Last week, the British Film Institute’s Sight and Sound poll, a list of the greatest films ever made around the world, was updated for the first time in ten years. For the last few decades, “Citizen Kane” topped that list. But no longer—now Sight and Sound critics have called Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” the greatest film ever made. I’m still not really sure how I feel about this, but I do see why it could be called that. “Vertigo”, even though it’s not my favorite Hitchcock film, can definitely be called his deepest film in terms of emotion and character development. A lot of Hitchcock films are just fun to watch, like “Psycho” or “Rear Window”, but this one’s a lot deeper than all of that, and I understand why it’s called Hitchcock’s masterpiece.
In “Vertigo”, we meet John Ferguson (James Stewart), nicknamed “Scottie” to his friends, who is a police detective in San Francisco. Well, he was; the first scene shows him one night chasing a criminal with another officer, and as they have to hop across buildings to catch him, Scottie almost falls. As he hangs from a pole, he starts getting vertigo because of his fear of heights—and when the other officer tries to bring him up, he falls to his death. So now Scottie is retired and spending time with his friend/ex-fiancée Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes), who tells him he might be cured of his vertigo by another strong emotional shock.
But then Scottie gets a call from an old friend, Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore), who asks him to come out of retirement to investigate his wife Madeleine (Kim Novak), who he thinks is starting to go mad. It seems that Madeleine is starting to become obsessed with an old woman from history named Carlotta Valdes, who (to make a long story short) killed herself after experiencing heartbreak. And Scottie continues to follow Madeleine around, wondering what she will do next. But one day, he follows her to San Francisco Bay—where she jumps in, and Scottie saves her just in time and brings her to his apartment.
And to make another long story short, Scottie starts actually talking to Madeleine and accompanying her around San Francisco—and eventually, they fall in love. But one day, she can’t take it anymore, and she runs to a Spanish mission where she runs up the stairs, Scottie chasing after her. But because of Scottie’s acrophobia and vertigo, he cannot make it to the top, and he has to watch Madeleine fall from the tower to her death.
Her death is ruled a suicide, but Scottie cannot help blaming himself. He is put in a hospital of some kind because of his unresponsiveness to anything, and when he comes out, all he can think about is Madeleine. Then one day, he sees a woman who looks like Madeleine a little. He goes to her apartment and introduces himself (yeah, awkward, I know), and she eventually tells him she is Judy Barton (who may or may not be played by Kim Novak…). After he invites her to dinner and leaves, she has a flashback where we see that she was “Madeleine”—Gavin disguised her as his wife so that in a complex plot, he could push his real wife off the tower of the mission and call it a suicide.
So as you can guess, the relationship between Scottie and Judy gets a little awkward sometimes. And it doesn’t help when Scottie, so obsessed with getting his Madeleine back, starts making Judy dress up and put on makeup exactly like Madeleine’s. Judy cannot take it at first:
JUDY: Couldn't you like me, just me the way I am? When we first started out, it was so good; we had fun. And... and then you started in on the clothes! Well, I'll wear the darn clothes if you want me to, if, if you'll just, just like me!
SCOTTIE: The color of your hair...
JUDY: Oh, no!
SCOTTIE: Judy, please, it can't matter to you.
JUDY: If I let you change me, will that do it? If I do what you tell me, will you love me?
SCOTTIE: Yes. Yes.
JUDY: All right. All right then, I'll do it. I don't care anymore about me.
But when Scottie sees one night that Judy wears a necklace that is identical to one that Madeleine (and Carlotta Valdes) wore, Scottie realizes what’s happening. And he takes her one night to the Spanish mission, drags her up the stairs in a rage, and confronts her about what happened. They eventually make amends, but suddenly, Judy is scared by a nun and falls off the tower to her death—giving Scottie a strong emotional shock.
And the audience gets that emotional shock as well—I saw “Vertigo” my sophomore year of high school, and at that point, with the exception of “There Will Be Blood”, I hadn’t seen a film end so abruptly. But I’m sure this was Hitchcock’s goal, and he definitely created one of the greatest mysteries ever made. But he also made a deep character study about people who become obsessed with the past. Madeleine (even though it was fake) was obsessed with Carlotta Valdes and her death. And then Scottie, once his beloved died, became obsessed with her.
What does this mean for me as a Christian? Well, personally, I’ve made a ton of mistakes in my life, in so many different areas. I remember a lot of the sins I’ve done. But guess Who doesn’t remember them? That’s right: God. The prophet Isaiah spoke the words of the Lord in Isaiah 43: “‘Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. …I, even I, am he who blots out your transgressions, for my own sake, and remembers your sins no more.’” (43:18, 25) When we ask God’s forgiveness for our sins, He is able to remove our sins from the past because of Jesus’ death for our sins on the cross. Hallelujah!
My prayer for you this week is that if you are letting an area of sin bring you guilt, no matter how long ago it might have been, that you would be willing to let it go and let God erase it instead of becoming obsessed with the past.