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VERTIGO (1958)



PHILOSOPHICAL ISSUES: self-deception

CHARACTERS: James Stewart (John “Scottie” Ferguson), Madeleine Elster / Judy Barton (Kim Novak), Midge, Gavin Elster

OTHER FILMS BY DIRECTOR ALFRED HITCHCOCK: The 39 Steps (1935), Lifeboat (1944), Rope (1948), Dial M for Murder (1954), Rear Window (1954), The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), Psycho (1960), The Birds (1963)

SYNOPSIS: “Suspended San Francisco detective "Scottie" Ferguson (James Stewart) becomes obsessed with Madeleine Elster (Kim Novak), a troubled woman he is privately hired to follow. Tragedy ensues, and when Ferguson later stumbles upon Judy Barton (Kim Novak), a young woman who bears a striking resemblance to Madeleine, his obsession spirals out of control.” – fandango.com.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS:

1. What are Midge’s feelings towards Scottie, and why isn’t Scottie interested in her romantically?

2. In the first half of the movie, at what point does Scottie’s detective work regarding Madeline cross the line to become obsessive stalking?

3. The transformational moment in Vertigo comes when we see the flashback of the tower scene from Judy’s perspective, and it becomes clear that the “Madeline” that Scottie knew was a fabrication. This flashback scene does not occur in the book upon which the movie was based, and Hitchcock was advised against including it in the movie. By including it, the perspective from which the viewer sees the movie shifts. What are the two perspectives, and did Hitchcock make the right choice?

4. Once we know that Madeline’s trances were a hoax, we need to reinterpret everything Judy did while playing the role of Madeline. For one thing, she was aware that Scottie was following her the whole time. Further, it’s clear that she was conscious when Scottie undressed her and put her in his bed. What does this say about Judy?

5. How are we as viewers to feel about Scottie’s efforts to transform Judy into Madeline?

6. When Scottie sees Judy wear Carlotta’s necklace, he finally experiences what the viewer experienced in the flashback scene. The viewer’s perspective has once again shifted. What is the viewer’s new perspective?

7. Philosopher Roger Gilmore says this about Scottie’s experience of vertigo: “Scottie’s wearing of a corset, his vulnerability when he falls into Midge’s arms from the footstool, his mysterious incapacity for marriage with Midge, his identification with Madeleine/Carlotta (having the same dream), all suggest Scottie’s discomfort as a pure or straightforward representative of the masculine figure in the symbolic network. In each case his vertigo is his magic release from these responsibilities.” Explain Gilmore’s point, and, on his view, why Scottie’s vertigo goes away after he drags Judy up the tower staircase and confronts her with the truth?

8. Vertigo is two hours long, slow moving, with only three main characters. Something about the personalities of Scottie, Midge and Judy must connect with viewers to sustain their interest in the film for so long. Yet all three characters are dominated by their flaws. What are their main flaws and how might a viewer identify with these flaws?

9. Suppose that Judy did not fall out of the tower in the last scene. Scottie would then have faced the choice of staying with Judy or turning her in. What would you have done, and would your decision reveal a flaw in your personality?

10. Movie critic Roger Ebert says of this film that “It is about how Hitchcock used, feared and tried to control women.” Assuming that Ebert’s assessment is correct, does this reflect anything sinister in Hitchcock, or is this just business as usual for men (and perhaps for women too). Does it make any difference that Hitchcock was especially homely?

REVIEWS:

Vertigo: Vertigo was really surprising. I went into the movie knowing almost nothing about it, and without many preconceptions. The start of the movie was slow, in my opinion. The whole she is being possessed by a dead ancestor’s ghost or whatever really threw me off, and I remember thinking, If this is how the movie plays out I m going to demand compensation for my wasted two hours. But it paid off. After Scottie saved Madeleine and took her to his place and undressed her and everything I was a little concerned he was losing it over her. Then, the twist came and blew me away, but I looked at the time left and thought What in the hell is gonna fill this time? Scottie’s further descent into madness, though, was great, I thought, but he did seem to figure everything out a little too easily. I mean all he did was see her necklace, right? Really? That’s all and he suddenly knows everything. I mean he was hitting the nail on the head the whole time he took Judy through the tower trying to get her to confess. And, finally, I was a little shocked and confounded and somewhat bemused at Judy’s reaction to the nun. Again, really? Did she think she was seeing the one woman’s actual ghost or something? Because she should know it couldn’t be Madeleine’s ghost, since Madeleine (the real Madeleine) wasn’t killed there. Anyway I found it just a little incredible that she jumps out of the window, but what do I know? All in all, though, I enjoyed the movie. — T.E.

I didn’t particularly care for Vertigo. Maybe I am corrupted by modern cinema but the movie just seemed a bit slow paced for me. It was an interesting plot and would probably have placed higher on my list if it were done by a director today. Unfortunately, it was filmed by Alfred Hitchcock a long, long time ago. The plot was awesome, the main female character supposedly falling to her death only to be discovered to be alive later by Jimmy Stewart, especially when he slowly transforms her back into Carlotta. I think the parts that lost it for me were the cheesy special effects coupled with the laborious story line. I think there were too many shots where Stewart was just drooling over Carlotta like when they were in the museum. I really thought it was interesting how the film revolved around Stewart’s mental health. You get to see him run the whole gambit from a mild anxiety disorder to a full blown mental breakdown to overcoming his fear of heights when he takes Carlotta back up the bell tower. I thought it was ironic that his road to recovery was her road to death. All in all this movie was tolerable at best. I would not want to watch it again and I am trying to keep the time it was made in mind before I say that Hitchcock was a horrible director. — J.R.

Vertigo was an excellent film. Within the first five minutes of the movie, I was “sucked in” and determined to find answers. The plot twists throughout the film worked in such a way that the story “made sense”­it surprised me and yet I still found it feasible. The story was intriguing and yet terrifying; the story didn’t involve any insane people (Scottie spent time in an institution but he is thought to be fully recovered) or axe murderers, but believable human characters with flaws similar to our own. For me, an especially terrifying moment in this movie was when Scottie takes Judy shopping for Madeline-esque clothing. It was as if her body was one giant Barbie doll for him to decorate, and her identity lost. Judy’s submission to Scottie scared me because I know she isn’t the first woman who has given up her identity to please a man. One thing I love about this movie is the conflicting feelings I have for both Scottie and Judy­I feel pity and anger towards both characters at different times. I found Scottie’s “love at first sight” moment with Madeline sweet at first, but I quickly grew leery of him. I found the scene where he watches Madeline stare at the painting of Carlotta especially unsettling. The idea that there could be someone close by watching my every move terrifies me. Madeline’s deception to Scottie and her involvement in a murder made me want to dislike her character. After she meets Scottie as Judy, I feel pity for her. How do you tell someone that you are really a person he/she saw commit suicide and that said suicide never happened? I can tell she has feelings for Scottie because of her desire to please him and her aversion to hurting him. Her terror and jump from the church tower were oddly fitting; if she had not died, what would have happened next? How would she have defended herself to Scottie? How could they just “break up” and lead separate lives after an event like this? Her “fake” suicide as Madeline foreshadowed her fate. Hitchcock managed to strike a few nerves in me concerning the loss of identity, the eeriness that a normal person can take on just by staring a few seconds longer than he/she should, and the fear that I’m being duped, that someone somewhere is playing a trick on me and one day I will find out the terrifying truth. Maybe that’s just my paranoia talking. — C.R.

Vertigo is a psychological thriller crafted by Sir Alfred Hitchcock in 1958. The story begins with Scottie, a retired police officer who suffered a traumatizing fall while in the force and now suffers vertigo when at high elevations. This phobia rendered him unable to save a fellow officers life while on duty, and thus he was forced to retire. However, a previous colleague approaches him after his retirement in order to hire him for a personal job: to watch his wife who he believes to be possessed by a dead ancestor. While Scottie is fulfilling his agreed upon duty, he eventually communicates with and falls in love with the wife, Madeline. He endeavors to help her rid her mind of these evil spirits that seem to plague her, and even saves her life when she attempted to commit suicide. On one expedition, Scottie takes Madeline to an old Spanish mission near their city where Madeline thinks her possessor was from. Scottie believes if they go here and she experiences it for herself, it will help erase and replace the unexplainable ghost memory. However, when they get to the village, Madeline becomes frantic with fear and sprints toward the bell tower at the mission. She begins to run up the winding stairs to the top of the bell tower, and though Scottie tries to run after her and save her yet again, his phobia of heights inhibits him from doing so, and Madeline kills herself by jumping out the window. A couple years later, Scottie runs into another woman, named Judy, who looks exactly like Madeline, and he becomes infatuated with her. After much avail, he convinces her to let him date her, and the two begin a relationship. After this, Hitchcock includes a flashback to the day when Madeline supposedly killed herself, and revealed the events which actually unfolded at the top of the bell tower: Madeline, who was already dead, was thrown out the window; the woman Scottie fell in love with, which is the same person he has now run into years later (Judy), was hired by Scottie’s old colleague to act like Madeline and convince Scottie and the world of her supposed suicide (instead of revealing the truth, in which she was murdered by her husband). So, at this point the audience knows that Judy really is the woman Scottie fell in love with, but their relationship seems doomed because of the fact that Scottie was in love with Madeline, not Judy. As they spend more time together, Scottie tries more and more to change Judy back into Madeline. When he finally succeeds in doing so, Scottie realizes the truth about Judy and takes her back to the Spanish mission. They chase each other back to the top of the mission bell tower and Judy explains the whole situation in detail. When they finally reach a point of mutual understanding and a possible opportunity for a healthy relationship in the future, a nun appears out of the darkness and startles Judy, sending her soaring out the window to her death the exact same death Madeline suffered years before. This film deals with the philosophical issues of self deception in that various characters deceived others and were deceived by others throughout the movie, the result of which included failed relationship after failed relationship: Judy originally deceives Scottie into believing that she is really Madeline, and that Madeline is being possessed by her dead ancestor; later, Judy deceives Scottie into believing that she has never heard of Madeline and has no relation to her; in contrast, Scottie deceives Judy and himself in saying he loved her when he was really just trying to recreate Madeline with her.

Vertigo is the reason Alfred Hitchcock is Alfred Hitchcock and M. Night is an idiot. The big twist, that the wife of Scotty’s friend is an actor, that she does not kill herself, and that the whole thing has been, in fact, a ploy to cover up a murder, is not aggressively foreshadowed, because it’s supposed to be a surprise. The film uses still legendary and imitated cinematography to cultivate Scotty’s increasing mania and dementia. We nervously follow Scotty as he first stalks and then falls in love with who he believes to be his friends mad wife. We fidget uncomfortably as, after we are aware of the secret but Scotty is still in the dark, he finds the woman who fooled him and gradually convinces her to play the role of the dead woman. His insistence on the perfect dress and the perfect hair color and style are chilling, brilliantly brought to the screen by Jimmy Stuart. As the woman finally breaks and attempts to take the role to heart, she dons a necklace that she kept as a souvenir of the con, which Scotty spots. He takes her to the scene of the crime, and forces her up the tower. Finally, overcoming his vertigo, he makes his way to the top of the bell tower and confronts her, where, given the lighting and the fear, a nun scares her into leaping to her death. This probably isn’t what Scotty was going for, so we can assume he’s screwed now. — J.E.

Vertigo: Alfred Hitchcock ranks to be one of the top five greatest filmmakers of all time and this movie definitely contributes to that fact. Hitchcock takes to in this psychological maze in which one former detective, Scotty, who has a serious problem with taking the high ground, has been hired as a private dick by an old war buddy to follow his wife around to see if she has gone bananas or is pulling a ruse on everybody. Well he takes the job, of course, and comes to find out that the wife is really attractive, emphazie on really, and Scotty ends up being smitten with her. And that’s when it all hits the fan, from haunted ghost to death by cordless bungie jumping, the intrigue of the movie keeps you guessing. And through the movie you want it to be a super natural theme but that’s just plain silly. The best part of the movie is that you actually find out that Scotty isn’t half the boob you think he is in the beginning of the film. All in all it is a Hitchcock film that lets you play detective and gives you an “Ahhah” moment. — B.C.

Vertigo was a very good movie which dealt with obsession and psychological issues. At the beginning of the movie Scottie attempts to overcome his fear of heights through systematic desensitization a form of therapy that is often used for overcoming phobias. His failure at overcoming his vertigo by reason seems to indicate that reason has failed and he is doomed to descent into madness. And that’s exactly what happens when after the death of Madeline he has mental breakdown and is institutionalized. Even though is able to function in society again he still has some psychological issues. Scottie’s obsession is the real heart of the movie. After Madeline’s death his obsession leads him back to Ernie’s Restaurant and other places that remind him of Madeline. He sees her everywhere he goes and even follows a stranger to her hotel room just because she looks like Madeline. He does not know that Judy is Madeline. Scotties actions at the end of the movie parallel Madeline’s actions. Scottie, like Madeline, has to go to the bell tower at the mission for one last thing before he can be free. Madeline, who is really Judy, must go to the tower to fulfill her role in Judy’s death. This was the only way she can be free of her deception to Scottie. Similarly, at the end of the movie Scottie must go to the tower in order to free his mind of all the guilt and despair regarding Judy’s death. Just as Judy has deceived Scottie, Scottie deceives Judy. He allows her to think that he has not discovered her true identity until they reach the point where he witnessed Madeline fall. It is at this emotional point in the story that Scottie overcomes his vertigo. Emotion succeeded in conquering his vertigo, something reason had failed to do. — N.T.

Vertigo: My favorite part of this film was Jimmy Stewart. Although he does play a little bit of a “wimp” type character in this film compared to others; Stewart is able to bring depth to his character. His work for Alfred Hitchcock is some of the best looking films ever. The twists and turns of this film (for its day) were great. I may be a film geek, but each time it is still quite intriguing, the development of all of the back stories culminating in the revelation that it was all a scam. Hitchcock tried, in my opinion, to make a crime drama comic. If you look at the shots where Jimmy Stewart seems to be in a “cop” mode, and when he continues his work after the accident, Hitchcock was weaving a true crime story. The idea Gilmore has, that Scottie is fleeing from his responsibilities, seems to be an attempt to fabricate a philosophical theme to this film. Because his impairment was not completely physical, i.e. he was able to jump in the river and save “Madeline”. I believe the main reason interest is sustained was the Midge character. She was the level character that balanced the odd behavior in the rest. Midge was never an object of desire for Scottie because she was a straight laced normal unflawed individual. — L.T.

 
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