Acrophobia is a perfect psychological ploy for a Hitchcock movie. Always fascinated with little psychological motivations, Hitchcock used fear of heights as the guiding principle of his 1958 movie Vertigo. The plot, so detailed and involving, has become nearly iconic as the film has worked its way into the American psyche. It will be discussed in some detail in this review, so if you haven’t seen the movie, please beware.
The film begins with a rooftop chase scene in San Francisco. A uniformed cop is chasing some criminal with Detective John “Scottie” Ferguson (James Stewart) right behind him. Jumping from one roof to another, Scottie slips on the Spanish tiles and slides down, barely catching hold of a gutter to prevent himself dropping many stories to the pavement. In an effort to help him, the cop climbs back down the roof and holds out his hand, but Scottie has entered a kind of fugue state where he is unable to respond. Slipping, the cop falls to his death as Scottie watches with a kind of tunnel vision.
Diagnosed with acrophobia, Scottie, independently wealthy, decides to retire rather than take a desk job. He hangs out with his old pal, former fiance, Midge Wood (Barbara Bel Geddes), a former artist who now designs brassieres. An old college friend, Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore) calls Scottie and asks for a meeting. A shipping magnate, Elster is concerned about his wife, Madeleine (Kim Novak), a stunning blond who is obsessed with her great gandmother, Carlotta Valdez, who was courted by and bore a child to a very rich San Franciscan, who built a great house for her in what is now the Western Addition, then abandoned her. She gradually went mad and eventually committed suicide. At first reluctant, Scottie takes on the job of tailing her as a protective measure, as Elster thinks she might do harm to herself. He follows her first to a flower shop where she buys a little nosegay of rosebuds, then to the Palace of the Legion of Honor in the Presidio, where she sits before a painting called Portrait of Carlotta, in which the mysterious Carlotta Valdez holds an identical nosegay. Looking closely, he sees that Madeleine’s hair, done up in a bun that terminates in a distinctive whorl, exactly matches the hair style of Carlotta in the portrait. Afterwards, he follows her to Mission Dolores, where she visits Carlotta’s grave, and, finally, he tails her to the McKittrick Hotel, which he later discovers is the home that had been built for Carlotta.
The next day, Midge takes Scottie to visit the proprieter of the Argosy Bookstore, who tells him Carlotta’s history. Later, he follows Madeleine to Fort Point, underneath the Western end of Golden Gate Bridge, where, to his horror, she jumps into San Francisco Bay, an apparent suicide. He jumps in after her and saves her life. Rather than returning her home, he brings her back to his apartment, undresses her, and puts her to bed, hanging up her clothing to dry. Scottie passes through phases of becoming fascinated with her, to becoming obsessed with her, and finally falling in love with her. They meet the following morning, going to Muir Woods, where he begins to drill her on what she remembers of her rambling and especially her dreams, one of which includes a memory of being at the Mission of San Juan Bautista. Stopping at Cypress Point, they kiss passionately, then he brings her to the Mission, hoping that he will be able to confront her with the past and help her to move beyond it.
At the Mission, she emotionally begs him that whatever happens, he should remember that she loved him, then she runs into the church and climbs the stairs of the bell tower. Following, he begins to have his vertigo attack and cannot go all the way to the top. He hears a scream and sees her body falling past a window and she dies in the fall.
Although he is cleared of any wrongdoing during the inquiry, he retreats into himself and is finally hospitalized with extreme depresson. Visiting him, Midge sees that he is nearly catatonic and the doctor informs her that it will be six months to a year before he can be released. Skipping ahead, we see him visiting the places that Madeleine used to visit. One day, he sees a brunette that looks so much like Madeleine that he follows her back to her apartment and introduces herself. At first reluctant to see him, Judy Barton (Kim Novak), a shopgirl who works at I Magnin, eventually gives in and agrees to a date at Ernies, the restaurant where Scottie first saw Madeleine. After he leaves her apartment, Judy relives the moment at the top of the bell tower and we see Elster throw his wife’s body from the bell tower as Judy screams. It becomes apparent that Judy had been playing the part of Madeleine for Scottie’s benefit, so that Elster would have a reliable witness (with vertigo) who would swear that she committed suicide. Still in love with Scottie, Judy decides to pursue a relationship with him.
Obsessed with the memory of Madeleine, he begins to dress Judy to look like her, going to the extreme of having her hair dyed blond and recreated the whorl at the back. When she dresses for dinner, however, she makes the crucial mistake of putting on Carlotta’s necklace. Recognizing it, Scottie assembles the pieces of the puzzle. He brings her back to the bell tower and forces her to go all the way to the top. In the process, he overcomes his vertigo. She confesses to being an accomplice to Madeleine’s murder, but when a nun comes up the steps, Judy screams and turns to run, falling to her death, the same as Madeleine.
James Stewart and Kim Novak both give brilliant, breathtaking performances in this film, which must rank as one of Hitchcock’s very best in a distinguished career of filmmaking. Stewart gives the best performance of his own career as Scottie, perfectly believable from beginning to end.
The cinematography by long-time Hitchcock collaborator Robert Burks is excellent. As a long-time resident of San Francisco, I love the detail and love of landscape shown the San Francisco Bay area, from the Golden Gate Bridge, to the Palace of Fine Arts, Coit Tower, the Palace of the Legion of Honor, the Presidio, Muir Woods, Cypress Point, and Mission Dolores. It is stunning to see the city in all of its beauty in the late 1950’s. Although many things have changed over the years, the essential beauty remains unchanged. At one point in the film, Elster, talking about his return to San Francisco, remarks that the city isn’t what it used to be, but he doesn’t understand the basic timeless beauty to be found there.
The opening credits, designed by Saul Bass, provide a dramatic introduction to the movie. Beginning with a close-up of a woman’s face, the camera moves into and extreme close-up of the woman’s right eye, dissolving into the distinctive whorl, in vibrant violet, that becomes a repeated motif in the movie. The costumes, by Edith Head, are gorgeous. And, of course, the music by long time Hitchcock collaborator Bernard Herrmann is great and illustrative of the action.
The screenplay, written by Alec Coppel and Samuel A. Taylor, based on the French novel D’entre les morts by Boileau-Narcejac, is the perfect Hitchcock vehicle. The pacing of the film is nearly flawless, although it must be considered a little bit long. As with most of Hitchcock’s movies, the first viewing is the most important because all of the details are just being discovered, but it is also a film that can be watched many times merely to study the technique.
Painstakingly restored to its original Vistavision glory by Robert A. Harris and James C. Katz, the DVD is simply stunning. It contains a special feature on the film’s difficult restoration process. If there is one thing, however, that dates the film, it is the special effects depiction of Scottie’s dream after Madeleine has died. Stewart’s head, framed against a pulsing stream of light and with evolving animation just doesn’t seem to work now. It was state-of-the-art in 1958, but it doesn’t show well now.
Even with that flaw, the film remains one of Hitchcock’s finest.