One of the most psychological of Hitchcock’s thrillers, ‘Vertigo’ has to be one of the director’s, and star James Stewart’s, most interesting.
Along with ‘Marnie’, ‘Rope’ and, later, ‘Psycho’, it probes the darker recesses of its characters’ psyches and can still make for uncomfortable viewing.
Much of this is down to Stewart’s portrayal, playing very much against type, of the psychologically scarred detective John “Scottie” Ferguson. The actor’s pre and post war films are in stark contrast and, influenced by his time on active service, he often later opted for tougher thought-provoking and challenging roles rather than the ‘everyman’ characters in which he made his name.
A sufferer of acrophobia (fear of heights) and vertigo, Scottie’s involvement in a roof-top chase leads to the death of a fellow officer and he retires from the San Francisco force. At a loose end, he accepts a request from an old college friend to keep an eye on his wife Madeleine (Kim Novak) who has been acting strangely.
Scottie follows her to a florist where she buys a bouquet of flowers, to the grave of a woman called Carlotta Valdes and to an art museum where she gazes at ‘Portrait of Carlotta’, which resembles her. Lastly, she enters the McKittrick Hotel but when Scottie investigates, she is not there.
He finds out that Carlotta Valdes formerly lived in the building and that she committed suicide. His friend also reveals that Carlotta (whom he fears, due to her obsession, is possessing his wife) is Madeleine’s great-grandmother, although she has no knowledge of this and doesn’t remember where she has visited.
Scottie falls in love with Madeleine, which leads to an unhealthy obsession of his own. To reveal more would spoil plot twists, but the always watchable Stewart is riveting in his pursuit of Madeleine while Kim Novak’s otherworldly quality sets this off perfectly. Undoubtedly one of Hitchcock’s best.