Study Guide

Vertigo

Vertigo Introduction


Release Year: 1958

Genre: Mystery, Romance, Thriller

Director: Alfred Hitchcock

Writer: Alec Coppel, Samuel Taylor; Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac (novel)

Stars: James Stewart, Kim Novak


Is it true… blondes have more fun?

Not in Vertigo, they don't.

In Alfred Hitchcock's classic story of erotic obsession, Hitch's famously cool and elegant blondes are degraded, abandoned, murdered, and driven to suicide.

Basically the opposite of fun.

Vertigo is a psychological thriller about love and loss, guilt and obsession, desire and deceit, memory and madness. Our hero—and believe us, we're using that term very, very loosely—is John "Scottie" Ferguson, retired from the San Francisco police force after nearly falling to his death during a rooftop chase and watching a fellow officer die trying to save him. Left with a crippling case of acrophobia (fear of heights) and vertigo (dizziness), he's crushed with guilt and struggling to put his life back together.

Scottie's asked, as a favor, to investigate a friend's beautiful but death-obsessed wife, possessed by the spirit of her suicidal great-grandmother and having an annoying tendency to disappear and go into trances. Scottie's going to follow her for a few days and see where she's been going. Alright, so this is gonna be a mystery movie, right, or a ghost story, maybe?

Nope.

Scottie falls passionately in lust with this gorgeous but troubled woman. However, under the spell of great-grandma, she throws herself from a bell tower in an old Spanish mission that she's seen during her trances. Scottie ends up in a mental hospital, tortured again by guilt because his acrophobia and vertigo kept him from following her up the bell tower stairs and saving her. His attempt to "resurrect" his dead lover by recreating her in another woman ends again in tragedy, as Scottie realizes he's been the victim of a devastating deception and an unwitting accomplice to a murder.

Oof.

At its 1958 release (premiering in San Francisco, fittingly), the film garnered a collective "meh" at best. It was "too slow and too long" (Variety); The New Yorker called it "far-fetched nonsense (source). It barely broke even at the box office. It wasn't what people expected from Hitchcock, master of the macabre. Audiences didn't quite know what to do with this plunge into the darkest recesses of sexual obsession and romantic delusion. They developed their own case of vertigo as they tried to make sense of the convoluted plot and sudden shifts in time and perspective.

 The film grew in popularity and critical esteem over the years, though, climbing up the AFI's list of Greatest American Films (#61 in 1998, #9 in 2008), and getting a complete restoration in 1996, including surround sound and 70 mm format (source). In 2012, Vertigo did the impossible: it knocked Citizen Kane from the top spot on BFI's list of Fifty Greatest Films of All Time, a slot it had held for fifty years. Fifty. Years.

One last thing: Vertigo is also a movie about the movies—about the relationship between the creator and the image created, and the voyeuristic nature of watching films. Leading lady Kim Novak, who played the character forced into submitting to a make-over by the obsessed Scottie, told an interviewer, "It was the opportunity to express what was going on between me and Hollywood" as she learned to take direction and become what Hitchcock wanted her to be (source).

It's all very meta.

Welcome to Hitchcock.

What is Vertigo About and Why Should I Care?

Everyone knows that Alfred Hitchcock was the Master of Suspense. The Birds—terrifying. Dial M for Murder—creepy. Psycho—we can't even. Trained during the silent film era, he created films using innovative camera and lighting techniques that kept his audiences on the edge of their seats. He could do chases, comedy, and slasher scenes with the best of 'em, but what Hitchcock really loved to do was to explore human psychology in all its weirdness and complexity. Voyeurism, fetishism, obsession, treachery—Hitchcock loved them all, and they all come together in Vertigo.

It's a neat trick: we think we're watching an eerie mystery movie, but we're really getting schooled in some ideas about what it means to fall in love with an illusion.

The film makes us 'fess up to all those fantasies we create and those stories we tell ourselves. We probably never fell in love with someone possessed by a ghost, but we may have fallen in love with someone we hardly knew. We've hopefully never made our new GF/BF dye their hair and dress exactly like our ex, but we've probably wished they could be a little more like someone else at times. We all know what it's like to want to be loved for ourselves and how hard it can be to try to be who we're not just to get someone to notice us.  We all know guilt and loss, unfortunately.

Vertigo's plot may be, as the New Yorker said in 1958, far-fetched; hopefully we'll never find ourselves hanging between life and death as our hands slowly slip off a gutter ten stories about the street.

The psychological themes, though? We can relate.

Trivia

Hitchcock blamed Jimmy Stewart for the film's poor showing at its release. He thought he was too old to be believable as Kim Novak's love interest, and replaced him with Cary Grant for his next film, North by Northwest. (Source)

The famously disorienting "dolly zoom" camera shot was inspired by a time that Hitchcock fainted at a party. Leave it to Hitch to remember what it looked like on the way down. (Source)

Matthew Weiner, creator of Mad Men, is a huge fan of the film. Check out those opening titles with the falling man and the giant eyes. (Source)

Hitchcock, not someone you'd call publicity-shy, gave himself a brief cameo in each one of his films. In Vertigo, he's seen about ten minutes in, walking past Gavin Elster's shipyard, wearing a suit and carrying a horn or trumpet case. Essay topic: why a trumpet case? Beats us. (Source)

Vertigo Resources

Websites

Vertigo Trivia Galore
Check out IMDB for all the 411.

Hitchcock Emojis!
That's right, here are the stories of some of Hitchcock's greatest films told entirely through Emojis. We so wish we had thought of this!

Virtual Vertigo Tour
In case you can't make it to San Francisco to take a real-life Vertigo tour, here's the next best thing: an online guide to the film's many great Bay Area locations.

The Critics Speak
98% said wow. Check out Rotten Tomatoes for a summary of what they thought.

Book, TV, and Movie Adaptations

High Anxiety
Mel Brooks does a comic take on acrophobia—"high" anxiety, get it?—in this hilarious movie that parodies a bunch of Hitchcock films. Even the poster steals shamelessly from Vertigo.

Bad Education
This isn't the most obvious adaptation you'll ever see, but that makes it that much more fun to watch after Vertigo. See if you can spot the plot points that current-day master Pedro Almodóvar borrowed from our friend Hitch.

The Headless Woman
Here again, the references to Hitch are subtle, but, as in Bad Education, this makes for a fun game of "where's the reference?" Argentinean up-and-comer Lucrecia Martel honors the deeply weird feel of Vertigo with a psychological thriller of her own.

The Simpsons
Writers for The Simpsons can't resist injecting a little Hitchcock into their episodes. In "Principal Charming," Principal Skinner gets involved in a crazy love triangle and climbs the spiral stairs of a bell tower to save his beloved.

Articles and Interviews

U.K.! U.K.! U.K.!
The Telegraph weighs in on its native son knocking Citizen Kane off its pedestal.

D. A. Miller on Vertigo
Here's a lovely meditation on living with Vertigo, a beautiful but perplexing film. Miller discusses the film's alternate ending, so if you're curious about that bit of film trivia, this article offers a good place to start.

Hitch Talks
In 1962, Hitchcock gave a series of interviews to the French director Francois Truffaut. These interviews have since become the starting point for all serious discussions of Hitch's films.

Ebert on Vertigo
The late great film critic reviews one of Hitchcock's finest. Verdict: thumbs up.

The Gray Lady Speaks
Here's the original 1958 review from the New York Times. They liked it. This was a minority opinion at the time.

"50 Years of Dizzy"
The New York Times weighs in again on how the film seems to have grown on everyone in the past 50 years.

Indy Movies for Days
Here's a recent article attesting to the fact that, even in 2015, cutting-edge directors continue to find Vertigo inspiring.

Video

Vertigo's Original Trailer
First things first: this 1958 trailer starts with a dictionary definition of "vertigo." We promise it gets better after that. We especially love the retro-cool voiceover.

Restored Version Trailer
Here's a less dated trailer, one much closer to what we're used to today. Personally, we prefer the dictionary, but this newer teaser gives a better sense of what the film's about and highlights Bernard Herrmann's beautiful score.

Audio

The Complete Vertigo Score
Click here for the whole unforgettable experience of Vertigo's score.

Citizen Kane
If you're curious to hear some of the other jams that made score-composer Bernard Herrmann famous, look no further.

Next Best Thing to Film School
If you have a spare 12 hours, here are audiotapes of Hitchcock's 1962 interviews with Francois Truffaut, which were published in a 1967 book that became the bible for film directors.

Images

Vertigo Poster
This eye-catching poster borrows from Vertigo's psychedelic opening credits and from its even weirder dream sequence. Does it make you dizzy?

Dreaming in Technicolor
Here's a still from Scottie's dream. Talk about head over heels.

Doesn't Get Any More Melodramatic than This
Great shot of Scottie rescuing Madeleine from her dip in the bay.

On the Set
This production still shows Hitch opposite one of the many blonde actresses he adored.

Lost and Found
This wild still compresses so much of Vertigo's drama into a single frame. Fair warning: it's not explicit, but it does make Hitch's masterpiece look quite a bit kinkier than it is in reality.