Losing My Religion: Vertigo
Every Friday during Lent, in Losing My Religion, we'll be looking at a different movie from a Catholic (or at least, Catholic-raised) director, and how their religious upbringing influenced the film in question. Each movie has at its core that most Catholic of all sentiments: heaping loads of internalized guilt. For this fourth Friday of Lent, we’re looking into the classic favorite suspense film from Alfred Hitchcock, Vertigo. As of this writing, it is currently available on Amazon Prime for streaming rental.
John Ferguson (‘Scottie’ to his close friends, played by Jimmy Stewart) is a police detective in San Francisco. Or rather, he was a police detective—the opening scene of the eternal classic Vertigo shows Scottie accidentally cause a patrolman’s death because of his own fear of heights. Frozen in that fear while hanging off a high-rise roof, Scottie reaches out for help from the patrolman, who falls past him to the alley below. Both the suspect who fled and the patrolman who fell are lost.
Scottie’s guilt and feeling of inadequacy push him to retire from the police force to avoid causing any further trouble for the department. But an old friend, Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore, in the classic Hitchcock ‘shadow’ villain role) asks him for a favor. Elster begs Scottie to tail his wife and find out what she does with her days.
“It’s not like ‘that’,” Elster explains. His wife Madeline (Kim Novak, in an unforgettable performance) has taken to believing she is in fact her own long-dead great grandmother. Elster exhibits concern she will follow in her ancestor’s footsteps. Madeline’s ancestor, he explains, committed suicide at Madeline’s age. That Madeline has already thrown herself into the San Francisco Bay in plain sight only further sells Scottie on the urgency to follow her.
Scottie gets close to her, closer than he should get to an old friend’s spouse. He and Madeline express love for one another in a stolen moment, just as she descends into another delusional episode at a mission outside the city. She runs from his arms, determined to throw herself off the bell tower. Scottie chases after, up, up, up the rickety, narrow stairs. But just as he nearly catches her, he makes a fatal mistake.
He looks down.
A wave of nausea, dizziness and fear crashes over him. Scottie freezes, just long enough to be too late—Madeline screams from the belfry above him, and he watches her fall, from the window just below. In his mind, his own failings have taken another life. That the inquest immediately after the incident places blame but no wrongdoing on Scottie’s shoulders, gives him no peace. He has a total breakdown, and commits himself to a psychiatric hospital. After several months, he is allowed to re-enter the world, determined to be freed of his melancholia.
But the guilt nags at him. He sees Madeline everywhere. First, her car, where he finds it was sold to a new owner. Then, he sees blonde after blonde who resembles Madeline, in the same places he encountered her before. It’s clearly getting to him, and in a state of near disbelief, he actually runs into her again.
Except now, her name is Judy Barton. And she’s no longer the Hitchcock staple platinum blonde, but rather a brunette. And she’s as torn up by their reacquaintance as Scottie is. First, she brushes him off. But Scottie’s persistent, and seems honestly eager to get to know her, the real her. Selling the moment as clearly against her better judgment (even writing a letter “from Madeline” to him, before tearing it up), Judy goes on a series of dates with the haunted, guilty man.
Here the film gets into some interesting gender political subtext. While in 1958, it wasn’t unheard of for men to exert some level of control in relationships with women, Hitchcock very plainly paints Scottie’s obsession with transforming Judy back into “his” Madeline as unhealthy. Her protests are nearly shouted down at every turn, Judy slowly broken over Scottie’s guilty rants. Scottie’s singularly-focused need for a do-over on saving the woman he loved ramps up with every scene, with Judy/Madeline begging him all the way to just let them be happy together and let her be Judy.
In her scenes as the unmasked Judy, Novak sold the desperation with which she wants to help Scottie, but is simultaneously repulsed by his need to change her into something she never truly was in the first place. As they make their way back to the mission’s bell tower, the audience fully understands what Scottie needs here: he needs to save the woman he loves, because he couldn’t the first time. He even reassures her the whole way that that’s what he’ll do, while also accusing her of being in on the murder plot of the real Madeline, whom Elster set him up to take the blame for.
Scottie’s faults come to the fore once again, but this time it’s not his vertigo that causes the fall. It’s his larger inability to have proper perspective. He can’t see that what he’s doing to Judy is wrong. He can’t recognize that this obsessive drive to re-live past failures is just a feedback loop. He can’t see what’s right in front of him—the woman who loves him, and an open window, an open world of possibility.
Spooked by a nun from the mission checking on the disturbed couple now in the belfry, Scottie and Judy jump back, Judy falling for real this time. Scottie doesn’t have any trouble looking down, now, on himself or on the effect of what he’s done.
Check back next Friday for Losing My Religion’s fifth entry, The Quiet Man, the classic John Wayne-in-Ireland movie directed by John Ford.