The Greatest Movies of All Time: Who’s the Victim in ‘Vertigo’?

Looking for any excuse, Landon Palmer and Cole Abaius are using the Sight & Sound poll results as a reason to take different angles on the greatest movies of all time. Every week, they’ll discuss another entry in the list, dissecting old favorites from odd angles, discovering movies they haven’t seen before and asking you to join in on the conversation. Of course it helps if you’ve seen the movie because there will be plenty of spoilers.

This week, they attempt to avoid the stigma that comes with being number one while considering the flawed hero of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo. Is the sleazy way we see Scottie born solely from his introduction? Was the film unique in its time for making the audience feel the main character’s obsessions?

Cole: So Vertigo was crowned by Sight & Sound’s collective mass of critics as the best movie ever, but I don’t want to talk about it in that context because it seems so pointless. We either get to call it overrated or try fruitlessly to justify its placement on a man-made list.

It’s a great film though, and I wanted to explore some different angles on it. Whatcha got?

Landon: Well, I agree with you about how distracting the context of No. 1 can be from assessing the actual film. And Vertigo comes burdened with another context: having been directed by someone often credited as the best filmmaker of all time. So this seemed to be a controversial decision because, for some, it implied that they have to pick just one Hitchcock film.

But I want to examine and consider the merits of Vertigo alone, without comparing it to North by Northwest, Rear Window, and the like. What makes this movie unique not amongst Hitchcock’s oeuvre, but on its own terms?

One important element I think is its incredible, and often subtle, means of making psychological obsession an enveloping aesthetic experience.

Cole: As in, the way we become obsessed with the same things that Scottie does?

Landon: Yeah, or in that we’re at least invited inside Scottie’s head. We might find many of his decisions reprehensible, but we’re fully aware and engaged in his subjective state of being.

Take the scene where Scottie longs for Madeline, before he encounters “Judy Barton.”

Cole: Alright, I’ll take it.

Vertigo Judy Barton

Landon: He returns to the bar where he first spied on her, and the dreamlike red walls are beaming, but the images seem so much stranger this time because the partitions in the room make it a bit difficult to distinguish between foreground and background. Then he sees a blonde woman who looks almost exactly like Madeline.

Cole: And haven’t we all done that? Seen someone who looks like the person we’re thinking of only to feel like an idiot?

Landon: Yes, and here context is important. Not the context of No. 1, or the context of Hitchcock’s other work, but the fact that few Hollywood movies at the time had established their lead character’s subjective state so thoroughly, and even fewer had done so for a protagonist as unreliable and deceived as Scotty.

He messes up any expectations of protagonist-as-hero.

Cole: The same could be said about movies today – especially every one that lazily uses a drug trip as an excuse to be random. Scottie is so thoroughly handicapped by his obsession that he might as well have done shrooms, but Hitchcock does more with confusing space than a hundred directors have with flashing lights and dudes in bear suits.

That’s not a knock on Kubrick. It’s just that mascot outfits seem to emerge a lot in drug trips.

Landon: I’m trying to imagine the scene I just described with a reverse shot being a dude in a bear suit. That alone would qualify the film as No. 1 in my book.

Cole: Same here.

Landon: Scottie is certainly far from a heroic character, especially compared to Jimmy Stewart’s other roles. Should we think of him as the villain of Vertigo?

Cole: No way. As you might have guessed by now, I stand firmly in defense of him. I’ve seen more than a few people talk about this film in terms of Scottie being an asshole, and one even compared critics choosing it for the top spot as validation for a voyeuristic character like them.

But Scottie is the real victim here, struggling through to figure out the conspiracy against him and make things right. It boils down to the way he’s introduced.

Landon: That from the beginning he’s victimized by authorities and by his vertigo?

Cole: That we’re used to seeing heroes do something skillfully when we meet them. Even if they fail – like Cobb in Inception – they still showcase something that proves themselves as worthy. Scottie falls while running, almost dies, and gets a man killed. Hardly alpha-male material.

My guess is that Hitchcock specifically wanted us to start by disliking him.

Landon: True, and I want to come back to this question of worthy protagonists here in a minute, but I’m not entirely convinced Scottie isn’t, to some degree, villainous, even if his later actions are residual effects of circumstances beyond his on control. Yes, Scottie is a victim of a conspiracy against him, but he also tries to transform one woman into another in a controlling and, I think, really disturbing way.

Mr. Smith is a long, long way from Washington.

Cole: But it’s ultimately all in the service of making her admit to who she is. I get that it’s a dick move, but you can’t exactly go up and say, “Hey, aren’t you that woman that pretended to be another woman falling in love with me for some weird reason?”

Landon: There’s an alternate ending to Vertigo that I wish was kept in the film. Subsequent Judy/Madeline’s fall, it shows Scottie in a near-catatonic state with Midge taking care of him.

It drives home the point that there is no hope of this man recovering from these incidents in his life.

Cole: He’s damaged goods, but looking down on him seems like browbeating a fairly normal guy in extraordinary circumstances. So why treat him that way? Because he’s not as sauve as Cary Grant or because his character never has a chance. Imagine if the opening scene had shown him falling off the roof in service of tripping up a criminal who lands in the hands of awaiting cops.

Now Scottie is a hero who sacrificed himself, not a bumbling idiot who probably likes staring at women from his car anyway.

Landon: But the thing that I find most interesting about this film is the ambivalent position the audience is put in regards to Scottie. Take the scene where he first encounters Judy, before her flashback explains everything, where he’s convinced this woman is Madeline but she successfully convinces him otherwise.

You and I know it’s Kim Novak, so we’re in a position where we have to decide whether or not to trust the judgement of the protagonist. Very few Hollywood films of this time did that. The protagonist was unassailable, almost always in the right.

Cole: Even Scottie has no idea of whether he’s in the right, so how could we?

Landon: I agree with you that he’s a victim, but Scottie is unique as a character because he does not clearly fit a villain or hero role.

Cole: That’s fair. The most damning thing we can say is that he constantly failed as a protector.

Do you ever think about it in terms of Jimmy Stewart specifically? Hitchcock didn’t have to choose him, but he did, and Stewart has at least an echo of Scottie following him around.

It’s like hiring Robert Pattinson now after we all watched him get his heart publicly broken. Casting him is a statement! Except, you know, Stuart was in WWII, not cuckolded by the girl from Panic Room.

Landon: That’s interesting. I never thought about it that way. I always saw his role here as a departure, besides also playing a voyeur in Rear Window. But yeah, he really keys into something here that you don’t always see elsewhere. And maybe that’s WWII.

Cole: If Mr. Smith is a long way from Washington, it’s because he took a detour in Nazi Germany.

Landon: Or having the foresight to know that he’d be compared to Robert Pattinson on a film blog.

Vertigo Voyeur

Cole: Ha, something like that. I’m glad you mention Rear Window though. I know it violates our agreement to discuss Vertigo as if it’s the only Hitchcock, but it proves my point about how we see Scottie. When we meetRear Windows’ L.B. Jeffries, he’s a bad ass. Broken leg on a dangerous assignment, internationally famous photo journalist, got a ridiculously hot special lady friend.

Landon: I think he’s a bit more clearly drawn in Rear Window. Any creepiness there is a bit more endearing. And he has a sense of humor. Maybe it’s like a trial run for a character like Scottie.

Cole: He’s a full-on voyeur, but no one would think of him as sleazy. He’s snarky and funny, and he uses his creepy hobby for good. He’s watching that cute young thing dance around in her underwear, but he’s also solving murders! So it’s totally cool.

Meanwhile, Scottie is a complete perv. We’re willing to give the cool guy a pass, but the weak guy who can’t even stand on a ladder? He’s creepy.

Landon: But then what do we take away from a film like Vertigo and the journey of a protagonist like Scottie?

Cole: That nuns are dangerous?

Landon: Never underestimate the prophetic power of trees

Cole: HA. Yes, that and?

Landon: I’m not quite sure. Other people will exploit you with hidden agendas? The thin line between love and obsession can lead you down a rabbit hole of despair? These are commendably unique things for a Hollywood movie to say in the 50s, but there’s no denying Vertigo is a downer.

But at least we can take the nun advice to heart.

Cole: And that tall bell towers should have signs up or guards on duty or something.

“Nuns afoot. Mind the gap.”

Landon: I think that was the working title, actually.

What’s your take?

Check Out Older Editions of Talking Heads

Or Enjoy a Different Feature

An author similar to Hydra. Its articles have many authors. It has many heads. Please don’t cut off any of its heads, we’re trying to work here.