Vertigo: Decoding Desire in Hitchcock

In 2012, Sight and Sound polled once again for the fifty greatest films of all time. For the first time in fifty years, number one was not Citizen Kane. I don't believe Hitchcock's Vertigo is really the best film ever made, but I understand the lens through which it might be the most transformative. Of all the films that could be considered at their heart to be about the obsession of romantic ownership, Vertigo is either the most obsessive, or the obsession that the others all share in common. It intently destructs a man’s romantic intentions: it’s where Blue Velvet gets the singer that appears to the men out of a Freudian mother fantasy; it’s where Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind got the idea to dissect a relationship using the conflict between people’s fantasies of each other, and how it affects their ability to share reality. Vertigo's obsession over loss rings down through these other movies; it's been named the best of all time only after they were made, and we could see what made them. But even now, many of them lack something Vertigo relies on. In order to descend it completely, we have to think of love, not as the goal of a romance, but as the height from which it’s so afraid to fall.

Jimmy Stewart gives a performance worthy of Hitchcock but Kim Novak gives two. Her transformation from a dreamy princess named Madeleine into a working-class girl named Judy, duped into playing a romantic ideal, redefines femininity in movies forever. Scottie (Stewart) chases her through the symbolic routines of her fake daydreaming and Hitchcock presents her as that Hollywood pin-up, that slender icon that Hitchcock found in Grace Kelly, and had to replace when she left him to become the real princess of Monaco (and thus, in a sense, prove him right about her all along).

And then Hitchcock kills Madeleine (and in Hitchcock, death is always deconstruction – is he killing his dream of Kelly?). And then he brings her back as someone real, in pants and street makeup and knowing smiles and flashy eyes. And then he obsessively pieces the starlet back together so that the ultimate beauty, the pageantry that follows Novak anywhere, the perfect bun and tall legs and cold eyes, becomes a tragic imposition, a role she has to reacquire. He turns her back into the fantasy of herself. This is the aspect that makes Vertigo so important, and the one that makes people forget it was made in the 1950s. Without the reveal of the second Novak in the form of the first, so that one could contain the other, we might still be making romances to the tune of The Broadway Melody instead of Blue Velvet.

If films were a scene long and this reveal scene was the whole movie called Vertigo, I might agree with Sight and Sound. Novak is exactly, compulsively the same as she was when Scottie saw her as the mysterious wanderer he was hired to follow, and became obsessed with in the process. When she's revealed, Vertigo becomes Scottie’s dream obsession come true, compulsively made by him into that vision. That moment that Scottie becomes a creator, when he puts his vision of beauty onto the screen as an act of fantasy, even necrophilia, that’s the moment that he becomes Hitchcock, who breaks down and remakes his women in almost every movie (undone by love in Notorious, killed as a McGuffin in Psycho, and so on).

Scottie makes Vertigo the torture fetish that Hitchcock seems to be tempted to make from everything, a battle between the ideal Hitchcock man (played by Stewart as flawed, crippled mentally, and obsessively vulnerable to women) and the frosty volcano of Hitchcock's perfect woman. Judy flushes blue and pink as she exits the bathroom, fully crystalized into Madeleine, roaming the dreamy green fog; Scottie's eyes flash in compulsive self-envy (he's jealous of the version of himself that knew the fantasy when she was alive). They embrace in sensual neon and Bernard Herrmann’s sweeping score becomes transformative; it’s so grand that the circumstances, undeniably tragic against so much lust, become a perfect portrait of longing. Stewart is perfect standing around looking jealous of himself and Novak is perfect at walking into his world with a mix of innocence and power, a vampire and a child, like she’s responsible for but unknowing of the part of his fantasies that she made herself. Hitchcock plays them both like the notes of a perfect chord; we, as always, play the part of his piano.

And perhaps Hitchcock himself is the tune, for the first time in any of his movies. He’s usually so much more careful with his own desires (consider Kelly in Rear Window, deliciously near to danger but safely rescued and mildly converted into a housewife without any of the pain of confrontation). Hitchcock destroys Novak as though, like Scottie, he fears her in direct proportion to how easily she could be made perfect; she’s destroyed in equal proportion to his desire for an ideal. Perhaps no movie has ever been more about a director dealing with the desires within himself.

There's a tragic moment when Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes) paints herself into the antique image Scottie begins to believe has been reincarnated as Madeleine. She hopes he'll be amused into thinking of her as part of the scheme of his love life, even by accident. She cruelly has all the aspects of a Hitchcock woman, but none of the panache in combining them; she’s like the women who watched his movies and told their hairdressers they wanted to look like Grace Kelly. The result is disastrous and tragic; she pulls at her housewife hair because she's so unworthy. The movie discards her, and it almost seems like our fault.

The subtle ways that fear comes into the scheme of this movie are told all in images, as in Hitchcock’s famous dolly zooms. Zooming in while physically pulling back the camera gives the impression of an expanding space that is also becoming more enclosing (it gives this movie nightmare logic -- the more space there is beneath you when you look down, the closer it seems). The lust that permeates Vertigo is evident in Scottie’s creator’s angst, the way he trains Judy to become someone else he desires, and the way the whole film embraces his physical and mental limits as a particularly masculine failing (Hitchcock’s men are often crippled, in one way or another, and so they always have the particular quality of someone who not only wants what they can’t have, but who wants what they might have had if their lives had turned out differently, which increases the longing even more). Notice how Scottie’s work pruning a girl into his fetish doesn’t seem reproachable: he’s too pitiful to blame him for his desires. That’s all Stewart, knowing that vulnerability isn’t about seeming weak but about seeming too helpless to act on the strength he could have.

I’ve spoken a lot on Hitchcock’s treatment of women in his movies (you can read up on the parallels to his treatment of his actresses) and how Vertigo is emblematic of it. But what’s most important to realize is that I don’t mean it accusingly: Vertigo becomes better than a simulation of mistreatment through the character of Madeleine/Judy, and how this film eventually becomes at least as much about her as about Scottie.

We come to understand what has allowed her to become an object, not only to the men who want her to be a certain way but to the desires she has for herself to want to be that way. She’s not blameless in her actions but forgivable through hurt and sympathy. Eventually, we see how these two have battled their images of each other; we even see that she’s fallen in love with Scottie. Her deception worked so well, it worked on herself too. It gives Scottie more and more to lose because of his angst, his hunger for an ideal. His inability to accept reality costs him far more than the woman of his dreams. It even costs him the dreams.

Vertigo put something dangerous and essential in the movie gene pool. It made movie couples fall in love, not just with each other, not merely with their appearances and their attitudes, but with the way that someone hungry for love thinks of those things. The way we fantasize each other, changing ourselves to match the fantasy, and destroying the reality of our feelings in the process, is something many filmmakers have tried to represent, but none with so much self-assessment. Hitchcock undresses himself for us; in doing so, he undresses all of his movies. Vertigo isn’t my favorite of his but it’s the cipher: I can explain what makes Notorious so potent and Rear Window somewhat safe because I know how he thinks of women, how he ideates and changes them, breaking them down to rebuild them in the image of his dreams. I’ve seen it happen on-screen. So many of his films are about wants, but here is the transformation. The movies changed along with it.


Image is a screenshot from the film.

Cast & Crew

Alfred Hitchcock

Alec Coppel

Samuel Taylor

Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac (book)

John "Scottie" Ferguson James Stewart
Judy Barton/Madeleine Elster Kim Novak
Marjorie "Midge" Wood Barbara Bel Geddes
Gavin Elster Tom Helmore
Coroner Henry Jones
Scottie's doctor Raymond Bailey


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