A man and a woman stroll down a sidewalk by a park. They are silent. The woman looks off to her left and sees a couple lying on the grass, playfully kissing. She looks away, awkwardly. The man is looking in the opposite direction and misses the whole thing.
Okay, you caught me. It’s difficult to know where to start with the umpteenth piece on one of the most-analyzed films ever made. I picked a scene that possibly no one has ever talked about before, in the middle of a film loaded with iconic moments. Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo is a wonderland of symbolism that communes with mythology, religion, psychology, art, gender studies, the nature of filmmaking — you name it — and what do I do but single out a throwaway moment, part of a very brief relationship-building montage before the story starts spiraling to its finale. But what’s interesting and, I hope, instructive about the moment, beyond the added angst we feel toward these characters in the context of what we know of them to this point, is how it could be dropped into a montage in any romantic comedy and still work, just in a completely different way. What one filmmaker might see as shorthand for the stereotypical conflict between the girl who wants to go steady and the boy who loves his freedom, Hitchcock envisions as the last pleasant moment these two people are ever going to enjoy together. She’s thinking about breaking the truth of her identity to him gently, like Superman trying to make Lois fall in love with Clark. Meanwhile, he’s making very specific plans for her that only seem conducive to that goal. Together they march in lockstep toward annihilation.
Vertigo is a tragic romance, a story that weds Pygmalion and Frankenstein (just to name two influences) as a thorough challenge to the romantic ideal. The protagonist, “Scottie” Ferguson (played by James Stewart), falls in love with a fantasy, or to be precise, a performance. When the fantasy dies, he tries to bring it back to life by taking a real woman and elevating her to his ideal. He becomes so single-minded in his quest that he isn’t prepared for the consequences. At the same time, she willingly makes herself his canvas, his experiment. They are both too burdened by guilt to forgive themselves. If they had known this about each other, things might have turned out differently.
Scottie is suspended over a precipice during the entire movie — figuratively, of course, but perhaps also literally. The opening scene leaves him dangling off the side of a building with no indication of how he’ll escape, and the rest of the film often has a hazy, nightmarish quality, with its famous “nightmare sequence” notably beginning with Scottie lying in bed, eyes open. On the other hand, nobody likes “It was all a dream” in storytelling, so let’s just stick with the metaphor. Scottie’s vertigo problem, as another character explains, can only be cured by an “emotional shock” like the one that brought it on in the first place. This doesn’t happen for him until the very end of the movie. Up to that point, he’s disabled by his fear of heights and for that reason becomes a pawn in an elaborate murder plot. No matter how much he needs to have his feet on the ground, he just can’t seem to keep them there. First, he’s chasing a fake ghost that he himself never believes in. Later, he chases another fake ghost that he does believe in and actually helped invent. Throughout, he must contend with heights: the Golden Gate Bridge and sequoias from below, the bell tower of San Juan Bautista from above (twice), and the hilly streets of San Francisco from both. Whatever else we can say about the movie’s ending, it seems to cure him.
The woman possessed by two ghosts in succession, both of them fabricated by men trying to control her, is Judy Barton (played by Kim Novak). The first time around, she’s been hired to play a role by a man who wants to frame his wife’s murder as a suicide. She plays the wife for an audience of one — Scottie, a detective — to convince him that she’s possessed by an ancestor and wants to kill herself. He falls in love with the wife, or rather Judy, or rather an idea that combines the two personalities. When the job is done, leaving Scottie devastated, she returns to her normal life and rids herself of the costume, dye and makeup of her performance. But when she bumps into him again, the guilt she feels and their mutual attraction make her passive as he attempts to make her look more like the woman he thinks he lost. There are multiple ironies at play. Both characters, in a sense that’s hardly paranormal, are possessed by the past and struggle to get themselves free of it.
Vertigo is filled with remarkably cohesive iconography, all of its colors, symbols, locations and dialogue fitting together in a complex pattern. For all the study it invites, I think the best place to start is with the characters and what their decisions mean. The movie warns us how easily the concept of love can warp into exploitation and misery. It shows the horrifying consequences of an imbalanced relationship, in which one party dominates under the guise of putting the other on a pedestal, because once on that pedestal there’s no room to move. This is the central truth of the movie. But allow me to take one step outward, because film is obviously a subject that interests me a great deal. Vertigo is about cinema, about the plight of exploited actresses, about the relationship between director and performers (Hitchcock and his blondes, to be specific), about the purpose of the medium itself. Movies are a way of recapturing dead moments, moments lost in the past. They idealize those moments by framing them in the most artistic, the most dramatic way. Sometimes (Often? Always?) they lie. But we keep coming back to them because the past — along with its byproduct, memory — is so important to us. We long for immortality, for the overcoming of death. This movie takes that longing to an obsessive extreme. The final words spoken in the film are “God have mercy.” Amen and amen.