Several things can be said about a film that was poorly received at its premiere, but over the years many began to consider it a cult film. Vertigo, or From among the Dead, is a movie directed by Alfred Hitchcock that stars James Stewart, Kim Novak and Henry Jones. Bernard Herrmann also joins this team by creating the soundtrack of this movie, and Robert Burks is also in the mix, as the director of photography.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this review, it is a film that had a negative reception at first, but eventually began to be appreciated, and even won several awards; among them the Silver Shell to the best director in the Festival of San Sebastián and the Zuleta Prize in the same festival previously mentioned. Also, this feature film had two Oscar nominations: one for best art direction and another for the best sound. This movie was even a candidate in 1958 in the US Directors Guild.
What has led to this film having such prestige is, in my opinion, the presence of the director’s imaginary, which shows up in his characters and how they behave. We find a detective named John ´Scottie´ Ferguson who suffers from acrophobia: a pathological fear that serves as an engine for the narrative since it is because of the feeling of vertigo that this protagonist cannot save the policeman; and it is because of this same fear of heights that he fails to prevent the woman he loves from committing suicide. We see how this disease plays an important role in this story; an illness that is accompanied by something equally dangerous: destructive love. This is very visible with the fact that the detective was tormented by acrophobia, and then the same happened with love, which broke the protagonist’s heart when he believed that his beloved was captured by death.
According to the director, we are not facing a police genre film, but rather a “love story of a strange climate”.
This love is accompanied by some clichés: the scene in which Madeleine and Scottie kiss on the beach, with the waves breaking behind them and the music accompanying the melodramatic situation. Do not forget the existence of two love triangles: the first is between Scottie, Madeleine and Midge Wood, and the second is between Scottie, Judy and Madeleine’s memory. All this increases the drama in the story, which escorts the mystery and that makes the plot of this movie more intense and complicated. This effect is achieved thanks to the soundtrack: a mixture of suspense with romanticism. Music has an essential place, since it builds the sensation of vertigo and anxiety that the protagonist feels with the melody in a desperate crescendo in several scenes, for example: when Judy, dressed as Madeleine, kisses the detective.
If we focus on the technical issues, another thing that makes to the quality of this film is the artistic composition. The play of lights and the frames offer a lovely photograph. Many colors are present, especially red, green (when Judy is in her hotel and behind her there is a green light) and blue (when Scottie is dreaming of her lover). If one wants to dig deeper, these colors can be conferred meanings: the red in the restaurant and the lights of this same color visible at the beginning of the film can refer to the passion that the protagonist felt for Madeleine; and the green background in Judy’s hotel can be a connecting thread with the green dress that Madeleine wore in the first scene in which she appears, to imply that they are both the same person.
Hitchcock is known for including in all of his work phobias, fetishes or traumas, which leads to the reflection of his internal. Therefore the cinema works as a catharsis. Some critics understand that Vertigo shows the vision that this director has about women: as a deceitful figure, causing the weakness of man. And with this we return to the most interesting theme of this film: destructive love. In the second part of the film, the story focuses on showing how Scottie, tortured for not being able to prevent Madeleine from committing suicide, seeks to recover her beloved with Judy, and tries to make this new girl, who looks similar to the deceased, change the way she dresses, her hair color and so on to become Madeleine. The viewer witnesses the composition of a sick relationship. An obssesion develops with the woman who committed suicide, who causes the detective to feel perdition and guilt. You could almost say that you have the figure of the femme-fatale.
Something that I highlight from this movie is its ability to keep me intrigued until the end, (with scenes like the one in the hotel where the detective goes to look for Madeleine but the receptionist tells him that that girl did not go to that place that day) although, in the middle of the narrative, and as it also happens in Psycho (a film that was directed by Hitchcock), the female protagonist is murdered. In the book From among the dead, written by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, on which Vertigo was based, the entire criminal plan and the truth that Madeleine and Judy were the same person is only revealed at the end, while Hitchcock decided to tell all this in the middle of the movie, because that way he could focus on what might interest him most: the morbid relationship between Judy and Scottie.
This film can be called Vertigo or From among the dead and, in my opinion, both titles are suitable: vertigo is the illusion of movement around us, and this is the trigger for all the major conflicts that the protagonist suffers, with the death of the policeman at the beginning, Madeleine’s death later and even suffers from this sensation when he forces Judy to climb the bell tower. On the other hand, the middle name is also suitable because when Scottie forces Judy to change to resemble Madeleine, this brings the dead woman to life, which leads to the eventual outcome of the story.
According to the director, we are not facing a police genre film, but rather a “love story of a strange climate”. I can see a little of this in the film: one is not sure what is going on between the characters or what are the limits of this devastating relationship. One even doubts whether there are limits of such passion that do not lead to another thing that death. And the end is tragic, because Scottie overcomes his pathological fear of heights, but loses the woman he loves.
Tos sum things up, this is a fantastic movie, with an aesthetic that gives pleasure to the eyes and with a story that at the beginning can have a slow pace, but little by little it builds up tension until finally the truth comes to light: the detective learns that Madeleine was Judy, who worked for Gavin Elster (old detective classmate) on a plan to kill the latter’s wife. All this allows to see the woman as a seducer who lied and helped in a crime, and fell in love with the protagonist in an unhealthy way, which caused a high-rise whirlwind to be built, with a feeling of vertigo, which was destined to fall, and end with death.
Author: Daniela Minotti