Hitch on the Hump: Vertigo (1958)

It could have been called Darkling I Listen, or Fear and Trembling, or From Among the Dead, but it wasn’t. Associate producer Herbert Coleman told a tale of the script’s early incarnation in the documentary Obsessed with Vertigo: “He (Maxwell Anderson) turned in a screen play called Listen Darkling, and that will tell you the whole story. No one could tell you what it meant, and the screenplay was exactly the same.” Thankfully clearer heads prevailed, and the film became known as Vertigo (1958). The film’s title is surely meant to reflect the main character’s fear of heights and the whirling dizziness that accompanies it. Perhaps the title describes the unsettling feeling the film’s visual style, swirling music, and unconventional narrative the film leaves the audience with.

John ‘Scottie’ Ferguson (James Stewart) was a policeman. He quit after his debilitating fear of heights lead to another cop’s death. Now directionless, he gets a call from an old college chum who has a case for Scotty. The man believes his wife, the beautiful blonde Madeline (Kim Novak), is possessed by the spirit of her great grandmother, Carlotta Valdez. Scottie takes the job, and after saving Madeline from drowning herself in San Francisco Bay, he begins to fall for her. When she recounts the details of a bad dream to him, he takes her to the old Franciscan mission that she has described in order to ease her fears. When they arrive, she races up into the bell tower and leaps to her death as Scottie, powerless to stop her, is wracked by a bout of vertigo. A year later, Scottie meets another woman, Judy (Novak), a brunette who looks strikingly like Madeline.

If I gave someone who had never seen Vertigo that synopsis and told them it was for a film by David Lynch what would happen? Sure, they would embellish the tale in their mind with fetishists, midgets, and dark grainy camera angles, but the plot itself would be totally believable in Lynch’s noir world. The final script to the film, written by Samuel A. Taylor, the writer of Sabrina (1954) and Hitchcock’s Topaz (1969), is challenging in its structure, and rather unlike how films were paced in the era. Hitchcock has said that Vertigo is broken up into two parts, the first being about a broken man who finds hope in a new love, and the second being his obsessive decline into madness trying to recreate that love through another living woman.

It’s desperately hard to describe the film and not spoil it. The first half of the picture depends on the surprise that kicks off the other half. Then conversely, the surprise becomes the Hitchcock patented suspense (back to what the audience knows, and the characters don’t again) for the second half of the movie. While this structure would not seem out of the ordinary now (at least it was sequential), in 1958, many people disliked the film for the simple fact that the mystery was solved by middle of the second act. It wasn’t until it’s re-release in 1983 that it was hailed as one of Hitchcock’s great masterpieces.

As with many of Hitchcock’s films, much of the character development in the film is done without words. To accomplish this on screen takes a very special kind of actor or actresses, who can say as much with a look than a word. Thankfully, the two leads in Vertigo fit this bill perfectly. James Stewart needs no introduction, and if he does, then don’t tell me that ’cause it will only make me sad. This was to be the last of Stewart and Hitch’s films together. In an effort to pin the picture’s initial bad reaction on someone, Hitchcock stated that audiences felt the 50 year old Stewart was too old for the romantic lead. If anything, I could see people having trouble with the type of character that he played more than his age. Scottie Ferguson is a far cry from the affable fellow Stewart was known for playing.

After all, after he nobly saves her from the waters of the bay, he takes her back to his apartment, and when she wakes up she’s in his bed nude, her clothes folded and drying in the other room. The implication as she rises from bed and comes into the living room wrapped in his red rope is that he’s seen her in the nude. In the second half of the film, as he becomes obsessed with turning Judy into Madeline, the shoes, the dress, the hair, it must all be perfect. When Judy finally reveals herself to him, all made up to look like his tragically dead lost love, the look on Stewart’s face is so perfect. As Francois Truffaut noted to Hitchcock during their interviews, “he’s almost got tears in his eyes.” Stewart went wonderfully against type with this film, and it enhances the impact of his mania as it emerges from an actor we equate with his most earnest roles.

Kim Novak was not Hitchcock’s first choice for the role of Madeline. He wanted to use Vera Miles who had previously starred in his film The Wrong Man opposite Peter Fonda. She was cast in the role and a portrait of her as “Carlotta” was even finished. However due to a delay for Hitchcock to have gall bladder surgery and Ms. Miles becoming pregnant, he had to go with Novak instead. Hitchcock has stated that Novak arrived on set with “preconceived notions that I couldn’t possibly go along with”. He explained to her that, “the story was of less importance than the overall visual impact on the screen.” Later he would also blame the film’s failure on Novak being miscast.

Personally I think that the notion that she was not the right person for the role is stuff and nonsense. Novak brought the proper cool iciness to the role of Madeline, a woman controlled by her obsession with a long dead relative. The balance she strikes between Madeline and Judy, so in love with Scottie that she will indulge his fantasy of another woman, is perfect. While Madeline comes off as above the ethereal and emotionless, Judy is so full of emotions that ultimately lead to her undoing. To me, the turn as Judy is the standout performance. It may well be that this is due to the more intense acting called for in the final act, but Novak, who I had only previously seen in The Man with the Golden Arm, really impressed me with the subtle performance she turned in.

Vertigo has very little in the way of a supporting cast with most of the film conducted between the two leads, but there is one actress worth mentioning. I have to wonder why Stewart’s Scottie needed to find himself a gal anyway when clearly his friend Midge was pining for him. Midge was played by Barbara Bel Geddes who would later find national fame as Miss Ellie Ewing on the long running series Dallas. I thought Midge was cute as a button, and she designs women’s underwear for a living, really, need I say more.

The “overall visual impact on the screen” that Hitchcock was going for definitely made its way to the finished product. Vertigo was just one of twelve pictures where Hitchcock collaborated with cinematographer Robert Burks. The film is awash with beautiful lighting effects, and many of them coincide with important events in the narrative enhancing the story with dramatic visual impact. The most stunning moment comes when Judy appears in her Scottie approved Madeline outfit, and she is surrounded by a blue/green light that gives her the image of being an apparition. The film also broke new ground with its “Vertigo” effect. To recreate a feeling he had when he nearly passed out at a party, Hitchcock had models made of the sets and the effect was made by combining a track out with a forward zoom.

The film also contains a special scene, the “Nightmare Sequence” designed by John Ferren who also did the design for the iconic poster. I could and would watch this part of the film over and over. This was psychedelic film ten years ahead of its time. I have to wonder between the lighting of Vertigo and its more bizarre moments how much influence it had on Italian genre cinema of the ‘60’s. There are definitely shades of things I could see influencing Bava and Argento in this film.

Vertigo’s score is a prefect match for the film. Composer Bernard Hermann got his start on the Orson Wells film Citizen Kane, and he would go on to have a career that spanned more than four decades and include music for the films Taxi Driver, Twisted Nerve, and Jason and the Argonauts. Vertigo was the third of his six collaborations with Hitchcock, and he hit the mood and themes of the film perfectly. The music is quite reserved, but the listener will soon realize how much of the music feels cyclical. There are small themes that repeat, and the music definitely conveys the whirling disorientation that would come from suffering from vertigo.

In the Animaniac’s film Wakko’s Wish, Wakko asks his brother Yakko, “Do you get vertigo?”, and Wakko replies, “Nah. I’ve seen that movie three times and I still don’t get it.” Preparing for this review, I felt the need to watch Vertigo twice before I would even attempt to start sharing my thoughts. It is a film I will definitely be going back to again for both the incredible visual style and for the subtle nuances of both the story and its performances. Hitchcock was reaching for new heights, and with Vertigo he delivered a dizzying demonstration of his skill as a film maker.

Bugg Rating


  1. I only recently settled down and watched this film and it has really gotten under my skin,. The story, the visuals, everything.

  2. I love this film. It's amazing. Hitchcock made some great films. This is one of the best.

  3. the sneering (homo-phobic) snobJuly 8, 2009 at 5:40 PM

    I just wondered whether john ferren was any relation to bran ferren who did the special effects for ken russells 1980 cult item "ALTERED STATES" (that would be another great film for you to reveiw). By the way, i agree that barbera bel geddes was a really sexy bird back in `58, although kim novak of course was truly breathtaking.


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