Hitchcock was a master of showing us the self-destructive things we do and why we do them.
Spoilers: we often do them for women.
I’d love to know the top ten worst decisions Hitch ever made for a woman. The guy clearly knew from bad life choices. Oh, he knew.
In VERTIGO we follow James Stewart as a broken man having the shards of himself smashed to pieces by his own hand. He’s never really the one who breaks himself, the world does that, the shitty shitty world, but once broken he seems to methodically take himself apart and really grind each piece to small razor slivers just to see how it will feel and what will be left once he steps back to analyse things.
The opening of this flick is fantastic as we see Stewart chase a criminal across some rooftops until a fellow policeman slips and falls to his death right before Stewart’s eyes as he clings on desperately for his own life.
Our heroic lead is instantly broken by the world and we now have a major flaw to deal with as he develops acrophobia and vertigo which sends him into retirement and limits his own belief of self worth and function. So he’s out of the game for a while but he soon allows himself to get pulled back in, this is his choice, and here the true noir unfolds.
It’s fascinating to watch this noir play out and I mean that in a literal sense because Hitchcock as well as visual designer Saul Bass played with spirals and circles to make Stewart’s character feel adrift, which is in keeping with the sensation vertigo delivers to sufferers. It’s also an apt way to describe someone’s downfall, swirling, downward, as you watch. VERTIGO shows us a literal noir spiral in a story where our lead is most absolutely his own worst enemy.
There is also Bernard Hermann’s score to back this concept up as Martin Scorsese once described in an interview with Sight & Sound where he made parallels between the circular and spiral motion of the music as a representation of obsession and the need to revisit the same moment repeatedly. Everything on screen is a harmony of downfall. You could close your eyes and still not be able to escape it.
And the worst thing is we don’t even get to believe that maybe Stewart is doing it all for the best. We know the path he’s on very early and we have to watch it play out. Because that job he takes in his retirement, of course it goes south. He watches a woman die, he blames himself, and it fractures him that little bit more because for a brief while he falls for this woman, he feels, and this is so rarely helpful to us in the long run.
It’s not until he meets another woman, a doppelganger of the one he watched die, that he starts to feed himself to the beasts below. Or maybe he’s just feeding on himself. Either way, the result is the same, he’s being eaten alive one bite at a time. And there’s a chance he’ll heal enough between mouthfuls so the feast could go on for a very long time.
Watching Stewart transform Judy into the woman he lost, Madeleine, is difficult because we are shown that Judy is Madeleine, or was Madeleine, as she played the role to trick Stewart into believing the real Madeleine died in front of him. But now she’s free, and she does love him, and so she lets this pressured transformation happen. Which is the worst part, this is Judy’s noir, too.
As Stewart pressures her, she starts to crack and we follow two very broken people as they only set out to make themselves suffer, as if some form of self-flagellation is going to do anything but add rocks to their burden.
Stewart takes Judy back to the scene of Madeleine’s death, he takes her through the paces of the scene, the motions of the moments, and it’s horrific and unjustified, and ghastly to observe. It is Stewart blaming himself and projecting this tension onto the one person who might be able to save him, if he’d ever entertain the thought of allowing it to happen because he’ll never forget how he was unable to save her the first time around.
Noir, like suicide, can be a tough path to contemplate sometimes.
And in the end, against all odds, Stewart manages to hug Judy, to understand what happened, and maybe even why. This interpersonal shock therapy has yielded a result where Stewart is cured of his acrophobia/vertigo and he might even have a future with Judy. It’d be a messed up future but it would be something and something is mostly better than nothing.
But this is where the world steps in. And a figure approaches up into the top of the bell tower, a shadowed figure, and Judy is shocked, probably certain this is death come to deliver the only fair thing, and so she slips back and off the bell tower and to her demise, just like she did the first time when she was Madeleine. And again Stewart will need to live with this and it will be absolute because there will be no second woman to save him.
Knowing Stewart’s obsession at the end, I have no doubt his character lives for many more years before either falling off this location to his own demise, or perhaps before that he lures some other women up there and has them befall accidents. His spiral is going to circle this place and event until it finally does him in. To die any other way or in any other place would not seal that final noir buttonhook in on itself.
And with that, VERTIGO makes itself a cold-hearted noir masterpiece that’s not about love or hope or even justice, it is about how the world will force a crack in you and you’ll spend your lifetime pushing on it and touching it until you’ve spread it far enough to split you into pieces, and then you’ll repeat the process until you don’t exist anymore.