(from the Latin vertigin-, vertigo, “dizziness,” originally “a whirling or spinning movement,” from vertere “to turn”) is a specific type of dizziness, a major symptom of a balance disorder. It is the sensation of spinning or swaying while the body is actually stationary with respect to the surroundings.
Spoiler Alert: Careful now, things are said assuming you’ve seen this film!
Bernard Hermann’s wonderful score for the film Vertigo perfectly captures that feelings of dizziness and dread that Hitchock created in 1958. It’s a claustrophobic film, visually, emotionally, musically. Binding and constricture are everywhere, from the jokes of the braziers (you know what those things are) and corsets, to the more vaguely understood chains of emotional manipulation and obsession. Here’s a deeply narcissistic film where all the characters are trying to create personal fantasies and force those around them to live within in them. The obvious examples are Elster (Tom Helmore) and Scottie (Jimmy Stewart) both making Judy/Madeleine (Kim Novak) over into someone she’s not, however Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes) and Elster are, both in their own way, attempting the same thing to Scottie as well. Scottie, as you’ll see below, perhaps has done best job and most complete job of all. Hitchcock pokes at a powerful truth of our perception of the world in Vertigo. Is the world that we see what we’ve made or as it is?
In James Maxfield’s essay A Dreamer and His Dream, on Vertigo, he makes the claim that everything after the opening rooftop scene takes place in Scottie’s mind while hanging from the gutter or falling to his death. Absurd? Grad student phooey? Maybe, but really, who does plot to murder their wife in the way Elster does? What woman, seemingly for love, twice allows herself to be made over into another woman only to become an accessory to a killing and her own death? Why is Midge so much younger than Scottie and Elster if in fact they were all college chums? It’s impossible not to think of Kafka when viewing Hitchcock’s absurd masterpiece, or maybe better said, masterpiece of absurdity. Mark Harman wrote an essay on Kafka’s the Castle where he wonders what the Marx Brothers could have done with a script like that. I wonder the same of Vertigo. Not because it should be funny, but because it is funny. We just don’t laugh.
The great irony of the film is no one successfully creates a happy world for themselves. Elster could be argued to be the one exception, since in the American release he does get away with murdering his wife and escapes to Europe, however the European release fixes even this with a radio coda of his capture. So, we’re left with people unable to relate to those around them in a meaningful way outside of the prism/prison of their own conjectures, yet their creations fall far short of anything close to resembling happiness and for some ends in actual death.
Much has been made of Hitchcock’s personal obsessions playing out in Vertigo, by people far more versed in his history and lore than I, and I have nothing to add there. Hitchcock, however, was notoriously controlling and wasn’t content to simply dominate his films and actors. The audience too was his to do with as he pleased. He took away all the certainty the rest of Hollywood tried and tries so hard to create. He perverts all of our dreams and shows us desires we’d rather not know and we pay for it. We worship him for it.
The only enemy is familarity. We’ve seen all the films, we know all the twists. Vertigo, which I just saw in a beautiful 70mm print at Cinerama Theater in Seattle, defies all that contempt. We were enraptured. When Madeleine falls the first time there were screams. When she falls the second time, there was silence. 50 years after its release we are certainly still bound by this film.