From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
Vertigo is a 1958 psychological thriller film directed by Alfred Hitchcock and starring James Stewart, Kim Novak, and Barbara Bel Geddes. The screenplay was written by Alec Coppel and Samuel A. Taylor, based on the 1954 novel D'entre les morts by Boileau-Narcejac.
The film received mixed reviews upon initial release, but has garnered acclaim since and is now often cited as a classic Hitchcock film and one of the defining works of his career, appearing repeatedly in best films polls by the American Film Institute.
The prologue of Vertigo tells how San Francisco detective John "Scottie"/"Johnny-O" Ferguson (James Stewart) develops acrophobia after a fellow police officer falls to his death (while trying to save Scottie) during a rooftop chase. Ferguson is forced to retire from police work. When Scottie looks out from a high chair in the apartment of his friend Marjorie "Midge" Wood (Barbara Bel Geddes), he is paralyzed with fear and dizziness.
Scottie is subsequently hired as a private detective by an old college acquaintance, Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore), who wants his wife Madeleine (Kim Novak) followed. Elster is worried that she appears to have symptoms of a mental illness or "possession" by a spirit. Scottie tails Madeleine, who visits the grave of a woman named Carlotta Valdes. Valdes killed herself one hundred years earlier. Madeleine dresses like Carlotta and wanders the city in a trance-like, obsessive state.
In spite of the detective's former romantic involvement with Midge--they were even engaged for three weeks--Scottie is strongly attracted to Madeleine. He follows Madeleine to Fort Point, where she jumps into San Francisco Bay in what appears to be a suicide attempt. Scottie saves her and brings her to his apartment. When she awakens, she joins him in the living room, but soon leaves.
When Madeleine and Scottie take a trip to see the giant sequoias, she engages in a reverie of what appears to be Carlotta's past. Madeleine tells Scottie she has dreamed of Mission San Juan Bautista, and he takes her there in an effort to conquer her disturbing dreams. At the mission, Madeleine suddenly runs into the bell tower. Scottie's acrophobia prevents him from following her up the steep staircase. Through a window, Scottie sees Madeleine plummet from the top of the tower to her death.
Scottie suffers a nervous breakdown and flees the scene. At the inquest into Madeleine's death, Scottie is severely criticized by the coroner for negligence, though Elster reassures him, telling him "we both know who really killed Madeleine" (i.e. she was possessed by Carlotta's spirit). Elster tells Scottie he intends to cope with his grief for Madeleine by leaving San Francisco to travel the world. Scottie's depression worsens and he is placed in a mental hospital, where he descends into catatonic passivity. Midge tries to console him but realizes that he is still in love with Madeleine.
Much later, Scottie, still brooding, begins to haunt the places where they went. On one visit, he encounters a woman, Judy Barton, who reminds him of his dead lover, although she seems more "ordinary," even a bit vulgar, in comparison with Madeleine's ethereal beauty--although she bears a striking resemblance to Madeleine.
Scottie follows her to her hotel room, where he hears her story. She is a simple girl from Salina, Kansas, making a life for herself in San Francisco after a series of bad relationships. After Scottie leaves, Judy writes him a letter in which she reveals (in flashback) that one such relationship was with Elster, who hired her to impersonate Madeleine as part of his scheme to murder his wife. But, still in love with Scottie and feeling guilty for the pain she has caused him, Judy destroys the letter almost as soon as she has written it.
Scottie becomes obsessed with Judy, but any romantic possibility between them is thwarted by Scottie's memory of Madeleine. Scottie insists that Judy dress like Madeleine; despite her protests, Judy eventually gives in.
When Judy is completely made over as Madeleine, she goes back to her apartment, where Scottie is waiting. She deliberately tries to retain some hint of her own personality by not wearing her hair in Madeleine's style, but finally he persuades her to change even this small detail. She goes into the bathroom and emerges, just as Madeleine emerged from his bedroom — the film echoes the earlier scene — and as Scottie embraces her the past swirls about them and their relationship seems finally to be consummated, his obsession cured.
Judy wears a red, jeweled pendant that Scottie remembers that Madeleine claimed to have inherited, raising Scottie's suspicions. He takes her to Mission San Juan Bautista and forces her to go up the tower once more, telling her that he wants to re-enact the scene in which he failed to save Madeleine. Judy confesses that she was hired by Elster to act as a mentally unstable false "Madeleine", knowing that his acrophobia would prevent him from following her up the tower. The real Madeleine was hurled, already dead, from the tower by her husband. With no witnesses and Scottie's testimony supporting Madeleine's "insanity", Elster gets away with murder.
As Scottie forces Judy to confess, they inch up to the top, where Scottie rages at her, while Judy pleads that she loves him. Scottie allows her to embrace him. Suddenly, a shadowy figure appears at the top of the stairs. Judy, frightened, backs away from the approaching shadow and steps off the tower ledge, plunging to her death. The shadow turns out to be a nun. Scottie sways briefly in shock, but then stares down at Judy's fallen body: his vertigo is cured--but at a terrible cost.