The Paramount Pictures card plays first with its harmonic, upbeat score bellowing in the background. That card fades, and we get another title card with another string score, this one disorienting, jarring. It throws us for a loop, it takes us out of our comfort zone, a circular melody that never flatlines, becoming more and more intense as a pair of eyes appears before us. Do the eyes belong to the actors, the cast members, or to someone else? And we learn that it’s not scary that the eyes might be watching us, it’s scary that we just don’t know for sure.
Many directors are lauded for their meticulous attention to detail, with adulation for Alfred Hitchcock tasting slightly sweeter than the praise for his peers. “Vertigo” isn’t his most detailed film, but it is a film that focuses on faultiness of details, and how our emotional and carnal biases object and diffuse their inherent truth. We can’t believe what we see in “Rear Window” right away since we haven’t obtained the best vantage point. “Vertigo” shows us that even with a bird’s eye view, we still may never see or understand what’s going on. James Stewart plays John “Scottie” Ferguson, a retired police officer with a nasty fear of heights, who is hired by a friend to investigate the strange behavior of his wife Madeleine, played by Kim Novak. Scottie becomes increasingly transfixed by Madeleine obtaining more and more dominance over her. Their courtship is brief but perplexing, passionate but poisoned, with tragedy befalling Madeline, and hope rising in her stead.
The final ending isn’t satisfying to this mystery as we would have wished. But the conclusion asks us to look back at our core characters with their narrative unreliability and psychologically-stunted mindsets. Reevaluating Scottie and Madeleine, it’s clear that “Vertigo” would have an inevitable, half-baked conclusion, a plot that feels like it’s derived from a Hitchcock chatbot rather than the filmmaker himself. But when we think back to the beginning of “Vertigo,” there wasn’t even much of a mystery at all! When we thought that Madeleine might be “possessed,” we brushed off the notion, thinking how silly it would be for the supernatural to appear in a Hitchcock film. And as time wore on, we forced ourselves to accept that possibility because we hadn’t been presented with evidence of any other solution. We, the audience, went against our own judgment, because we were unsatisfied with the story progression, feeling that this movie gives us a say in these sort of things.i
But this constant reevaluation, the looking back at plot, at characters, at sight and sound, at what actually is versus what we want it to be, and “Vertigo” becomes a film that isn’t so much a film as much as a cinematic experience about building the cinematic experience. Everything in “Vertigo” is both an archetype and a flaw, something serves a filmmaking purpose but is malleable enough to meet the desire of whoever is gazing upon it. Later in the film, Scottie asks a woman named Jill to dress up as Madeleine, wearing her same clothes and dying her hair the same color. Jill’s facial structure doesn’t look too much like Madeleine’s, but when she has these items, it’s like she’s transformed seamlessly into Madeleine, almost a continuity error because it seems so unreal. A few moments later, we no longer bother ourselves with this concern about Madeleine’s appearance, we’ve actively assumed power in saying this apparent flaw does not hurt the film, as much of auteurs and storytellers as Stewart, Novak or Hitchcock himself.
Then again, maybe everything in this film is wholly intentionally and easily-interpreted, that the slow-paced story and overdrawn conclusion aren’t some meta commentary on filmmaking as much as a lackluster example of it. But there is an inherent quality and mysticism that lurks within “Vertigo,” a puzzle of visual splendor whose solution may be unsatisfying, but whose path is more than illuminating.