#438) Vertigo (1958)


#438) Vertigo (1958)

OR “Scottie Doesn’t Know”

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

Written by Alec Coppel and Samuel Taylor. Based on the novel “D’entre les morts” (“The Living and the Dead”) by Pierre Boileau & Thomas Narcejac.

Class of 1989

Spoilers Ahead

The Plot: San Francisco Detective John “Scottie” Ferguson (James Stewart) is sent into early retirement when a rooftop chase triggers his acrophobia and leads to the death of a colleague. His college friend Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore) coaxes Ferguson to follow his wife Madeline (Kim Novak), who Elster fears is possessed by the spirit of her great-grandmother, Carlotta Valdes. Ferguson discreetly follows Madeline, but her suicide attempt leads to the two interacting and sparking an unexpected romance. After Madeline’s death at Mission San Juan Bautista, Ferguson becomes fixated on Judy Barton, a woman who looks remarkably like Madeline. It’s no surprise that Hitchcock took a movie about a middle-aged man obsessing over a younger blonde woman and turned it into a classic!

Why It Matters: The NFR write-up praises “Vertigo” to the hilt, calling it “a vivid picture of the consuming and harrowing nature of desire”. Hitchcock receives praise, as does the “mesmerizing” Novak and the “surprisingly compelling” Stewart. There’s also an essay by Hitchcock expert Thomas Leitch.

But Does It Really?: You could spend days reading the endless essays and articles about the artistry of “Vertigo”, but I’ll keep things simple here. “Vertigo” works because it invites you to obsess over not only the mystery, but the film itself (The motifs! The symbolism!) What starts as a standard Hitchcock thriller becomes a doomed romance, a deep psychological character study, and a ghost story all in one. If you’re willing to forgive the film’s obvious issues regarding its unhealthy control over women, “Vertigo” is Hitchcock in his prime elevating the art form of the movies. “Vertigo” is a classic that improves with age, and an untouchable for NFR inclusion.

Everybody Gets One: Kim Novak started her Hollywood career modeling refrigerators at an L.A. trade show, ultimately signing a film contract with Columbia. The studio loaned Novak to Paramount to make “Vertigo” after Hitchcock’s first choice Vera Miles became pregnant. Novak has spoken fondly of working with James Stewart, and while she respected Hitchcock, he remained somewhat distant to her during production. Currently, Kim Novak is retired, focusing on her painting and photography, with the occasional “Vertigo” screening appearance.

Wow, That’s Dated: Top billing for this movie goes to the VistaVision widescreen process: still a novelty in 1958. Also, as a longtime resident of San Francisco, I can tell you that this city has definitely changed in the last 60 years. Street parking is never as easy as the movies will lead you to believe.

Title Track: For the record, vertigo is not the same as acrophobia. Vertigo is a common type of dizziness in which you feel that the stationary things around you are moving or spinning. Because Scottie develops his vertigo and acrophobia concurrently, many over the years have conflated the two.

Seriously, Oscars?: “Vertigo” did just okay on its initial release. Although the film broke even, critics were divided, and audiences deemed it too big a departure from Hitchcock’s previous ‘50s thrillers like “The Man Who Knew Too Much”. Despite this, “Vertigo” entered the Oscar race with two nominations: Art Direction (losing to “Gigi”) and Sound (losing to “South Pacific”).

Other notes

  • The original novel “D’entre les morts” has a near identical plot to the movie, with the major difference of being set in wartime France. Hitchcock lobbied for the novel’s film rights after losing out on the authors’ previous book, which became the classic movie “Les Diaboliques”. Screenwriter Samuel Taylor was hired based on his knowledge of San Francisco, and although his draft was used for the final film, previous draft writer Alec Coppel successfully appealed to the Writers Guild for credit.
  • Shoutout as always to Saul Bass for his opening titles. Oh, the things he can do with his Spirograph.
  • One of the most famous readings on the Michael Douglas Scale: James Stewart is 25 years older than Kim Novak! He is also 14 years older than Barbara Bel Geddes, despite their two characters being college classmates. Maybe he went to night school?
  • That first scene between Scottie and Midge is quite the exposition dump, much of it repeated in the next scene with Elster. We get it: He has vertigo. It’s the title!
  • What’s Hitch carrying? Most sources agree it’s a trumpet or bugle case, but IMDb says it’s a plague doctor mask. I think we all have too much free time these days…
  • If the suspense of Jimmy Stewart tailing Kim Novak doesn’t intrigue you, at least there’s this lovely footage of 1957 San Francisco. This city never looked more beautiful.
  • Jimmy Stewart knows how to reign in his natural Stewart-isms when the time calls for it. Once Scottie zeroes in on Madeline, his movement becomes more economic, his homespun stammering more scarce. Stewart knows exactly what he’s doing in this performance. Now if only Scottie wasn’t instantly creepy towards Madeline…
  • Ooh, nice timing with the waves on the rear projection. Sure, it’s an innuendo, but it looks great!
  • While Mission San Juan Bautista is a real place, its bell tower was created specifically for the moving using matte paintings and trick photography.
  • [Spoilers] It’s a good thing the corpse of the real Mrs. Elster landed face down on the mission roof. Otherwise Scottie could have figured out the whole ruse then and there. Special mention to Jean Corbett, the real vic.
  • Scottie’s mental breakdown is portrayed as an effects-heavy sequence from artist John Ferren, who also painted the Carlotta portrait featured in the film. Hitchcock chose to credit the scene as a “special sequence” so as not to spoil things for the audience.
  • Now’s a good time to give praise to Bernard Herrmann’s score. Herrmann’s composition compliments the film’s spiral motif perfectly, making this the first score that might actually cause dizziness.
  • If this movie were made today, Scottie’s stalking of Judy would not fly at all. He’d get about two words in before Judy broke out the mace.
  • How did Elster find Judy for this gig? You can’t really put out a notice for this kind of thing. “Wanted: Young attractive woman to play decoy wife in murder plot. Adept at improv, skilled driver; art knowledge a plus. Meals and wardrobe provided.”
  • The spiral motif continues with a very impressive 360 shot of Scottie and Judy kissing, complete with a dissolving backdrop. It’s one of the rare rear projection shots of the time that holds up well today.
  • What an ending. Stewart’s denouement is startling, as is the final moments when he becomes the ghost in his own ghost story: forever haunting and haunted.


  • After “Vertigo” underperformed at the box office, Hitchcock blamed James Stewart for being too old to convincingly play Scottie. The two never worked together again, causing Stewart to miss out on the lead in Hitch’s next picture: “North by Northwest”.
  • While there were film buffs in the ‘60s and ‘70s who sang the praises of “Vertigo”, the film didn’t get a major re-evaluation until it was re-released in 1983. The film continues to be a critical darling, and in 2012 edged out “Citizen Kane” in Sight & Sound’s critics’ poll of greatest movies.
  • You can still visit many of the San Francisco locations used in “Vertigo” (though you’re not allowed that close to the water at Fort Point). In fact, the York Hotel (sitting in for the film’s Empire Hotel) has been renamed Hotel Vertigo in the film’s honor.
  • “Vertigo” doesn’t so much prompt parodies as it does homages. See “De Palma, Films of Brian”.
  • Okay fine, I’ll mention “High Anxiety”, the Mel Brooks movie whose only strength is the movies it spoofs.
  • The 1997 music video for Faith No More’s “Last Cup of Sorrow” is a light-hearted recreation of the film. Hey, that’s Jennifer Jason Leigh!
  • But perhaps the film’s most enduring legacy: the dolly-zoom perfected in “Vertigo” to highlight Scottie’s acrophobia is more commonly known as “the Vertigo effect”. You may recognize it from Spielberg’s effective usage in “Jaws”.

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