Vertigo (1958)

Director: Alfred Hitchcock

Writer: Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac (book), Alec Coppel and Samuel A. Taylor (screenplay)

Producer: Alfred Hitchcock (Paramount)

Photography: Robert Burks

Music: Bernard Herrmann

Cast: Jimmy Stewart, Kim Novak, Barbara Bel Geddes, Tom Helmore, Henry Jones, Raymond Bailey, Ellen Corby, Konstantin Shayne, Lee Patrick

The Rundown


There’s a reason Alfred Hitchcock is history’s most respected director among both the critics and the public. It’s because his career epitomizes the essence of this site. The rotund man nimbly walked the tightrope between the academic and the mainstream better than anyone — while so many others looked down and got the spins. He was both a showman and a visionary, making films that celebrate the nail-biting entertainment we love about the movies, yet ones that, upon closer inspection, reveal a deeper understanding of how cinesthetic techniques work wonders on the subconscious.

Ironically, his greatest achievement was initially hated on both sides of the spectrum, overlooked at the box office and shunned by the experts. Like Van Gogh’s paintings or Bach’s music, Vertigo was an art masterpiece not appreciated in its time. For decades, it was unavailable as one of the “Five Lost Hitchcocks,” as Hitchcock held the rights until his death in 1980. This absence left scholars little chance to reconsider, so when it finally resurfaced around 1984, it was a critic’s wet dream 30 years in the making.

Now, after the dust has settled from all the masterworks — from Psycho to The Birds, Rear Window to Notorious, North By Northwest to Shadow of a Doubt — Hitchcock’s cream has finally risen to the top. When Universal released its “Hitchcock Masterpiece DVD Collection,” Vertigo was notably the only film to feature the word “Masterpiece” on the cover. When the American Film Institute updated its Top 100 list in 2007, Vertigo leaped 52 spots ahead to No. 9. And when Sight & Sound conducted its latest international critics poll in 2012, Vertigo finally ended Citizen Kane‘s 50-year reign as the greatest film of all time.

Plot Summary

Adapted from the French novel D’Entre les morts (The Living and the Dead), Vertigo begins with Detective John “Scottie” Ferguson (Jimmy Stewart) watching his partner fall to his death from a San Francisco rooftop. The event traumatizes him with acrophobia (a fear of heights), which gives him vertigo (an extremely disorienting dizziness). He recovers in the company of long-time friend Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes), who is hopelessly in love with him, until one day, Scottie receives a random invitation to meet with an old college friend, Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore).

Elster offers the oddest proposal: “Do you believe that someone out of the past — someone dead — can enter and take possession of a living being?” It seems that Elster’s wife, Madeline (Kim Novak), has been taking unconscious trips around the city, like a sleepwalker, and remembers nothing of it after the fact. Elster suspects she is possessed by her great-grandmother, Carlotta Valdez, who committed suicide decades ago. As a trusted friend, retired detective and someone Madeline won’t recognize, Scottie is the perfect man to do some recon, so Elster asks his old buddy to follow Madeline around and see where she goes throughout the day.

Scottie initially resists…until he gets a glimpse of Madeline. She is a drop-dead icy blond, made all the more appealing by the danger and mystery of her suicidal tendencies. Scottie can’t help but be intrigued as he follows her around San Francisco, from flower shops to art museums to cemeteries, trying to piece together this beyond-the-grave puzzle.

SPOILER: “To reveal anything more would be unheard of,” wrote Leonard Maltin in describing Vertigo‘s plot. In most cases, I go to great lengths not to reveal a film’s secrets if at all possible. However, for a film like Vertigo, with so much directing genius to dissect after you know the full story, I must forge ahead. Proceed at your own risk, like Scottie accepting Elster’s mission.

After saving Madeline from jumping into San Francisco Bay during one of her trances, Scottie becomes convinced that Madeline is indeed possessed. What’s more, he becomes convinced that he loves her, and she him. This makes for a shocking turn, as Madeline leads Scottie to a Spanish Mission, ascends a bell tower and leaps to her death. Scottie is helpless to save her, as his vertigo has stopped him from reaching the top. He’s acquitted of murder charges, but suffers a worse fate. He’s trapped in a catatonic state, retracing the steps of lost love by day, suffering horrific nightmares by night. Even Midge’s attempts to shake the cobwebs are unsuccessful.

Then, one day, he spots her. At least, someone that looks like her. Her name is Judy (Kim Novak), a red-head from Kansas who bares an uncanny resemblence to Madeline. Scottie pursues her and begins going on dates with her, but we the audience are clued in to information Scottie does not know — that Judy is in fact Madeline. She merely posed as Elster’s wife to woo Scottie as a key witness to the real wife’s “suicide,” allowing Elster to get away with murder. What follows is a gut-wrenching tale of lost love, as Scottie tries desperately to remake Judy in Madeline’s image (“The color of your hair”) and Judy tries desperately to make Scottie fall in love with the real her (“Couldn’t you like me, just me the way I am?”), leading to the dizzying heights of the film’s thrilling yet tragic conclusion.


Vertigo is as emotionally complex a tale of love and mystery as you’ll find, with much of the credit belonging to Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, who wrote the source novel in 1954. Hitchcock had tried buying the rights to their previous novel, Celle qui n’était plus, which was instead adapted by France’s Henri-Georges Clouzot into the classic Les Diaboliques (1955). When the authors heard about Hitch’s interest, they set out to write a novel just for him, and that’s what eventually became Vertigo. It remains their best adaptation, which is saying a lot, considering Boileau and Narcejac themselves adapted Jean Redon’s novel Les yeux sans visage into the horror classic Eyes Without a Face (1960).

With a fresh story in hand, Hitchcock created the script outline and plucked screenwriters Alec Coppel (TV’s Alfred Hitchcock Presents) and Samuel Taylor (the romantic comedy Sabrina) to write it. It was the perfect pair for a story with equal parts thrill and romance. Rumor has it, however, that Taylor did most of the work and Coppel was only there to fulfill his contract. (I)

No matter, the script is a gem. Look at the way it subtly inserts its theme on three separate occasions. At the start, Elster says, “You know, men could do that in those days. They had the power and the freedom.” Later, at the bookshop, the gossiping bookkeeper says Carlotta’s husband threw her away, because back then men had the power and the freedom to do so. Finally, during the climax, Scottie says to Judy that Elster threw her away when he got the money and the power. If you’re not listening closely, you’ll miss the theme, disguised as casual conversation, backstory and accusatory dialogue. Now that’s good writing — accomplishing multiple things at once.

From a structural standpoint, the script brilliantly breaks convention in that it reveals its twist not at the end of the film, but two-thirds the way through. It comes with a full half hour left, getting the surprise out of the way and spending the rest of the film exploring Hitchcock’s real focus: the tragic emotions of his characters. Vertigo throws us a curve ball that switches our perspective away from the protagonist, allowing us to experience the rest of the film from the antagonist’s point of view, an approach Hitch would repeat two years later in Psycho, where he bumped the transfer even earlier in the film.

For the first half , we are completely on board with Scottie, driving around with him, experiencing his voyeurism, sharing his initial doubts, then falling into his obsession. When Madeleine dies and Scottie goes catatonic, we fall into a sort of daze with him, drifting between the winds as we watch this lonely, heartbroken guy yearning for a dead woman. This allows Judy to enter the picture and snatch our sympathies without Scottie’s knowing.

The Male Gaze

This transfer of sympathies from the male to the female raises interesting questions about Hitchcock’s intentions. You’ll note how Hitch lingers in Judy’s apartment as the twist is revealed, and has us literally inside her head during her and Scottie’s walk through the park. We get Novak’s POV, not Scottie’s, and she sees a happy couple laying in the grass, amidst fluttering birds and optimistic music. In this new light, the twisted tale becomes a masterful meditation on the male ego and the unattainable woman. We feel for Judy as she is repeatedly subjected to Scottie’s attempts to remake her into his “ideal object” and looks up at him with those tragic eyes to say, “Couldn’t you like me? Just me, the way I am?”

It is both a delicious ode to the helpless male fantasy and a scathing commentary supported by even the most strident feminist. As with all of Hitchcock’s films, one can debate whether it is a sick example of the “male gaze,” or a useful window into the dangers of the “male gaze.” I prefer the latter. While I agree with Laura Mulvey that Rear Window and Vertigo “cut to the measure of the male desire,” (E) I think the point is for us to admit and question that desire. It’s no coincidence that we begin to see Scottie in a different light, and we don’t like what we see. This is the true lesson of the film.

Dream Roles

Such a plot could prove a bad actor’s nightmare, or a great actor’s dream role. When it comes to Jimmy Stewart, I don’t even have to say which is which. Vertigo was the last of four Hitchcock thrillers for Stewart, following the experimental Rope (1948), the voyeuristic Rear Window (1954) and the just-plain-fun The Man Who Knew Too Much (1955). There’s no question which was the most complex role of his career, showing a new dark side to the aw-shucks idealist from Capra lore.

Stewart had started exploring darker places in the ’50s, with questionable sanity in Harvey (1950) and nightmares plaguing his bounty hunt in The Naked Spur (1953). Vertigo would take it a step further, asking Stewart to not only play a man who develops an adulterous obsession with a friend’s wife, but also a man in love with a dead woman — a hint of necrophilia to rival Otto Preminger’s Laura (1944). Add to this Scottie’s unspoken reasons for never marrying Midge, and you have one complex character. As director/critic Peter Bogdonovich put it, “I don’t think there’s ever been a greater performance of a man suffering from lost love” (B).

Just when you thought a performance couldn’t get any deeper, Novak proves it. She essentially has to play a dual role, both with different appearances and personalities, which eventually collapse unto themselves. It’s her performance that makes repeated viewings most enjoyable, as we watch her play a character (Judy) who’s playing a character (Madeline) and then has to return to that character to win back her man (Judy dressing as Madeline after Madeline’s death). Her cries of “It wasn’t supposed to happen this way” reveal her internal struggle between good and evil, between her true feelings and her duties as a murderer’s accomplice.

It was semi-familiar territory for Novak, whose character actually hypnotized Stewart earlier that year in the black magic movie Bell, Book and Candle (1958). In Vertigo, her allure is even more hypnotic, providing one of the most captivating entrances in the entire Hitchcock canon, dare I say rivaling Grace Kelly’s entrance in Rear Window.

All I can say is poor Vera Miles. Hitchcock had planned the part for Miles (The Searchers, Psycho), but had to replace her with Novak when she became pregnant. Critic David Thomson called it “less a performance than a helpless confession to herself” and said that “Novak’s contribution to that film is one of the major female performances in the cinema.” (C)

Equally as good is Barbara Belle Geddes as Midge. You know her as Miss Ellie Ewing from TV’s Dallas (1978), but her role in Vertigo is everything a supporting character should be. Her wit and sass provide comic relief to the ultra-serious territory Stewart and Novak explore, yet she is the one most affected by their affair. As Scottie casually jokes about almost marrying Midge back in college, Hitchcock cuts to a close-up reaction shot that lets us in on something Scottie can’t fathom — that Midge still has feelings for him.

We can’t help but feel for Midge as Scottie tells her that her music (a Mozart selection) is giving him a headache. Later, after Scottie goes catatonic, Midge tries to sweep the cobwebs out of Scottie’s head by playing the same Mozart piece in vain.

When Hitchcock finally sends Midge on a long walk down a hospital hallway to fade out, never to be seen again, we realize she may just be the most tragic figure in the whole damned thing.

Criticisms & Responses

Judging by the IMDB message boards, the sudden disappearance of Midge does not sit well with many of you. It may also be one of the “loose ends” British film critic Tom Shone referred to when he said, “Hitchcock is a director who delights in getting his plot mechanisms buffed up to a nice humming shine, and so the Sight and Sound team praise the one film of his in which this is not the case — it’s all loose ends and lopsided angles, its plumbing out on display for the critic to pick over at his leisure.” (H)

We’ll get to the “lopsided angles” in a second (I believe Mr. Shone to be wrong; see the “What Lies Above” section). As for the “loose ends,” would the conclusion feel better if Midge were the one to spook Judy off the tower instead of a random nun? I am admittedly torn. Part of me thinks it’s more realistic to have a nun who simply “heard voices” and came upstairs to investigate. The other part thinks Midge could have conceivably followed them up the bell tower, because she has already been set up as tailing Scottie. Either way, it’s a touch of genius to have a shadowy figure climb the staircase and strike fear in Judy’s eyes. We (and Judy) wonder two things: Has the ghost of Elster’s wife come back for vengeance? Or, has the ghost of Carlotta returned to levy some divine justice?

Once that figure comes out of the shadows and into the light, it’s irrelevant who it is, because the important part is what the shadow does to Judy. As she cowers backward to her death and Scottie staggers out to the edge of the bell tower, raising his hands helplessly toward the heavens, it’s a tragic ending where the femme fatale has succumbed to guilt and the hero has overcome his character flaw (vertigo) while losing his love in the process.

And what of the murder plot itself? Critic Kim Newman says he loves the film despite the fact that Elster’s plot is revealed much in the manner of a Scooby Doo villain. (F) I agree that the complexity of the scheme may far outweigh its practicality, but hey, this is a movie! Do we really go to them for accuracy alone, or do we want to be taken on a ride? Thankfully, Hitchcock does care about authenticity when it comes to one particular part: allowing Elster to get off scott free (pun intended), as often happens to the bad guys in real life. The crew shot an alternate ending of Elster’s murder conviction to please the studios, but it has since been restored to Hitchcock’s original vision.

In addition to the evil scheme, the whole idea of Scottie not realizing Judy is Madeline is admittedly absurd. New York Times critic Bosley Crowther wrote that the premise is “devilishly far-fetched.” We doubt the plausibility as much as we do the mistaken identities in Preston Sturges’ The Lady Eve (1941).

However, the possibilities it opens for character exploration are far worth the trade off. In fact, it may be Hitchcock’s biggest ruse that he so successfully takes us along for this ride, despite having Elster lie right to our faces at the start: “I’m not making it up. I wouldn’t know how.” For this, every time Hitchcock is called the “Master of Suspense,” we should also add the phrase “Master of Suspension of Disbelief.” As director Norman Jewison said, “Hitchcock could tell us the most absurd stories and we’d believe them, because he dealt with some pretty weird stuff.” (B)

All of these things — the absurdities; the disappearance of Midge; the jolt nun ending — could make Vertigo slightly inaccessible to mainstream viewers on first go round. It certainly does not carry the full-fledged accessibility of Psycho or North By Northwest, but only slightly less so. Compared to other works that equal its artistic genius — 8 1/2, Tokyo Story, Citizen Kane, The Rules of the Game — there’s no comparison in terms of audience hook. I mean, this is a Hitchcock mystery! Even in times when Stewart is endlessly driving around San Francisco, we’re curious to find out what happens next in what is largely a ghost story. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a film that pulls such thrills and such intrigue from so high an art piece.

Pure Cinema

Vertigo features entire stretches that epitomize the notion of “pure cinema,” that is, a director visually telling the story with as little dialogue as possible. There are many scenes, like Scottie tailing Madeline in his car, where there is absolutely no dialogue. In fact, Novak does not speak until about 46 minutes into the movie, a full 29 minutes after first appearing at Ernie’s Restaurant. This stretch might as well be a silent movie, like the first half of WALL-E, as Hitchcock asks us to engage, scan the screen, watch actors’ faces, follow camera moves, and interpret symbolic images in the background.

During this stretch, Hitchcock plays us like a piano, sucking us into the mystery with a series of POV shots, then leading us to various conclusions with his floating camera movements. Note how he visually connects Madeline’s spiral hair to Carlotta’s spiral hair in the portrait. Intercut with medium shots of Scottie gazing across the room, these are clearly POV shots (subjective camera). Still, in a weird way, they resemble Hitchcock’s objective personified camera in Psycho, where an independent-acting camera moves from clue to clue after Marion’s death. With the voyeuristic Hitchcock, the line between objective and subjective camera is always beautifully blurred.

Another fine bit of “pure cinema” comes after Madeline’s fatal fall. Rather than multiangularity (cutting to various shots from different angles) or parallel action (intercutting simultaneous lines of action), Hitchcock instead cuts to an extreme high angle above the bell tower. From this high angle, the aftermath of Madeline’s death unfolds in a long single take. We see two separate actions play out in the same single take: (a) the clergy tending to Madeline’s dead body in the top left of the frame, and (b) Scottie staggering out of the church in a daze in the bottom right of the frame. Fans of Hitchcock’s entire career know that this is a tell-tale auteur icon of his, using an extreme high angle to denote a major turning point in the film (i.e. after Sebastian finds the wine bottle in Notorious, or after the U.N. stabbing in North By Northwest).


Blocking and Mise-en-Scene

As the bell tower high angle shows, few directors commanded the entire frame like Hitchcock. Vertigo features some of the greatest examples of mise-en-scene in any movie, visually hinting the plot’s secrets with hints we are too blind to see on first viewing.

First, take a second look at the scene where Elster first tells Scottie about Madeline’s possession. Watch how Hitchcock has Elster move up to a higher platform the minute he begins his ghost story, as if Elster were up on a stage, acting. Scottie sits and listens in the “audience” down below. Naturally, when the story ends, Elster returns back down to Scottie’s level, to talk logistics. Those rare viewers with a proactive eye for mise-en-scene might guess the twist right here; the rest of us are at Hitchcock’s mercy.

Such brilliant mise-en-scene continues throughout the film. As Scottie makes his way around San Francisco, try counting the numerous occasions where a church or bell tower appears behind him in the frame, foreshadowing his fate in the final scene.


Shadows and Mirrors

Hitchcock also uses shadows and mirrors to symbolize Madeline/Judy’s dual nature. The clearest example of her divided self comes in the shot where Scottie sees Judy silhouetted by the green light of a neon sign out the window. The outline of her body strips away all pretense of “Judy,” rendering her a carbon copy of Madeline.

As Hitchcock cuts to a frontal view, Judy’s half-lit face leaves no doubt as to her dual nature. Her eyes move from the shadows and into the light, as if desperately wanting to escape the bounds of her evil side.

This same idea of dual nature is expressed through the use of mirror doubles, another Hitchcock auteur icon (i.e. Claude Rains in Notorious, or Anthony Perkins in Psycho). The first mirror double in Vertigo comes as Madeline and Gavin Elster leave Ernie’s Restaurant for the first time. The double image hints that they’re both phonies.

It happens again as Scottie watches Madeline through a cracked door at the flower shop. Note that Scottie is quite literally witnessing her phony side.

It happens again the first time Scottie comes to Judy’s apartment. Scottie thinks he recognizes her. She convinces him otherwise. However, we the audience should know who’s telling the truth, based off Hitchcock’s mirror mise-en-scene.

The most poignant example happens just before Scottie figures out the truth. This mirror shot comes accompanied by dialogue clues like, “I have my face on” and “Can’t you see?”

Judy’s “face” line mirrors a quote by the archetypal femme fatale in Double Indemnity (1944), where Barbara Stanwyck looks into a mirror and says, “I hope I got my face on straight.”

For all this, some critics describe Vertigo as a sort of “film-noir in Technicolor.” Indeed, our hero goes on a night journey and winds up fooled by a femme fatale. There are multiple shots that scream noir, from the aforementioned shadows and mirrors, to Stewart’s silhouette entering the flower shop, to the Laura-like portrait of Carlotta.

Escaping the Fire

Isn’t that some insane mise-en-scene already? Wait, there’s more. Check out the use of the fireplace in Scottie’s apartment in the scene after Madeline jumps into the bay.

The scene starts with Scottie stoking the fire and pans around to Madeline. Moments later, an ominous over-the-shoulder shot (above) visually connects the danger of the fire to Madeline.

During their conversation, we never see Scottie in the same frame as the fire; but we often see Madeline with the flames in her background. To these eyes, it’s a clear symbol of the danger and temptation that Madeline represents.

Still have doubts? Check out the multiple scenes in the hallway outside Judy’s apartment where a “Fire Escape” sign appears prominently. Hitchcock was never one to let random objects creep into his frame, so I believe this sign is absolutely intentional. It’s as if fate is pointing Scottie in the direction of his only escape — advice he ignores, giving the sign one last look as he ultimately approaches Judy’s door.

Later, Scottie and Judy pass the sign together, missing another warning by their director.

Just in case you are still skeptical, Hitchcock drives it home with the “rule of three.” After our sympathies are fully flipped to Judy, we see her face the exact same “Fire Escape” dilemma. As she returns from the salon, made over as Madeline, she too has a chance to escape. She ignores the warning and agrees to continue her charade.


Parallelism and Familiar Image

The technique of familiar image is not limited to the fire escape sign. This sort of parallelism pervades the entire film.

Note the matching shots of archways at the Spanish mission before and after Madeline’s death. By bookending it, Hitch suggests the event would have happened regardless of Scottie’s actions, because destiny dictates it (and the filmmaker’s vision demands it). The first archway shot is fate predetermined; the second is fate fulfilled.

Note also the parallelism of Madeline and Judy appearing in various hotel windows. The shot of Madeline in the window of the McKittrick Hotel parallels the shot of Judy in the window at the Empire Hotel (another clue to proactive viewers). If you consider Hitch in terms of the auteur theory, these window images also resemble the window shots of Mrs. Bates in Psycho and any number of window shots of the neighbors in Rear Window.

Hitchcock also uses parallel camera movements behind desk lamps (literal “light bulbs”) as a symbol of telling the truth. First, the camera rounds a desk lamp in Scottie’s apartment as Madeline lies to him. Scottie “thinks” he’s had a light-bulb moment. Later, the camera similarly rounds a desk lamp in Judy’s apartment as she reveals the truth in a handwritten note. This time, the camera rounds the desk lamp in the opposite direction, as if to say this is the actual light-bulb moment.


What Lies Above

Of all of Hitchcock’s familiar images, though, one in particular puzzled me the longest: recurring shots of various ceilings. This is no doubt the source of Tom Shone’s “lopsided angles” complaint above. Why would Hitchcock constantly show this? There must be a reason, I kept telling myself. Now, after countless viewings, allow me to quote old Barton Keyes in Double Indemnity, “I think papa has it all figured it out.”

I believe the ceiling shots are Hitch’s way of saying we don’t know what lies above, a crucial theme if you consider what happens beyond the roof of the bell tower.

Suddenly the ceiling shot at the McKittrick Hotel makes sense. It explains any plot confusion when Madeline “mysteriously” disappears, because there’s no telling what’s going on above. For all we know, Madeline could have escaped out a back window.

Another odd ceiling shot appears during Scottie’s trial — the perfect time for Hitch to call attention to the idea that something else is going on in the case.


Circling Camera and Cinematic Bliss

Above all this, to me, the greatest moment of the entire film unfolds in the magical neon green light of Judy’s hotel room. In my personal favorite moment in all of cinema, Scottie sees Judy emerge from the bathroom, bathed in neon green light in all her Madeline glory. In separation (cutting back and forth between separate images), we see a dream-like Judy slowly approach an awe-struck Scottie. Finally, the couple break the separation by embracing in a “two shot” that becomes a 360-degree dolly in single take. Such a circling camera is another Hitchcock auteur icon, used to signal a turning point in a relationship (i.e. Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman at the end of Notorious).

Here in Vertigo, the turning point is Scottie’s realization of Judy’s true identity. While it takes the necklace in the following scene to seal the deal, the look on Scottie’s face here is unmistakable, even to first-time viewers. What first-timers might not see is the transforming background. As the camera circles the characters, Judy’s apartment literally transforms into the horse stable at the Spanish mission where they kissed just before Madeline’s death. The moment is accompanied by the exact same music cue that played during the stable kiss.

I remember seeing this scene — the so-called Scene d’Amour — projected on the big screen for the first time. As the neon light hit my face and Bernard Herrmann’s violins sang to the goosebumps on my arms, I experienced the most transcendent moment I’ve ever felt in the movies. It’s inspired filmmaking on all levels, combining the very best of directing (the auteur icons), writing (the turning point in both plot and character), acting (the weight of the moment as expressed in performance), cinematography (the neon light and smooth 360-degree dolly), art direction (the transforming apartment walls), wardrobe (Madeline’s gray suit and spiral hair) and music (Herrmann’s strings) — all in a moment of pure cinematic bliss.

The Vertigo Effect

While the 360-degree kiss has become the seminal moment of the film, its trademark technique is the one that bears the film’s name. Hitchcock conspired with special effects cameraman John Fulton to shatter our very concept of cinematic perspective. Before Vertigo, a “dolly” and a “zoom” were two separate camera techniques. After Vertigo, they were two techniques that could be combined for a most surreal effect.

Known as The Vertigo Effect” or “zolly” (zoom + dolly), the technique is achieved by zooming the camera lens in on the subject while simultaneously dollying the camera itself away (or vice versa). The opposing pulls creates for a very trippy affect on viewers, almost like the image is detaching from itself.

The effect has been referenced adoringly by countless filmmakers (see Pop Culture below).

Visual Splendor

The “vertigo effect” is used in conjunction with special matte drawings of the bell tower’s spiral staircase. Together, they create the effect of Scottie’s vertigo. Hitchcock insisted on having it, so the view down the mission stairwell alone cost $19,000 for just a couple of seconds of screen time. (I) These matte drawings served as visual aids to more than 50 sets, designed by art director Henry Bumstead, who earned one of the film’s two Oscar-nominations (the other was for sound). (A)

Still, nothing attracts the eye more than San Francisco itself, shot largely on location by cinematographer Robert Burks, who used fog filters to create a necessary dream-like atmosphere, which was ultimately presented in VistaVision widescreen.

The film includes a number of gorgeous locations in and around San Francisco, including the Golden Gate Bridge, Big Basin Redwoods State Park, the California Palace of the Legion of Honor, the Mission San Juan Bautista and Ernie’s Restaurant (since closed).

Even more mesmerizing is the work of legendary costume designer Edith Head, who earned 35 Oscar nominations throughout her career. She won eight, but the fact that she was not even nominated for Vertigo is a travesty. Just look at her work — the green and black outfit Madeline wears during her introduction; the steely-gray suits she wears in her trances; the red polka dot nightgown she wears at Scottie’s apartment; and the green outfit Judy wears later with just enough polka dots to hint at the red nightgown of her past.

Even Novak’s hairstyle is symbolic, as the spiraling hair curl adds to the film’s motif of spiraling obsession. Yes, this is how detailed Hitchcock got.

Head’s wardrobe follows the same red and green color palate as Bumstead’s Art Direction and Burks’ lighting, the same red and green that seems to echo the traffic lights Hitchcock goes to great lengths to show us. What do they mean? For an in-depth interpretation of the film’s colors, check out this fabulous piece by critic Jim Emerson.

Special Effects and Titles

Rounding out the film’s visuals are the entrancing titles by favorite Hitchcock collaborator Saul Bass. While some of the effects now appear dated (i.e. the cop’s deadly fall at the beginning, or the animated particles dispersing across the screen during Scottie’s nightmare), they were very revolutionary at the time.

Aided by the precision cutting of editor George Tomasini, Scottie’s nightmare remains one of the trippiest sequences ever committed to film, with flashing colors, the ghost of Carlotta appearing in familiar image, a graveyard appearing in rear projection, a cut-out of Scottie’s head rushing through time and space, and, most famously, a silhouetted “paper cut-out” of Scottie falling from the bell tower.

Bass had experimented with this “cut-out” design in the title sequence of The Man with the Golden Arm (1955), which featured a cut-out arm, but Vertigo brought it into the full-body form we know today. By the next year, Bass was using this full-body cut-out again with Stewart in the title sequence of Anatomy of a Murder (1959), as well as in Spartacus and Exodus (1960).

Still, Bass’ greatest contribution is his spectacular opening credit sequence. As we stare into a woman’s eye ball, Bass literally plunges us into her eye for a series of spiraling graphics that remains entrancing to this day. Like Bass’ “splitting” credits in Psycho, the spiraling credits here in Vertigo prove once again that everything in a Hitchcock movie carries meaning, right down to the credits.


The opening credits would not be nearly as effective if it weren’t for the equally spiraling score by Bernard Herrmann. Call him the John Williams to Hitchcock’s Spielberg. Voted No. 12 on AFI’s 100 Years of Film Scores, Vertigo‘s theme ranks higher than such famous scores as John Williams’ for E.T. (1982) and Max Steiner’s for King Kong (1933).

Martin Scorsese discussed Herrmann’s score in a 2004 interview with Sight & Sound magazine: “Hitchcock’s film is about obsession, which means that it’s about circling back to the same moment, again and again … And the music is also built around spirals and circles, fulfillment and despair. Herrmann really understood what Hitchcock was going for — he wanted to penetrate to the heart of obsession.” (G) The DVD production notes may have put it best: “Herrmann’s score churns with the crescending strings of anxiety and the sustained chords of desire.” (D)

The score can at times be terrifying. With hear wailing horn, you can absolutely hear the seeds of Herrmann’s later score for Cape Fear (1962). And when the cop falls during the rooftop opener, the final two trombones seem to foreshadow the theme from Jaws (1975).

Other times it can be romantic and melodramatic. Take the beachfront scene as Scottie and Madeline embrace for their first kiss, waves crashing in the background.

Other times yet, it can be downright angelic. I love the tail end of “Nightmare and Dawn,” where Hitchcock’s camera pans across the San Francisco skyline to dreamlike harps that ultimately give way to harrowing horns.

It’s the kind of theme that wraps itself around you, haunts you and makes you want to return to it again and again. I’d plop down money to hear an orchestra play it live.


Pop Culture

While the film is certainly not as well known as Psycho or The Birds, you’d be surprised by the number of films that have referenced it. The “Vertigo Effect” has carved out its own place in pop culture — possibly the only camera move to do so. It was most famously referenced by Steven Spielberg in Jaws (1975) to create a tense moment for Chief Brody.

Disney also decided to pay homage in The Lion King (1995). As young Simba realizes he’s in for a nasty wildebeest stampede, the camera zooms in on his face and the background appears to detach.

The “Vertigo Effect” was also referenced by director John Landis in the legendary Michael Jackson “Thriller” music video, just as the girl sees Michael transform into a zombie.

Martin Scorsese uses the technique in a more subtle way in Goodfellas (1990). As Ray Liotta talks to Robert De Niro at the diner, the camera dollies back from the table, while the background outside the window appears to approach it. This creates the feeling that Liotta is trapped; that we’re trying to get away but can’t.

Peter Jackson uses the “vertigo effect” here in The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001), and Mathieu Kassovitz provides a killer “zolly” in La Haine (1995).

Other movie references abound. When Mel Brooks set out to make his Hitchcock spoof High Anxiety (1977), he chose Vertigo as the source for the storyline and movie posters.

Brian DePalma’s Obsession (1976) borrows Vertigo‘s basic plot of a dead-lover lookalike, as well as Hitchcock’s circling camera technique.

Sharon Stone’s character in Basic Instinct (1992) resembles Kim Novak. The film Body Double (1984) borrows much from the film. The Goldie Hawn-Chevy Chase movie Foul Play (1978) references it. Robert Zemeckis borrowed the ideas of possession, necklaces and suicidal water dives in What Lies Beneath (2000).

In Twelve Monkeys (1995), director Terry Gilliam has his detective (Bruce Willis) hide out in a movie theater with his dead beauty. He looks up at Vertigo playing on the screen and says, “The movie never changes. It can’t. But every time you see it, it’s different, because you’re always a different person.”

In Run Lola Run (1998), the painting on the wall of the casino (woman in grey suit with hair in spiral bun) is of Madeleine Elster, who in Vertigo is looking at a painting of Carlotta Valdez.

In Secret Window (2004), the camera zooms in on the heroine’s hairdo. In Monsters vs. Aliens (2009), Susan is chased around San Francisco by the alien robot, and she slips off a roof and hangs onto the rain gutter, a clear reference to Vertigo.

The opening of the Cape Fear remake is Martin Scorsese’s homage to Vertigo‘s opening credits, recruiting Saul Bass to do his titles and using a Bernard Herrmann score over Juliette Lewis’ inviting eyes and lips.

In Practical Magic (1998), starring Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman, the camera spins as it goes down the stairs. In When a Man Loves a Woman (1994), Meg Ryan stands at the exact place as Novak near the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. In The Crying Game (1992), note Fergus’ makeover of Dil in the image of Jody. In Down with Love (2003), Renee Zellwegger’s character (whose last name is Novak) changes hair color to trick someone. Zellweger must have a thing for Novak — check out this March 2008 Vanity Fair photo shoot where she posed as Madeline in Vertigo.

On television, Vertigo references can be found in episodes of That 70s Show, The Simpsons and Friends. And when the Penguin used a spiraling vortex in TV’s Batman (1966), you can bet what audiences thought of.

In music, the film has inspired the title and lyrics for Harvey Danger’s “Carlotta Valdez” and the music video concept for Faith No More’s “Last Cup of Sorrow.” More recently, Lady GaGa mentions the film in her hit “Bad Romance” with the lyrics: “I want your Psycho, your Vertigo shtick.”

The term “vertigo” really thrust back into popular culture in 2005 when U2 released the song “Vertigo,” appearing on the very first TV commercial for iTunes. While the song never specifically mentions Hitchcock’s film, the Spanish intro, love-obsessed lyrics and Saul Bass-esque silhouetted cut-outs dancing to earbuds are uncanny (so much that it spawned a popular YouTube mash-up).

U2 isn’t the only one to copy Vertigo‘s “paper cut-out” tradition. The technique has inspired countless opening credits, including the opening credits of Catch Me if You Can (2002), Casino Royale (2006) and one of the greatest TV series ever made: Mad Men (2007).

Most blatantly, the Oscar-winning Best Picture “The Artist” (2011) paid homage to “Vertigo” by using Herrmann’s score for its climax. When Kim Novak saw the film, she compared it to being raped. Whether you approve or disapprove of such an homage, nothing is more flattering to the film’s legacy.


There’s a reason Alfred Hitchcock continues to fascinate us half a century after his heyday and decades after his death. It’s the same reason he has four of the AFI’s Top 10 Mysteries: Dial M for Murder (#9), North By Northwest (#7), Rear Window (#3) and Vertigo (#1). The man was notorious for stringing us along, making us think we knew the answers and then shocking us as men who knew too much.

Yet to simply call Vertigo the greatest mystery of all time does not do it justice. It may also be the most romantic film you’ll ever see, and by that standard, also the most tragic. Note that Vertigo was voted #18 on the AFI’s 100 Passions and #18 on the AFI’s 100 Thrills. That shared number almost speaks to the film’s notion that deep romance and dark horror are somehow tied through fate. How many films can claim to be voted more thrilling than The Shining and Halloween, while simultaneously voted more romantic than Pretty Woman and When Harry Met Sally? The two genres come crashing together beautifully during the climax as Scottie looks at Judy with tears in his eyes and says, “You shouldn’t keep souvenirs of a killing. You shouldn’t have been that sentimental.”

Vertigo works on so many levels it isn’t even funny, except that sometimes it is, with an amused bra smirk here or sharp “Johnny O” jab there, reminding us of the sense of humor that followed Hitch each time he casually appeared in cameo. Hitchcock walked so many lines and kept just the right balance, between humor and suspense; tragedy and romance; social commentary and suspension of disbelief.

Yet his greatest tightrope was always the one between rousing entertainment and high art. This may be why he’s the only filmmaker featured on Apple’s famous “Think Different” commercial. There’s a little bit of Steve Jobs in Hitch’s blend of commercial accessibility and liberal imagination, just as sure as the song “Vertigo” launched the iPod; just as sure as Scene d’Amour continues to loop on mine.

His crowning achievement may begin as a fetishistic fascination, but it becomes something you covet and crave, like a lost lover remade. It replays tirelessly in your head, like its own looping score and spiraling graphics. And like the “vertigo effect” it invented, its gorgeous images rush toward you the second you pull away. All you can do is give in, allow yourself to get sucked into, lose sleep over and eventually become obsessed with Vertigo, the greatest film by history’s greatest director.


CITE A: DVD Featurette “Obsessed with Vertigo”
CITE B: AFI 100 Years…100 Movies: 10th Anniversary Edition
CITE C: Film Dictionary
CITE D: DVD Production Notes
CITE E: Film Theory and Criticism book from Larry’s class
CITE F: 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die
CITE G: The Best Music in Film from the September 2004 issue of Sight & Sound
CITE H: British film critic Tom Shone’s book Blockbuster: How Hollywood Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Summer

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