While making my personal Movie List of best 100 films I have almost reached the middle point. On checking I find I didn’t include Hitchcock and it is time I remedied my lapse. In my youth I mooned over Kim Novak after seeing William S. Inge’s Picnic (evidently not for her acting abilities but she had certain mysterious quality that I still cannot figure out) and so I shall start with one of the best from the master of suspense in which she plays a double role.
Much has been written about Hitchcockian style, but his incisive analysis of mystery as a study in voyeurism in terms of our social development is perhaps not well understood. (In this age of internet dependence instant messaging go side by side with information crunch; thinking an original thought is a bother so blogs are choke full of half baked opinions by tyros who feed the cyberspace with ‘conspiracy theories’ and whatnot. Did Hitchcock foresee all this? A master filmmaker that he is he perhaps with tongue in cheek drew red herrings all over the place in his films to give the audience a spine-tingle time and truth in the end turns out to be far less bizarre than what one was led to believe. He once said, “There’s no terror in the bang of the gun, only the anticipation of it.” ) Hitchcock always let us in his clock and dagger mysteries while the characters may not and our curiosity how he would wrap it all up makes us willing accomplices. We are voyeurs as much as we take in gory details of a traffic accident shown in mass media. Vertigo is a trilogy about voyeurism, starting with Rear Window (1954) and ending with Psycho (1960).
The screenplay is an adaptation of the French novel Sueurs froides: d’entre les morts (“Cold Sweat: From Among the Dead”) by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac. When initially released in 1958, Vertigo was not a major box-office hit, and critical acclaim was not heaped upon it. But over the years, it has come to be considered one of the greatest movies of all time. In the 2002 Sight & Sound critics’ poll of the best films ever made, it ranks number 2. In the 2008 American Film Institute list of 100 top movies, Vertigo is number 9.
Vertigo tells the story of a retired policeman who falls in love with a mysterious woman he has been hired to follow.
San Francisco detective John “Scottie” Ferguson (James Stewart) during rooftop chase sees a fellow police officer (Fred Graham) falls to his death. It triggers an extreme fear of heights or acrophobia as a result of which he is forced to retire from police work.
Scottie is later hired as a private detective by an old college acquaintance, Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore), who wants his beautiful blonde wife Madeleine Elster (Kim Novak) followed. Elster is worried that she appears to have symptoms of a mental illness or spiritual possession.
Scottie tails Madeleine, who wanders the city in a trance-like, obsessive state and as his client had warned she seems to have morbid interest visiting the grave and painting of Carlotta Valdes, a woman who killed herself one hundred years earlier. Scottie also notices that Madeleine is wearing her hair exactly like Carlotta.
He follows her to Fort Point at the foot of the Golden Gate Bridge,and he is on hand to thwart a suicide attempt. Scottie saves her and brings her to his apartment. On the phone with Gavin, Scottie learns that Carlotta was twenty-six when she killed herself, Madeleine’s current age. Scottie is romantically linked with Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes) but he is now drawn into a passion that can only mean disaster for all concerned.
When Madeleine and Scottie take a trip to see coastal redwoods at Big Basin Redwoods State Park, she recalls the past, what appears to be Carlotta’s past and she tells Scottie Mission San Juan Batista. He takes her there in an effort to conquer her disturbing dreams but while there his charge breaks loose and runs into the bell tower. Scottie’s acrophobia prevents him from following her up the steep staircase. Through a window, he however sees her fall from the top of the tower to her death.
Scottie suffers a nervous breakdown and flees the scene. At the inquest into Madeleine’s death, Scottie is cleared by the prosecution and his client assures him that “we both know who really killed Madeleine”. Was she really possessed by Carlotta’s spirit?
Gavin tells Scottie that he intends to cope with his grief by leaving San Francisco to travel the world. Scottie’s depression worsens and he is placed in a mental hospital where he suffers from terrifying nightmares. Midge tries to console him but he realizes that he is still in love with Madeleine.
Enter Judy Barton whom he meets on his frequent haunts that he and Madeleine had visited. She bears a strong resemblance to Madeleine, although she has darker hair. In her speech and deportment she is as refined as candy floss to Madeleine’s crystal iciness. However Judy soon breaks down and in her hotel room, she reluctantly tells him her story; she is a simple girl from Salina, Kansas, making a life for herself in San Francisco after a series of bad relationships.
Madeleine’s ghost stands between them and there cannot be any romance.
After he leaves Judy in her room truth is revealed. Judy writes him a letter in which she admits (in flashback) that she was in fact Madeleine. What Scottie had gone through was all a charade. Elster bribed her to act as a mentally unstable “Madeleine”. The woman who fell from the tower was Elster’s real wife. He merely wanted an alibi, using his vertigo as an excuse to pull off a perfect crime. She destroys the letter as soon as it is written.
Scottie grows suspicious of Judy when he sees her wearing a red, jeweled pendant that he remembers Madeleine claiming to have inherited. Scottie insists that Judy dress like Madeleine; despite her protests, she eventually gives in. When Judy is completely made over as Madeleine, except for her hairdo he persuades her to change even this small detail. She goes into the bathroom and emerges, just as Madeleine emerged from his bedroom — the film echoes the earlier scene — and as Scottie embraces her the past swirls about them and their relationship seems finally to be consummated, his obsession cured.
He wants to reenact the last moments of Madeleine and takes her to Mission San Juan Batista and forces her to climb up the tower once more. As they inch to the top, she confesses the truth, and Scottie rages at her. Truth dawns on him and having conquered his debility by reenactment he is in a calmer mood to understand what she said. She does love him.The background music begins to swell as the two embrace. Suddenly, a shadowy figure appears at the top of the stairs; and Judy frightened backs away from the approaching shadow. She steps backwards off the tower ledge, plunging to her death. The figure, a nun, whispers, “God, have mercy,” and rings the tower bell as Scottie stares down at Judy’s fallen body; the emotional shock has cured his vertigo.
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Produced by Uncredited:
Samuel A. Taylor
Starring: James Stewart
Barbara Bel Geddes
Music by Bernard Herrmann
Cinematography Robert Burks, ASC
Editing by George Tomasini
Distributed by 1958-1982
Running time 128 minutes
Officer on the rooftop: Give me your hand. Give me your hand.
Madeleine: Here I was born, and there I died. It was only a moment for you; you took no notice.
Scottie: What’s this doohickey?
Midge: It’s a brassiere! You know about those things, you’re a big boy now.
Scottie: I’ve never run across one like that.
Midge: It’s brand new. Revolutionary up-lift: No shoulder straps, no back straps, but it does everything a brassiere should do. Works on the principle of the cantilevered bridge.
Scottie: It does?
Midge: An aircraft engineer down the peninsula designed it; he worked it out in his spare time.
Scottie: Kind of a hobby, a do-it-yourself kind of thing!
Madeleine: Only one is a wanderer; two together are always going somewhere.
Coroner: He did nothing. The law has little to say on things left undone.
Judy: Couldn’t you like me, just me the way I am? When we first started out, it was so good; w-we had fun. And… and then you started in on the clothes. Well, I’ll wear the darn clothes if you want me to, if, if you’ll just, just like me.
Scottie: The color of your hair…
Judy: Oh, no!
Scottie: Judy, please, it can’t matter to you.
Scottie: You shouldn’t keep souvenirs of a killing. You shouldn’t have been that sentimental.
Midge: I talked to the woman in musical therapy, and she said that Mozart’s the boy for you.
Scottie: Midge, who do you know that’s an authority on San Francisco history?
Midge: That’s the kind of greeting a girl likes! Not this “Hello-you-look-wonderful” stuff, just a good straight “Who do you know that’s an authority on San Francisco his – -”
Scottie: And then what did he do? Did he train you? Did he rehearse you? Did he tell you exactly what to do, what to say? You were a very apt pupil too, weren’t you? You were a very apt pupil! Well, why did you pick on me? Why me?
Gavin Elster: Scottie, do you believe that someone out of the past – someone dead – can enter and take possession of a living being?
Judy: If I let you change me, will that do it? If I do what you tell me, will you love me?
Scottie: Yes. Yes.
Judy: All right. All right then, I’ll do it. I don’t care anymore about me.
Gavin Elster: She’ll be talking to me about something. Suddenly the words fade into silence. A cloud comes into her eyes and they go blank. She’s somewhere else, away from me, someone I don’t know. I call her, she doesn’t even hear me. Then, with a long sigh, she’s back. Looks at me brightly, doesn’t even know she’s been away, can’t tell me where or when.
Scottie: How often does this happen?
Gavin Elster: More and more in the past few weeks. And she wanders – God knows where she wanders. I followed her one day, watched her coming out of the apartment, someone I didn’t know. She even walked a different way. Got into her car and drove off to Golden Gate Park. Five miles. Sat by the lake, staring across the water at the pillars that stand on the far shore. You know, Portals of the Past. Sat there a long time without moving. I had to leave, get back to the office. When I got home that evening, I asked her what she’d done all day. She said she’d driven out to Golden Gate Park and sat by the lake, that’s all.
[Scottie gets up]
Gavin Elster: The speedometer on her car showed that she’d driven ninety-four miles. Where did she go? I’ve got to know, Scottie, where she goes and what she does before I get involved with doctors.
Scottie: Anyone could become obsessed with the past with a background like that!
Madeleine: Oh Scottie. I’m not mad. I’m not mad. I don’t want to die. There’s someone within me and she says I must die. Oh Scottie, don’t let me go.
Scottie: I’m here. I’ve got you.
Madeleine: I’m so afraid.
[Scottie and Madeleine kiss]
Madeleine: Don’t leave me. Stay with me.
Scottie: All the time.
Gavin Elster: There’s no way for them to understand. You and I know who killed Madeleine.
Madeleine: There is something I must do, there is something I must do.
Scottie: There is nothing you must do. There is nothing you must do.
Scottie: I love you, Madeleine.
Madeleine: I love you, too. It’s too late.
Scottie: No, no, we’re together.
Madeleine: It’s too late. There’s something I must do…
Scottie: [kisses her passionately] No, there is nothing you must do. There is nothing you must do. No one possesses you. You’re safe with me.
Madeleine: [frantically] No, it’s too late
[Madeleine breaks free and runs across the courtyard. Scottie trails behind her, eventually catching up to her. He holds her tightly]
Madeleine: Look, it’s not fair. It’s too late. It wasn’t supposed to happen this way. It *shouldn’t* have happened …
Scottie: But it had to happen. We’re in love. That’s all that counts!
Madeleine: [struggling] Look. Let me go! Please let me go!
Scottie: Listen to me. Listen to me.
Madeleine: [calmly] You believe I love you?
Madeleine: And if you lose me, then you’ll know I, I loved you. And I wanted to go on loving you.
Scottie: I won’t lose you.
Madeleine: Let me go into the church – alone.
[they kiss for the last time. Scottie releases his grip and Madeleine walks away towards the bell tower]
Nun: God, have mercy.
Scottie: One final thing I have to do… and then I’ll be free of the past.
Scottie: [to Judy, after being taken to the scene of Madeline's death] No, no. I have to tell you about Madeleine now. Right there.
Scottie: We stood there and I kissed her for the last time, and she said, ‘If you lose me you’ll know that I loved you and wanted to keep on loving you.’ And I said, ‘I won’t lose you.’ But I did.
Scottie: And then she turned and ran into the church. I tried to follow, but it was too late.
Midge: You want to know something? I don’t think Mozart’s going to help at all.
* Alfred Hitchcock originally wanted Vera Miles to play Madeleine, but she became pregnant and was therefore unavailable.
* Costume designer Edith Head and director Alfred Hitchcock worked together to give Madeleine’s clothing an eerie appearance. Her trademark grey suit was chosen for its colour because they thought it seemed odd for a blonde woman to be wearing all grey. Also, they added the black scarf to her white coat because of the odd contrast.
* Director Cameo: [Alfred Hitchcock] about 11 minutes in wearing a grey suit walking past Gavin Elster’s shipyard.
* San Juan Batista, the Spanish mission which features in key scenes in the movie doesn’t actually have a bell tower – it was added with trick photography. The mission originally had a steeple but it was demolished following a fire.
* Alfred Hitchcock reportedly spent a week filming a brief scene where Madeleine stares at a portrait in the Palace of the Legion of Honor just to get the lighting right.
* Uncredited second-unit cameraman Irmin Roberts invented the famous “zoom out and track in” shot (now sometimes called “contra-zoom” or “trombone shot”) to convey the sense of vertigo to the audience. The view down the mission stairwell cost $19,000 for just a couple of seconds of screen time.
* Average Shot Length (ASL) = 6.7 seconds
* The Empire Hotel where James Stewart eventually finds Kim Novak is today (1999) the York Hotel located at 940 Sutter Street in the heart of San Francisco. Kim Novak’s character lived in room 501, which still retains many of its aspects captured in the film.
* The building exterior used for Madeleine’s apartment building is located at 1000 Mason St., across the street from the Fairmont Hotel.
* Numerous uses of repetition and reflection throughout, including:
o The mirror on the way out of Ernie’s restaurant; Scotty sees Madeleine reflected in it right after he has seen her for the first time.
o The numerous reflections and repetitions of Madeleine throughout, including at least two women whom Scotty mistakes for her.
o The metaphorical or dream mirrors that Madeleine describes as lining the corridor of her life.
o Midge paints herself into the portrait of Madeleine’s ancestor, and, in one shot, sits next to the self-portrait, as if doubled.
o After showing Scotty the portrait, Midge sees herself reflected in the glass of the window.
o Judy as Madeleine’s reflection.
o Madeleine as repetition or reflection of her ancestor.
o Scotty repeating his former life.
o Judy falls from the tower to her death the same way Madeleine did
o There is a motif of spirals in the film, as literal shapes in the opening credits, and as the more abstract shape of the movie’s plot, as well as the shape of the pivotal tower staircase.
* The lighting changes when important events occur. For instance:
o When Scotty first sees Madeleine in Ernie’s restaurant, the light around her becomes unnaturally bright for a moment.
o While Scotty is listening to the story of Madeleine’s ancestor in the book shop, it gets very dark; once he exits the store, it brightens again.
o When Scotty first sees Judy made up completely as Madeleine, she is lit by a blurred, ghostly green light (the reflected light from the neon sign outside the window).
* The screenplay is credited to Alec Coppel and Samuel A. Taylor, but Alec Coppel didn’t write a word of the final draft. He is credited for contractual reasons only.
* The film was unavailable for decades because its rights (together with four other pictures of the same period) were bought back by Alfred Hitchcock and left as part of his legacy to his daughter. They’ve been known for long as the infamous “Five Lost Hitchcocks” amongst film buffs, and were re-released in theatres around 1984 after a 30-year absence. The others are The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), Rear Window (1954), Rope (1948), and The Trouble with Harry (1955).
* Poorly received by U.S. critics on its release, this film is now hailed as Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece.
* Director Trademark: [Alfred Hitchcock] [bathroom] Madeline emerges from the bathroom, ready for lovemaking.
* Director Trademark: [Alfred Hitchcock] [hair] Carlotta and Madeline have spiral hairstyles, and Judy’s hair colour is significant.
* Both the interiors and exteriors of “Ernie’s” restaurant were filmed on sets, although the restaurant was a San Francisco landmark which closed its doors in 1999.
* The movie contains the only score that composer Bernard Herrmann wrote but did not conduct himself. Just before the recording was scheduled, a guild strike restricted Herrmann from conducting anywhere in the world. As a result, part of the score was recorded in London (in stereo) and the other half in Vienna (in mono).
* A theme song titled “Vertigo” by Livingston and Evans (Jay Livingston and Ray Evans) was recorded by Billy Eckstine, and was reportedly used for promotional purposes, but was not included in the film’s final cut. Word has it that Alfred Hitchcock didn’t feel it was appropriate.
* John Ferren, the artist for the “Nightmare Sequence” design, also painted the pivotal “Portrait of Carlotta” that transfixes the main characters of the film. Production Designer Henry Bumstead did the joke one of Carlotta with Midge’s head. John Ferren also did a portrait of Vera Miles when she was to play the ‘Kim Novak (I)’ role.
* Alfred Hitchcock had originally opted for another location for the famous staircase sequence, but associate producer Herbert Coleman’s daughter (Judy Lanini) suggested the Mission at San Juan Batista (the location that was eventually used for filming) as a more suitable location for filming.
* On-location filming lasted 16 days.
* Was voted the 19th Greatest Film of all time by Entertainment Weekly.
* The zoom out/track in shots were done with miniatures laid on their sides, since it was impossible to do them vertically.
* Alfred Hitchcock was embittered at the commercial failure and initially critically mixed reaction of this film. He blamed the film’s seeming failure on James Stewart for “looking old”. Alfred Hitchcock never worked with James Stewart, previously one of his favorite collaborators, again.
* Alfred Hitchcock had fun repeating the scene in which Kim Novak jumps into the water over and over again, while James Stewart was following and watching her in the distance. The shoot was good a long time before, but Alfred Hitchcock insisted in repeating it many times after just for fun.
* Voted #2 in Total Film’s 100 Greatest Movies Of All Time list (November 2005).
* In 2002, named by “Positif” (France) as one of the 50 best films of the last 50 years (critics’ choice: #2, readers’ choice: #4)
* Midge’s remarks about the “cantilevered” brassiere designed by an aircraft engineer are a reference to the story that Howard Hughes had an engineer invent a new type of underwired bra for Jane Russell.
* Alfred Hitchcock had originally wanted to use his now-famous Vertigo zoom in Rebecca (1940), but due to lack of technology at that time he couldn’t do it. The technique was inspired by a time when Hitchcock had fainted during a party.
* Kim Novak hated wearing the important gray suit because it felt confining. However, she learned to make it work for her, as she saw it a symbol of Madeleine’s character.
* It was rumored – and even written in Hitchcock’s script notes – that Kim Novak dubbed the last line of the film, which was delivered by the nun. However, she denied this in an interview.
* In 2007, the American Film Institute ranked this as the #9 Greatest Movie of All Time.
* Ranked #1 on the American Film Institute’s list of the 10 greatest films in the genre “Mystery” in June 2008.
* Kim Novak’s character, Judy Barton, states that she is from “Salina, Kansas.” In fact, that is one of the locations of the 1955 movie, Picnic (1955) that made Novak a star.
* When this movie opened at San Francisco’s legendary Castro Theater during its restored re-release in October of 1997 (only a few months after the death of star James Stewart), it did more business there than any other theater in the US that weekend.
* When Kim Novak questioned Alfred Hitchcock about her motivation in a particular scene, the director is said to have answered, “Kim, it’s only a movie!”
* The word “vertigo” is only spoken once in the movie, towards the beginning by Scottie to Midge. After that it is never uttered again.
* Bernard Herrmann’s score is largely inspired by Richard Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde” which, like the film, is also about doomed love.