I first saw Hitchcock’s Vertigo when I was about 13 or 14, on a broken up series of YouTube videos. At the time, I thought it was alright but nothing too special. I remember being engrossed in the mystery of Madeleine just like Scottie was during the first half. I remember being shocked when they kissed—she’s a married woman and he’s supposed to be a “good guy!” And I remember being really bored after Madeleine died—in fact I distinctly recall leaving a comment on the video where Scottie met Judy and saying “this is my least favorite Hitchcock movie.” By the end, I had warmed up to the unexpected place the film had taken me at least to an extent, but that sense of disappointment remained. I didn’t outright dislike the movie, but I was thrown off by being misled, and I didn’t like any of the characters since none of them were good people or even “love-to-hate-them” villains.
Despite that first lukewarm reaction, I would go on to rewatch Vertigo on TV whenever it came on TCM, and eventually bought it on DVD. I became slowly but surely more engrossed each time I gave it another viewing. By my senior year of High School, I recall placing it 5th on a list of my favorite movies when me and my friends were trading recommendations. Once I hit college and had more emotionally charged flings and relationships I suddenly appreciated what Hitchcock was really trying to say. I came to identify with all the major characters on some level. I’ve been the Scottie unable to let someone go, I’ve been the Madeleine leaving someone infatuated and/or heartbroken without half-trying, I’ve been the Judy so desperate for companionship that I put up with more than I wanted to, and I’ve been the Midge admiring someone I knew would never notice me. It’s been my #1 favorite movie ever since.
Personally, I believe the key to enjoying Vertigo is to embrace the fact that characters do not act morally or even rationally in this story. The plot is a parable about infatuation and the way it drives us to do things that are illogical and sometimes dangerous. As such, it works on a purely emotional logic. That’s the central theme of the movie in fact—how love and lust can lead us into harmful situations and getting manipulated by others. These are uncomfortable realities the vast majority of media are happy to pretend don’t exist. In the vast majority of films, the story ends with the hero getting the girl and we’re content to believe they lived happily ever after. I say that trying to pretend real life always works out that way and love never leaves someone worse off is not only unrealistic but psychologically unhealthy. (He was technically talking about songs, but I think this Frank Zappa quote from his autobiography applies.)
In any case, I love artists who aren’t afraid to express their own vulnerability in their work. I also love art that asks uncomfortable questions or raises unsettling feelings in the audience. The reason is because it helps us all talk about important topics where, ordinarily nobody wants to be the first to do so, since we can then do it in the context of discussing the art itself rather than our own personal experiences. For this alone, Vertigo deserves tremendous accolades, which it has now rightly begun to receive the last few decades.
In the next…couple of posts, I will analyze this film a lot more in depth. They don’t need to be read in order.