It is said that routine in the intelligent man is the mark of ambition. But it also serves another purpose: it wards off the melancholy of time. To live without fear may befit those who have nothing or no one to lose; but the rest of us must persist in our optimism, in our patience, in our diligence, all the while cognizant that death approaches with steadier step. Thus the bravest among us are not the fearless but those who acknowledge that they must conquer their fears every so often – every so very often – in order to achieve their goals. Yet what if our fears were so brutal and devastating as to rob us of any chance at life? What if our fears alone stood between us and monumental and eternal love? Such is the quandary of the protagonist of this exceptional film.
Our protagonist's Christian name may be John Ferguson (James Stewart), but as we are still in the era of ethnic shorthand, he will be known to us and everyone in 1950s San Francisco as Scottie. In our opening scene Scottie and a fellow policeman pursue a rooftop-scaling criminal only to allow him to escape, leaving Scottie suspended from the gables. The other officer approaches to help but instead falls to his death, his screams forever to line the nightmares of John Ferguson, who discovers from this horrific episode that he suffers from acute acrophobia, what is colloquially and incorrectly termed vertigo. Now retired months later a convalescent Scottie admits to his old college flame Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes) that, although on the eve of disposing of his corset and walking stick, he still cannot stomach the downward view of a city window, much less that of a stairwell. He also mentions another college chum, one that Midge does not recall, Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore). Elster has taken a very different path than his college friend. A lawyer by education and a bachelor by practice, Scottie sought with no little enthusiasm to "become chief of police someday"; Elster, on the other hand, chose a very rich wife and the very dull job of her forefathers. This job, in the grand trade of shipbuilding, has occupied Elster to such a degree that he has not had the time or energy to tend to Madeleine (Kim Novak), with whom he claims to be "very happily married." Scottie smiles coldly at this man he once knew, and never knew well: Elster is a mercenary, the type of human being who does not want to regret sentimental decisions because far fewer among us come to regret decisions that make us wealthy and carefree. Despite his affluence and beautiful (and much younger) wife, Elster does harbor a few concerns, specifically about that untended spouse of his. Which is why, after little ado, he proposes that Scottie follow her.
Now there are two kinds of men who would ask you to surveil their wives: those who absolutely trust you and those who absolutely do not, with very different ends in mind. In how many melodramas do fearful husbands hire investigators only later to learn that these same gumshoes have become their wives' first and sole misadventures? Yet Elster does not so much trust Scottie, who barely remembers him, as believe that Scottie has a conscience, which is another assessment altogether. Madeleine is beautiful and, if Elster's insinuations are to be believed, a distinctly mysterious and secretive soul. More importantly, her soul may not be entirely her own:
I'm not making it up. I wouldn't know how. She'll be talking to me about something, nothing at all, and suddenly the words fade into silence and a cloud comes into her eyes and they go blank, and she is somewhere else, away from me – someone I don't know. I call to her and she doesn't hear. And then with a long sigh she is back, and looks at me brightly, and doesn't know she's been away, can't tell me where, or why.
It spoils nothing to reveal that the person allegedly in possession of Madeleine Elster is none other than her great-grandmother, a suicide by the name of Carlotta Valdes. Spurned by her married lover, Carlotta's life was short and, in its final stage, bereft of any hope or human kindness; but such a tragic fate did not detract from her beauty, captured for posterity in a museum-housed portrait Madeleine regularly admires ("admire" may not be the right verb; she sits before it as if it were a shrine or holy object). Madeleine also visits Carlotta's grave, wears her jewelry she received as heirlooms, and drives off to such unusual locations as the Mission San Juan Batista and Golden Gate Park, unusual because there seems to be nothing for her there except the memories of others. Or, perhaps, of one other. "Do you believe," asks Elster, trying not to sound ridiculous, "that someone out of the past, someone dead, can enter and take possession of a living being?" Scottie strongly opposes such ideas, which does not make him an ideal candidate to find out why Madeleine logged ninety-four miles on her odometer one lonely afternoon spent, she claims, by a lake. As he soon finds no viable explanation for his quarry's actions, however, Scottie, too, begins to wonder about the otherworldly influence of Carlotta Valdes. All the more so when Madeleine, with little forewarning, propels herself fully dressed into the San Francisco Bay, forcing Scottie to end his shadowy game and involve himself directly in the very curious case of Madeleine Elster.
My strict non-disclosure policy prevents me from saying much more, even if Vertigo's fame is such that few of its secrets remain hidden to the first-time viewer. But its diabolical beauty resides equally in its details. Scottie is apprised of some San Francisco lore by a local bookseller (Konstantin Shayne) in a wonderful scene which contemporary film would likely task to the Internet and its mighty search engines. Midge, who exists primarily so that Scottie doesn't need to talk to himself, provides comic relief where, it should be said, none is needed (including the film's only misstep, a vulgar joke straddling Midge's easel). An inquest, read aloud by a coroner to a tepid audience, is perfect in its pacing, tone, and implications ("Mr. Ferguson, being an ex-detective, would have seemed the proper choice for the role of watchdog and protector"). And the ex-detective's turns and twists through the streets of San Francisco have been often mimicked, perhaps most prominently in a thriller about another enigmatic blonde. A few differences between the film adaptation and the original novel are to be expected: Boileau-Narcejac's story takes place in Paris, during the first months of the greatest of European catastrophes; Gévigne (clearly the inspiration for "Gavin Elster") is much more of a known quantity to Flavières, the Ferguson prototype, having roomed with him at school; and Madeleine is a petite, "almost maudlin" brunette, not the voluptuous blonde who long haunted Hitchcock's fantasies. More importantly, the novel also does not hesitate to villify Flavières, a failed artist who unabashedly envies Gévigne's wealth, wife, and success, while the only suggestion of Scottie's caddishness comes in his casual neglect of torch-carrying Midge. Indeed, Scottie could have so easily settled down with Midge long ago and led as peaceful and secure a life as can be expected of a mild-mannered police detective suffering from acrophobia. Maybe, in fact, marriage and stability might have encouraged John Ferguson to reassume his work as an attorney, protecting in a different manner the world from those who wish to ravage it. And maybe then will he discover that Elster is German for magpie.