Vertigo (1958)

Viewed May 16th


A man follows a woman possessed by a ghost and then, when the woman dies, her own ghost possesses the man. 

Vertigo is often cited as the greatest film of all-time and I can't disagree with that. The more one views the film, the more depth one finds. Everything in Vertigo is initially presented one way and then, we find, actually contains a secret double, a shadow, and often the doubles are themselves doubled so that, like the hair style connecting Carlotta/Madeleine/Midge-as-Madeleine/Carlotta, the story spirals through space and time.

The key double is, of course, Madeleine Elster and Carlotta Valdez, which is itself then re-doubled by the entrance into the narrative of Judy as the double of Madeleine.

And then there's Scottie. He tells Madeleine that, to some, he is Scottie and, to others, he is Johnny. But on a deeper level, this character is beset by his own past, which itself creates a doubling of his own persona. When the past is activated, his shadow comes out; we can no longer trust this man to overcome his own demons. 

Scottie/Johnny is also a sort of double of Rear Window's L.B. Jeffries (also played by James Stewart). Just as Marnie takes Marion from Psycho down an alternate narrative path, Vertigo takes Jeff/L.B. Jeffries' (another doubling) down an alternate path. Vertigo is, in some way, the continuation of Jeff's story after the corset (the one's he's forced to wear due to a fall from a building) is removed. In a similar way, the theme of the double echoes through all the other doubles in all the other Hitchcock films so that vertigo spirals even farther.

At times Scottie/Johnny and Madeleine/Judy double each other through the swapping of red and green clothing in key scenes.

And we also see that supporting characters are doubled, too:

Midge is also known as Marjorie. Depending on her mood, she is Scottie/Johnny's ex-lover and his "mother." In a tragic scene, Midge humorously depicts herself as another double of Carlotta Valdes and is castigated by Scottie or "Johnny-O" as she calls him.

Carlotta Valdes was herself described as the "Beautiful Carlotta," "Sad Carlotta" and the "Mad Carlotta".

Gavin Elster is a double, too. Beyond the duplicity of his secret plot to kill his wife, he is first described as a down-and-out Skid Row bum and then when we meet him, he's a wealthy shipping magnate. 

Places are doubled too. All of San Francisco is portrayed as a city with a layer of the historical past suffused over it. In the city's past, men could do things--they had "power" and "freedom"--but in the present, they are neutered--a duality that then is doubled in Scottie/Johnny himself.

In Mission San Juan Batista, this layering of past over present is made concrete. The Mission is "preserved exactly as it was a hundred years ago as a museum," including a replica of a horse and carriage in which key moments take place.

And then the film itself is a double. One narrative line runs through Madeleine's fall from the tower at the Mission, the other (much to the dismay and puzzlement of many viewers) follows Scottie's doubling of Madeleine through Judy. In the first, James Stewart plays a hero; in the second, he's almost villainous. As in many Hitchcock films (but perhaps best articulated in Marnie), both of these Vertigo narratives follow a psychoanalytic logic in which closure is meant to occur when the character relives a past trauma in order to exorcise its grip on their unconscious actions. In the first version, Scottie/Johnny thinks he's curing Madeleine of her neurosis; in the second, he thinks he's curing himself. In both cases, though, the cure is also a death. In the first narrative, the cure leads to Madeleine's death; in the second, it leads to Judy's.

And about Judy's a film loaded with puzzling moments, these final moments are perhaps the most puzzling. As Scottie/Johnny (again) leads Judy up the Tower he finds personal closure in laying out the plot in which he was a pawn and, in the process, overcomes the vertigo he experiences through a fear of heights. Before these penultimate moments, his personality is rapidly switching back and forth between caring/loving and obsessive/manipulative. And then when it all finally comes out and they've triumphantly reached the top of the phallic tower and all the doubling can seem to finally end, a final double emerges: a dark shape, literally shrouded in shadow. Judy sees this form and experiences a horror so intense, she's forced to leap to her death from the top of the tower. A moment later, this darkness is revealed to be a symbol of light, a Catholic nun from the Mission. The nun crosses herself, says "God have mercy," and rings the church bell, leaving Scottie/Johnny all alone at the top of the Tower.