gavin told him.

She seems to be possessed by the ghost of her great-grandmother, Carlota Valdez, who committed suicide when she was 26. Madeline is now 26, so Gavin fears that all of this strangeness might lead to her own suicide attempt.

All the speculation and strange energy culminate in a day where Scottie follows Madeline to the foot of the Bay Bridge. Madeline is staring out at the water, and Scottie is a reasonable distance behind her. She jumps into the bay, and Scottie saves her. From this point, things start getting…for lack of a better word, weird. Is Madeline a twin? Is Scottie at all sane? What the heck is exactly going on here?

I won’t spell out the entire plot for you here as I have done in the past, I want to discuss the brutality of Jimmy Stewart’s Scottie. If you’ve seen the film at all, you discover that after Madeline seemingly dies, there is another woman who looks exactly like her named Judy Barton.

Scottie finds her and follows her to her house. They begin dating. Scottie makes her cut and dye her hair exactly like Madeline. He buys her the same suit Madeline wore.

More from Alfred Hitchcock

I don’t know what disturbs me more, the fact that Scottie asked her to do these things or the fact that she went along with it. The most disturbing aspect of this is how it mirrors the reality of the film’s creator.

Alfred Hitchcock was put on blast by Tippi Hedren, who starred in The Birds. Apparently, Hitchcock monitored Hedren’s every move. She claimed he ruined her life while filming and he told her he would ruin her career, which he basically did.

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I think that there is a lot of Alfred in Scottie, which is what made this film truly disturbing to me. Also, the falling scenes actually might give you a little bit of actual vertigo yourself if your susceptible to that sort of thing. So, it’s a good thing we all watch movies sitting down.

What do you think of Vertigo? What about Hitchcock himself? Let us know in the comments.