In​ 2012, five years before the wave of accusations against predatory men in the movie business, the film critics of the world – as chosen by the magazine Sight & Sound – voted to give the accolade of ‘best picture ever made’ to a piercing dream of male supremacy and female servitude carried to the point of murder. It was Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, and plainly the critics did not vote in pre-emptive defiance of last year’s outbreak of dismay at the way men have run movies at the expense of women. Nevertheless, as Vertigo has its sixtieth anniversary, it is worth re-examining the tormented meanings in the picture.

I was one of the critics who voted in 2012. I didn’t choose Vertigo, but since its release in 1958, I have never doubted the film’s fascination or its ruined mood. It always seemed to be a story told by a man struggling with his own authority. Vertigo is the work of a master in love with mastery yet confounded by its consequences. You could say it is a detective story, with a mystery that has to be cleared up, an example of Hitchcockian suspense. But that is inadequate as a tribute. This is a film about film itself, about the reasons we want to see and believe, and then it becomes an admission that the quest might be disastrous.

So it only seems to be a story about Scottie, or John Ferguson (‘Scottie’ is a curious name, like that of a small dog). Scottie is a police detective until, unmanned by vertigo, he allows a fellow cop to fall to his death in the course of a rooftop chase in San Francisco. Did the police force not know about his condition? Or was this the sudden manifestation of some deeper disability in Scottie? Had he known about it himself? He retires from the force but lives on in San Francisco in what may be masochism or self-loathing. As Hitchcock depicts it, San Francisco is a steep, perilous place – and a character in the film. If the city is not the best place for him, does Scottie’s vertigo speak to a deeper uneasiness?

Scottie is played by James Stewart (which would usually be comforting). He was fifty when the film was made. A man of that age should be mature, but Scottie is unresolved. He went to nearby Stanford, he showed promise of bigger things, but now he’s a pensioned-off cop, with cracks in his life. He tests his head for heights by standing on a footstool: ‘I look up, I look down …’ But he cannot manage even three steps. He swoons, and falls, and is rescued by Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes), a sympathetic pal from his past, a wistful wife-figure. She is attractive and she designs brassières; we can’t miss her coded readiness any more than we can ignore the risks posed by San Francisco. There is what seems like small talk between them, though nothing is casual in Hitchcock. We learn they might have been closer at one time, but that something intervened. Scottie claims that was her doing, but a hidden glance from Midge – a wonderful, bitter close-up – tells us that is not the truth. Something in Scottie was afraid to commit. So Midge is a vital corrective in this story: try thinking of the film without her and her sense of affection.

Scottie is fifty but he seems without sexual experience; he could be a virgin, or a boy who needs looking after. Midge watches him sadly, like a mother who feels her son has opted out. Hitchcock is so swift and oblique, but the set-up of the picture suggests the way to interpret his vertigo. He was a detective, a watcher, but that acuity is gone now in his phobic insecurity, so it is easier to feel his ‘failure’ with women. There is a kind of dread in him. He longs to fall in love, but on his own infantile or controlling terms.

Then he is hired by a rather implausible old acquaintance. Scottie knew Gavin Elster (isn’t there pomp and subterfuge in that name?) at Stanford. Elster heads a shipping company with lush premises on the waterfront. He seems rich and secure. This is a classmate who has far excelled Scottie in life. He’s American, but the actor playing him, Tom Helmore, is English and makes no attempt to hide it. In a tweed jacket, with a moustache and cool good manners, he could be a stand-in for Ronald Colman. He’s made it, he’s settled; he has a wife, Madeleine, who lives down the peninsula. But she’s a remote figure in Elster’s life. On a rich leather chair in his antique office, and then later at his club, he tells Scottie he regrets the passing of the old San Francisco life of adventuring – ‘the power, the freedom’. There are traces of Barbary Coast pirate in Elster. It makes Scottie seem all the more abject or immature.

Hitchcock aspired to be an English gentleman in Californian calm and splendour. It was how he liked to live, on Bellagio Road in Los Angeles, or at his country home near Santa Cruz. He collected paintings and fine wines and took pride in gourmet meals. But he was a greengrocer’s son from East London with a lower-class accent. In his movies, he showed mixed feelings for the English upper class – they awed him, yet he disliked them. Hitchcock was a furiously creative outsider, an upstart intent on making it in the suspect field of cinema. He was a subversive too, overturning social order and unleashing unexpected disasters. He had an odd sense of humour – dirty yet surreal, very English – and his name was Hitchcock, enough of a clue. But he was also a romantic trapped in an overweight homeliness that people sometimes smiled at and from which he occasionally sought dietary escape. He had a daughter and a wife, Alma, who was of enormous assistance in his career. But she was not glamorous, and she knew he adored beautiful actresses, or at least adored looking at them. His feelings were confused. In gazing at women, he would sometimes put them under pressure, and that grilling could become violent. Think of the murder of the tramp wife in Strangers on a Train, or the slaughter of Marion Crane in Psycho. Why does a man want to watch? That question lurks in so much of Hitchcock, and it is something cinephiles might ask of themselves.

Sitting in his fine office, Gavin tells Scottie about his wife, Madeleine. He is worried about her obsession with Carlotta Valdes, a woman wronged in romance a hundred years ago (in Barbary Coast days), who went mad and killed herself. He fears that Madeleine is becoming Carlotta. He wants to hire Scottie to watch over her. It is a familiar scheme in the movies, akin to General Sternwood enlisting Philip Marlowe to take care of his wild daughter in The Big Sleep. And we learned to trust the immaculate Marlowe and to love Bogart playing him, because no matter the fix he’s in, the private eye has a wisecrack and flawless assurance, as well as Lauren Bacall in his arms. And if Bacall’s character seems classy and superior, she’s just waiting to melt in a strong man’s embrace, to kiss him and share cigarettes with him. We know that code and love the fantasy, even if we are bereft, yearning watchers in the dark.

Hitchcock would have longed for Grace Kelly to be his Madeleine. He used her three times running in the mid-1950s, as if obsessed. He had never spoken to her about himself – at least, we don’t think so – but she was his type: beautiful in a ladylike way, with hints of sensuality beneath that cool, blonde exterior. He had made her like a goddess in Dial M for Murder, Rear Window and To Catch a Thief. But he had gone too far: in Monaco, while making To Catch a Thief, Kelly was noticed by a prince. The magic of actress and beholder really could work – but not for the master. That made a mortifying English joke.

Hitch wanted Grace still. For years he tried to tempt her with projects, even as late as Marnie in 1964. But the protocols of the court of Monaco did not allow its princess to be seen on public screens as someone else’s dream. His next thought was Vera Miles, a good actress and an attractive woman, but not quite a knockout, not someone to be dreamed about. He had cast her as the wife in The Wrong Man, a woman who undergoes a frightening breakdown when her husband is believed to be a criminal. Miles had played that part to crushed perfection, and she was excellent in John Ford’s The Searchers too. But she was pregnant when Hitch was casting Vertigo, and then he saw Kim Novak in The Eddy Duchin Story – a hopeless film, a bad film – and he was stricken.

Novak was a rarity, the shy knockout, a beauty who had no confidence. Her voice was hushed. There was a faraway look in her eyes. She was a ravishing blonde, but seemed uneasy being photographed or even seen. She was anxious to be respected (she had once been Miss Deepfreeze), and it was rumoured that she was the favoured project of Harry Cohn, the head of Columbia, the studio that signed her up in 1954. There were whispers that she couldn’t act; she was a restrained version of Marilyn Monroe early in her career, the kind of actress who was cast as a voyeur’s delight but seldom trusted with a serious part. Instead, she got the socialite wife in The Eddy Duchin Story. She was actually loaned out for Vertigo. Cohn profited hugely on her salary. She was being exploited in the standard Hollywood way while being asked to fit into a male dream.

All this was good preparation to play the part of Madeleine Elster, because that woman never quite exists. Gavin actually wants to kill his wife: he needs her money, he wants to be free, he wants to go on playing the independent English gentleman in peace. So he has hired someone, an amateur actress, to act as Madeleine. She is Judy Barton, a rather coarse, illusionless escapee from Salina, Kansas, a redhead going ginger who is at a loose enough end to take the role of Madeleine, the wife who has a yen for suicide – unless Scottie can save her.

It is reasonable to assume that the suave Gavin has seduced Judy. He is paying her to be his wife, and has given her Madeleine’s clothes. He may have promised that she could be his wife one day. He has dressed her up as Madeleine – a grey suit, her hair in a tight twist – and sent her out to be bait for Scottie, and for us. Novak was more than willing. Vertigo was her big chance at respectability. She told Dan Auiler, author of the invaluable book Vertigo: The Making of a Hitchcock Classic (1998), that Judy seemed right for her:

When I read the lines, ‘I want you to love me for me,’ I just identified with it so much. It was what I felt when I came to Hollywood as a young girl. You know, they want to make you over completely. They do your hair and make-up and it was always like I was fighting to show some of my real self. So I related to the resentment of being made over and the need for approval and the desire to be loved. I really identified with the story because to me it was saying, Please, see who I am. Fall in love with me, not a fantasy.

This all works out in its tortured way. As if Gavin were himself a storyteller, or a surrogate filmmaker, he casts Scottie as a disaster-prone guardian, whose vertigo will intervene at a crucial moment. He has the pliant Judy wander the misty, romantic sights of San Francisco while Scottie follows her, increasingly smitten. We know his state of mind because it’s ours too. It is a sustained wordless passage of intense beauty in which Bernard Herrmann’s stringed score is like breathing. It is during this sequence that Scottie, the movie camera and its slaves (ourselves) fall in love with a ghost. There is an exquisite moment just before this, in Ernie’s restaurant, where Gavin sets ‘Madeleine’ up so that Scottie can identify her. She steps forward to stand in Scottie’s view and pauses in an iconic, profiled close-up, monopolising the screen. Except this isn’t Scottie’s view: he is sitting discreetly at the bar and she has stopped directly behind him – he has turned away to avoid being seen. The shot may be in Scottie’s mind’s eye, but we are the only ones actually looking. It is as if he were sinking into her, but he takes us down too, and none of us is suspicious that Judy or Kim had dutifully stood there in the right place to be photographed and to launch the great fall. In 1958, if not quite now, we had such trust in close-ups.

The first climax of the pursuit is when the distracted Madeleine – or the calculating Judy – falls into the Pacific at Fort Point beneath the Golden Gate Bridge. Scottie jumps in after her, then takes her back to his apartment. The most erotic scene in the film follows, and it is Hitchcock’s desire at its stealthiest. Scottie removes her wet clothes. We do not see this (in 1958 such things were kept out of view, to be fetishised all the more), but we do see the look on her face when she realises Scottie has seen her naked. Of course Judy was faking it, playing her part, so had she been keeping her eyes shut – eyes wide shut? – and imagining Scottie’s reaction to what he was seeing? Did she then notice how moved she was by being seen by him – for she had fallen for him too?

Spelled out like this, the plot of Vertigo is so silly, so far-fetched, that we have to admit how thoroughly we have been seduced by the film’s atmosphere. We have fallen for its lunatic trick, and are as likely to be undone by it as Scottie or Judy. The real object of the film is ruinous obsession. Or it is the movies themselves, as felt by the filmmaker or by the voyeurs in the dark.

You can weigh that ultimate, fatal purpose by the fact that the mystery plot is not resolved or tidied up. Gavin is a murderer: he kills Madeleine (he has her corpse ready to be tossed off the mission tower in San Juan Bautista), and you can say he is complicit in the death of Judy. He has destroyed Scottie. He really is a very nasty fellow. Yet he goes free – a killer in a 1958 film, unpunished, unrebuked. Hitchcock knew this was an improper let-off. Fearing censorship, he shot a scene in which it was explained that Gavin had been arrested and would be brought to justice. But he didn’t bother to use it – let’s say he had a soft spot or fellow-feeling for Gavin’s fraudulent gent. So Gavin is the most notable escaped murderer in movie history. Was he too close to the film’s maker to be condemned?

The passion involved in remaking a woman to match a voyeur’s pleasure runs through Vertigo. Scottie takes Judy and tries to erase her real self to create a renewed Madeleine; the scene in which she returns to a plain hotel room from wardrobe and make-up as ‘Madeleine’ is ecstatic but very scary. Hitchcock gives it a green glow to signal sexual abandon, but the colour is filled with danger warnings and sickliness. The detective’s vertigo is revealed at last as helpless sexual blindness. He cannot see Judy, or feel for her distress. Earlier in the story, Gavin will have carried out the same makeover. But behind Gavin was Hitchcock, adoring the actress, enabled by the helpless loving attention of the camera. The result is the glory of Kim Novak’s career, but it is a monument to the agony in which actresses (and women) are relentlessly made in the image of men’s desire. Novak never made a better film or one that so damned her wish to be herself.

The influence was profound, and one can see it further afield than in the work of such self-conscious Hitchcock imitators as Brian De Palma (Obsession, a remake of Vertigo, or Body Double). The pattern of two women, the real and the fantasy, exists in films as varied as Pierrot le fou, Blow-Up, Belle de jour, Persona, That Obscure Object of Desire, Mississippi Mermaid, Blue Velvet, Casino, Mulholland Drive, Eyes Wide Shut, The Piano Teacher, Phantom Thread. This is not a lightweight list. It includes many of the best and most unsettling films about love and sex of the last sixty years. That points to a persistent anxiety in directors over what their medium is doing. One of the striking things about that line of descent is how often the preoccupation with a female ideal leads to a betrayal or disappointment in which the man feels he is the victim of the plot. Perhaps the most terrifying thing in Vertigo is Scottie’s vengeful fury when he realises he has been duped. He has not a moment of kindness in which he might see the pain in Judy. So the film ends as a story about his chagrin.

The picture was not a success in 1958. A number of reviewers felt it was too long and too muddled. Hitchcock himself had been in some doubt over how to explain the story, and gave away the ending in advance as if to say that narrative suspense wasn’t what he was aiming for. Exactly what happens at the death of Madeleine is glossed over very fast. It doesn’t bear examination. These issues of credibility disappointed some reviewers. The New Yorker said it was ‘far-fetched nonsense’; Time thought it just ‘another Hitchcock and bull story’. There had long been a feeling that Hitchcock was too frivolous, or opportunistic, too blind to reality – just an entertainer.

So the picture did only modestly at the box office: its returns were way below those for Rear Window and North by Northwest. But any business doubts about Hitchcock would be swept away by his next film, Psycho, an unprecedented box-office coup, in which unhindered, conscience-free manipulation rises above plausibility and seriousness. Psycho resonated with the cruelty that had been muffled in Vertigo. It wasn’t just Hitchcock’s greatest hit, but what turned him from a showbusiness wonder into a modern artist deserving of studies, seminars and PhDs, as well as the book-length interview done by François Truffaut in 1967.

Hitchcock was a different man after 1960, even if he was by then in his sixties and someone who should have known better. He could make objects and ethers potent – a knife, a glass of milk, mist at the Mission Dolores cemetery in Vertigo. But above all he cherished actresses, and knew that not touching them was vital. He needed censorship to fuel his creative energy. But then, during the making of The Birds and Marnie, according to their blonde lead, Tippi Hedren, he came on to her, he was predatory and he threatened her career. The anticipation that had hovered over Joan Fontaine, Ingrid Bergman and Grace Kelly was released. I do not doubt what Hedren has said, or question the accuracy of what her testimony reveals about the whole enterprise of filmmaking. That’s why Vertigo has to be explored all the way down into its pit. It doesn’t have to be the best film ever made, but in its fevered brilliance and its astonishing misanthropy it tells us something disturbing about the medium, and something we seem finally ready to admit.

Hitchcock was hurt at the way Vertigo was received. The shy man had revealed himself as a maker of dreams in which looking at women and composing them satisfied his desire. But the confession was ignored. In time, wielding the power that came to him after Psycho, he withdrew Vertigo from public view. It was part of a package of his films that he could control and withhold. From the early 1970s until 1983, you couldn’t see Vertigo. As a film teacher at that time I can remember occasions when students were hungry to hear a synopsis of the film, let alone experience what it felt like to see it. This was the intended calculation of a master showman. In movies, allure can come from not being seen – as with Novak’s nakedness, or the contents of the pram at the end of Phantom Thread. Vertigo’s rise to power was set in motion by its unavailability.

We have to be clear-eyed about Vertigo, and about what its power and influence tell us. It isn’t just that Alfred Hitchcock was devious, a fantasist, a voyeur and a predator. It isn’t just that no matter how many Harvey Weinsteins are exposed, it could never be enough to deliver justice to those who have been wronged and exploited. It isn’t even that men invented and have dominated the command and control of the movies, both as art and business: that they have been the majority of directors, producers and camera people despite, over the years, being a minority of the audience. Is what Vertigo has to tell us, beyond this history of male control, that the medium itself is in some sense male? Is there something in cinema that gives power to the predator, sitting still in the dark, watching desired and forbidden things? Something male in a system that has an actress stand on her mark, in a beautifully lit and provocatively intimate close-up, so that we can rhapsodise over her?

In 2012, the Sight & Sound poll was urged on by a feeling that we’d all had enough of Citizen Kane. Welles’s film had been voted the best ever from 1962 to 2002. Few felt that the verdict had been unjust, but in a young medium was it proper for the champ to be a pensioner? Didn’t cinephiles deserve a more mercurial model, made in their lifetime? But the new winner was Vertigo, not very much younger than Citizen Kane, and its triumph was acknowledged as a rueful commentary on the ambivalent glory of being a film director, the auteur status that Sight & Sound was pledged to uphold. Already, in 2012, Hitchcock was perceived as a master, but also as a nearly tragic figure. No young filmmaker really wanted to look like him, but many felt they lived in his shadow just as once they had been devoted to the reckless romance of being Orson Welles.

I didn’t vote for Vertigo; I didn’t love it enough in 1958 or in 2012. I voted for Rear Window, which seems to me a lighter, airier, more amused study on the same theme – marriage and murder, watching and imagining. It lacks the suffocating self-pity of Vertigo, and so I like it more. I can’t see Vertigo holding the title in 2022, if the known world prevails then and remains ready to attend to another fanciful poll. It’s irrefutably clear that Vertigo is a confession to the damage done by men’s grooming of women’s desirability. And even if the film is tragic, and even if Novak’s performance more and more seems brave or poignant, I don’t think its fantasy can go unchastised.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences