"Always make the audience suffer as much as possible."
That was the goal of our twisted directing genius, Alfred Hitchcock (source). We'd have to say that he succeeded. Whether scaring us out of our wits in Psycho or doing a 180 on us halfway through Vertigo, there's never a comfortable moment in a Hitchcock film, and that's just how he wanted it.
Vertigo was Hitchcock's 46th film. Probably the single most famous director in classical Hollywood cinema and possibly the most influential director in English-language movie history, the future Master of Suspense began his career in his native England. After making silent films—that's right, he was born that long ago—Hitchcock made a name for himself by provoking thrills and chills, and even the occasional shriek from audiences. His film told stories of murder and mayhem, intrigue and romance.
These were the slasher movies of his day, artfully made and so successful that they earned him an invitation to Hollywood by famed producer David O. Selznick. Selznick placed a good bet: Hitchcock's first American film, Rebecca, won the Oscar for Best Picture.
In the 1940s Hitchcock began to hit his stride. He directed films like Shadow of a Doubt (1943), Notorious (1946), and Rope (1948), all of them still adored by film buffs. However, it was in the 1950s that Hitch's career really took off. The films that he made during this decade, including Vertigo, are worshipped the world over. Movie-lovers and cinema-nerds admire these films, which include Rear Window (1954), North by Northwest (1959), and Psycho (1960), not only for the stories they tell but also for the film techniques he pioneered.
Hitch's time in silent films gave him an appreciation of the primary importance of the visual image in cinema. He thought that the sign of a good film was that you could play it without sound and the audience would still know what's going on. Dialogue? It should only be used as a last resort when pictures alone couldn't tell the story. "We don't have pages to fill, or pages from a typewriter to fill, we have a rectangular screen in a movie house" (source).
Hitchcock was the master at using those images to create suspense and manipulate the emotions of the audience. "I enjoy playing the audience like a piano," he told an interviewer (source). Think of the super-famous shower scene in the surprisingly low-budget Psycho, where lots of quick cuts in the film correspond to the cuts made to poor Janet Leigh's body. Think of The Birds (1963): those special effects were unheard of in Hitch's day.
Hitchcock never won an Oscar for Best Director. Was the suspense genre considered too lowbrow? Were they too popular? Was the Academy turned off by his shameless self-promotion?
We don't know and we don't care. He kept us on the edge of our seats.
Vertigo is based on the 1954 novel by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, D'entre les morts, translated into English as The Living and the Dead. Paramount was hot to get its hand on the novel, and they purchased the rights before it was even translated into English (source). The French title means literally From Among the Dead, and—fun fact—this was the working title of Vertigo when shooting first began.
The two writers credited with Vertigo's screenplay are Alec Coppel and Samuel Taylor. The first stab at the adaptation was by playwright Maxwell Anderson, but Hitchcock disliked the result so much he told his producers to "burn it" (source).
The next two writers came into conflict over who'd be credited with Vertigo's screenplay. Coppel had worked out many of the specifics of the adaptation, but Taylor was the one who gave the film's dialogue its final form. Besides hammering out the zingers we know and love—lines like Madeleine's "Only one is a wanderer. Two together are always going somewhere"—Taylor made a crucial addition to the film: he created the character of Midge, who represents good humor, optimism and sanity in a film filled with its opposite.
In the end, both Taylor and Coppel, who'd worked on the screenplay earlier, would receive credit for their work on the adaptation.
Vertigo was produced by Paramount Studios—you know, the guys with the mountain logo. Founded in 1912 as the Famous Players Film Company, Paramount's now the longest running movie studio in Hollywood.
In the 1950s, Hitchcock was Paramount's hot property. They gave him complete say over any project under $3 million—casting, story selection, screenplay, editing, and publicity—and also gave him the rights to several of his films once they were released. All this led one Paramount exec to say that "Paramount functions practically as a studio setup for him" (source).
Vertigo would be the last film Hitch made with Paramount. He'd done 4 others: Rear Window (1954), To Catch a Thief (1955), The Trouble with Harry (1955), and The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), all—except for Harry—huge successes for the studio. Paramount objected to the content of Hitchcock's proposal for Psycho, so he eventually filmed it at Universal Studios and Paramount simply distributed it. That's why you can see the Bates Motel on the Universal Studios tour.
The film's story comes from a French thriller by two authors Hitchcock admired. Some conflicts arose during the adaptation process (see our "Screenwriters" section for the story), and the disagreements were complicated by Hitchcock's health problems, which took him away from the screenwriting process at several key points (source). There were also few points of contention between the studio and Hitchcock during film production. Check out our "Modes of Production" section for more on that.
Vertigo was filmed in color, in VistaVision, the wide-screen format Hitchcock preferred.
San Francisco, here we come. Scottie follows Madeleine all through the city and to some of the famous scenery around the area. Without having to spring for a plane ticket, we get to see the steep curvy San Francisco streets, the redwood forests (Big Basin Redwoods State Park standing in for Muir Woods), Cypress Point on the scenic 17-mile drive near Monterey, beautiful old Spanish Missions, the famous Legion of Honor art museum, and the iconic Golden Gate Bridge.
Location shooting started in September 1957 and moved to the Paramount studio a couple of weeks later. Hitchcock built sets on the Paramount soundstages for many of the interior scenes, including the climactic scene in the bell tower of the Mission San Juan Bautista. Hitchcock built a bell tower for the mission, whose steeple had been torn down, and used the replica and matte paintings to set the scene.
Another key feature of Hitch's filmmaking involves point of view shots. Think of the number of times we see the world through Scottie's eyes—whether he's experiencing vertigo hallucinations, thinking he sees Madeleine after his release from the psych ward, or finally seeing Judy magically emerge from the bathroom, bathed in that foggy green glow, transformed into Madeleine.
Hitchcock made use of a lot of visual tricks and effects to connect us to Scottie's distorted view of reality. He shot Kim Novak through a fog filter to give her a dreamlike quality (source). Some of the effects, like the nightmare sequence, might strike us as a little tacky, spoiled as we are by CGI, but they were innovative at the time—think of the opening title sequence with its swirling spirals and blinking eyeball.
In the scene where Scottie and Judy, finally remade as Madeleine, kiss, Judy's apartment suddenly becomes the setting of the mission where Scottie and Madeline first kissed as the two sets swirl around them. The actors were on a revolving platform; Jimmy Stewart got a mild but real case of vertigo and fell off the platform at one point. He was probably really relieved that shooting finished three days later, just before Christmas, 1957. (Source)
If while watching Vertigo you're thinking you should get your glasses prescription checked, then Hitchcock has you right where he wants you. Vertigo marked the introduction of a camera technique called the dolly zoom, which Hitchcock used in a bunch of his films. In a dolly zoom shot, the lens zooms in while the camera moves back, or vice versa. The effect is one of altering normal perception, so that the objects look distorted in their relationship to the background. It's a way of conveying confusion, fear, disorientation, a sense of falling, etc.
The dolly zoom is sometimes called the Vertigo effect, and plenty of directors have used it since then. Remember the scene in Jaws where Chief Brody watches the shark kill the boy on the raft? We know you do. That's the dolly zoom.
Hitchcock thought that the way to build suspense was to give the audience information that the characters didn't have. That way, we know what's about to happen and are on the edge of our seats until the situation's resolved.
His famous example: some people are sitting around a table having a discussion. An unseen bomb under the table goes off and blows everyone to pieces. The audience has 5 seconds of surprise. Now take those same people and same bomb, but show the audience a bomb under the table set to go off at noon. Place a clock in the scene that tells us it's 11:55 AM. Now you've given the audience 5 minutes of terrifying suspense. They're engaged—they want to yell at the screen to warn the people. They don't know what will happen. That's the reaction that Hitch was after: suspense, not surprise.
Judy's flashback in voiceover, where she reveals her and Elster's deception at the bell tower, is the perfect example of Hitch's signature suspense-building move: we know what Scottie doesn't, and we're chewing our fingernails waiting to see if he'll find out and how he'll react. It's a surprise, then, to learn that Hitchcock agreed to release a version without this scene. He screened the film for some of the producers without the scene, and a decision was made to send the film out for processing with the big reveal deleted and the secret only discovered during the final moments of the film. (Source)
There was intense disagreement about it, and at the last minute, the print was recalled and the scene added back in. Journalist Dan Auiler had a chance to interview screenwriter Samuel Taylor, who confirmed that the scene had definitely been in the original script, but that Hitch got "cold feet" about it. An associate producer told Auiler that the Paramount Studios head had screened the film a short time afterward without the reveal, and that everyone hated it, so Balaban forced Hitchcock to restore the scene.
It's hard to know exactly what happened, because years later, Hitchcock never claimed to have cut the scene. In fact he told French director Francois Truffaut: "everybody was shocked when I said, 'I'm going to spill the whole story now,' soon after we started the second story [where Judy enters the film]. I'm going to tell all. They [the studio] said, 'What, give the whole thing away now?' I said, yes." (Source)
Today, most critics agree that without the revelation scene, the film would never have been considered one of the greatest of all time. What's your take on it? There are tons of articles written just about this controversy—great essay topic if you ever need one.
The producers had some concerns about what foreign censors might think about the fact that Elster managed to murder his wife and get away with it. Hitchcock, therefore, shot an alternate ending set in Midge's apartment at some point after Judy's death.
Midge is anxiously listening to the radio and hears that Elster's fled to Switzerland but the authorities are confident about finding him and extraditing him back to the U.S. She turns off the radio and Scottie walks into the apartment. Wordlessly, she makes him a drink and together they stare out the window at the city below. Apparently, Scottie survived his latest trauma instead of following Judy off the tower.
The film was released in Europe in 1958 with this ending. You can see it on the DVD, but it was never included in the U.S. theatrical release.
Vertigo's score was composed and orchestrated by Oscar and BAFTA winner Bernard Herrmann. Herrmann had a stellar career in film composing, working with directors from Orson Welles on Citizen Kane (1941) to Martin Scorsese in Taxi Driver (1976). It was with Hitchcock, though, that he was part of one of the most successful director-composer collaborations in film history. (We'd say the most successful, but there's that John Williams-Steven Spielberg situation.)
Herrmann was Hitch's go-to guy for music, despite having the reputation of being controlling and abrasive, and having insulted practically everyone in the business. They worked together on nine films between 1955 and 1964, plus 17 episodes of Hitchcock's TV program, The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. It was Herrmann who gave us that jarring, screechy violin accompaniment to the shower scene in Psycho. New York Times critic Alex Ross believed that Vertigo's score was Herrmann's masterwork. Hitchcock always gave Herrmann tons of credit for his films' successes.
The complex score included swelling strings during the romantic interludes, Spanish-inflected music to reflect the Spanish history of California, and what's known as the "Vertigo chord, " a high, dissonant chord that accompanies Scottie's terrified episodes of vertigo. You can listen to it here.
Here's how Alex Ross describes it:
"The music rotates in tandem: endless circles of thirds, major and minor, interspersed with shuddering dissonances. […] The music literally induces vertigo: it finds no acceptable tonal resolution and spirals back on itself. Herrmann has told us what the movie is about." (Source)
During the long sequence when Scottie follows Madeleine on her strange wanderings around the city, the music is beautifully eerie and hypnotic. And just listen to what he does during the scene where Judy final emerges transformed into Madeleine. As one critic put it, "There's no dialogue, and it isn't necessary" (source). In the final scene, there's a sinister theme when Scottie confronts Madeleine that alternates with a more hopeful theme until it builds into a shocking crescendo as Judy jumps off the tower, leaving Scottie to contemplate what's just happened.
There is some music in the film that Herrmann didn't compose: background music from a phonograph, played by Midge. One's a Mozart composition, and one's by Bach—pretty traditional composers. Scottie asks her to turn off the Mozart piece she's playing in her apartment. It's also played in the sanitarium where he's sent after Madeleine's death, and Midge tells the doctor that Mozart's not going to help Scottie. These pieces are a way showing us that Midge is a more conventional person than Madeleine who has Herrmann's mysterious and melodramatic musical score to accompany her scenes.
Herrmann and Hitch ended their relationship because of some "creative differences" about the score for 1966's Torn Curtain. Hitchcock was under pressure from the producers to produce a more pop score, since teenagers were now the ones driving the commercial success of films. Herrmann pretty much said, "Are you kidding me?" He composed what he wanted for the film, and in the middle of the project, Hitch fired him and the orchestra. They never really spoke again.
BTW, Torn Curtain was a box-office and critical disaster.
With his larger-than-life status as the "Master of Suspense" and maker of countless classics, Hitchcock has a huge cult following.We don't just mean geeks and freaks who show up for summer screenings of his films in art houses. We don't just mean techies who work on restoring his films for re-release, either. The Hitch cult has a cast of millions.
Check out the Hitchcock Wiki for proof. Vertigo has its own site specifically. You can spend days at the bottom of that rabbit hole. There's more Hitch trivia than you could ask for, and the Wiki's full of production stills and anecdotes about all phases of production.
Elsewhere on the wonderful web, there's The Hitchcock Zone, which collects blogs and other fan sites dedicated to the work of the Master. Their sheer number give you a sense of just how far Hitch's reach still extends.
The fan base reaches deep into the heart of academia. Hitchcock's films figure in some of the definitive texts of film studies, and multiple collections of essays like this one and this one gather some of the finest and most influential contributions to Hitchcock scholarship over the years. Feel like geeking out in the library? You'll have a field day. Don't worry: we won't tell.
Just be sure to leave your Mrs. Bates costume at home.