Vertigo by Bernard Herrmann (Open in a new tab, for atmosphere)
“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past ”
Those are the closing lines of one of the Great American novels, if not the greatest about life americana. The last lines of ‘The Great Gatsby’; however, speak to a universally shared paradox of the reality having to live life forwards but only understanding it in reverse. We are drawn back into the past for multitudes of reasons, holding on to the memories of the past of long ago and recent, at times throughly unable to move on. This is especially true of that complicated experience we all feel, ‘Love’. Through Love, Lust and the need for absence of Loneliness we become obsessed with an impossible ideal and not the blemishes of the real. It is only through Nick Carraway’s eyes the reader sees past the effervescence of Daisy Buchanan, Gatsby never could.
We begin with John ‘Scottie’ Ferguson (An excellent, never better, Jimmy Stewart) begins his decent into the abyss by chasing a suspect along the rooftops of San Francisco. He loses his footing and dangles several stories high, barely gripping the gutter of the building. It is in this moment that he discovers his acute affliction of acrophobia (Sometimes referred to as Vertigo), that of the warping of perception while being at certain and any heights. It is a fine time for it, as a cop helping him chase the suspect climbs down to help. He can’t quite grab the helping hand, and unfortunately the roof siding gives way and the cop falls to his death. Bearing witness to all this, Scottie grasps the gutter for his dear life. This becomes a running theme, that his warped perception renders him unable to save those around him and himself.
We then cut to some time later, as Scottie and his friend Midge (A charming Barbara Bel Geddes) shoot the breeze about recent events. His acrophobia diagnosed, he promptly retired from detective work. He morns over the life he can no longer live, he tries to regain a measure of control by stepping on a small stool. Certainly this small step stool will not affect him, but his near-death experience darts back into his mind and leaves him unable to function. Midge has to help him down and consol him.
He then meets with an old college friend, thinking of it as a social visit. However, Gavin has a job for him; to tail his wife, Madeleine, as she does her daily errands about town. Gavin doesn’t suspect an affair, so much as she is acting rather ‘strange’ recently. Simple enough, more importantly it’s a return to the normal for Scottie and should keep him away from heights, so he thinks.
He follows Madeleine (A superbly mysterious Kim Novak) around town as she gets flowers, places them on a gravestone, stares at a museum painting (which bears a striking similarity to her) and checks into a room in an old hotel. Nothing particularly sinister about the goings-on, until he relates this information about Charlotta Valdes, the name on the headstone and the painting, to a local historian. He tells the story of Charlotta Valdes, who fell in love with a wealthy man who built a home for her, had his child and then was suddenly thrown out of the home. Her child was taken from her and she later committed suicide due to the onset depression. Upon hearing this, Gavin recalls that very story as told to him by Madeleine’s mother because his wife is the great grand-daughter of Charlotta. He goes on to say that Madeleine has been wearing Charlotta’s jewelry, going to the gravestone and the painting even though there is no way she could know about her great-grandmother as she was never told of the tragedy. Gavin suggests that his wife maybe Charlotta reincarnated, depression and suicidal tendencies all.
From the first time he sees her in passing Scottie is incensed. Obsessed by her, by the vision of promise. He is an ardent pursuer of mystery, and Madeleine is his greatest case. A woman unwillingly drawn, seemingly supernaturally, into a sordid past. He believes he can help her, to save her from a supposedly inevitable fate only to be left helpless again. Crippled by his fear, he can only witness her self-destruction, her decent into madness and her demise.
In his darkest most morbid moment, Scottie falls into a deep depression of guilt and sorrow. This is where the famous dream sequence takes place. Imagery fused with the past and present, which culminates in a colorful mixture of live-action and animation. He wakes from this ‘trip’ in a state of disillusionment and detachment and is institutionalized. All the while Midge, ever the care-giver, comes to his bed-side in the mental clinic. As she leaves for the last time, perhaps realizing that nothing will bring the old Scottie back, so does any ties to reality for him.
“He had come such a long way to this blue lawn, and his dream must have seemed so close he could hardly fail to grasp it. But what he did not know was that it was already behind him, somewhere in the vast obscurity beyond the city…”
After being let back into society after his mental meltdown. Scottie wanders, looking for the intangible, the impossible, a ghost. He searches near and far, and shockingly enough finds his ghost in Judy. They are both lonely people and need company, there is more to it but like hell I’m spoiling it, and start seeing each other. However, things are not as “flowers and chocolates” as they seem to be. Close to his dream isn’t enough for him. Reality isn’t enough for him.
“There must have been moments even that afternoon when Daisy tumbled short of his dreams–not through her own fault but because of the colossal vitality of his illusion. It had gone beyond her, beyond everything. He had thrown himself into it with a creative passion.”
He wants Madeleine, the vision, the promise. He makes Judy over to look and walk just like her. Judy at first refutes his need to change her into his vision, but eventually she only succumb’s to his desires. They are both trapped at this point for many reasons. After trips to buy new cloths and make-up, she walks into her bathroom for one last touch-up that will change her into Madeleine, the room is bathed in green-neon light. Then, in one of the greatest shots and scenes in cinema history Judy becomes, if only for an instant, the impossible. Scottie is instantly drawn back to when Madeleine and he first kissed, to this moment when he is kissing Judy. They embrace for what seems like ages, Scottie must feel like this is a dream. Well, it is indeed and the wake-up call will be as jarring as falling into it.
At the time of it’s release, having done poorly at the Box Office, Hitchcock labeled it a failure. He pinned the problem on it’s star Jimmy Stewart and the two would never work together again. Which is a great tragedy and a loss to the world of cinema, if this film was any indication of future collaborations. The dream-like story winds in and out of reality like a needle through fabric. The imagery haunting and the characters haunted. An out-right masterpiece of the art and the mind. The question that persists is why Scottie went to such lengths to ‘resurrect’ Madeleine, to great detriment of his new love? Simply put, he “…believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter–tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther…. So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”