AFI Film Club: Vertigo Challenges Our Perception Of Reality

Welcome to The Wisdom Daily’s AFI Film Club! Each month, I will be counting down the Top 10 American Film Institute’s list of Motion Pictures (the 2007 update) and exploring an American ideology/ theme in a recap. Why AFI? Why here? Why Now? Why Me? Click here for a brief rant on my connection to the catalog (insert inappropriate “the list is life” joke here). Enjoy the post and comment (about the film please- I already know that I’m terrible at the kazoo).   Here is AFI’s #9, Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo:


“Only one is a wanderer, two together are always going somewhere.”

“No, I don’t think that’s necessarily true.”

We all know that type, with no ambition, religion, love, or responsibility. They live from boozy night, to Netflix binge. One day, they meet another lost soul, and suddenly the two of them become upstanding citizens. Now they’re shaking hands with suitcases, purchasing homes, and sending their children to yeshiva day school. It may seem old fashioned in the age of self realization, but there are a select group of people that have the power to change and mold us. Our lives become mutually exclusive with the other, as we obey hollered directions from the passenger seat, and wait for them to watch The Crown.

What if they watch the series finale without you? Your queue is empty, and you start to think you made a huge mistake. Do they not care about you? You fear they want something beyond the scope of what you can give them. Perhaps you do too. Maybe, while you thought you two were doing 90 on the highway, you were on side streets, driving in circles. Or maybe this person was never someone you actually knew, and you’re left in a state of emotional upheaval, unsteadiness, and, well… vertigo.

Maybe you found this opening convoluted and melodramatic, and, well… that is also Vertigo. Alfred Hitchcock’s plot is weighty and operatic, with an overly formal screenplay, and hokey acting by America’s finest stars. It does not maintain the urgency and dread of Rear Window and Psycho, two films that could have easily found themselves at this ninth spot.  Yet, Vertigo probably has the most vibrant and evocative cinematography on this list (sorry Wiz, sorry not sorry, Singin’ in The Rain), with sweeping landscapes, haunting profile shots, and a sunny doom that permeates every scene. While I always walk away from the film slightly unsatisfied, I keep coming back, compelled by the proposition of luscious melancholy, and of course, for Jimmy Stewart.

We find Stewart as John “Scottie” Ferguson, a retired San Francisco detective with a bad case of vertigo and a fear of heights. Ferguson is contacted by an old college chum, Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore), who believes his wife is possessed by an evil spirit. Scottie is hesitant to take the case, but upon seeing Mrs. Madeleine Elster (Kim Novak), he becomes instantly infatuated. He follows her around the city, and determines that she is haunted by her late grandmother, Carlotta Valdes, who committed suicide.

Madeleine and Scottie meet, and fall in love. On one fateful day, the couple visits a Spanish monastery. Madeleine is suddenly overcome, and runs to the top of the bell tower and jumps off as Scottie tries to stop her, but is paralyzed by fear. The event leaves Ferguson severely depressed and unraveled. He happens upon Judy Barton, a brunette, thick eyebrowed, Kansas native, whose face looks similar to that of Madeleine’s. Judy and Scottie start seeing each other, but Judy is harboring a giant secret; she had been hired by Elster to impersonate Madeleine and seduce Scottie, so that Elster could throw his actual wife off the bell tower making Ferguson none the wiser (why Elster thought this was the most efficient way to commit murder is beyond me).

Trickery aside, Judy loves Scottie, and Scottie learns to love Judy… sorta. He pressures her into changing her look, buys her a new wardrobe, and has her dye her hair blonde, so that she would look like Madeleine. Eventually, Ferguson figures it all out (surprisingly), and drives Judy to the monastery, forcing her up the tower (overcoming his fears), and threatening her life. Judy confesses, apologizes, and professes her love. She kisses him, but is startled by an approaching nun, and falls to her death.

Doppelgangers run free in this world, as everything seems to be a replica of something real. Madeleine’s grandmother, Carlotta Valdes, had an almost identical life to that of Madeleine; a beautiful women, a controlling older husband, and a death wish, causing our leading lady to act with her same suicidal behaviors. In the end, we are all duped, and the main switcharoo plotline is that of Madeleine and Judy. The betrayal is offensive and shocking because it goes against the rules of cinematic realism; we trust the characters to truly be themselves, not laughing backstage.

But then there is Jimmy Stewart.

In 1958, Stewart was Uncle Sam’s golden child, he was the naive and good spirited Mr. Smith, the righteous George Bailey, and the inquisitive, noble Jeff Jeffries. In Vertigo, we see traces of our ol’ buddy, in the gee-wiz quaint banter, his snark, and his optimism.  Enter Madeleine, and Stewart’s lust causes him to act in ways unbecoming of the O.G. Tom Hanks. After rescuing Novak from drowning, Ferguson decides to bring her unconscious body back to his place, undresses her completely, and has her sleep in his bed until she awakes. Certainly her clothes were wet, and he explains that he figured that she wouldn’t want her husband to see her in the predicament, but Hitchcock buys these explanations as we do, and Scottie continues to have an affair with the married Madeleine. He doesn’t choose his gal pal Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes, with a stellar performance), who is painted as the proper mate for Scottie (if only she didn’t have those damn glasses!), a liberated, good, and spirited mate in the vein of Donna Reed and Katherine Hepburn.

More disturbing than the adultery, Jimmy is not a hero. He cannot save the Madeleine or Judy. Smith and Bailey fail, and we realize we don’t recognize this Stewart anymore. His hair seems greyer, his eyes more manic, and his stature more conniving. Even if we aren’t the biggest Judy fans, we suddenly become fearful for her safety. In the final moments, we actually believe that the now vertigo-liberated Ferguson will throw Judy off the clock tower. We wonder if we were missing something all along about this Stewart, if we were duped again by Hitchcock, into putting our trust in a man who is a mere image of a virtue.

I can’t imagine this eluded Hitchcock, the master puppeteer of film. He was a director who, unless interrupted by the studio, controlled every detail of production, including the talent.  He is famously credited with the ideology that “all actors are cattle,” and knew that using Stewart’s mouth to say Ferguson’s words, would make us question our own sanity.

Taking a page out of his own book, Mr. Hitch designed this whole film to be about authority over another. Elster and Ferguson see their partner’s body as something to manipulate for their hankerings. Elster is willing to dispose of his wife’s body to steal her money, and Ferguson forces Judy to change her being to become the Madeleine mannequin of his dreams. As Scottie pleads to Judy  that “it can’t matter to you,” seeing her femininity as something that is only of importance to the men who are attracted to it.

This is why Midge would never really work for Scottie, she has too much control over herself. She is a lingerie designer, a women who creates intimate products for women, reclaiming female sexuality from the men. In one scene in particular, she has Ferguson suited in a corset, restricting his body and masculinity. Scottie needs to regulate others in his life, but he is unable to take control over himself. It is only out of pure rage at Judy, having the knowledge that a women had taken advantage of his body, that Scottie is able to conquer this disability. It is here that he is able to regain his manhood, and reclaim his power, and all it took was a death toll of two.

Perhaps Scottie is guilty of Judy’s death. Even if he didn’t physically push her out the window, he turned her into a caricature of a woman who never existed. Vertigo is the fear of waking up next to a stranger, the paranoia that there is a secret scheme dictating our lives, that we are living in falsehoods. 2018 is that world too, marketing, data breaching, government surveillance, gives the power to a manufactured life of blurry green. We become dopplegangers of our society, wearing the right clothes, eating the right food, reciting the same tired phrases. It’s a hoax, and hopefully some of us can see through the makeup and hair dye. When we become Jimmy Scottie Stewart-Ferguson, dressing our lovers in empty values and grey pantsuits, we lose our balance.

Lingering Thoughts and Questions:  

I didn’t get a chance to talk about the third leading character, San Francisco.  The city is an acrophobic’s nightmare; with its winding roads and its narrow declines, and yet, Scottie calls it home.

I don’t quite understand the significance of the scene when Scottie follows Madeleine into a hotel, and the front desk attendant denies her arrival. I haven’t found a satisfying answer to that, besides for the fact that it adds to the films eeriness. Any thoughts?

Midge is not helping her case when she tells a troubled Scottie that “Mother’s here”.

Judy seemed frightened by the nun as if she recognized her, who did she think it was?


Thanks for reading! Tune in for next month’s recap of AFI’s #8 spot, Schindler’s List.

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