Making the Grades
Time has been kind to Alfred Hitchcock’s movie Vertigo. When it released in 1958, the film garnered only lukewarm reviews. But in the decades that followed, the psychological thriller has been named the best mystery movie by the American Film Institute and is considered by many to be one of Hitchcock’s defining films.
At the time he played detective John “Scottie” Ferguson, James Stewart was twice the age of his co-star Kim Novak. (He was 50; she was 25.) Barbara Bel Gedddes played John’s gal pal Midge Wood who nurses him back to health after he is injured in a job related accident that results in a severe case of acrophobia (fear of heights).
Unable to return to his position on the San Francisco police force, John accepts an offer from an old college friend, Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore). The shipping magnate fears for the safety of his wife Madeleine (Novak) who believes she is possessed by the spirit of a dead ancestor that committed suicide. Gavin worries it is only a matter of time before she attempts the same.
Though skeptical, John begins shadowing the beautiful blonde and is there to rescue her when she throws herself into San Francisco Bay. After taking her home to recover at his apartment (where he undresses the unconscious woman off screen and puts her into his bed), John goes from discretely following Madeleine to openly accompanying her about town. Unfortunately he fails to maintain his professional distance and is soon amorously involved with his client’s wife. As his feelings deepen, Scottie becomes more determined to protect the woman he loves from taking her life.
Compared to the high action films of today, Vertigo moves at a plodding pace, relying predominantly on the musical score by Bernard Herrmann to build the tension as John follows Madeleine from art museum, to graveyard, to shabby hotel and back home again. However, Hitchcock proves himself to be the master of suspense as the audience begins to suspect John’s obsession is lulling him down a path he’ll be unable to retreat from.
Discussion Ideas After The Movie
Teaching ideas and topics to discuss about Vertigo.
How does John’s obsession with Madeleine affect his judgment on the job? What are the dangers of losing one’s professional distance?
Rather than using a lot of dialogue, Hitchcock often builds tension through music. How can a score influence the audience? In what other ways does the director build suspense between the characters?