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Last Night I Watched: ‘Vertigo’

Alfred Hitchcock’s rich, ethereal, head-over-heels descent into maddening desire, destructive obsession and the overwhelming seductive power of an illusory, fleeting image remains one of the most powerful of all cinematic experiences and a subtle director’s confession.

Vertigo’s storyline follows Jimmy Stewart as Scottie, a police detective forced to leave the service after a traumatic near-death experience. Now suffering from acrophobia accompanied by vertigo, Scottie is hired as a private detective by his old college friend Gavin to tail Gavin’s wife Madeleine, who has recently developed the habit of going on mysterious, lengthy, solitary journeys. What follows is a mesmerising descent into the power of the past: haunting the present and filling the San Francisco air with an all-consuming tense mist of longing. Watch Stewart’s lengthy tailing of Madeleine closely. A wordless tension punctuates every second of it. It isn’t trademark Hitchcock tension. There isn’t a bomb in the backseat of Scottie’s car or a murderer hiding in the McKittrick hotel. It’s the unreal, irresistible tension of passionate, crazed, obsessive yearning. To Scottie, Madeleine isn’t a normal woman, or even a human being. She’s an image. Something to be known, possessed, apprehended and understood. Always near, always close, always present but infuriatingly elusive.

Scottie’s first ever sight of Madeleine is a view of her in profile. When tailing Madeleine, Scottie sees her car, her dress, her shoes, the places that she goes and the people that she talks to but fails to capture a full image of her despite all his hours of pursuit. Her hair, the side of her face, her neck. Details of Madelene but never the truth of her. Never the honest reality of her. Whenever it finally seems that Scottie has managed to fully observe and capture a true image of Madeleine Elster, she disappears, obscured by foliage, vanishing altogether or destroying herself. Scottie’s view of Madeleine is purposefully kept partial and incomplete throughout much of Vertigo, and as a result, so is ours. On one level, this a brilliantly cunning aspect of Hitchcock’s direction, informing us that we aren’t being given all the details, that we’re being misled and deceived. A deeper understanding comes from reading Scottie’s view as a Hitchcock confession. The truth is that in these early scenes, Scottie’s viewpoint is simply a substitute for the view of a camera. He tails, follows, zooms in, tracks and records Madeleine’s movement, absolutely fixated by what is ultimately revealed to be an elaborate but convincing performance. Scottie at work as a private detective is Hitchcock at work as a director.

With this shock twist, Vertigo provides incredible insight into the nature of both desire and design

In following Madeleine, Scottie has fallen into a deep, destructive, violent, crazed, maddening love with a fiction. The woman of his dreams is a nothing more than a dream herself. Madeleine is just an image. As the film shockingly reveals, Judy is the reality. It was all an act. All a con. All an illusion. Judy is an actress that was hired to play the role of Madeleine as part of an elaborate ploy to cover up a murder. Scottie is none the wiser, trapped in love with a woman that doesn’t actually exist. With this shock twist, Vertigo provides incredible insight into the nature of both desire and design. Judy is directly in front of Scottie, but he is isolated from her, lost from the reality of a kind, loving woman in his uncomfortable, morbid obsession with an act designed to fool him. Can we truly fall in love with a carefully designed, constructed image intended solely to draw us in and captivate us?

If so, will the reality of the decent human being behind that image ever serve as a meaningful alternative for our original desire? The answer provided by Scottie and Hitchcock appears to be a yes to the first question and a no to the second. He can love only the dream, and with fatal results. This only serves to strengthen the metatextual power of the film. Just as Kim Novak is an actress playing the role of a beautiful, mysterious woman, so is Judy Barton. Judy and Madeleine. The duality of the naming speaks perfectly to the overriding dichotomy of Vertigo: a transcendent illusory beauty matched against a dependable, knowable, reachable human. Judy is the name of a friend, a relative, a confidant. Madeleine is the name of a character. A European aristocrat, a princess, a countess or a heroine in a romantic story. Always an image, always a projection, always fake. Judy is tangible and real but to Scottie she is a substitute for a glorious vision, an all-eclipsing, devastatingly powerful picture of perfection that can never be obtained. Judy is simply a painfully close copy of a woman that’s become a bright, painful glow behind Scottie’s eyes. Judy loves Scottie, but Scottie loves Madeleine. At this point in the film, Jimmy Stewart’s character graduates from a director’s camera to a strong and controlling pair of director’s hands.

Tantalisingly close to realising what was once an ethereal sexual dream and is now a self-destructive obsession, Scottie becomes a dictatorial figure in Judy’s life, controlling every aspect of her look, her hair, her shoes, her dress. He knows that with more work, more effort and more control he will finally achieve his infuriating, impossible goal. He can shape her to be his dream. He knows that he can. He will. Scottie’s disturbing authority over Madeleine eerily mirrors Hitchcock’s own later manipulation and control of Tippi Hedren, the actress who was to star in The Birds and Marnie. Scottie’s love for Madeleine becomes a subtle and disturbing hidden confession of Hitchcock’s own tyrannical misogynistic impulses. Baked into the core of Vertigo is a shameful confession. Scottie’s doomed quest to obtain an unobtainable desire is Hitchcock’s story of shaping, manipulating and controlling his female actresses, always aiming towards a transcendent perfection. Scottie is a tragic hero, warped by lust. Hitchcock was a genius who hurt people.

Hitchcock masterfully manipulates time and space, as Scottie and Madeleine become lost in the passion of their kiss

Out of an obedient tragic devotion to Scottie, Judy acquiesces to his requests, styling herself to look identical to Madeleine, the role she played in her most impactful performance. Judy grants Scottie his wish. In one of the most unbelievably passionate, powerful scenes in all of cinema, Scottie finally captures Madeleine. She becomes reality in his arms, resurrected as they kiss. Hitchcock masterfully manipulates time and space, as Scottie and Madeleine become lost in the passion of their kiss remembering a previous intense encounter with each other, repeating the events of the past and slowly sinking into them. It’s a fantasy. Each is lying to the other. Judy isn’t telling Scottie the truth about her identity and Scottie isn’t opening up to Judy about the truth of his obsession. In one blissful moment, their falsity and lies disappear, consumed in a heady, knee-buckling act of loving surrender. Surrender to fantasy, to dream images, to a twisted, morbid, acquiescent love that can only end in destruction.

Vertigo is a film about a transcendent perfect beauty that cannot ever be truly possessed or captured because it can only be fictional. This is a devastating story of tragic love, and obsessive control, capturing the reality of its director’s destructive impulses and implanting them in the character of Scottie. Vertigo has endured and will continue to endure forever because it reveals a core component of our own humanity. The tragic doomed, hopeless, selfish impulse in all of us to persevere in our own quest for self-delusory wish fulfilment, whatever the cost. Ceaseless desire as a curse. A doomed, obsessive and disconnected love for a dream that will never be a reality. Hitchcock’s overriding artistic vision perfected.

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