It is perhaps fitting that Alfred Hitchcock, a director who avoided genuine psychological probing in his films* -- though "genuine" is not a word one can easily use with Hitch regarding his storytelling methods -- made with his most anti-Freudian feature a film that revealed the most about himself. Vertigo is a story of obsession -- a point made further visible by Brian De Palma loosely reworking it and helpfully titling his work Obsession. Its lead character suffers from a crippling phobia, itself an obsessive fear, and he finds himself consumed in a disturbing fixation on, naturally, a woman. And, as Scottie (James Stewart) asphyxiates in a paranoid, depressive miasma, the obsessions of his cruel overlord bleed into the film via this proxy.
Unlike Hitchcock's other features, Vertigo does not seek to grip its audience by the throat, or at least not in the same way as the others. Like Notorious, the director's most elegant (and yet most merciless and cold) picture, Vertigo concerns itself not with the shocking reveal but in the way that a character (or characters) places his or head in a noose and tightens the rope. The twist of Vertigo is one of the more devilishly clever in the movies, yet Hitchcock plays his cards with a good third left to spare. The American Film Institute listed Vertigo as the greatest mystery film ever made, which is but one example of the many glaring proofs of the AFI's cluelessness: Hitchcock's greatest work is not about the mystery of a woman's shocking death but of how that death affects the man who loved her.
Hired by an old acquaintance to trail his potentially possessed wife, Scottie first meets Madeleine (Kim Novak) without meeting her at all. He trails her as she walks about as if in a trance, seemingly confirming her husband Gavin's (Tom Helmore) fears. Yet her disconcerting aloofness is as much an effect of the physical distance Scottie keeps from the woman and the emotional separation between her and the camera. Hitchcock uses this distance to effectively place Novak on a pedestal: with her platinum blond locks and inhumanly stiff carriage, she becomes the definitive depiction of the Hitchcockian ice queen, as well as a caricature of one. In the soft lighting of the outdoor scenes, Madeleine looks like an angel, but the director infuses this ethereal quality with an ephemeral one, as if she could fade at any second and we'd barely notice. Before she even has the chance to speak some lines, we've seen Madeleine to be both alluring and repellent, captivating in the unavailability that her removal from the protagonist and audience suggests and off-putting for the same reason.
Scottie falls for this vision of her -- he certainly cannot be said to be genuinely in love with the actual person -- and, when he saves Madeleine from an attempted suicide by the Golden Gate Bridge, the moment feels triumphant not solely because Scottie saves her life but because it marks their first true interaction. No wonder, then, that the moment is as much a physical consummation as any love act, a notion stressed by the next scene, which shows Madeleine waking up nude in Scottie's bed, as he had to remove the unconscious woman's damp, cold clothes. The two grow close, until Madeleine's increasing worry over her mental instability drive her to climb to the top of a bell tower of a local mission to commit suicide. Scottie, still rendered powerless by his acrophobia, can only collapse helplessly as he hears a scream and peers out a window to see a body strike a roof.
The incident only compounds Scottie's issues, sending him into a tailspin of depression and sorrow. Just as he watched one of his peers die at the start of the film as he hung from an eave, unable to help, he could not compel himself up the tower's stairs. An attorney pressures Scottie's guilt, overemphasizing the detective's "weakness" until he practically accuses the wracked man of impotence. Scottie is so torn up over the experience that, when he spots a woman who looks remarkably like Madeleine, we automatically wonder if he isn't hallucinating. Following the woman to her apartment, Scottie barges up to her room to awkwardly ask Judy (also Novak) on a date. Initially taken aback by this desperate man, Judy's hostility fades into a look of pity, and she agrees.
Here, Hitch flips the tables on us. Scottie leaves to return in an hour to take Judy to dinner, but the camera stays with Judy, who takes out some stationery to write Scottie a letter. In it, she reveals that she actually is Madeleine, or the Madeleine that Scottie met. Gavin hired her to pose as Madeleine so he could kill his actual wife, banking on Scottie bearing witness to her "suicide," knowing that the ex-detective could not drag himself to the top of the tower to stop him.
It is needlessly convoluted, yet by placing the reveal with a final act still to come, Hitchcock avoids entangling the ending with a complicated twist. He also shifts the film's focus: the first two acts contained the usual mysterious whisperings one expects from a thriller -- the odd, alienating placement of Novak in the frame, Madeleine running into a hotel, where the clerk insists that no woman came inside. Yet, with the mystery solved, Hitchcock turns to chart Scottie in his relationship with Judy, which he attempts to model after the one he never had with Madeleine. The utter opposite of a mystery, Vertigo becomes an exercise in dramatic irony, as the audience can only sit and watch a man destroy himself in his blindness.
Thus, obsession floods the film, though it had seeped in at the edges of the frame elsewhere. Take Scottie's best friend, Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes), an artist who serves at first to stand on the line between "gay bohemian San Fransisco" and the more button-down people like Scottie but becomes something more. Her love for Scottie is blatant, and we see her increasingly desperate attempts to win over her friend as she spots his growing love for Madeleine. She even goes so far as to paint herself in the fashion of the Carlotta Valdes portrait that informs Madeleine's style, but she overplays her hand and drives him away for it. Even Madeleine/Judy has a bit of a fixation on Scottie; she acquiesces to her lover's insane demands as he fashions Judy back into Madeleine, all because she loves him, and if he won't love her for her, then she'll change.
But they cannot compare to Scottie. With numerous retrospectives now commemorating David Lynch's bizzaro network series Twin Peaks -- itself filled with Vertigo references -- it's incredibly easy to see the parallels between Stewart's character and Leland Palmer. Both are tortured characters so maddened by grief that one cannot immediately discern whether their actions are meant to inspire pity or laughter. Scottie takes Judy to boutiques to buy her the dresses that "Madeleine" wore, and the tailors are so impressed that "the gentleman certainly knows what he wants" that they do not note the look of agony on Judy's face. She finally agrees to wear the dress for Scottie, who does not even acknowledge the act because he's thinking about how she needs to dye her hair. "Sympathy" isn't the right word to describe Hitchcock's treatment of Scottie -- it's too filled with irony for that -- but Vertigo is one of the director's few films for which the term might conceivably filter through the audience's minds.
Naturally, Hitch does most of the emotions through the camera so as to transfer them more easily onto the audience. Those distanced shots of Madeleine establish the entire character without a line of dialogue, so that when she finally speaks after her plunge into the Bay, it is remarkable not that she has been in the film so long without exchanging words with Scottie but that she is already tangible and identifiable by that moment. The dolly zooms are justly famous, capturing the nausea and panic of the vertigo and foisting Scottie's disoriented paralysis onto us. There are, of course, the usual signs of the director's mischievous side, such as the moment where Scottie and Madeleine share their first kiss, standing on a craggy beach as a wave crashes into a rock just as their lips touch, spraying into the air in a white foam that only an idiot couldn't read sexually.
The way that Hitchcock molds and refashions Novak allows him to carry his sexual hangup to its apex, starting with his distanced, cautious approach at the start that gives way to his stand-in heartlessly crafting a human being into an object to be creepily worshipped. At times, the director appears to be almost apologetic for his lusts; like Fellini, Hitchcock was faithfully married -- to his assistant director and editor Alma Reville, who deserves more credit for her contributions to her husband's films -- but he could not contain his sexual fantasies on-screen. Through his male protagonists, Hitchcock lived out his fetishes, and with Scottie he presents a character hobbled by his idée fixe that he cannot see the woman (either one) who loves him dearly and just wants him to feel the same way. More than any of his other features, Vertigo has the power to break your heart, one of the more devastating moments occurring when Judy breaks down and asks Scottie, "Couldn't you like me, just me the way I am?"
Yet Vertigo is more than simply an expulsion of the director's lasciviousness, just as 8½ did more than detail Fellini's hangups. As Chris Marker observed, it is a film about memory and subjectivity. When Scottie follows Madeleine into the gallery where the painting of Carlotta Valdes hangs, Hitchcock cuts between POV eyeline matches of Scottie linking the hairstyle of Carlotta and the identical one Madeleine sports, or the bouquets of flowers that lie beside them both. With Gavin and Judy selling Scottie on the idea of "Madeleine" being possessed by the painting's subject, the dead woman becomes identified with Madeleine, so that when Midge paints herself in Carlotta's place, it signifies her attempt to insert herself into Scottie's narrow perception via his vision of Madeleine and what forms her. Hitchcock litters the film with parallels, between such images, as well as larger elements such as Scottie's bouts of vertigo in crucial moments, two of which play out as flip sides of the same event. With these parallels, Hitchcock gives his characters second chances to fix their mistakes, under the belief that they can rewrite their histories by recreating them and altering the outcome. That's what so unsettles Madeleine about the giant redwood tree that stands and the hewed one that displays important dates through its rings: everything else in Vertigo can be manipulated, but these trees are constant, reminders of a history that cannot be undone or wished away.
And so, Vertigo ends with Scottie, who has deduced the truth about Judy, forcing her to the top of the mission's bell tower in his final attempt to confront his failure and to rewrite his memory. His grief now replaced with pain and feelings of betrayal over learning of Gavin's scheme, Scottie barely pauses to consider his phobia. "Did he train you?" spits the poor man, a scream of rage choked by disbelief, "Did he rehearse you?" His anger propels him to the top of the tower, where Judy offers one last plea, breaking through the crack in Scottie's obsessive feelings for her and finally making him realize what she'd sacrificed for him. Just as it appears as if the two will change their history after all, the shadowed shape of an approaching nun frightens Judy into falling to her death. After spending most of the film confined in rooms, Scottie runs to the edge of the window and looks down to see his love. After Scottie's first accident, Midge made an off-hand comment that the doctor told her that only another shock could jolt Scottie out of his acrophobia, and here he stands at the end, having overcome his fear. As if he could not stand to make a film that flirted so dangerously with emotion, Hitchcock saves this most heartless irony for last, a bitter, tragic iteration of the closing epiphany of A Clockwork Orange: "I was cured, alright."
*Even that infamously turgid scene at the end of Psycho is offset by its chilling final shot, one last gut punch for the audience to undermine the clinical dryness of its preceding sequence.