You can begin to talk about Vertigo a dozen different ways, and oceans of ink and billions of pixels have been devoted to doing just that. It’s been debated, discussed, rejected and beloved. So many better critics than me (like Roger Ebert; massive spoilers in this essay if you haven’t watched the movie) have that feels slightly blasphemous to take a crack at it. But I will anyway. What the hell, what’s one more take, right?
I’m going to start talking about Vertigo with women, and a war.
Our cultural narrative has generally settled on World War II as the good war, the one where the bad guys committed genocide (they did) and the good guys stopped them. The Greatest Generation stopped evil! Everything was good after that, right?
Jimmy Stewart already had his pilot’s licence when he enlisted in the US military, before the beginning of WWII, and had had an active interest in the military. He helped to train pilots, and flew bombing missions, rising from private to colonel in four years. He served in the Air Force Reserve for years after, even acting as non-duty observer during the Vietnam conflict. Stewart seems to have seen his military experience as a duty he was proud of.
But it had a cost.
Stewart, affected by what we now call PTSD, took five years off after the war to reassess his career and deal with his symptoms, and came back for Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life, a sentimental classic that nonetheless deals directly with mental illness, financial hardship, isolation and addiction. It flopped, as did a string of movies that followed; commercial success only came with his Broadway success in “Harvey,” a gentle play about an eccentric man and his best friend, an invisible anthropomorphic rabbit. The 1950 film adaptation of Harvey earned Stewart his fourth Best Actor nomination, and set his career back on track.
Before Harvey came his first collaboration with Alfred Hitchcock, Rope, which saw Stewart as a provocative professor who realizes too late he’s become Sir Henry to a pair of Dorian Grays. Hitchcock was making darker, more personal movies by this point, culminating in Vertigo, their last collaboration–and another box office failure. Vertigo would nod to both men’s demons.
Hitchcock was a master, nearly unparalleled at creating tension, and so influential that even his profile is recognizable.
He was also misanthropic, misogynistic and generally unpleasant, a tyrant on set who fired collaborators with little provocation. He was generally unapologetic about all this, which is one of the reasons Vertigo is so intriguing. Vertigo is the movie that comes closest to Hitchcock examining his own obsessions honestly, and it does get very, very close.
Some of Hitch’s greatest obsessions are about women. He created the “Hitchcock blonde,” a beautiful woman with a cool affect hiding emotional passion and turmoil underneath. It’s Tippi Hedren in Marnie, or Grace Kelly in Rear Window, even Doris Day, desperate for the return of her son, in Hitchock’s second version of The Man Who Knew Too Much. It’s certainly Kim Novak in Vertigo.
Offscreen, he obsessed over the blondes, too. “I never understood what women wanted,” he once said. “I only knew it wasn’t me.” But that certainly didn’t stop him from pursuing what he wanted. Most infamously, he destroyed Tippi Hedren’s career (and took a pretty good crack at her sanity) when she refused to sleep with him. (He refused to sleep with his own wife, editor and screenwriter Alma Reville, after the birth of their first child. For the record, she wasn’t blonde.) Affection and ownership seem to have been inextricably linked for Hitch, and the women he worked with often suffered for it.
In Vertigo, Hitchcock’s obsession and Stewart’s darkness meet in a toxic, compelling blend of survivor’s guilt, obsession, and loss. Adapted from the novel Among the Dead by the writing partners Boileau-Narcejac, who also wrote the source material for Les Diaboliques, the plot starts off with a horrific death and only goes downhill from there.
Stewart plays Scottie, who begins the movie as a police detective. In the opening scenes, he loses a colleague due to his own fear of heights. Traumatized by the experience, he retires from the force and becomes a private detective. When he’s hired to follow the wife of a wealthy man, he quickly becomes obsessed with her, and the obsession only worsens following her death. Eventually, he finds a woman who resembles her, and forces her into the dead woman’s image. The plot is clever and twisty and the action is tense, but Scottie is its deeply compromised moral center. (Midge, a late-stage addition by second screenwriter Samuel A. Taylor, does her best, but you can only be so much of a moral center when the men in your life refuse to listen to you.) Scottie is haunted and damaged, but also angry, manipulative and at times brutal to the woman he claims to love. He’s both victim and abuser, and the movie makes us sympathetic to his pain even as we cringe at his actions.
Scottie’s off-kilter mental state is reflected in the images we see, veering from bright colors to darkness, using a dolly zoom to increase our disorientation, dropping us directly into Scottie’s nightmares. (Jim Emerson has a great piece on the movie’s color symbology.) Bernard Herrmann’s score doubles down on the heightened emotions, and because we have a front row seat to Scottie’s pain, it’s his perspective that dominates the film. That, and Stewart’s incredible charisma, are what keeps us on Scottie’s side even at his most monstrous.
But imagine a Vertigo that was about Kim Novak’s character instead. A movie about a woman so haunted by her crimes that she allows a man to push her into the guise of a woman who never really existed. About a woman whose fate is wholly controlled by the men in her lives, whose appetites and obsessions control her present and seal her fate. What shape would Vertigo have taken then? What parts of the story are missed, in Hitch’s tight focus on his own obsessions?
A retold Vertigo would almost certainly not be a better movie–Vertigo is very nearly perfect–but it would certainly be a profoundly different one. Every good story carves away what is unnecessary to maintain its focus and themes. What Hitch carved away in creating Vertigo shows that even in this, his most self-critical film, he never got fully away from treating women as his tools, to be trained and rehearsed, to be told what to do and what to say. But at least this time he didn’t shy away from raw damage that obsession could cause.