Vertigo movie Review (1958) – An Alfred Hitchcock visual treatment

Vertigo- Starring James Stewart (Vertigo movie Review)
Vertigo- Starring James Stewart

Once poorly received Hitchcock’s 1958 classic Vertigo doesn’t fail to startle its audience even after decades of its release ( Vertigo Movie Review). John ‘Scottie’ Fergusson (James Stewart) is a retired detective who is hired by his friend Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore) to investigate his wife. Scottie came to face his acrophobia in one of his missions. Hitchcock painted acrophobia as the tool for Scottie’s dismissal and his appointment for the case at hand. Vertigo is a psychological thriller that revolves around murder. The film craftily disguises the killed and the killers.

Designing the Murder Weapon- Vertigo Movie Review

The movie opens with a dramatic focus on Scottie’s dizziness at an elevated height. His condition of acrophobia doesn’t allow him to save a fellow colleague. A medical condition doesn’t make one a murderer, does it? However, Hitchcock agentively uses acrophobia to assist in a murder. Scottie was appointed to tail a suicidal Madeline obsessed with an ancestress. Scottie saves Madeline from one of her attempts to suicide. This leads to a romantic relationship between them. Sadly, it ends with Madeline jumping off from a bell tower of a church. Scottie was halfway through the tower when his acrophobia got the better of him. The trial framed the death of Madeline Elster as suicide. No charges were levied against anybody. The fictional character Madeline created by Gavin dies as revealed later. However, the narrative of the real Madeline Elster is buried with her corpse.

A Haunting Tale of Love (Vertigo Movie Review)

Scottie and Judy in Vertigo 1958 (Vertigo movie Review)
Scottie and Judy in Vertigo 1958

A lovesick Scottie was under therapy after the trial. As fate would have it, Scottie comes across a young woman called Judy who resembles his Madeline. Organized crime does not depend on chance or fate. An obsessed Scottie looks for Judy and befriends her. The audience realizes Judy has been impersonating Madeline. Gavin hatched the plot and employed Scottie’s condition to aid the murder of his wife. Scottie unaware of the plot is in love with Madeline’s look-a-like. Despite courting Judy, Scottie remains engrossed in Madeline’s tale. The plot shifts from a cunning murder to a haunting love story. The love between Scottie and Judy is haunted by the fantasy of Madeline. The love story ends with Judy’s demise as Scottie unravels the mystery.

The woman question

Judy and Madeline played by Novak
Judy and Madeline played by Novak

Hitchcock is often critiqued for controlling his women characters. Judy or Madeline is no different. We often believe, recreate, and re-imagine people and circumstances as per our comfort. This has proven itself exceptionally in Hitchcock’s rendition of familiarizing the audience with Madeline. The real Madeline’s life came to the forefront only as a corpse. Initially, Judy portrayed Madeline under the instructions of Gavin. In the latter half, Judy obeyed Scottie’s orders to win his love. Hitchcock efficiently captures Judy’s agony. She is torn between loving Scottie and receiving his love on behalf of Madeline. Men’s control over women is consistently highlighted across the film. An imaginary character supersedes the mundane realities of actual women- be it Judy or Mrs. Elster.

The Victim and The Criminal

Scottie's obsession with Madeline while courting Judy
Scottie courting Judy while being obsessed with Madeline

Certainly, Vertigo is a thriller. It is a sa**** in camouflaging murders. Yes, multiple deaths. Not just physical but emotional deaths. Scottie doesn’t kill his colleague, he simply couldn’t save him. Gavin surely killed his wife but roams around Scott free while Fergusson suffers from guilt and remorse. Yet again, Scotty not only fails to save the life but assists in the killing. Finally, Scottie is aggressive in killing Judy. The audience easily concludes Gavin is the murderer and Scottie is the victim. While that is true, John’s victimhood gives rise to the murderer. He leads Judy to an emotional death and follows the same path. John Fergusson’s evolution is hidden behind the overt sympathy of the viewers. His obsession costs him a chance at experiencing love. Gavin, John, and Judy reveal different shades of themselves while plotting and assisting a crime.

Conclusion (Vertigo Movie Review)

Did he train you? Did he rehearse you? Or Did he tell you what to do and what to say?

John Fergusson, in Vertigo (1958)

An impactful performance by Stewart provokes us to delve deeper into the cynicism of life. In the above dialogue, Scottie speaks of Gavin but his words target Judy. Gavin’s cynicism is well executed. Was love a part of the plan? Can one blame Judy for deceiving John? Should we judge Scottie for refusing to acknowledge Judy as a human, distinct from his object of imagination? Without engaging in the conundrum of right and wrong, it is safe to say Vertigo brilliantly challenges our intuitions and judgment. While revealing the murder plot midway might be a drawback, it doesn’t fail to hold our attention to the very end. To the film’s credit, the audience can’t help sympathizing and simultaneously criticizing the characters.

The audience faces a plethora of emotions, often self-reflexive, enjoying the element of cynicism. It is a classic for a reason and remains a must-watch for crime and thriller enthusiasts.

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