There are few opening shots as compelling as the hand, reaching up and grasping the rung of a ladder in the darkness. The disorienting chase over San Francisco rooftops in the night, and before we can establish anything about our scene, another hand reaches out to Jimmy Stewart, "Give me your hand". Over and over, this image of a hand, of fingers, reaching out, trying to touch something that it cannot know, plays out on the screen in front of us. This is what it is to view Hitchcock's masterpiece, this is what it is to watch decades of meticulous and methodical filmmaking finally reach their culmination. In Vertigo, truths and lies, realities and fantasies, memories and dreams, seem to intermix in ways that are masked by its deceptively simple narrative. What is a conscious lie from one may be reality for another, what is felt deeply can never be washed away. In Vertigo, we are fragile beings whose scars can multiply and overrun us. If one singular event rocks our foundations hard enough, we may never return to the people we used to be.
Vertigo is a film about obsession that is easy to become obsessed with. I've watched from start to finish now, ten years after that first, upwards of 15 times (twice in theater) and with each viewing it has become, not only my favorite Hitchcock film, but my personal choice for best American movie ever made. There is a reading of the content that many reviewers enjoy pointing to that says the second half of the film is taking place in Scottie's subconscious as he sits in a vegetable state in the hospital, unable to handle the realities of having failed to save 'Madeline'. This is an interesting lens to view the content through, but I can't help but see the entire endeavor as one long 'cinema-dream', with Hitchcock as the dreamer. Is there anything more telling and confessional than that final scene where the domineering detective berates the woman on her performance as an alter ego? "Did he train you? Did he rehearse you? Did he tell you exactly what to do? What to say?" Yes, Scottie, he did, Hitchcock trained and rehearsed all of his actresses to a level teetering on the edge of mental abuse.
If confession and catharsis on the part of the auteur don't do it for you, consider reading some of Laura Mulvey's writings on the 'male gaze', scopophilia and the habit in classic Hollywood style of chopping off the humans on screen into their most arousing bits (see the opening credits sequence where close-ups of eyes, lips, etc. are presented as we see the visual ingredients that make up the viewer's imprinted 'object of desire', Madeline, who glances around with what might be suspicion or perhaps embarrassment at being put on display). Scopophilia and voyeurism are a much talked-about underpinning of much of Hitchcock;s work, but never is he more critical of his own preoccupations, and the preoccupations of Hollywood filmmaking in general, than in Vertigo.
Each scene and sequence of Vertigo is supported and enhanced by the other scenes and sequences surrounding it, perfect construction in cinematic terms, and the visceral elements are not left to chance. The storyline revolves, not around a woman being physically dissected or put into peril, but being psychologically dissected to the point where her true “self” is no longer evident. In the film, the personality of Novak’s character has been pared down to only the most essential elements that Scottie will find attractive, it is this cross-section of her personality that has been dubbed “Madeline” and set apart for us as a role that the Judy character is playing to clearly delineate between what Scottie sees as flaws in her personality and what he sees as erotically attractive. It is the idea that one need not deal with the imperfections in the woman, but can focus only on percieved strengths that eventually becomes dangerous because it moves us to a point (which we are still inching toward) where the slightest imperfection becomes intensely unattractive. Just as the actress on the screen in the Hollywood feature has been made-up to become the symbol of beauty, Judy’s transformation from her mundane Kansas self into the bewitching Madeline works in much the same way. The exact same body and mind can become multiple distinct people very easily, film actresses in particular.
This leads to possibly Hitchcock’s most interesting use of Novak as a symbol of the Hollywood actress. Madeline is a symbol of perfection in Scottie’s eyes, she drives him wild with desire, so wild that he cannot be attracted to anything else, including the same woman without her “face on” (as Judy herself puts in late in the film). Judy appears mediocre without the icy blonde hair and the damsel in distress adventure attached to her that the Madeline side of her personality had. Hitchcock realizes the danger of Hollywood glamour, a glamour he helped to create, on the modern male, and proceeds, not to apologize, but simply to acknowledge it as one of his own flaws. In essence, Hitch uses Novak as one of his trademark McGuffins to drive the plot, Scottie’s meltdown can then be seen as that of the Hollywood leading man suddenly losing his plot and “motivation”, having no more reason to exist on the screen. This further objectifies Novak as less of a character and more of a device whose only purpose is to influence the male protagonist.
Vertigo is about the dark side of obsession and sexual attraction, it is sad on a level that no other American film has truly gotten in touch with. The most depressing question at the end of it all is that Scottie has mixed his personal feelings with his professional work (he was hired as a detective after all), where does his role as detective end and the real Scottie begin? we'll never know. Was the transformation of Judy into Madeline a result of his subconscious detective still hard at work on the case? trying to fit the pieces together? Or are we really seeing a sad and broken man trying to capture a feeling he thought was dead and gone. Like no other film, Vertigo will haunt you, or at least it haunts me.