Movie Review: Vertigo (1958) #atozchallenge

I’m participating in the Blogging from A to Z Challenge by watching and reviewing some of my favorite movies of all time that I haven’t watched in a long time. This post contains SPOILERS!

Title: Vertigo
Release Date: May 9, 1958
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Production Company:  Alfred J. Hitchcock Productions

San Francisco police detective John “Scottie” Ferguson (James Stewart) pursues a criminal in a rooftop chase that leads to a police officer falling to his death, and Scottie suffering from vertigo due to a fear of heights.  He retires from the police force, but an old college friend Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore) hires him as a private detective to follow his wife Madeleine (Kim Novak) who has been behaving strangely.

Scottie tales Madeleine, making a scenic tour of San Francisco sights including the florist, Mission Delores, the Legion of Honor art museum, and the McKittrick Hotel in an old mansion.  She seems to be obsessed with an 19th-century San Francisco woman, Carlotta Valdes who Scottie learns from a local historian had committed suicide at the age of 26 after being cast aside by her wealthy lover.  Elster confirms that Carlotta is Madeleine’s great-grandmother and that he fears Carlotta’s spirit is possessing Madeleine.

Tailing Madeleine to Fort Point beneath the Golden Gate Bridge, he witnesses her jumping into the Bay and jumps in to rescue her.  After she comes to in his apartment, they talk and form a connection.  The next day they start spending time wandering San Francisco together.  Madeleine describes a place from her dreams that Scottie recognizes as a preserved historic site Mission San Juan Bautista.  Believing that visiting may jar her memory and help solve the problems she’s having, Scottie takes Madeleine to the mission.  After kissing and declaring her love, Madeleine runs up the stairs of the church tower.  Unable to pursue her due to vertigo, Scottie watches helplessly as she falls to her death.

Severely traumatized, Scottie spends several months in a sanatorium.  Returning to his normal life, he spots a shop clerk on the street who resembles Madeleine.  He follows her to her hotel apartment, and despite her declarations that she is Judy from Kansas, he insinuates himself into her life.  His obsession builds as he purchases clothing for her that Madeleine wore and bleaches her hair blond.

Scottie makes a stunning realization when Judy dons a necklace that was Madeleine’s and was said to once be Carlotta’s. He drives back to Mission San Juan Bautista and confronts Judy as they climb the tower.  She admits that she worked with Elster in a plot to kill his real wife whose murdered body was actually tossed from the tower.  Knowing that Scottie would not reach the top due to his vertigo meant he’d be the perfect credible witness for their con.  Scottie overcomes his vertigo and he and Judy reach the top of the bell tower where Judy is startled by a nun and falls to her death.

When Did I First See This Movie?:

This was yet another movie I watched for the first time in my high school film studies class.  I saw it several times but one memorable occasion in college came in while a friend was watching it and observed how Jimmy Stewart never seems to be paying attention to the road in the many scenes where he drives his car.  We had some good laughs about that.

What Did I Remember?:

I remembered most of the basic plot points well, if not the details.

What Did I Forget?:

The biggest thing I forgot is that Judy has a flashback to the real Madeleine’s murder and narrates a letter confessing her role in it before reconsidering.  I honestly thought that the revelation of Judy’s involvement as accessory to murder didn’t come until the very end of the movie, which honestly makes more sense from a storytelling perspective.

What Makes This Movie Great?:

Casting the affable Jimmy Stewart as the controlling, obsessive Scottie works in that viewers are sympathetic to him even as he is truly awful. Kim Novac does a great job portraying a stiff wealthy woman with a mid-Atlantic accent as Madeleine and then the more working woman Judy.  Her character is really good at improv since she’s almost always playing someone else to deceive Scottie.  The cinematography and colors of the movie are amazing as are the outfits that Edith Head designed for Kim Novac.

What Doesn’t Hold Up?:

I think the technical brilliance of the movie and how it makes San Francisco its palette may overshadow the fact that this is a slow-moving story with a romance that’s not very credible.  Also, Elster’s plot to kill his wife by hiring Judy to deceive Scottie makes very little sense in retrospect.  So many things had to go right for that plan to come to fruition that seemed needlessly complicated.  Mind you, this movie is still great, it is just not as perfect as I remembered.

Is It a Classic?:

It is a classic, but I think people overrate it when they put it at or near the top of the all-time great movie lists.  I don’t even think it is the best Hitchcock movie.  It is definitely the iconic San Francisco movie, though.

Rating: ****

One More All-Time Favorite Movie Starting With V:

  1. Les Visiteurs

What is your favorite movie starting with V?  What would you guess is my movie for W (Hint: it’s a documentary with a punch!)?  Let me know in the comments!

8 thoughts on “Movie Review: Vertigo (1958) #atozchallenge

  1. I have never seen it, but I have to admit it does sound complicated and occasionally unreal. I was wondering, if the true wife was pushed from the tower, didn’t Scotty ever see she was a different woman?
    Still, great stories may go a long way to suspend out disbelief when they are superbly written ;-)

    The Old Shelter – Living the Twenties


    1. Since he had a bout of vertigo he never got high enough in the tower to see the real wife. Then he wanders off in a daze so he doesn’t see her body either. If he stuck around the murder plot wouldn’t have worked.


  2. I have only watched it once. One of Hitchcock’s slower movies that I couldn’t get into at all. I much prefer Mel Brook’s High Anxiety.

    V for Vendetta tops Vertigo for me, as well as Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea.

    Liked by 1 person

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