Vertigo: The Disastrously Insulting "Masterpiece"
This past Father’s Day we finally watched the Alfred Hitchcock movie, Vertigo, that my dad had been wanting to watch for at least a month (he ended up not paying attention and falling asleep, but that is neither here nor there). Vertigo is considered a classic and I bet that a lot of people recognize the title and the poster with the swirl and the silhouette of the man. But, regardless of it being a classic, I had never seen it before.
Here is the bizarre and random premise for this long movie. James Stewart plays a detective on the police force. One day while he is chasing a perp over the rooftops of San Francisco with another cop, he slips and finds himself dangling helplessly from a roof. While the other policeman reaches down to help him, the policeman slips and falls to his death. This traumatic experience mixed with the height of the building gives James Stewart (named John or Scottie) vertigo where he instantly becomes frightened and dizzy if he finds himself too high. After, we are introduced to his “gal Friday,” Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes). Midge is an artist, but her day job is designing bras. Apparently, she and John used to be engaged back in college, but she broke it off. She obviously is still holding a very unhealthy and bright torch for him while he seems to use her for convenience.
John gets a call from his old college friend Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore) who has a strange proposition for him. He believes that his wife, Madeleine (Kim Novak), has been taken over by the spirit of a woman who died one hundred years before named Carlotta Valdes (her great-grandmother). John of course thinks Gavin is off his rocker but agrees to follow Madeleine.
Very indiscreetly, he follows the young blonde to a flower shop where she purchases a small
bouquet then to a grave yard at the Mission Dolores with a headstone that reads “Carlotta Valdes” (here we see that Carlotta was only twenty-six years old), and then to Palace of the Legion of Honor art museum where Madeleine sits in front of a huge portrait of Carlotta. They look nearly the same. They both have blonde hair pulled into a bun at the nape of their necks, the same bouquet, similar colored clothing, and the same necklace (remember this for later). He also sees her go into a hotel called the McKittrick Hotel and in the window of her room. But! When he approaches the old woman innkeeper (Ellen Corby) inside, she confirms that the woman renting that room is named Carlotta Valdes but that she has not be in today. When they go to inspect the room, it is indeed empty (que creepy ghost noises).
Tangent: This scene with the innkeeper is infuriating because they never address it again. Ever. They don’t say if the old woman is naive or knows something about this Carlotta ghost deal, and most importantly they never explain how Madeleine/Carlotta gets in and out of the hotel without the innkeeper or John seeing her. It’s to be assumed that there is some back entrance that she snuck out of, but audiences are not supposed to be left guessing plot points like this! I cannot believe there were four people working on the screenplay and they left such a whole. Shotty workmanship, guys! Okay, tangent over.
John then goes to the ready to serve Midge and asks for her help to find someone who knows a lot about San Francisco lore. They find this old man who works in a bookstore. He tells them that Carlotta Valdes was a cabaret girl who caught the heart of this rich old man. He bought
her the house that is now the McKittrick hotel (the only reason why that innkeeper scene may be
at all necessary) and they had a child. Then, he lost interest in her and he stole the child and left
her all alone. Carlotta grew fraught and angry and eventually committed suicide at the age of
twenty-six. The importance of her age is that Madeleine is also twenty-six, making Madeleine a
possible suicide risk.
A few days later, while John is again tactlessly following Madeleine/Carlotta, she throws
herself into San Francisco Bay. Even though she only fell a few feet, she is instantly unconscious and is saved by the daring John. He then takes her back to his apartment and undresses her! Her clothes and hair are sopping wet, so he takes off her clothes and tries to dry her hair and then puts her in his bed naked until she regains consciousness.
I’m, sorry…but what!? I much rather be kept in wet clothes than undressed by a stranger.
And hello, why not take me to a hospital or at least to my husband after a suicide attempt instead
of your apartment? She wakes up bewildered but never once questions him or fears him. She even apologizes profusely for him having to save her and go through that!
Anyways, the two of them hit it off and even though she leaves without saying goodbye, she returns the next day and they end up driving around together. Madeleine is the perfect example of the annoying and (thankfully) dying character of the damsel in distress. Her voice is light and breathy, and she sighs between almost every sentence. She tells John about these “dreams” that she has while Carlotta overtakes her body. She is the graveyard and sees an empty grave that she knows it meant for her. She also walks down this hall covered in broken mirrors. She instinctively knows that if she continues too far into the dreams or visions, then she will die. She claims it is not her that wants to kill herself, but Carlotta. Which doesn’t make any sense to me. Why would Carlotta go through all this trouble to come back from the dead just to kill herself again? Like, wouldn’t she be wanting to live it up and doing the things she got to miss out on in life? Not replaying her demise in a new vessel. I don’t know, food for thought.
Anyways, Madeleine is obviously very distraught. And to be honest, who wouldn’t be distraught if the ghost of their great-grandmother was trying to kill them? But, regardless, John and her fall in love and have many of those gross old movie style kisses where they smoosh their faces together and move their heads around wildly. Do they care that this an affair? No. Do they even bring up the fact that she is married to his old college buddy? Of course not!
John tells her that these are not dreams and that the mission/ graveyard she keeps seeing is a real place. So, he takes her there. There is a lot of dramatic conversation followed by a lot of dramatic love professions and kissing.
One of the prophetic dreams Madeleine claims to have deals with her going into the church of the mission. If she goes into the church, she is supposed to die. So, she decides to face her fears and goes into the church and up the stairs to the bell tower. She is followed by John up the stairs, but the stairs are very high, and he eventually is hit with vertigo and can’t climb any higher. Forgot he had vertigo? Me too! You think it would be more prominent considering it’s the title and all.
There is a scream and John sees Madeleine’s body fly by the window before she hits the tiled roof of the mission, dead. John flees the scene but is called back to the stables that are adjoined to the mission and made into an impromptu court room. This scene really bothered me too. Why not just use a real court room? And they act as if John is on trial when he is not. There are no lawyers or witnesses present for anything. All there is is a bailiff who lists all the faults of John and his vertigo but claims that he is a good guy. Then the jury rules Madeleine’s death as a suicide. Which, of course it was a suicide based on the evidence! John wasn’t anywhere near the top of the bell tower when Madeleine supposedly jumped, so why this entire trial and scene existed, I don’t know.
Madeleine’s husband that we all forgot about (including Madeleine and John it would
seem), Gavin Elster, is there and completely dry-eyed. He tells John that he is going to settle all the affairs and move to Europe. That night, John has a mental breakdown most likely spurred on by grief. He too sees the dreams that Madeleine had described to him before. He also sees himself falling off the tower, and Gavin Elster standing with the real Carlotta from the portrait. It’s a lot of psychedelic animation and special effects that are actually quite impressive for 1958. Nevertheless, this well produced and animated breakdown leads him to the psych ward (a very nice and posh one where he gets to listen to Mozart).
Once again, Midge is there and although he is mute and unresponsive, she tells him that
she will not give up on him and will always be there for him. The doctors then tell her that he could be like this for up to a year. Then, Midge walks down the hall, and we never hear from her again. So much for always being by his side, huh? I was slightly relieved because the whole time I was like “Midge, girl, you’ve got to move on from this guy!” but I had hoped that she would get some kind of hero redemption story where she saves his life or solves the mystery of all this Carlotta shenanigans, not just disappear! But whatever, Midge is gone and no longer important to the plot or John. In the very next scene, John is out walking around the city and talking. So, either we time jumped about a year or he recovered very quickly.
Then, things get really weird. He thinks he keeps seeing Madeleine all over the city, but
they always turn out to just be look-a-likes. Then, he sees a woman who looks very much like her but with brown hair. He legit stalks her to a hotel named the Empire Hotel. He counts the windows till he figures out what apartment is hers and then knocks on the door. He begs and pleads to be able to just talk with this woman because she reminds him of the love he lost. The woman says her name is Judy and she works at a department store and she moved there from Kansas. To prove this to him, she shows him her driver’s license, reads him her driver’s license number and address and literally tells him every bit of information you should not tell a stranger! She should have just told him her social security number while she was at it!
After they chat, he invites her for dinner, and she accepts saying that she needs an hour to
get ready. He leaves and she starts speedily packing as if she were going to leave town. And she
writes him a note. This is the twist: she is Madeleine!
Gavin Elster wanted to murder his wife and take her money. So, while his wife was away
in the country, he hired Judy to play her. He then made up the story about Carlotta and her taking
possession of his wife and hired John to follow her. He already knew that it would end with a “suicide” from the top of the bell tower of the mission and knew that John could never make it all the way up there because of his vertigo. Judy ran to the top of the bell tower where Gavin was
waiting with his already dead wife (he had broken her neck) dressed in the same outfit as Judy. Judy screamed and Gavin threw his dead wife out of the tower onto the roof. But Judy had genuinely fallen in love with John.
She tears up the letter and ceases packing, thinking it would all be worth it for just one
more date with John. I would just like to interject here and say that my mother figured out the entire plot. I was fully on board that this was a paranormal story and was adamant that not everything in fiction needs a simple explanation, but she kept saying “it’s a set up.” And surely, it was! She figured out the whole thing! I guess my imagination is too wild and I would have been bamboozled by this scheme too.
Anyways, Judy and John start to date but he keeps his distance. He isn’t in love with
Judy, he is in love with Madeleine, and although they look alike, he would never kiss Judy
because he would be betraying Madeleine. This is infuriating for Judy because she wants to be
with him but doesn’t feel like she is enough.
Then John becomes high key to the tenth degree creepy. He starts to change Judy into
Madeleine. He claims he wants to buy her a nice suit but then becomes erratic and angry, yelling
at the clerks until they find the exact suit that Madeleine used to wear. Judy literally begins
throwing a fit saying she doesn’t want the suit and that she doesn’t like it and that she wants to
go home, but he just grabs her by the arm and forces her to buy it. The whole time, the shop
keepers are just like, “Wow! A man who knows fashion and what he wants! So refreshing! Rich men can do no wrong!” while his girlfriend is on the verge of tears in the corner. Of course, the
clothes are not enough, and he then decides she must dye her hair.
She begins crying again and he gets mad at her for it, saying that it couldn’t possibly
matter to her whether or not her hair is blonde of brown so she should do it for him (sidebar:
what do you mean what does it matter to her? It’s her head!). She concedes. She says that she
doesn’t care about herself anymore and is going to completely change her demeanor and
appearance in order to please him. I guess she realized that Judy would never be good enough
for John and since she technically was the Madeleine he was in love with, she could simply
become her again if it meant getting the man she loved. So, she literally spends hours at the
beauty parlor getting her hair bleached and her makeup done and all he does when she comes
home is say that she is wearing her hair wrong.
So, now they are getting ready to go out to dinner and Judy makes the mistake of wearing
the famous Carlotta necklace from the portrait in the museum (told you it was important). Something clicks and John puts the entire thing together. He doesn’t let on that he knows but takes her to the mission claiming that he needed to re-live the day of Madeleine’s death to finally get over it.
Judy panics and he forces her up the staircase to the bell tower, forcing the confession out of her (he literally chokes her!). But, because he spent his whole trip up the stairs being a terror and torturing the poor girl, he made it to the top and got over his vertigo (yay? Is that what we’re supposed to think?). Although he is being a terrible person and is still threatening her, they share one more passionate head-moving smush kiss. A nun has heard all the commotion and comes to see. Spooked by the shadow, Judy panics and falls (jumps?) out of the window, falling to her death the same way Madeleine had.
Literally, that is how the movie ends.
Maybe the title Vertigo isn’t supposed to correspond with his barely discussed condition,
but with the dizzy feeling the audience receives when trying to dissect this roller coaster tilt-a-
whirl of a movie.
No matter what you interpret of the plot, there is something that is non-negotiable. This
movie is a disgusting display of misogyny and did not age well. Frankly, it’s sickening that it
was ever acceptable. We are supposed to route for this man. Our hero is a man who stalks
women and forces them to change their appearance and obey him through tears. He never bats an eye when he scolds her in a public place, yet we are supposed to sympathize with him because
1) He has vertigo and because of this he had to quit the police force and has been de-
2) He is lovesick and heartbroken
3) He was being played
4) He does make a point to show that he is not dangerous and would never rape or force
Judy to have sex with him.
John is the real villain in this story. Yes, Gavin Elster literally killed his wife, but he is not in the film enough to be considered the villain. John on the other hand, gets to act atrociously, have two beautiful women chase after him, and get over his vertigo. Meanwhile, Judy had to die twice, and Midge is cast to the side. They did not have to be done so dirty. All they were trying to do was make a living and make their way in 1950s San Francisco. All I can say is I hope that Midge went on to have a super successful life after she left the plot of the movie because girl, John is not all that.