Psychiatry Films from AMHF: “Vertigo” (1958)

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A Dantesque reckoning of shame, fear, guilt —Hitchcock's mind on display

Do you know what acrophobia is? The 1950s, like the 1940s, was a rich era for Hollywood depictions of “psychological problems” and themes—especially around words, terms, and concepts not generally known to audiences as such are today: in part, though we often do not realize it, thanks to the very movies we are putting “on the couch.”

This sixteenth film of twenty-one in the AMHF series devoted to the subject of Hollywood and psychiatry, is one of the most complicated as well as wide-ranging. It is a disturbing portrait of the auteur as a middle-aged man: fixated on various archetypes and symbols of “the Female,” in her various guises, thro the lens (cf. Rear Window) of “Scottie” (James Stewart), who not only has an insatiable anxiety upon finding himself in high places but also, as his doctor says, “is suffering from acute melancholia, together with a guilt complex.”

Vertigo also was voted, in 2012, the number-one film of all time by Sight and Sound magazine, knocking Citizen Kane from this venerable but questionable position (as if art could be ranked in popularity contests).

Like Kings Row as well as another film covered in this series, Invasion of the Body Snatchers (which includes similar elements of fantasy and delusion within a SF setting rather than that of a mystery-thriller), Vertigo is all about the drive and passion behind self-identity. Who am I? How many contradictory elements are there within my personality? Am I…my…hair color?

Stewart is a San Francisco attorney turned detective, who is traumatized by the death of an officer that had come to his aid, and fallen a big distance to his death. Themes of descent and ascent, and how these metaphorically speak for the psyche, run as Wagnerian leitmotivs thro the photodrama.

In Scottie, vertigo is more a psychosomatic condition; heights produce drifting, spinning, dizziness—the self disoriented. But like a child spiraling down a hill, for Scottie these effects also produce their opposite: pleasure, even euphoria. Nothing is exactly what the mind expects or ever perceives. Every emotion and element holds its opposite number or identity.

Scottie resigns from the force, but is asked by a friend to tail his wife whom this former schoolmate believes is in thrall to a long-dead relative. There is something bewitching here. Indeed, the female lead, one of Alfred Hitchcock’s famous blonds (Grace Kelly, Vera Miles, Eva Marie Saint, Tippi Hedren), Kim Novak, would shortly after star in Bell, Book and Candle, a witchy film, once again featuring James Stewart (along with Jack Lemmon), and released the same year.

Trailing the Novak character, Scottie eventually saves her from drowning. But with his fear of heights, Scottie cannot ultimately save this delusional woman from throwing herself from the heights of a church tower. Scottie thereby himself falls…into a deep depression.

Recovering after a period, Scottie finds a dark-haired woman whose resemblance to his dead love is uncanny. I will not give away the ending, though from the clues I have given above, readers will guess who the dark-haired beauty is. But the reasons for her disguise, her relationship to Scottie’s friend, and most of all the reappearance of the steeple will be a bit of a shocker to any who have not seen this thriller.

There is an attraction (of opposites: though, paradoxically—for unreconciled paradoxes are everywhere in Vertigo—the bonding is somewhat akin to Goethe’s notion of elective affinities) between the Stewart and Novak characters that far exceeds the code of the era; and it is inferred by ueber-biographer Donald Spoto that Hitchcock had an unusually intimate and smoldering connection to the actors that he was directing and to his subject-matter. It seems a good theory. One discovers themes of Pygmalion-inspired dressing up, which, psychologically speaking, may be seen as its counter: undressing. Scottie is upset to see the blond has been made over into its/her “Other” color: that perhaps her trances were feigned (whereas his vertigo is real).

Illusion. Delusion. Imagination. Reality. Depression. Psychosomatic illness. Fantasy. Heights. Depths. Light. Dark. Descent. Ascent. Swirl and straight-ahead action. The static and the rotating-circular. All apposition and opposition. The fixated mind—the poetic mind, the creative, all-synthesizing imagination—is capable of any such transformations. Some twenty years later (1977), Mel Brooks released High Anxiety, an uneven spoof of Vertigo and other films in the Hitchcock canon. Interestingly, the co-writer of that script, Barry Levinson, would direct and earn an Oscar for Rain Man.

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