S ince its release in 1958, Vertigo has become one of the most analyzed and discussed motion pictures ever.
Perhaps this is because it seems to reveal so much about the hidden emotions, longings and psychology of the mysterious Alfred Hitchcock.
Perhaps it is because so many elements came together--the alternately charming and charged performances of James Stewart, Kim Novak and Barbara Bel Geddes, the sly, suspenseful script, Robert Burks' groundbreaking cinematography, the haunting Bernard Herrmann score, the character-laden Edith Head costumes--so perfectly all at once.
Or perhaps it is because Vertigo gives a visceral face to the wrenching human dilemma between desire and fear, illusion and reality, between taking a leap of faith and hurling into the abyss.
Whatever way you approach it, Vertigo clearly has an indelible effect on all who view it.
Vertigo takes its main character and the audience on a spiraling descent into the mysteries of attraction, commitment, identity and illusion. The film begins with an ominous roof-top chase scene that ends with police detective John "Scottie" Ferguson ( JAMES STEWART ) overcome with an intense dread of heights that leads to the death of a fellow officer.
It turns out that Scottie suffers from severe acrophobia - a deep fear of falling which results in a stultifying vertigo, and must retire from the police department unless and until he finds an unlikely cure. With the help of an old girlfriend, the sensible Midge ( BARBARA BEL GEDDES ), Scottie attempts to return to a normal life.
But his life takes another unusual turn when an old school acquaintance, Gavin Elster ( TOM HELMORE ), hires Scottie to take on a little freelance detective work. To Scottie's dismay, Elster asks him to shadow his wife Madeleine ( KIM NOVAK ), who he describes alternately as "being possessed by a spirit" and being a "suicidal neurotic."
Scottie is wary but the minute he sees Madeleine he cannot resist the chase. Madeleine is not only lumaniscently beautiful but utterly mysterious. A patrician-looking blonde, she spends her days visiting ancient gravesites, staring at a portrait of a woman in an art museum, and gazing out the window of a small rented room in a rundown, historic hotel. She is there, but somehow not there, and Scottie finds himself yearning to sort out not only Madeleine but her macabre fascinations.
The mystery and the lure only increase when Scottie saves Madeleine from an apparent attempt to throw herself into San Francisco Bay and begins a face-to-face relationship with her, keeping his other identity as her husband's hired detective a secret.
In precious stolen moments, Scottie begins to fall madly in love. But as his fixation with Madeleine grows, so too does Madeleine's obsession with death. When Scottie takes her to visit an old mission she's described from a dream, Madeleine suddenly heads for the bell tower in a desperate act of suicidal panic. Once again, Scottie's fear of heights prevents him from coming to the rescue as Madeleine and his one chance at perfect love come crashing to a brutal end.
But is it really over? Broken down and unable to go back to his ordinary life, Scottie continues to be haunted by the dead Madeleine. Then one day, he sees a woman walking down the street who looks just like Madeleine... and yet she can't be Madeleine, because Madeleine is dead. She is Judy Barton, a brunette department store salesgirl from Kansas with none of the alluring mystery and perfect poetry of the Madeleine for whom Scottie so irretrievably fell.
But Judy also has her secrets - secrets which will once again turn Scottie's world into a dizzying battle between illusion and reality.