Vertigo (1958)

by Afra Nariman

Vertigo (1958)

Director: Alfred Hitchcock

Stars: James Stewart, Kim Novak, Barbara Bel Geddes


This review may contain spoilers.

To start off; this is more a collection of long, rambling notes than a fully coherent essay/review, but writing this has helped me better understand the elements of the film that fascinate me most. Not sure how much sense it makes written down but in my head it sounds interesting enough. 

Also, I realized after logging this that the last time I watched Vertigo was exactly a year ago today — so, yeah, nothing’s changed for me lol. 

My Rambling Notes on Vertigo and it’s Parallels with La Jetée: 

Vertigo —> 1958
La Jetée —> 1962

Vertigo can be approached from so many different angles, and it has. I rewatched this tonight with Chris Marker’s La Jetée constantly in mind, after having recently rewatched it. I watched Vertigo this time trying to tie together parallels between the two films. There are obvious topical, surface level comparisons between the two films from a visual standpoint, that when put side by side, such as is done here, the parallels are clear and outlined. (Most notably: the way the women of each film have their hair put up, some of the scenic moments each film’s titular couple embark on, etc). 

What’s most interesting to me though is to approach Vertigo from the standpoint of memory (one of the many ways it has been analyzed); in the way as is La Jetée primarily analyzed. Here are some loose notes I wrote down regarding the parallels between the two films, their thematic representation of memory, and the relationship that the respective protagonists have with the themes:

(Important to note: As Judy points out, the story regarding Madeline’s past/Carlotta’s presence/story, was, in the film, half fictional and half truth)

1) Madeline’s “dream,” which haunts her, is one in which she dies (at the mission Church), and it is also the way she actually “dies.” I put quotations around all this because of course, in the second part of the film, it is learned that these details fall under the fictional, fabricated half. It wasn’t Madeline that actually died — well, it was the real Madeline, but not Judy, who was portraying the Madeline we (and Scottie) know up until this point. But the point remains, in the fabricated “plan” that shapes more than half of the film, Madeline’s dream essentially recalls/foretells her death, which ends up happening in their plan. Her death is foretold from an image in her subconscious, or as she puts it, “something within me,” through a dream. In La Jetée, rather than a dream, it is an image in the memory of the protagonist (who is unnamed) which recalls/foretells his death. Additionally, in Madeline’s fabricated story, it’s implied that she has seen it happen, seen the place. Of course, we learn this is all made up to fool Scottie and help Elster murder his wife; but taking it for what it is in the moment of the film, Madeline’s dream is perhaps Carlotta’s memory — as are the fragments of the broken mirror which Madeline recalls in her chilling description of how it feels to be in one of her trances: 

“It’s as though I were walking down a long corridor that once was mirrored and fragments of that mirror still hang there. And when I come to the end of the corridor, there’s nothing but darkness. And I know when I walk into the darkness, that I’ll die…”

Both films utilize memory in terms of the past, “present” and future in these ways. 

2) In Madeline’s story, even when she describes living her present as experiences emulating seeing memories in fragments of broken mirrors (when she’s in her trance, she only remembers bits and pieces of what her body, “possessed” by Carlotta is doing); she emphatically says to Scottie that she’s “here with you now, and it’s real.” These broken mirror-fragments are essentially intertwined with the memories of Carlotta. The basic idea here is similar to what we see in La Jetée, when the experiences that the protagonist has with the unnamed woman from his past memory-image is experienced through isolated fragments of time based on a world derived from his memories — so, are they real? To him, these moments were real, because he was there (now), with her (and in love), just as Scottie and Madeline (who is experiencing “now” partly intertwined with her memories of the fragments left behind by Carlotta’s time in possession of her) are in that moment. The question later in the film returns (and I’ll return to it too): Are Scottie and Madeline’s experiences and memories together, real too? 

In La Jetée the unnamed woman is perhaps merely an image created/projected by the memories of the protagonist. In Vertigo, Madeline is a fabricated image created for Scottie. The question stands for both “couples”: Are their experiences together real? Regardless of the answer, they are most definitely memories for those involved (perhaps minus the unnamed woman in La Jetée if for him, she really is just a fabrication of the protagonist’s mind). So then, are all memories real? Are memories indicative of what is real? I won’t get too much into these extra abstract questions, but both films seem to ponder them. 

Regarding the question of whether the experiences of La Jetée’s unnamed protagonist, while in the experiment are “real,” — would she have remembered him if he had talked to her after physically traveling back at the end of the film? If his experiences with her took place only in the isolated fragments of time within his own memory-fabricated world, then she wouldn’t — because that wouldn’t have been her. This also comes to mind, in Vertigo, when Scottie finds out Judy to be Madeline near the end of the film and the terms “counterfeit” and “copy” come up. 

“You were the copy. You were the counterfeit, weren’t you?”

Were his experiences with and memories of “Madeline” real then, if his image of Madeline was fabricated? I would argue they were as real to him as La Jetée’s protagonist’s experiences and memories of the unnamed woman who dons Madeline’s hairdo, is to him — as the unnamed woman in La Jetée is also his image of her, while in the experiment. 

3) After Madeline has passed and Scottie is wandering once again, he begins to search for Madeline — more accurately, search for the “image” he holds of Madeline in his memory. First, he sees her old car and asks about where the owner got it, he then heads to the restaurant where he first saw her, to the museum, and all the other places he had seen her. He’s obsessed and searching, in some ways similar to how La Jetée’s protagonist, when sent to the past of his memories via the experiment, searches for the woman from the image in his memory, and then at the end when he physically travels back in time, searches for her there, even though she likely wouldn’t be the same person as his image of her from his time in the experiment. In Scottie’s case, even when he literally finds her, he’s obsessed with finding the version of her that he saw, knows, remembers — changing her to fit that illusion, that image of her from his past (in La Jetée the trope of an “image from his past” is extremely prevalent in both the story about the unnamed woman, and the memorable image of the dying man — which notably both originate from a singular memory). Scottie even notices other women who resemble bits of that image of Madeline, even when Judy — the same woman — is sitting across the table from him. It’s the image, the facade, the memory that has him obsessed. This is not love. This is about obsession, about desire to return to a memory and an image from his past.

It’s notable that Hitchcock casted Stewart to play this role of a despicable man (who in many ways reflects the problematic elements of Hitchcock himself); in that Stewart was a beloved face, an actor viewers were familiar with and had fond memories of watching in films for decades — audiences at the time (and still today to a degree) have an image of him that Vertigo ignores, painting his character in a way that forced the audience to slowly grow to despise him by the time the final act rolls around. 

Of course, knowing Hitchcock and the personal elements of this film (Hitchcock’s own destructive habits), there are certainly different issues at play in forming the story as well, but due to Chris Marker’s own obsession with the mysteries of this film, I am focusing on the ways La Jetée (1962) resembles Vertigo (1958)and how they explore their themes similarly. In this way, this is as much a review of La Jetée as it is Vertigo. It’s not the only way of reading Vertigo of course, but it’s fascinating to read these films through their parallels. 

4) In the final scene, when Scottie, now knowing that Judy is Madeline, is forcing Judy to reenact the scene at the church, he on at least two occasions says the phrase, “It’s too late,” which echoes what Madeline says multiple times to Scottie before originally running up to the Church to carry out the plan to murder Lester’s wife. This, perhaps more loosely than some of my other notes, reminds of the end of La Jetée, where the narrator explains that the man in that moment is seeing what he remembers from his childhood memory — the memory that “marked him.” He saw his own death as a child, and now he’s seeing it again, from a different perspective — he’s seeing it re-enacted.

5) One of the last things Scottie says to Judy is:

“It’s too late, there’s no bringing her back”

He knows that Judy is her (Madeline); but now that he knows that Madeline was a “counterfeit, a copy,” he no longer believes in recreating that image, because “she” was already recreated — by Judy. Now that he knows what he knows, the illusion is shattered, the mirror broken. The image he has obsessed over is unrecoverable. Scottie has reached the end of the corridor and now only the darkness awaits him — this darkness, just as it also threatened in Madeline’s dreams, ultimately leads to Judy’s death.

Arguably Hitchcock’s best.


Rating: 5 out of 5.

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