Greatest Film Scenes
and Moments

Vertigo (1958)


Written by Tim Dirks

Title Screen
Movie Title/Year and Scene Descriptions

Vertigo (1958)

In director Alfred Hitchcock's perplexing, necrophiliac-tinged thriller about obsession - arguably his most complex, most analyzed, compelling masterpiece:

  • the dazzling credits sequence, with Bernard Herrmann's score, visualized a fragmented and shifting image of a woman's blank and expressionless face; first, an enormous close-up of the lower left portion of her face, then her lips, then her frightened eyes darting left and then right, and then a straight-on closeup of her right eye as the entire screen took on a bright reddish hue; the title of the film "Vertigo" zoomed out slowly from the depths of her widening pupil; spiraling, vertiginous, animated designs (of various configurations and shapes) replaced the closeup of the iris, and the remainder of the credits played over a black background after the pupil was entered and the eye faded away
  • in the opening's rooftop chase scene, plain-clothes SF police detective (later identified as John "Scottie" Ferguson (James Stewart)) and a uniformed SF policeman (Fred Graham) were pursuing a criminal-fugitive; the chase ended with Scottie hanging from a gutter; he had become frozen by his debilitating fear of heights (acrophobia) - he looked down many stories into the deadly abyss below and experienced a dizzying sensation called vertigo (symbolized by dizzying trick camerawork (a reverse zoom, dolly-out) visualizing the vortex; Scottie watched in horror as his fellow officer tried to assist him and fell to his death
  • Scottie was helped to recover with his longtime friend and ex-fiancee, Marjorie "Midge" Wood (Barbara Bel Geddes), an artist (and fashion illustrator) who was in unrequited love with him
  • Scottie, now semi-retired, was hired by his old college friend, Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore), to trail his potentially-suicidal and possessed wife as she wandered around San Francisco (Elster asked: "Do you believe that someone out of the past, someone dead, can enter and take possession of a living being?") - Scottie experienced his first view of her in Ernie's Restaurant - a striking half-profile view of the face of ethereal, lovely, elegant blonde Madeleine (Kim Novak)
Scottie's Stalking of Madeleine

Art Gallery

Golden Gate Bridge Rescue After Attempted Drowning
  • Scottie continued to stalk after Madeleine, and followed her into the art gallery at the California Palace of the Legion of Honor where he found her hypnotized, motionless and trance-like in front of a portrait painting of a woman named Carlotta Valdes, her ancestor's portrait; Scottie noticed that her single lock of swirling (vertigo-like) hair and hand-corsage bore a striking resemblance to the bouquet and hairstyle in the painting; Madeleine's obsession with her tragic ancestor Carlotta Valdez intrigued Scottie
  • Scottie rescued the suicidal Madeleine at the Golden Gate Bridge, when she tore and threw flower petals from her Carlotta-like nosegay into the water, and then jumped into the cold waters of the bay
Suicidal Madeleine Recovering in Scottie's Apartment
  • Madeleine recovered in Scottie's apartment, where he took care of her, gave her a red robe to wear, and became entranced and bewitched by her
  • they took a car trip together to the evocative, centuries-old redwood sequoias; in a dark, moody, giant redwood forest, in the filtered, impressionistic light of the woods where they wandered, she spoke about the ancient, towering trees over 2,000 years old - and how they reminded her of her own smallness and mortality; he noted: "Their true name is Sequoia sempervirens, 'always green, ever-living'"; while pointing toward the concentric, spiraling rings in a cross-section of the stump of one of the felled trees in a display showing thousands of years of history (historical events, wars and treaties from 909 AD to 1930 when the tree was cut down), she indicated with a black-gloved finger the place where Carlotta's life had spanned a short period of time - she enigmatically traced the times of her birth and her death in one of the film's key speeches: "Somewhere in here I was born. And there I died. It was only a moment for you, you took no notice"
  • in the next sequence, Madeleine begged him to take her to "somewhere in the light" and they appeared on a Monterey Bay ocean cliff next to a classic Monterey pine; after telling him about a disturbing, ambiguous, symbol-filled dream, she became frightened and ran down the rocks to the water's edge where waves crashed in; he chased after her and they embraced - and he pledged to protect her forever: "I'm here. I've got you...All the time!"

Driving to Spanish Mission

Madeleine: "There's something I must do"
  • Scottie and Madeleine drove and visited San Juan Bautista's Spanish Mission, about 100 miles south of San Francisco - hoping that visiting the real-world California mission would end her nightmares, cure her fears, dispel the dream's power, or prompt her memories; when they arrived, they kissed and he confessed: "I love you, Madeleine"; she glanced across the courtyard toward the mission's church and bell tower, hurriedly confessed her own love for him, became frantic ("There's something I must do...It's too late!"), and ran from him
"You believe I love you?...And if you lose me, then you'll know I, I loved you and I wanted to go on loving you... Let me go into the church - alone."
  • She ignored his attempts to comfort her with repeated kisses and promises and ran off across the courtyard toward the mission's church and bell tower. When he caught up to her, she again vowed to him: "Look. Let me go. Please let me go." In her final words to him, she explained how she had to go through with things as planned inside the church - alone. After one more kiss, she turned, looked up, and rushed into the church. He glanced up at the bell tower for an instant, and then decided to chase after her. She started to climb up the bell tower's crude, winding and rickety wooden staircase. In his pursuit, Scottie felt acute acrophobia and vertigo that slowed him as he ascended the spiraling stairs
Madeleine's 'Suicidal' Death
  • at the top of the tower, Scottie heard a shrieking scream as a gray-clothed body resembling Madeleine's was seen through a side tower window falling to her death far below; Scottie looked down through the tower opening and saw a still body lying dead on the adjacent rooftop below - Madeleine had apparently committed suicide
  • the disturbed, depressed and distraught Scottie suffered vivid nightmares following Madeleine's death - real nightmares, flashing lights, vivid, and shattered, exploding images, and a vision of a bottomless pit accompanied by a frightening silhouette of his body falling into the mission roof
  • haunted and obsessed with the dead woman, Scottie experienced his first view of a Madeleine look-alike on the street outside the flower-shop; in profile - a dark, red-haired woman was wearing a tight green sweater dress, and was identified as shopgirl Judy (also Kim Novak); Scottie increasingly manipulated, reshaped and remade her into the dead Madeleine's image
  • in a magnificent dream-like scene in her hotel room, Judy emerged from the bathroom in a sickly neon green light - transformed completely into Madeleine as the camera swirled around them during a series of kisses
  • then came a striking moment when Scottie was attaching a necklace around Judy's neck, and he realized that Judy was Madeleine (imagined in a momentary flashback of the necklace in the portrait and Madeleine gazing at it from a museum bench) -- he suddenly knew there was no Madeleine, and that he had been tricked by Elster
  • while trying to recreate the past, they traveled again to the mission, where Scottie asked agonizing questions as he dragged Judy into the mission and up the stairs of the mission tower during a second visit, to recreate the death scene of chasing Madeleine earlier when he had experienced his acrophobia and vertigo; Scottie asked agonizing questions as he dragged Judy up the stairs of the mission tower: "Did he train you? Did he rehearse you? Did he tell you exactly what to do and what to say? You were a very apt pupil, too, weren't you? You were a very apt pupil. Why did you pick on me? Why me?...I was the set-up. I was the set-up, wasn't I? I was a made-to-order witness" - there was a second final terrifying sequence in the bell tower, when she sincerely professed that she still loved him even though he had been her victim
  • in the finale - footsteps of a black-clad figure in the shadows startled Judy, and she backed away from Scottie gasping: "Oh, no!"; the dark, shadowy figure (a nun) said: "I hear voices"
  • terrified, thinking and believing she was seeing the ghost of the murdered Madeleine (or the reincarnation of the ghostly doomed mother Carlotta Valdes), Judy recoiled, stepped and fell backwards through an opening in the tower and plummeted to her own death (off-screen) in an emotionally-shattering climax; the figure, actually a nun from the mission, crossed herself and murmured the last words of the film: "God have mercy"
  • the last shot was of a stunned Scottie standing on the belfry tower ledge as he stared down at Judy's dead body in the tragic ending - Scottie had tragically loved and lost the same woman twice
The Second Bell-Tower Sequence and Second Fatal Fall

Opening Credits

Scottie's Fear of Heights - Acrophobia with Vertigo

Profile of Madeleine (Kim Novak) in Restaurant

After Car Ride, Madeleine Tracing Rings in Giant Sequoia Tree

Kissing with Madeleine by the Ocean

Vertigo Effect in Bell Tower

Scottie's Nightmares

Shopgirl Judy (also Kim Novak)

Judy Transformed into Madeleine

Swirling Around During Kisses

Startling Moment of Realization - The Necklace

Second Visit to Bell Tower:

Nun: "God have mercy"


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