Recently, for some reason I don’t understand, Vertigo (1958) was suddenly declared the best movie of all time. Although I’m relieved that the title was taken away from Citizen Kane (1941), I found this new choice just as troublesome.
You see, in my opinion, for a movie to be considered the best of all time, it can’t be deeply flawed. Vertigo, although it’s gorgeously directed and has some stunning visuals, is probably the most deeply flawed out of Hitchcock’s career, even more so than his flops like Marnie and Torn Curtain. Those other films may have been dull, plodding and lifeless but at least the script and the storytelling were competent. Vertigo’s script, on the other hand, is not only an amateurish, plot hole-ridden mess, Hitchcock made a major storytelling blunder that kept Vertigo from being the flawless masterpiece it could have been but everyone thinks it is.
To explain why I feel this way, I’m going to start from the smallest issues that mar the film and work my way up to the largest and most egregious.
Scottie and Midge’s First Scene
I am always amazed that no one ever calls out that very first scene that Scottie and Midge have together in her apartment. It’s beyond awful.
The first problem is the dialogue. Scottie and Midge feed information to the audience in a classic expository way that comes across as clunky and unnatural:
Scottie: We were engaged once, were we?
Madge: Three whole weeks.
Scottie: Yeah, good old college days. But you were the one that called off the engagement.
As if this doesn’t sound unnatural enough, “acrophobia” is mentioned at least three times, explained twice and brought up in an equally fake-sounding way. It doesn’t get any worse than when Scottie grouses, “What about my acrophobia?”
The scene is also completely tonally off compared to the rest of the film, with a lot of mugging from Scottie regarding the “corset” he has to wear, as well as some absurd jokes about the bra that Midge is designing. In any other film, this would be cute, but it’s the type of humor that makes the movie look like something out of the Frank Capra films Stewart used to play instead of some intense psychological thriller with dark sexual overtones.
Cop Out Ending
One of Hitchcock’s biggest problems as a director is that he never knew how to end his movies or just didn’t care. More than half the time, his movies ended on a cheap cop out. You can see this problem rearing its ugly head in The Man Who Knew Too Much, Frenzy and The Birds.
The ridiculous last scene in Vertigo’s bell tower is another classic example. Judy is standing next to the arch at the bell tower as she’s being confronted by Scottie. A nun comes up the staircase and she suddenly flinches in fright, backs up and accidentally falls out of the tower and plunges to her death like the real Mrs. Elster. There’s no set up explaining why she would’ve overreacted in such an over the top way. It just happens.
Worse yet, there’s not even anything ironic or poetic about her falling off the tower. She falls, and that’s it. Try as everyone might to come up with all kinds of theories about this scene, there’s really nothing much more to it than it being just another one of Hitchcock’s cop out endings. He basically just went, “Ah, screw it. She sees a nun, falls out of the tower and dies. The end.”
The McKittrick Hotel Scene
In an early scene in the movie, Scottie sees Madeleine enter the McKittrick Hotel, a place that she routinely checks into as part of her psychosis. He then goes into the hotel to speak to the concierge to ask about her and the woman says that Madeleine hasn’t been at the hotel at all that day. Impossible, because anyone who stays at a hotel has to check in first. So how did Madeleine go to her room at the hotel and not check in with the concierge first?
I have seen theories excusing this scene, some claiming that the concierge might have been in on the conspiracy or that Madeleine snuck past her. But this is unlikely and just seems to be the case of Hitchcock deciding that he liked the scene so much that he was just going to keep in the movie anyway, regardless of whether it would result in a plot hole or not.
Midge is Dropped
Right off the bat, Midge–Scottie’s platonic female friend–is set up to be a major character in the film. Not only do we learn that they go all the way back to college but they were actually going to be married at some point.
At first, it seems as if Midge is going to be there as the second banana or may become part of a love triangle, but then something weird happens. She goes from being this calm, cool and collected brainy chick into a flake. And she becomes more and more erratic as Scottie becomes infatuated with Madeleine, even going so far as to paint and destroy in a rage a self portrait of herself as Carlotta Valdes (the woman who Madeleine is supposedly infatuated with).
Why is Midge behaving like this? Is she jealous of Madeleine? Insecure? Is she suffering from a type of neuroses of her own, like Scottie with his “what about my acrophobia” and Madeleine with her suicidal tendencies?
Just as things reach a crescendo, for no reason that can be explained, Midge literally disappears from the movie as soon as the second half of the movie with Judy starts. There isn’t even so much as a passing reference to her in the rest of the movie. It’s as if she had never existed. Her disappearance and dropped subplot is more than just a simple oversight. It’s an egregious one, the kind that would be positively unforgivable if it had been in a film by any other director. But because it’s Hitchcock, everyone just shrugs it off as a minor issue.
What’s worse about the dropped Midge subplot is that it was a huge missed opportunity. What should’ve happened is that Scottie, upon learning that Madeleine was never real, realizes that Midge was really the love of his life. He tries to go back to her but ironically, through some twist of fate, she is the one who is killed in the last scene, not Judy.
Okay, but why? Why kill off the sweet, adorable Midge?
Simple. There was a very interesting theme that was beginning to unfold in the first part of the movie just by virtue of Midge being there. Throughout history, people have been obsessed with finding the so-called Dreamboat–i.e., the gorgeous hunk or the sexpot of their dreams who they feel is the epitome of sexual and physical perfection. (Think the movie, 10, starring Bo Derek.)
The problem with this pursuit is two-fold. For one, chasing after someone like that is just setting yourself up for disappointment, because the Dreamboat is always based on a complete and total unrealistic fantasy. Two, pursuing the Dreamboat often blinds people from seeing the very people who would be a perfect match for them romantically.
Let’s imagine Vertigo with this theme in mind and how it could’ve played out. Instead of one woman, there are really two women competing for Scottie’s affection, Madeleine and Midge. If we went by looks, Midge would lose the competition by a country mile. She is nerdy and frumpy and nowhere in the league of the glamorous, sexy Madeleine. However, in terms of personality and compatibility, she couldn’t be a more perfect match for Scottie. Yes, she’s plain and nerdy, but she’s witty, intelligent, understands him and has a long history with him. Yet in spite of how smart and funny Midge is and how much he knows her, Scottie chooses Madeleine the Sexpot instead, even though she’s mentally unstable and reveals very little to him about herself.
Now imagine the moment when Scottie learns that Madeleine never existed. He becomes emotionally devastated that his fantasy woman turned out to be a fake and an accomplice to murder. At first he’s upset but then he realizes that Midge was the one he should’ve been pursuing the entire time. He rushes back to her but she is the one who is at the bell tower and accidentally falls to her death.
Had Vertigo ended that way, it would’ve been a brilliant allegory about the foolishness of choosing the fantasy man or woman over a real person who may not be the epitome of sexual or physically attractiveness but would be a wonderful companion nevertheless. Unfortunately, Hitchcock and his writers never saw the potential to explore this theme and unceremoniously dumped Midge halfway into the movie. What a shame.
Judy Was Not a Femme Fatale!
A lot has been made of Hitchcock’s misogyny and with good reason. There is no question that he carried some kind of twisted love/hate relationship towards beautiful women, particularly the Elusive Blonde Bitch Goddess, who became an archetype in his movies.
Besides the misogyny casting an ugly pall over some of his movies, it caused another issue. When Hitchcock let his fixations get the best of him, it compromised him as a storyteller.
Case in point: Judy Barton as Femme Fatale. Who was Judy? She was someone who was recruited by Scottie’s friend to play his wife, Madeleine, who just happened to be a blonde. She wound up falling in love with Scottie during the ruse, but circumstances being what they were, had to disappear from the scene so she wasn’t apprehended for her involvement in Mrs. Elster’s murder. A year later, Scottie comes across her out of the blue, pursues her, and then forces her to live up to his depraved fantasy of sleeping with the now dead Madeleine at any costs, even if it means making another woman dressed as her to do it.
If we’re going to go by the events of the film, Judy was not only a pawn of Gavin Elster but a victim of Scottie’s obsession, right? This isn’t to excuse her of wrongdoing. Clearly, she was an accomplice in the murder of Mrs. Elster. But she was not the villain. Gavin Elster was.
Yet in the last scene of Vertigo where she is being belligerently confronted by Scottie, she is not only made out into the villainess of the entire movie but solely responsible for the death of the real Madeleine. In fact, she is even made to pay the classic Hays code price of dying in the end.
On top of that, the movie almost casts Judy as if she were a witch who had cast Scottie under a “spell”; her death then becomes necessary to free him of his neuroses. This explains why the last shot of Scottie shows him triumphantly standing at the edge of tower looking down fearlessly at the body of Judy. He has “gotten over” his vertigo and neurotic obsessions because Judy’s spell has been broken with her death.
Judy the villain of Vertigo? When the villain was Gavin Elster? Judy responsible for Scottie becoming neurotic, when he was the one who from the beginning of the film had a history of neuroses? How in God’s name could Hitchcock have gotten it all so incredibly wrong?
The reason is that his fear and loathing of the Elusive Blonde Bitch Goddess was so strong that he projected this archetype onto the film even though she was not a part of the story.
Let’s backtrack. In Vertigo, Judy is a redhead who was asked by Scottie’s friend to put on a blonde wig to pass herself as his wife. Even though she was supposed to pass herself as the real Mrs. Elster, Madeleine was just a fictional character that she and Gavin Elster made up. The whole “I’m a mysterious blonde woman obsessed with a woman from ages ago” was all shtick.
What seemed to have happened is that Hitchcock completely lost sight of who Madeleine was. Instead of seeing her as a character that Gavin Elster and Judy made up to bait Scottie, he confusedly began seeing her a character in her own right–as an evil blonde femme fatale who had cruelly seduced Scottie into falling in love with him in a plot she masterminded to kill off the real Madeleine.
This confusion on Hitchcock’s part is why, in the film’s last dramatic scene, Judy is forced to keep wearing the wig and remain as “Madeleine”, even though she doesn’t want to. Forcing her to remain in costume wasn’t so much about Scottie forcing her to confront her role in the Elster murder plot, but Hitchcock forcing Judy to become the Elusive Blonde Bitch Goddess archetype that he has confused for being in the film.
That Hitchcock failed to miss that Judy wasn’t this archetype is also why the film ends conclusively with Scottie triumphantly looking over the dead body of Madeleine as if everything is resolved, when the man who killed Mrs. Elster gets off scot free and is left completely blameless. Hitchcock honestly forgot who Madeleine was or just didn’t care.
This insanity of making Judy the arch villain and having her pay for the murder of Mrs. Elster while allowing Gavin Elster to run free was not lost on anyone, which is why Hitchcock was forced to shoot an alternative ending with the radio announcing Elster’s capture. Hitchcock snidely shot the scene, but not without giving the studio an FU by having the news end on a story about a college prank involving a cow. The director may have had the last laugh with his cow stunt, but this was a case when the studio was 100% right and Hitchcock was dead wrong. Judy did not mastermind Mrs. Elster’s murder or kill her. Judy did not seduce Scottie into falling in love with her as part of a master plan. She accidentally fell in love with him and became a victim herself.
The Premature Reveal Might Be the Biggest Eff Up of All Time
From what I understand, the revelation that Judy was Madeleine was originally at the end of the film but was moved towards the middle after negative reactions at an early screening. If it’s true (and it does look to be the case), then this has got to be one of the biggest eff ups of all time by an accomplished director, probably in all of cinema.
Why? The first major reason is that it actually spoiled not one, but four twists to the movie:
- That Judy was Madeleine
- That there was even a murder to begin with
- That Vertigo was really a film noir the entire time
- That Scottie was not neurotic after all
Let me elaborate on the last three twists.
If you can, try to imagine watching the last half of the movie, but with the revelation about Judy being Madeleine left at the very end as originally intended. (To avoid confusion, let’s refer to this version of the movie as Vertigo 2.0). You will notice that without that scene of Judy in the hotel room revealing that she was Madeleine, Vertigo 2.0 is a solid psychological drama that at no point gives away that it’s a film noir or murder mystery. For all you know, Madeleine did kill herself, Scottie did go crazy, and you’re now watching a twisted drama about a mentally unstable detective who is so obsessed with screwing a dead woman that he forces another woman to stand in her place a year after she died.
Now imagine watching this drama fold and then, BAM! It’s revealed in the scene right after Scottie sleeps with Judy that she was Madeleine all along, and that she was really part of a scheme to kill off Mrs. Elster.
How would you have reacted if the revelation had played out towards the end of the film and not the middle? The first thing you would’ve thought was, “OMG…there was a murder?! Who? What? When? Where? How?” Then when it was all explained you would’ve said, “Holy crap! I was watching a film noir the entire damned time, not a psychological drama! Hitchcock, you crazy, insane bastard! I could kiss you! You are the man!”
But that wouldn’t have been the end of it. You would’ve stumbled onto yet another mind-bending, shocking twist in Vertigo 2.0. You would have realized that what looked like Scottie’s neurotic obsession with making Judy over as Madeleine had nothing to do with a sexual fetish. It stemmed from a perfectly normal compulsion that played out in an abnormal way because of the unusual circumstances under which it occurred.
To understand what that compulsion was, let’s take a look at the so-called “romance” between Scottie and Madeleine. Don’t let the 1950s coyness fool you that this was nothing more than an innocent, sweet 1950s innocent love affair. Yes, it’s true that Madeleine aka Judy does fall in love with Scottie in that innocent, sweet, 1950s way. But for Scottie, it’s strictly about the ass. He has the hots for this dame and wants to screw her in the worst way.
Why does Scottie want to sleep with Madeleine? On the surface, it looks like he is sexually attracted to her for the obvious reasons: she is blonde, beautiful, sexy and glamorous. In other words, she is the epitome of the glamorous 1950s bombshell. Plus, she has a certain mystique about her because of her odd behavior and the fact that she seems to have this dark cloud looming over her head. She has “doomed” and “damsel in distress” written all over her, and it appeals to Scottie’s masculinity to be the knight in shining armor to rescue her.
But believe it or not, it’s not the blondeness of Madeleine or her mystique that’s turning Scottie on. It’s Judy herself, underneath the wigs, the hair and the makeup. You see, Judy–the woman playing Madeleine–has a sexual magnetism that goes beyond surface appearance. She could’ve gone to Scottie disguised as a doomed blonde bombshell, a hot tempered Italian brunette, a feisty redhead or whatever else and it wouldn’t have mattered. She still would’ve turned Scottie on, and he still would’ve wanted to bang her brains out.
Of course, Scottie has no idea who is really turning him on. He thinks it’s the blonde, mysterious, elusive blonde bombshell with this mystique who is sexually exciting him. So he associates the explosive sexual chemistry that he feels when he’s with Madeleine as belonging exclusively to her and no one else.
Let’s fast forward in Vertigo 2.0. It’s a year later and we meet up with Scottie and Judy. What it looks like has happened is this: Scottie had a complete nervous breakdown. Although he was released from the mental ward, he was never cured. As part of his mental illness, he goes on the prowl in San Francisco looking for that perfect woman to play out his fantasy of sleeping with Madeleine. He discovers Judy on one of his prowls, keeps hounding and hounding her to dress up like Madeleine and finally, because she loves him so much, she decides to cave in to his sick sexual demands.
Ah, but that’s only what Vertigo 2.0 wants you to think happened. What really happened is that Scottie left the mental ward completely cured. One day, he was out and about in San Francisco going about his business when he stumbled across Judy. He then became drawn to her like a bee to honey. Why? Because he felt this immediate connection with her, as in, “You know, there’s just something about this woman. I don’t know what that is. But there’s something.”
What that something is, of course, is Judy’s magnetism, the very same one that had drawn him to Madeleine. But Scottie doesn’t know that he’s feeling a pull towards her because she is the very same woman he had an explosive sexual chemistry with a year earlier. He just thinks, “There’s something about this girl, Judy.”
Scottie begins courting Judy based on that “certain something” and before long, that explosive chemistry he had experienced with Judy when she was pretending to be Madeleine comes back in full force. Now he wants to bang, just like he had wanted to the year before. Judy, who is totally in love with Scotty, is ecstatic. She’s also very, very foolish. She thinks, “I know there’s a chance he’ll figure out that I was Madeleine and part of this huge murder plot, but how could he know? I look and talk completely differently. He’ll never, ever figure me out, so I can carry on the romance I had with him before the murder happened, without him suspecting a thing!”
There’s a huge, honking problem, however. Because that “certain something” Scotty experiences with Judy reminds him of Madeleine, he starts getting very confusing mixed signals when he is with her. On one hand, he sees this beautiful redhead there who is turning him on. But on the other hand, something about the way she is turning him on is telling him on a subconscious level that it’s Madeleine.
The longer Scottie dates Judy, the more she titillates him. But the more she titillates him the exact same way Madeleine did, the more he is reminded of Madeleine. It’s as if Madeleine’s “signal” gets so loud that Judy fades out of the picture and all he can see and feel standing there is Madeleine. He then develops this compulsive need to have Judy dress like her before he can even sleep with her. This compulsion upsets Judy.
We, the audience–and even Scottie himself–are led to believe that the compulsion stems out of a twisted fantasy to sleep with a dead Madeleine. But the reality is that he wants to sleep with Judy dressed as Madeleine because of how much her magnetism reminds him of her and also reawakens that sexual desire he had for Madeleine the year before.
We also learn in Vertigo 2.0 why Judy was so upset by Scottie’s sexual compulsion. It’s not only because her feelings were hurt by his obsession with Madeline. It’s because she was also terrified of fulfilling his sexual fantasy. To dress up as Madeleine would give the game away, so she keeps stamping her feet with indignation when he insists on it. However, she finally caves in, hoping that if she lets Scotty sleep with her just once, he’ll get over the compulsion and never bother her about it again.
Cool, twist, huh? But now you’re probably thinking, “What’s the point? First it’s set up to look like Scottie was a crazy guy with some twisted sexual fetish. Then it turned out he wasn’t crazy. That’s cool, but what is the point?”
Well, now you’re going to learn the second reason why Hitchcock moving the revelation about Judy being Madeleine was a major screw up. It screwed up what would’ve been one of the most brilliant twists on the film noir genre itself.
How does a film noir murder mystery usually play out? The villain and accomplices try to cover their tracks through subterfuge. Sooner or later, though, they accidentally drop crucial evidence or say something stupid that incriminates them and gives them and the murder plot away.
In Vertigo 2.0, had the reveal been kept at the end of the movie as planned, it wouldn’t have been incriminating evidence or a statement that gave Judy and Gavin away. It would have been Judy making the stupid mistake of sleeping with Scottie.
Yes, that’s right. Vertigo would have been the first film noir in history in which sex was what blew someone’s cover. Not a matchbook from a hotel, a slip of the tongue or an alibi that falls apart. Sex.
Remember what I said earlier: from Scottie’s perspective, Judy’s sexual magnetism belonged exclusively to Madeleine’s. In his mind, only one woman in the world could have turned him on the way she did. Not Midge, not some random blonde down the street or a busty brunette with ta tas out to there. Madeleine. Only Madeleine.
A year later, when Judy meets him, she thinks that she can enter a relationship with him without him figuring out that she is Madeleine. However, because she is Madeleine, she exudes the exact same sexual magnetism that Madeleine had. Scottie picks up on it, but on an intellectual level has no idea why Judy, this redhead, is sexually exciting him in the same way Madeleine did. He just knows that sexually, she is very reminiscent of her, so reminiscent that he develops a compulsion to have Judy dress like her before he can sleep with her.
It’s this compulsion that leads Scottie to finally discover the murder plot involving Mrs. Elster. When he finally sleeps with Judy, he thinks he’s climaxed because she fulfilled his fantasy of sleeping with Madeleine. But soon after, when the blood rushes back to his brain and he remembers that it’s Judy lying there and not Madeleine, it suddenly strikes him as odd. He realizes that no matter how much Judy could have looked and played the part, it doesn’t make sense that she would have been able to fulfill his sexual desire for Madeleine that well. He begins to think, “There’s something fishy going on here. I know it’s crazy but if I didn’t know any better, Judy and Madeleine might be the same woman. She kisses like Madeleine. I feel the same exact sexual excitement with her as I did with Madeleine. I climaxed exactly as I imagined I would have with Madeleine.” That’s when it hits him–
She is Madeleine.
Look at the timing of Scottie having his epiphany and figuring everything out. He has sex, sees the necklace, then instantly realizes that Judy is Madeleine and that she was part of a murder plot. Why then? Why that moment? Why not a day later or two days later? Because it was the sex itself that made him realize what was going on. The necklace was the smoking gun that confirmed Scottie’s suspicions.
Had the reveal been left in the last act of the movie as originally intended, audiences would have realized that Judy’s sexual magnetism is what clued Scottie into the fact that she was Madeline, and that it was her fulfilling his sexual desires that gave her and Gavin Elster’s murder conspiracy away. But because the reveal was moved to the midpoint of the movie, Vertigo plays out like a standard film noir in which an object (the jewel necklace Judy wears) gave the perps away.
Deeply Flawed Masterpiece
All of this criticism sounds like I hated Vertigo. I don’t. I think it’s probably the most visually striking and interesting of Hitchcock’s films. But it was also the most heavily flawed, in my opinion, which is why I don’t understand why it’s garnered so much acclaim recently to the point of being named best movie of all time. It’s not only not the best movie of all time, it’s not even Hitchcock’s best film.
I guess it’s gotten so much play over the years because people are seeing it as some deeply revealing film in which Hitchcock displayed his obsession with the Elusive Blonde Bitch Goddess. The problem with this line of thinking is that people are trying to make it sound as if this revelation came about as a result of Hitchcock bravely exposing himself on film as the result of heavy soul searching.
But that was anything but the case. If anything, Vertigo marked the beginning of when Hitchcock allowed his personal demons fly out of control and compromise his abilities as a filmmaker, precisely because he was losing so much self awareness. So people are giving the movie a little bit too much credit for being “revealing.” Besides, being revealing doesn’t necessarily make a movie a flawless masterpiece, which Vertigo–for all its flaws–is clearly not.