Decline to Fall: Is Hitchcock’s Most Celebrated Film All That It’s Cracked Up to Be?

by Graham Daseler Volume 23, Issue 2 / February 2019 29 minutes (7247 words)

How does one recognize a great film? I don’t mean a good film or even a very good film. I mean a great film, a classic, the kind of film that books are written about and that students study frame by frame in film school. How does one spot that kind of film, differentiate it from its more prosaically admirable siblings? Some films are instantly granted a place on Parnassus. Casablanca (Michael Curtiz, 1943), The Godfather (Francis Ford Coppola, 1972), and Schindler’s List (Steven Spielberg, 1993) are examples, establishing their artistic bona fides both through box office sales and critical acclaim. Others ascend more slowly, perhaps not selling out theaters but getting good enough reviews to gain a cult following. The Wizard of Oz (Victor Fleming, George Cukor, 1939), Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941), and My Dinner with Andre (Louis Malle, 1981) all took this route, finding champions early on who were willing to give them a push. The toughest climb, though, is faced by those films that are neither box office bonanzas nor critical darlings. The General (Buster Keaton, 1926) and It’s a Wonderful Life (Frank Capra, 1946) each, eventually, made the long trek from derision to veneration. And yet of the films in this last category – the rags-to-riches pictures, you might call them – none has triumphed so spectacularly as Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock, 1958).

Released in May of 1958, the film did modest business, making back the roughly two and a half million dollars invested in it, with a tidy million-dollar profit. For Hitchcock, whose career was then at its apogee, both creatively and commercially, this was nonetheless an underwhelming result. Rear Window (Alfred Hitchcock, 1954) and To Catch a Thief (Alfred Hitchcock, 1955) – released, respectively, four and three years before – each netted profits of more than twice that amount. North By Northwest (Alfred Hitchcock, 1959), which came out a year later, would rake in a hefty $5.5 million in domestic rentals alone, $2 million more than Vertigo earned. But while Vertigo fared moderately well with audiences, it bombed with critics. “Farfetched nonsense,” cried The New Yorker (McGilligan 564). “Another Hitchcock and bull story in which the mystery is not so much who done it as who cares,” said Time (McGilligan 564). “[The] plain fact is that [the] film’s first half is too slow and too long,” complained Variety. “By [the film’s climax] Vertigo is more than two hours old, and it’s questionable whether that much time should be devoted to what is basically only a psychological murder mystery.” Not all the reviews were so venomous, but even those that weren’t tended to have a critical bite. “Vertigo is technically a topnotch film,” said the reviewer for the Los Angeles Citizen-News. “Hitchcock does as well as he can, considering the script, in a directorial capacity. Vertigo is not his best picture.” (Auiler 111)

It would take a brave reviewer to dismiss the picture so casually today. That Vertigo is a great film few are any longer willing to dispute. The only question seems to be how great? Here are a few opinions on the matter:

“…Hitchcock’s greatest masterpiece” (Spoto 265) – Hitchcock biographer Donald Spoto.

“…the deepest, darkest masterpiece of Hitchcock’s career” (Auiler 191) – New York Times film critic Janet Maslin.

Vertigo seems to me Hitchcock’s masterpiece…and one of the four or five most profound and beautiful films the cinema has yet given us” (Wood 71) – Film critic Robin Wood.

“Any film as great as Vertigo demands more than just a sense of admiration – it demands a personal response… Vertigo is also important to me – essential would be more like it” (Auiler xiii) – Film director Martin Scorsese.

Vertigo is a classic of the heart – Hitchcock’s and ours. It is a film that writes directly on our souls” (Auiler xvi) – Film historian Dan Auiler.

The reevaluation began with the French auteurist critics of the nineteen-sixties – Francois Truffaut, Claude Chabrol, Eric Rohmer – continued with their American cousins, and hardened into accepted fact after the film was restored in 1996 and later released on DVD. In 1998, when the American Film Institute compiled their list of the one hundred greatest American films of all time – distilled from the contributions of fifteen hundred critics, historians, screenwriters, directors, actors, and other film folk – Vertigo made the cut, but it was discreetly tucked in at number sixty-one, between Raiders of the Lost Ark (Steven Spielberg, 1981) and Tootsie (Sydney Pollack, 1982). Four years later, when the British Film Institute conducted their decennial critics poll, naming the greatest films (American and otherwise) of all-time, Vertigo had jumped to the second spot, right behind Citizen Kane. A decade later, when the poll was taken again, the old king was dead and a new king reigned. After five decades at the top, Citizen Kane was supplanted by Vertigo as the critics’ choice for the greatest film ever made.

The movie’s plot is notoriously absurd. After retiring from the San Francisco police force, following a traumatic rooftop incident in which a fellow officer plunged to his death, Scottie (James Stewart) is summoned to the office of an old schoolmate, Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore). Elster wants Scottie to follow his wife, Madeleine (Kim Novak) – not because he fears she’s cheating on him but because he fears she may be possessed by the soul of a dead woman. Scottie is dubious about Elster’s prognosis but takes the assignment anyway, trailing Madeleine around town as she visits various sites connected with the deceased: her grave, her painting in the Palace of the Legion of Honor, and the McKittrick Hotel, where she lived a century before. When Madeleine tries to drown herself in San Francisco Bay, Scottie dives in and rescues her, taking her back to his home. Madeleine, upon waking, claims to have no memory of the suicide attempt and describes other, similar blackouts in which she lost control of her body. The following day, when Madeleine returns to thank him for saving her life, Scottie suggests they go driving together, and during the ensuing trip to Muir Woods Madeleine displays further signs of being either possessed or mentally ill. Nonetheless, Scottie is, by this point – if not from the moment he first set eyes on her – deeply in love with Madeleine. He is determined to rid her of her psychosis, and so he takes her to the mission at San Juan Bautista after she describes seeing it in a dream. As they’re wandering about the grounds, Madeleine suddenly becomes agitated and rushes into the church and up the bell tower. Scottie, overcome by the Vertigo that has plagued him since leaving the police force, is unable to follow her up the stairs and thus fails to save her when she throws herself from the tower.

After suffering a catatonic breakdown that lands him in a sanatorium, Scottie is released and spends his days wandering the streets of San Francisco, vaguely hoping to spy Madeleine. Then, one day, he does …or at least someone who looks remarkably like Madeleine. Her name is Judy Barton (Kim Novak), a working class girl from Salina, Kansas. Scottie manages to get a date with Judy and thereafter begins remolding her in the shape of his dead lover: buying her the same pencil-gray suit, dying her hair the same white-blonde shade, and forcing her to wear it in the same tight swirl atop her head. The psychological mystery has, effectively, been turned on its head: has Scottie lost his mind or is there really some connection between Judy and the dead Madeleine? Before the question arises, though, an answer is given: Judy, we (though not Scottie) learn, is Madeleine. That is to say, she was Gavin Elster’s mistress and played his wife in front of Scottie so that Elster could throw the real Madeleine from the bell tower, disguising it as a suicide. Judy, having by now genuinely fallen in love with Scottie, slips up, though, putting on a piece of Madeleine’s jewelry as they’re preparing to go out. Scottie immediately realizes all and drags her back to the mission, forcing her (and himself) to climb the bell tower. They reach the top, and Judy begs Scottie to forgive her, to accept her as she is and be happy together. Before Scottie can answer, however, a nun steps from the shadows, frightening Judy, who leaps, this time genuinely, to her death.

Even fans of the film feel compelled to point out the silliness of this story. “The plot hinges on a wild improbability,” writes critic Robin Wood in his monograph on Hitchcock’s oeuvre, “not so much that a man who has seen the woman he loves fall from a height should not stay to make sure that she is dead, as that the murderer should count on his not doing so” (Wood 71-72). In fact, the plot hinges on a whole series of wild improbabilities, beginning with the first scene of the film. How Scottie managed to get down from the rooftop in the movie’s opening sequence – the last we see of him, he’s dangling by his fingertips from a metal gutter – is left, so to speak, up in the air. More crucially, the bell tower murder, so elaborately planned by Gavin Elster, crumbles under the slightest scrutiny. How did Gavin Elster know when Scottie and the phony Madeleine would arrive at the mission? Considering the fact that it’s nearly a hundred miles between San Francisco and San Juan Bautista, how did he time his own arrival and the murder of his wife accordingly? Did he kill the real Madeleine before climbing the tower (in which case, how did he carry the body up the stairs?) or did he lure her to the top and murder her there (in which case, how did he remain unseen while waiting for the fake Madeleine to arrive?)? A single tourist, coming up to enjoy the view, would have spoiled all his plans. How did he get the real Madeleine and the fake Madeleine to wear coordinating outfits? How did he and Judy get down from the tower after the murder without anyone seeing them? (A dead woman’s twin, dressed in identical clothing, would presumably draw attention with so many policemen and spectators milling about the area.) And how could Elster be certain that Scottie wouldn’t make it up the stairs? Sure, Scottie suffers from acrophobia, but a man trying to save the woman he loves from death is liable to overcome ordinary inhibitions to rescue her.

No doubt anticipating such questions, Hitchcock dismissed the notion that his films need be plausible. “Must a picture be logical,” he queried, “when life is not?” (McGilligan 158). The answer, plainly, is yes, it should. Films, unlike the vast majority of events in human life, have plots, character arcs, obvious heroes and villains, built in suspense, and dramatic resolution. Films are not life. They are, as Hitchcock himself famously said, “Life with the dull bits cut out” (Spoto 41). When illogical events occur in life, we feel perplexed; when they happen in films, we feel cheated, robbed of the disbelief that granted us access to the world of the film. This is not to suggest that films can’t be fantastic or strange, or that they can’t depict happenings that are surreal, supernatural, or physically impossible. They must, to use George Orwell’s phrase, “keep the rules of their own peculiar world[s],” abiding by the logic they themselves have created (Orwell 246). Written differently, with a different plot laid out for her, the Madeleine character might have genuinely been possessed by the spirit of Carlotta Valdes. This would have made her disappearance from the McKittrick Hotel early in the movie much more believable. As it is, though, Madeleine is not possessed by the spirit of Carlotta. Thus, her vanishing act from the hotel makes little sense. We (and Scottie) see her go into the building through the lobby and then enter her room above the street on the second floor. When, moments later, Scottie presents himself at the desk and inquires about her, the proprietress informs him that Madeleine hasn’t been there that day. “There, you see, her key is on the rack,” says the woman, pointing to the hook on the wall. Clearly, Madeleine and the proprietress of the hotel are not in cahoots. Nor could Madeleine have snuck into the hotel, lifted the key from the wall, gone upstairs, made her appearance at the window of her room, snuck back downstairs, replaced the key on the wall behind the desk, and slipped out the back of the hotel, all unseen by the proprietress and all in the brief amount of time available to her.

As much as Hitchcock may have dismissed logic in cinema, his disregard for it here seems unnecessarily lazy. With a little more cleverness and care, he and his screenwriters could have created a much more convincing scene, while still hinting at the presence of the supernatural. Imagine, for instance, this scenario: Madeleine goes into the hotel and makes her appearance at the window. Scottie follows and asks the proprietress about her. The woman, not wanting to disclose information about her guests, refuses to answer. When she turns her back, though, Scottie glances at the register and sees “Carlotta Valdes” printed on the bottom line beside her room number. After going out the way he came in, he sneaks up a back staircase to the second floor. He presses his eye to the keyhole of Madeleine’s door and, seeing no one within, picks the lock. Upon entering the room, he finds Madeleine gone and the room empty. Did she escape by paranormal means or by plain human cunning (i.e. slipping out the front door while he went around to the back)? Either, in this scenario, would have been possible. One doesn’t have to think very long to come up with other resolutions to the scene that are more believable than the one in the film.

Certainly, some would consider such criticisms unnecessarily nitpicky. But considering Vertigo’s sterling reputation it seems only just. Second only to “masterpiece,” the word fans of the film use most often when describing it is “perfection.” “Vertigo seems to me of all Hitchcock’s films the one nearest to perfection,” writes Robin Wood. “Indeed, its profundity is inseparable from the perfection of its form” (Wood 97). Yet the plot is plainly shot through with holes, both big and small. And in many ways, the small holes – like Madeleine’s disappearance from the McKittrick Hotel – do more to sink the story than the big ones. One needn’t consider how Elster actually murdered his wife if one is sufficiently caught up in the drama of the moment. But one can’t help but notice the more minor leaks, because they could have been so easily patched up.

Take the revelation of Carlotta’s necklace. The necklace – a gaudy monstrosity, made of gold inlaid with rubies – is what provides Scottie with his aha moment, the clue that finally reveals to him that Judy is Madeleine. Yet its reappearance in the story is as clunky as the ornament itself. Judy not only decides to put it on in front of Scottie but she asks him to help her with the clasp! Are we really to believe that Judy is this stupid? The necklace, after all, is a piece of evidence in a murder. It was given to her by Elster specifically to flaunt in front of Scottie. Of course, one might argue that, by putting it on again, Judy is (perhaps consciously, perhaps unconsciously) trying to tell Scottie the truth about herself. But this doesn’t make it any more dramatically satisfying for us, the audience. A good reveal – like the twists at the ends of Citizen Kane, The Conversation (Francis Ford Coppola, 1974), and The Usual Suspects (Bryan Singer, 1995) – should always appear naturally within the story, throwing a new light on what came before. Hitchcock certainly knew this, for his ending to Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, 1960) does just that, catching the first-time viewer unawares while, in retrospect, sitting there all along. There’s nothing satisfying about a twist if, apropos of nothing, it’s jammed right under your nose. Quite the opposite: you feel ill used by the filmmakers’ attempt to strong-arm your imagination. And that’s the problem with the revelation of the necklace. What’s worse is that, like the scene at the McKittrick Hotel, Scottie’s realization about Judy could have easily been built into the plot, rather than awkwardly tacked on. In the novel upon which Vertigo is based, D’entre les morts, the detective, in this case named Flaviéres, gives Madeleine a cigarette lighter not long before her supposed suicide. In the novel, little comes of this incident, which is probably why it didn’t make its way into the film. Imagine, though, if Hitchcock had included it, making its later discovery – say in a drawer in Judy’s apartment – the clue that opens Scottie’s eyes about Madeleine. It could have borne an engraved inscription from him, proving its provenance. That Hitchcock again failed to correct such an easily correctable defect only makes its presence in the film all the more glaring.

Aficionados of the film apparently don’t consider this lack of plausibility a major shortcoming. What many critics fail to acknowledge is that the screenplay suffers from more than a deficit of logic. Too often the dialogue staggers under the weight of heavy-handed exposition. Consider this exchange in the beginning of the film between Scottie and his college-friend Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes):

MIDGE: What do you do after you’ve quit the police force?

SCOTTIE: Well, you sound so disapproving, Midge.

MIDGE: No, it’s your life. But you were the bright young lawyer that decided he was going to be chief of police someday.

SCOTTIE: I had to quit.


SCOTTIE: It’s because of this fear of heights I have, this acrophobia.

Notice how overstuffed this conversation is with backstory (“the bright young lawyer that…was going to be chief of police”) and exposition (“…you’ve quit the police force,” “…this fear of heights I have”). In a more natural conversation, Midge would have opened by saying, “What are you going to do now?” Both she and Scottie know he’s quit the force, thus making her statement of the fact superfluous, shoehorned in purely for our benefit. Only the most slow-witted audience members would need to have the dots connected for them like this. Midge isn’t so much a fully embodied character as a sounding board that the screenwriters use to reveal Scottie’s thoughts. This undoubtedly explains why she is cut from the entire latter half of the film. No longer needing her to divulge exposition, the screenwriters cast her aside. Even in her absence, though, the screenplay can’t help over-explaining itself. The most egregious example of this occurs two-thirds of the way through the movie when Judy, in an unsent letter addressed to Scottie, reveals her part in Elster’s crime. The letter doesn’t just hand out a few critical plot points, the way Midge does; it gives an entire Cliff Notes’ summary of the story and the characters’ motivations, spelled out in agonizing detail, as if to a very stupid child:

I was the tool and you were the victim of Gavin Elster’s plan to murder his wife. He chose me to play the part because I looked like her. He dressed me up like her. He was quite safe because she lived in the country and rarely came to town. He chose you to be the witness to a suicide. The Carlotta story was part real, part invented to make you testify that Madeleine wanted to kill herself. He knew of your illness. He knew you’d never get up the stairs to the tower. He planned it so well. He made no mistakes. I made the mistake. I fell in love. That wasn’t part of the plan. I’m still in love with you, and I want you so to love me.

On a practical level this makes no sense at all. Judy opens the letter by saying, “Now I’ll go, and you can give up your search. I want you to have peace of mind.” Does she really believe that this explanation will give Scottie peace of mind? She’s telling him that he, a former officer of the law, was an unwitting accessory to a murder, and that she is the woman he desperately loved and has been seeking for months. One imagines that if anything is going to make him search harder than before it would be discovering that the woman he knew as Madeleine is still alive and well.

On a dramatic level, it’s even more jarring. Vertigo is a mystery. However much it may dabble in spiritualism and sexual obsession, the film is, at its core, a detective story, a member of the same genre as The Maltese Falcon (John Huston, 1941), The Big Sleep (Howard Hawks, 1946), and Chinatown (Roman Polanski, 1974). The mystery, in this case, just happens to be a supernatural one: “Do you believe that someone out of the past, someone dead, can enter and take possession of a living being?” This question, posed by Gavin Elster to Scottie during their first meeting, is what drives the film forward. At first, we take it literally, wondering if Madeleine’s body actually has been inhabited by the spirit of her great grandmother. As the film goes on, though, the question becomes metaphorical. Someone dead, it becomes increasingly clear, has taken possession of Scottie’s mind. Is she the real Madeleine? Has Madeleine – once the victim of spiritual possession – taken on the body of another? Or has Scottie gone mad? By solving the mystery two-thirds of the way through, Hitchcock deflates all the suspense. Just think how disappointing it would be if other detective movies had done the same – say, for example, if the Maltese falcon had been revealed to be a fake before Sam Spade got his hands on it or if, in Chinatown, Noah Cross had been unmasked as the villain before J.J. Gittes met him on Catalina Island. Hitchcock, the so-called “Master of Suspense,” should have known better. Doubtless, he intended to ramp up the tension further, hoping that by letting the audience get one step ahead of Scottie he’d keep them guessing as to when Scottie would find out. Unfortunately, this just isn’t as captivating a question for the audience to ponder, and with central mystery solved the story sags. Even screenwriter Samuel Taylor admitted that, in retrospect, it was an unwise revelation to make. “I always felt that it was a weakness,” says Taylor. “The trouble was, I didn’t know exactly how to write it” (Auiler 53-54).

So why is the film so universally applauded? Perhaps because there is much to applaud. The film is, among other things, full of technical ingenuities. Consider the dolly zoom, otherwise known as the “Hitchcock zoom,” the “smash zoom,” the “zido,” and the “zolly,” though it is probably most widely known as the “Vertigo effect.” The effect itself is easy enough to achieve: the filmmaker dollies forward while zooming out (or vice versa), keeping the subject in relatively the same position in the frame. The result is an optical distortion that either stretches or compresses perspective, depending on which direction the camera is zooming. Since it was first employed by Hitchcock in Vertigo, the dolly zoom has been used so frequently by junior filmmakers that it now has a tendency to seem trite. For this reason, it’s easy to miss what a useful (and, in it’s own day, original) method it is for conveying Scottie’s vertigo visually. Another director would have merely panned the camera wildly or quickly racked in and out of focus. Hitchcock, though, was a tireless innovator, always on the lookout for clever new ways to tell a story visually. The main effect of the dolly zoom is to make the background appear to be flying away or, conversely – if the camera is dollying back while zooming in – of rushing towards the camera. Whether or not this is actually what an acrophobic person experiences when gazing down from a great height, it is a magnificent way of portraying it on film. More than simply putting us in Scottie’s shoes, it puts us behind his eyes.

Or think of the scene in which Judy is finally, fully transformed into Madeleine. She emerges from the bedroom in an emerald haze cast by the neon sign outside her window – green and red being the two colors most frequently associated with Madeleine. She advances upon a near-stricken Scottie, who eagerly takes her in his arms. As they kiss, the camera begins to circle around them, and as it does the background changes. For a moment, they are no longer in Judy’s apartment but, instead, back in the stable at San Juan Bautista where Scottie last kissed Madeleine. As the camera continues to circle, Judy’s apartment fades back into view but only for a moment before disappearing completely in a blissful, blue haze. In this case, the effect really is a trick, not an optical distortion. The camera did not actually move around the actors at all. It remained stationary while Jimmy Stewart and Kim Novak rotated on a gimbal in front of a back projection. To make the faux dolly look seamless, the pair had to be turned at precisely the same speed as the pan in the back projection behind them. The shrewdness of the shot, however, resides as much in the richness of its visual metaphor as the cleverness of its technical creation. The metamorphosing backgrounds parallel Judy’s own metamorphosis, from herself back into the woman she once was. The (apparently) rotating camera, spinning around the lovers while they kiss, recalls all the other spirals in the movie, from the spiral of stairs Scottie couldn’t climb to the spiral knot of hair at the back of Madeleine’s head to the tree rings Scottie and Madeleine observe in the Muir woods to the vertigo of the film’s title, a condition commonly associated with spirals and dizziness. The shot, like the dolly zoom before it, allows us to see the world as Scottie sees it. Hitchcock was a master of suspense largely because he was a master of subjective experience, of putting viewers into the minds of his harried protagonists, and this bit of camera trickery does just that, allowing us to step inside Scottie’s addled consciousness.

I suspect that for many cineastes a substantial part of the film’s appeal lies in its metatextuality. As much as Vertigo is a film about detectives, ghosts, and lost love, it is also a film about filmmaking itself. Scottie, after all, is a director of sorts, molding his leading lady to play a very specific part. To do this, he does just what directors do: giving her costumes to wear, props to carry, and dying and styling her hair. Making the situation yet more meta is the fact that Judy has played this part before. Who knows what the real Madeleine was like. The Madeleine Scottie fell in love with – the emotionally fragile one who believed in ghosts and sat for hours by herself in the Palace of the Legion of Honor – was already a fictional character before Scottie decided to recreate her. And this is what tears at Scottie’s heart the most. He could accept Judy as an ersatz Madeleine, but he’s horrified when he discovers that Madeleine herself wasn’t real.

The relationship between male movie directors and their female leads is famously fraught with sex. William Wyler, David Lean, Roberto Rossellini, Roger Vadim, and Steven Spielberg are just a few of the directors who married their leading ladies. A list of the directors who slept with their leading ladies would, obviously, be quite a bit longer. Hitchcock was not nearly as successful with women as the directors named above. Indeed, it seems more than likely that his sex life from his mid-thirties onward was either almost or completely nonexistent. This does not mean he was uninterested. Hitchcock’s visual world alone is a goldmine for Freudian analysis. It’s full of handcuffs, knives, strangulations, voyeurs, locks and keys, guns that fail to fire, imperiled blonde women, and trains plunging into dark tunnels, to say nothing of the more obvious sexual innuendo. “Do you want a leg or a breast?” Grace Kelly asks Cary Grant in To Catch a Thief (Alfred Hitchcock, 1955). That’s supposedly lunch she’s offering him. Kelly was Hitchcock’s ideal leading lady: blonde, beautiful, and sophisticated, the embodiment of regal elegance long before she married into the Monacan royal family. But she wasn’t the only one he fell for. He developed similar crushes, at various times, on Madeleine Carroll, Ingrid Bergman, and Tippi Hedren. A rejected pass at Hedren, according to the actress, was what initiated his notoriously abusive treatment of her on The Birds (Alfred Hitchcock, 1963). Like Scottie, Hitchcock had very specific preconceptions of how his ladies should look when in character. “Every costume is indicated when he sends me the script,” said designer Edith Head. “He specified colors in the script if they were important. If he wanted a skirt that brushed a desk as a woman walked by, he spelled that out too” (McGilligan 378).

All of which is to say that Madeleine isn’t just an idealization for Scottie. She’s Hitchcock’s ideal, too, with her patrician poise and platinum coif. Naturally, she’s in love with the man (Scottie) directing her. The challenge of the role is that it’s actually two roles: Madeleine and Judy. For the film to work, the actress playing them needs to convince us that they are two different women, played by two different actresses. Kim Novak handles the Madeleine half of the role well enough, although for the first three-quarters of an hour that consists mainly of wandering about San Francisco in long shot. When Novak does step center stage, though, she’s appropriately ethereal, delivering her lines in a breathy whisper and moving with a delicate precision, as though afraid her limbs might betray her. She’s particularly good at registering anxiety and apprehension. There are moments in the movie, as at the end when Scottie drives them back to San Juan Bautista, in which she says nothing but with a slight parting of her lips and a look of terror in her eyes she almost seems to scream aloud with fright.

Ironically, it’s the Judy half of the role that feels like a put-on, as though it was Madeleine who was playing Judy rather than the other way around. Judy, unlike the delicate, soft-spoken Madeleine, is tough, plainspoken, a bit sour, and rather coarse. “I’ve been on blind dates before,” she tells Scottie when he asks her out to dinner. “Matter of fact, to be honest, I’ve been picked up before.” That line often gets an embarrassed laugh when it plays on the big screen, both because its such a clumsy self-advertisement and also because, coming from Novak, it sounds so out of character, like a nun talking dirty. Novak was not Hitchcock’s first choice for the role (Vera Miles was), and he was never completely happy with her performance. “What fascinated me was the idea that Jimmy Stewart was trying to turn the girl into someone she once had to play as part of a murder plot and is later trying not to be – and I’m not sure Kim Novak had the ability to put this across” (Spoto 394). Samuel Taylor stuck up for Novak but only by positing that her weakness as a performer was, in this case, a benefit to the film: “If we’d had a brilliant actress who really created two distinctly different people, it would not have been as good. She seemed so naïve in the part, and that was good” (Spoto 394). Taylor’s defense of Novak is gallant but unconvincing. The mystery of the story he helped create hinges on making us believe, at least for a little while, that Judy and Madeleine are two distinct people. What then was the purpose of Judy’s epistolary confession? Why bother letting the audience in on Judy’s secret if Novak is going to give it away the moment we see her?

One problem with calling Vertigo “the greatest film of all time” is that it faces a fair amount of competition from other Hitchcock films. Rear Window would, at least in my mind, be a far superior choice for such a title. Were plausibility the sole criterion of quality, the matter would be settled in an instant. Rear Window stands out in Hitchcock’s oeuvre, in part, because it is one of the few films he made that one can imagine happening in real life. (The Wrong Man [Alfred Hitchcock, 1956], based on an actual incident, is perhaps the only other, though it’s very neorealism makes it the least Hitchcockian of all Hitchcock’s films.) His movies, no less than those of René Clair and Vincente Minnelli, are spun from the gossamer of fantasy. They exist in worlds of high adventure and low deeds, full of spies and saboteurs, glamorous women and extraordinary locales. Rear Window is no exception; it just does a better job making the extraordinary explicable. Sure Grace Kelly is breathtakingly beautiful but, at least in this case, she’s playing a fashion model, and so one doesn’t have to shrug off her good looks the way one does, for instance, in High Noon (Fred Zinnemann, 1952), in which she plays a frontier housewife. Kelly’s glamour is built-in. True, the fact that she’s so hung-up on a middle-aged photojournalist strains credulity a bit. But then, as a comparison, ask yourself, how many gorgeous twenty-six-year-old women feigning spiritual possession fall in love with the graying, unemployed detectives who are following them around San Francisco? The photographer and the fashion model, I’d be willing to bet, is a more likely pairing.

Vertigo’s proponents would, no doubt, find such a criticism too dependent on a subjective notion of “reality,” while not focusing enough attention on the film’s style. Fair enough. But if complex characters and multifaceted relationships are of any importance to you, I’d argue that Rear Window wins that contest, too. The trouble with the love affair in Vertigo is that it’s rather one-sided, more an obsession (on Scottie’s part) than a meeting of two hearts and two minds. This is all well and good for James Stewart, who gives one of his best performances, telling us what he’s thinking as much with his eyes as his mouth. We know he’s fallen in love with Madeleine long before he ever says so simply by reading the obsession written on his face. But the Madeleine-Judy character remains a blank – she doesn’t even speak her first line until forty-five minutes into the movie – which is probably another reason Hitchcock and his screenwriters gave her the overly-explanatory letter-writing scene. Having failed to provide her with an interior life thus far in the movie, they hastily sketched one in the easiest way they knew how.

One of the nice things about James Stewart’s relationship with Grace Kelly in Rear Window is how wonderfully (and humanly) flawed it is, full of petty antagonisms and unspoken desires. In the beginning, Jeff (Stewart) tries to push Lisa (Kelly) away from him, but, lacking the courage to come right out and break up with her, he instead slashes at her with subtly hurtful comments. “It’s almost as if it were being written especially for us,” Lisa says, as they listen to a local symphonist practice a work in-progress. “No wonder he’s having so much trouble with it,” Jeff replies. The look of pain on Lisa’s face when he says this makes Madeleine’s suicide seem like a comparatively minor tragedy. Lisa, we see, for all her beauty, glamour, and intelligence, is a rather insecure woman, more in need of Jeff’s attention than he is of hers. And it’s these imperfections in their relationship – Jeff’s bullying and Lisa’s insecurity, his stubbornness and her over-eagerness to please – that makes it so real. It’s only when Lisa begins taking an interest in Jeff’s mystery that he begins taking an interest in her. At one point, she risks her neck (quite literally) to deliver a note to the murderer’s apartment, avoiding getting caught only by scampering first one way and then the other out of the stairwell. When she returns to Jeff’s apartment, she’s giddy with excitement. “Wasn’t that close?” she asks. “What was his reaction? I mean when he looked at the note.” As she says this, the camera cuts to Jeff. The look on his face at that moment says more than half a dozen pages of dialogue ever could: it’s positively beatific. Jeff, in his own way, is just as twisted as Scottie. Like Scottie, he’s not satisfied with his girlfriend until she’s transformed herself into the woman he wants her to be, in this case a daring woman of action. The difference is that in Vertigo the heroine’s transformation is thrust front and center, to the point of absurdity. (How many women allow their boyfriends to dress and style them so they perfectly resemble a dead lover? And, of those, how many are the dead lover?) Whereas in Rear Window Lisa’s transformation is built subtly into the story, one of the many small, human details that makes the film and the relationships in it so complex.

And that’s the great pleasure of Rear Window: its remarkable complexity. On the surface, it’s as sleek as a sports car. Nary a shot nor a line of dialogue could be removed from the film without diminishing it. Every scene builds towards a resolution of the film’s central mystery: did Jeff’s neighbor, Thorwald (Raymond Burr), murder his wife? It’s only when you look under the hood that you see how intricate the movie’s mechanics really are. On the one hand, it’s a film about relationships: as Jeff debates whether to marry Lisa, every neighbor he watches through his rear window, from Miss Lonelyhearts (Judith Evelyn), the suicidal spinster, to Miss Torso (Georgine Darcy), the hard-partying ballerina, to the childless couple who obsess over their dog, provides him with a vision of what life with or without a spouse might be like. On the other hand, like Vertigo, it’s a film about filmmaking itself. Jeff, too, is a kind of director, chair-bound (thanks to a broken leg), looking at the world through a camera (an Exakta VX with a telephoto lens), and actors (his girlfriend and his nurse) to perform for him. You can see, too, how the film offers a demonstration of how cinematic acting and stage acting differ. While Jeff, Lisa, and Stella (Thelma Ritter) act with their faces – a subtle scowl, an apprehensive glance, a dismissive smile – the neighbors across the courtyard act with their bodies: waving their arms, grabbing their temples, staggering home drunk. And then, of course, it’s not just a film about filmmaking but a film about film watching, as well, about the pleasure (and perversity) of observing others from a dark room. While Jeff watches his neighbors enacting their little dramas, we watch him enacting his. Everything he sees, we see, forever remaining at his side. The camera never leaves his apartment, except for the few moments that he leaves it, when Thorwald throws him out of his rear window. That you might watch the film and never notice this – that, in other words, the film never feels claustrophobic or stage-bound – is a testament to its brilliance. Hitchcock had a yen for stylistic experimentation. He once set an entire film on a lifeboat. Another he shot so that it appeared to be filmed in a single, unbroken eighty-minute take. Rear Window is every bit as technically daring as these films. The genius of its artistry is that it conceals its own artfulness.

Vertigo, for all its merits, never reaches such artistic heights. On its own, it shines brightly enough. It’s when you place it beside other great films, like Rear Window, that its radiance begins to seem comparatively dim. The film director Howard Hawks once defined a good movie as one that contained three good scenes and no bad scenes (Lyttelton). It’s the kind of airy pronouncement that directors love to make, sage-sounding and yet so vague as to be irrefutable. What, after all, defines a good scene? How long does the scene have to be? Does one make exceptions for very long movies, which, having a greater number of scenes in them, presumably require a greater number good scenes to qualify? And yet Hawks was right to point out how poisonous a single bad scene can be to a movie. (Think of how much damage is done to Saving Private Ryan [1998] by the mawkish bookends in the Normandy cemetery.) Explaining what makes a movie great is very hard. Any rule one came up with would immediately have to be appended with innumerable exceptions. Explaining what mars a movie, on the other hand, is quite easy. Superfluous scenes, clunky dialogue, weak performances, preposterous plotting – these are the toxins that spoil even the finest vintage. Vertigo is tainted by them all. Superfluous scenes? Judy’s letter-writing scene unquestionably qualifies, as does Scottie’s nightmare dream sequence following Madeleine’s death, the placement of which in the story – post-Madeleine but pre-mental breakdown – feels both out of place and unnecessary. Clunky dialogue? How about Scottie’s plea to Judy when he’s trying to get her to dye her hair (“It can’t matter to you.”), which gets an unintended laugh whenever the movie plays in theaters. Weak performances? Try the leading lady. She’s not bad, but neither, as Hitchcock himself intimated, is she capable of meeting the full demands of the role. And as for preposterous plotting, if Vertigo’s entire storyline doesn’t count then nothing in Hollywood’s vast vault of farfetched fantasies should. I hope the next time the British Film Institute gets together to compile their 50 Greatest Films list they take a few of these things into consideration. Should Vertigo make the cut? Perhaps. Just don’t put it up so high.


Auiler, Dan. Vertigo: The Making of a Hitchcock Classic. St. Martin’s Press. New York: 1998.

Lyttelton, Oliver. “The Essentials: 5 Great Howard Hawks Films.” Indie Wire. May 30, 2012.

McGilligan, Patrick. Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light. HarperCollins. New York: 2003.

Orwell, George. A Collection of Essays. Harcourt, Brace & Company. San Diego: 1981.

Spoto, Donald. The Art of Alfred Hitchcock: Fifty Years of His Motion Pictures. Doubleday. New York: 1992.

Spoto, Donald. The Dark Side of Genius: The Life of Alfred Hitchcock. Plexus Publishing. London: 1983.

Wood, Robin. Hitchcock’s Films. Castle Books. New York: 1969.

Decline to Fall: Is Hitchcock’s Most Celebrated Film All That It’s Cracked Up to Be?

Graham Daseler is a graduate of the University of California, Santa Cruz, with a degree in Film and Digital Media. He currently reside in Los Angeles, and works as a film editor and animator. His writing has previously been published in The Times Literary Supplement, The Lost Angeles Review of Books, The Moving Arts Film Journal, Film International, 34th Parallel Magazine, Senses of Cinema, Bright Lights Film Journal, and Offscreen.

Volume 23, Issue 2 / February 2019 Essays   alfred hitchcock   canons   vertigo