When his fear of heights starts to impinge on his effectiveness as a San Francisco cop, John “Scottie” Ferguson (Stewart) is compelled to leave the force.
At a loose end, a friend asks a favour; he wants John to follow his wife as she’s been acting strangely.
Ferguson obliges but it doesn’t take long for him to become infatuated with the beautiful Madeleine (Novak).
When eventually they meet, it’s obvious that the feeling is mutual, however, Ferguson’s demons come back to haunt him once more, as he is unable to save Madeleine from a fatal fall from a bell tower.
Vertigo is a summation of all that Hitchcock did best: the suspense, the tension, the coercion of the camera to suit the mood and the almost remote female lead. In a plot that twists and retraces until we’re not sure who is who, a tall tale of deception and intrigue is built up.
When Ferguson meets a woman bearing a remarkable resemblance to Madeleine, soon after her death, the intrigue really starts to escalate and Hitchcock builds the notion of one man’s obsession with obtaining perfection, as he tries to mould the look-alike into an exact replica of the love he lost prematurely.
Novak gives her greatest performance in a demanding dual role, while Stewart shatters his all-American Mr Nice Guy persona with a disturbingly dark and complex characterisation.
Dealing with human neuroses in such a groundbreaking manner was part of the genius that earned Hitchcock his awesome reputation. You really don’t know what his characters are going to have thrown at them next, but you know it will make sense, albeit strangely twisted, as soon as it happens.
Although Hitchcock was at the height of his critical and commercial success at the time, Vertigo was not a well-liked film at the time of its release. Most criticism focussed on the intricate and unlikely plot dependent on a fiendishly implausible murder scheme on the part of a thinly characterised villain, whose exposure is about as much a surprise as the ending of your average Scooby-Doo episode.
The climax is so concerned with something else that the killer seems to get away with it – though Hitchcock shot an unnecessary tag, in the spirit of his TV narrations, to reveal that he was brought to justice.
But during a lengthy period in which Vertigo was unavailable for copyright reasons, the film was critically reassessed. Now it is held to be one of the Master’s greatest works.
John “Scottie” Ferguson
Barbara Bel Geddes