Film Review: Vertigo (1958)

Vertigo is probably one of Alfred Hitchcock’s most beloved films, from a director whose entire filmography is almost universally beloved. It’s also a film which has had the appraisal that it peaks a little too early, one that I tend to agree with. There will be spoilers in this review below the cut, because I need to talk about the last third of the film, so I need to lay out what came before.

Vertigo follows “Scotty” (James Stewart), a former police detective who left the force after an incident where his acrophobia nearly led to his death and did lead to the death of a fellow officer. Scotty ends up working as a private investigator, helping a local wealthy businessman keep an eye on his wife, Madeline (Kim Novak), who may be having mental health issues.

After saving Madeline from a suicide attempt, they end up falling in love for each other – only for Madeline to apparently kill herself by flinging herself from a bell tower at a mission they are visiting. Scotty institutionalizes himself over this, and after getting out several months later, he runs into Judy, a woman from Kansas – who in reality was actually posing for Madeline for Scotty at the behest of Madeline’s husband in an attempt to gaslight Scotty and cover up Madeline’s murder.

Scotty, not knowing that last bit, just sees the similarity between Judy and Madeline and tries to remake Judy in Madeline’s image, ultimately leading to him putting it all together and confronting her on this in the bell tower where Madeline died… only for them to be startled by a third party out of the blue, leading to Judy falling to her death as a freak accident.

I bring up that long synopsis of Vertigo‘s plot because it leads to the two real problems with the film’s last third. The first is related to the murder plot – or rather the murderer part of the plot. While the murder itself is explored, the actual murderer drops out of the movie shortly after the murder and never shows up again. The murder does need to happen for the main trauma to come up, and for Scotty to realize that he was gaslit – but the mastermind of the gaslighting is never really addressed. Just something addressing this would have been nice.

The other relates to Judy/Madeline – specifically her plot arc. It isn’t that she doesn’t have one, she absolutely does. It’s just that it’s very poorly presented. She’s an accomplice to murder, and it’s implied that she’s somewhat pressured into her involvement, and after she returns into the film, her arc is one of her agency being progressively taken away. It’s the inverse of the femme fatale, the woman who through emotional manipulation takes away the agency of a man, and it’s clear that this inversion is Hitchcock’s intent – Judy writes a letter revealing the deception to Scotty but destroys it before delivering it, and partway through the process of re-making her into Madeline, she confronts Scotty on this, and tries to get him to stop, without success.

This could successfully lead to a tragic ending, except for how Judy’s death plays out. Judy is startled by a nun walking up into the bell tower, slips and falls to her death. However, in the way the shot is framed, Judy is in the background, not the foreground, and most of her body is blocked in the frame by Stewart. We don’t see her body like we saw Madeline’s, and we don’t get a closeup on her feet showing that what’s happening is she’s lost her footing. If it wasn’t for her scream and Scotty’s reaction, we wouldn’t even know that she was dead. She literally drops out of the film. It’s frustrating.

What’s worse is that Hitchcock is a very visual director. The composition of these sequence was intentional. Hitch was clearly trying to put forward the idea that the ultimate cause of death for Judy was “Death by deprivation of agency”. Vertigo even briefly has a scene from her point of view where she writes the letter exposing the truth, and then destroying it, showing her putting forward a tremendous degree of agency before it’s taken away. Instead, as shot, Judy’s death is almost comical to a degree that, given the context, has to be unintentional.

I appreciate Hitchcock’s work, and I’m glad I saw Vertigo, but I can’t give this movie the kind of unreserved recommendation that I’d give, for example, North by Northwest.

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