It is hard to determine the one single defining factor that makes Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo what it is today: by many considered to be one of the best movies ever made. The plot is – despite all its unrealism – thrilling from the first minute to the last. James Stewart’s and Kim Novak’s performances are more than convincing to say the least and Bernard Herrmann’s music dug itself into the collective ears of a whole generation. However, there is one thing that all those factors have in common and which therefore, arguably, defines the power of Vertigo most accurately: in a way all those features suck the viewers into the movie and take them on a spiral-like journey down to the bottom of Vertigo. This becomes apparent from the first minute onwards, when Hitchcock establishes the spiral as the defining motif of his movie during the intro-sequence. In this paper I am going to argue that the whole movie follows a spiral-like structure and through repetition of certain motifs Hitchcock is able to suck the viewer deeper and deeper into the story of Vertigo.
In order to validate this theory, I am going to look at the various aspects of this movie in detail and analyze their relationship to the overall structure. Among those aspects are the characters themselves, but also certain images (such as mirrors, windows, and shadows) and the plot, of course. On a closer look, it becomes visible that most themes and images reoccur again and again throughout the movie, only slightly altered, but thereby achieving a totally different effect. This ultimately creates the incredibly high level of tension and also somehow explains the urge many viewers experience to watch the movie again and again.
It is no secret that almost everything that can be said has been said about the great master of suspense and Vertigo, one of his most important movies. However, with this paper, I am going to shed some light on yet another new aspect of one of the most discussed movies of all time. The fact that this is even possible is just another argument for its unbelievable brilliancy.
Actually, not only the movie is puzzling, also its legacy is somewhat mind-boggling. Its premise, for example, is everything else than classic box-office material. For one, Gavin Elster’s plan is ridiculously complicated and unnecessarily risky, to say the least. Had one single event not turned out how he imagined it to be, the success of his whole murder plot would have been jeopardized. It would have been so easy for Scottie to find out the truth (by driving up to Elster’s mansion, for example – Scottie is a detective, mind you) and the fact that he would not be able to climb the bell tower was far from given – as we can see in the ending (Carroll 101). And yet, none of this disrupts the viewer’s attention. Not even the many unanswered questions baffle us enough to distract us from following the plot (Marantz Cohen 166). When Madeleine suddenly and without explanation disappears from a hotel room, we just accept this as part of the mystery, even after watching it for the umpteenth time.
In her article “Hitchcock’s Revised American Vision: The Wrong Man and Vertigo”, Paula Marantz Cohen gives a number of explanations for this. In her eyes, Vertigo lives in the tradition of 19th century gothic novels (168). The (in this case – not so young) man mourning the death of a beautiful woman is clear evidence that supports that claim. And the obvious similarities to one the most famous figures of 19th century gothic novels (Edgar Allen Poe, of course) do not end here. Vertigo shows striking resemblances to Poe’s “Ligeia”. In this short story, a man loses the love of his life, Ligeia. After her death, he marries again, but loses his second wife too. In the night after his second wife’s death, however, her body returns from the dead – but she has transformed into Ligeia (Brand 124). Whether or not these similarities were intended or not, are not of interest here, but at least it shows the strong connection Vertigo (and D’entre Les Morts, the book Vertigo is based on, too), has to 19th century literature. Cohen’s point now is that in those 19th century novels, the importance of the plot is most of the time inferior to “the emotions and imaginings that the plot encouraged” (Marantz Cohen 168). The same holds true for Vertigo. The plot is clearly unrealistic, but the viewers do not mind at all, since the movie is so emotionally tense that nitpicking about such things as believability or realism seems almost ridiculous.
However, there are more factors that would seem to work against a world wide success of Vertigo. True, the movies plot is highly unrealistic, but at the same time it deals also with highly scientific and mind boggling issues such as psychology. And movies that deal with psychological themes were considered to be straight forward box office poison at that time, simply because studio bosses questioned the mental capacity of the audiences and thought those kinds of movies just “went over their head” (Freedman, 82). But despite the fact that Vertigo was not extraordinarily successful when it came out, one cannot deny that it made more than enough money by now and its reputation as one of the best movies ever made speaks for itself anyway. So how does that go together?
Cast & Characters
Despite its somewhat off-putting features, there are certain aspects that helped push the movie in the first place. First of all, there was of course Hitchcock himself. He had already made himself a name as early as 1927, and a movie directed by him was certain to get attention. But then there were also the actors. Especially James Stewart, who was quite famous at that time. He grew up during the star-system and was mostly known for his romantic or comedic roles in films such as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and Destry Rides Again. Then World War II came, which was followed by a period of trying to (rather unsuccessfully) regain his prewar popularity. Winchester 73 marked the first time he was actually able to live up to his earlier successes. In the years that followed, he worked with Hitchcock three times (Rope in 1948, Rear Window in 1954 and finally Vertigo in 1958). During that time, he was most famous for portraying intellectuals and men of law and order who tried to uphold and stand in for the good in the world by means of their mental capacities. At the same time, however, he often portrayed tragic heroes. Vertigo, so to speak, is the prime example for the typical James Stewart character of that time (Lawrence, 58).
Stewart might have been a reason for the audiences to go and see the movie, but in the movie itself he is certainly not the one who pulls the strings or has any sort of control over what is happening. Arguably, his performance is also not the one decisive factor that actually makes the movie special. Scotties character is not even particularly likable. Basically, he is a failure. He fails at his job, the way he treats Midge is borderline despicable and he also fails not only once but twice in rescuing Madeleine/Judy. One could even argue he is ultimately the one who is responsible for her doom. Pretty much the only thing that makes us sympathize for him is his love for Madeleine. This humanizes him, at least in the first part of the movie, before his love turns into obsession and pushes the audience even further away (Leigh 20). His on-screen performance is thereby highly convincing, but the role itself is certainly not the Casablanca -like Oscar-material that immediately enters film history. And it does not need to be. Hitchcock is often reported as having referred to actors as being mere “cattle”. In many interviews he mentioned that he already had the finished movie in his head before he even started filming. Therefore, he viewed the actual filming process almost as an unpleasant necessity (Wydra, 8).
This is also the way Vertigo works. At the beginning, Hitchcock makes us expect something totally different from the actual movie – immediately we are reminded of the initial storyline in Rear Window. We have our handicapped hero and the blond, down-to-earth female character that obviously has feelings for the main character. However, soon we get the feeling that something is odd. Obviously, Vertigo operates on a much more mysterious level then Rear Window (Marantz Cohen 165). From the opening titles to the credits, Scottie is being played with. He is thrown into the movie’s world like a rat into a maze and at no point has any control whatsoever. Scottie is never in charge of things and even the one time he actually tries to act according to his own will (when he drags Judy up the tower), his actions fail miserably. Scottie suffers. But whether or not his antagonist is Gavin Elster or actually Hitchcock himself is debatable.
It is interesting to see that the big villain in Vertigo, Gavin Elster, receives next to no screen time at all. This very much adds to the feeling that Scottie is actually not walking through Elster’s, but rather Hitchcock’s maze (Fried, 17). As for the story, Elster functions more as a device to get the plot going than anything else. As soon as he succeeds in planting his evil seed into Scotties head, he is of secondary importance. The audience does not even get to know what happened to him after his successful murder plot – or even why he really decided to kill his wife in the first place (all we get is a rather superficial motif during their first meeting).
As mentioned before his plan is ridiculously risky and would be destined to fail, had Hitchcock not had his hands in it. It almost feels as if Hitchcock was trying out how far he could push the envelope, before audiences would get too suspicious. And the way he did it was to distract the viewers attention from the actual murder-plot and make them focus on the mystery element in the first part of the movie and the relationship between Scottie and Judy in the second one (the whodunit-question actually gets answered only in a side note after two thirds of the movie and is of next to no importance anymore to the audience). Putting the crime into the background and showing the villain as little as possible were the two means to achieve this goal.
 It has been said, again and again, that the brilliance of Vertigo only becomes visible to those who watch the movie more than once (Condon/Sangster 225).
 Hitchcock himself called this the “Icebox” effect. It describes a scene that confuses at first, does not get explained throughout the movie, but is unimportant enough to slip the viewers minds. Only later at home, when opening the icebox at three in the morning, a thought strikes the viewer: “How on earth did she escape from the hotel room?” (“Vertigo”, imdb.com)
 Hitchcock is actually believed to have stopped working with Stewart because he considered him to be too old. In Hitchcock’s eyes, the love story between Scottie and Madeleine did not really work because of the age difference (Condon/Sangster 222).
 Due to censorship reasons, Hitchcock actually had to film an alternative ending for British audiences, seeing how murderers were not allowed to get away unpunished there (Condon/Sangster 224).