Vertigo - Alfred Hitchcock - Kim Novak - Judy Barton - Madeleine Elster - Ernie's restaurant

1958, directed by Alfred Hitchcock

At the height of his career Alfred Hitchcock made a movie that to this day few people have ever seen. It flopped at the box office and was shelved for years. Its plot was strange – after a boy watches his father die in a terrible accident, he starts following his mother obsessively. She returns his love, but he clings too hard, and she abandons him. Time passes, and he keeps looking for his mother in other women. One day he finds someone who looks just like her. He pursues her, but as soon as she reveals her love he learns a horrible secret. She is his long-lost mother. He drags her back to where she rejected him, and the mother dies the same way as the father.

Of course this is not the literal storyline of any Hitchcock film. It’s a psychological abstract of Vertigo seen through the eyes of its protagonist, John “Scottie” Ferguson. It’s not entirely surprising that the story underneath Vertigo has remained unseen for so long. The movie has enough going on to keep critics busy and enough obvious virtues to put it in the top tier of the Sight & Sound poll: Hitchcock’s ingenuity and craftsmanship, the compelling plot with shocking twists, and a powerful undercurrent of emotion. But it’s not enough to detect this buried emotion – it needs to be defined. Who would think that Vertigo is about incest?

Hitchcock had already shown a villain with a raging Oedipus complex in Strangers on a Train, and there’s more than enough of Freud in his movies to behoove a closer look at Vertigo. Even in their psychoanalytic interpretations most academics and critics miss the mark, and Hitchcock was devious in throwing them off the scent. He leads us to guess that if there’s a mother figure in the story, it’s Midge. In their first scene Scottie brushes her off as “motherly”, and in their final scene she tries to reach him with motherly love (“Mother’s here.”) But here’s the rub – Midge has known Scottie since college; she knows what he wants in a woman, and she loves him enough to keep trying. Scottie rejects her not because she’s too motherly, but because she’s not enough like his mother image.

Vertigo - Alfred Hitchcock - Barbara Bel Geddes - Midge

Scottie’s ideal mother figure then is Madeleine. Gavin has known Scottie since college too, and he’s picked the right woman to lead Scottie on. Hooked at first sight, Scottie follows her around like a possessive five-year-old peeping on his mother. We already know Scottie is a boy in a man’s body when he gawks at a brassiere and Midge says “You’re a big boy now.” To make matters worse, he has just lost a father figure, his older partner on the police force (how odd that two old cops are assigned to such an athletic beat), freeing him to pursue an imagined “Mommy” without interference. When he watches Madeleine in the museum she’s seated by a painting of an elder woman, but less obvious is that he’s standing against a painting of a little boy. His first pursuit ends when she eludes him at the McKittrick Hotel. Hitchcock was not above using bad puns, and the hotel’s name can be parsed to describe what happens there: ma + kid + trick.

Vertigo - Alfred Hitchcock - James Stewart - Scottie Ferguson - painting - boy

There’s another double meaning when Gavin asks Scottie, “Do you believe that someone out of the past, someone dead, can enter and take possession of a living being?” Is Gavin talking about spirits, or could that “someone” be Scottie’s mother? Hitchcock once claimed that Vertigo was about “a kind of necrophilia.” In his usual way he meant this to shock, yet he also meant it to deceive. Most people would assume that “someone out of the past” is more euphemistic than “someone dead”, but Hitchcock knew that speaking of death was gentler than speaking of incest. Madeleine is reportedly obsessed with a female ancestor, and Scottie can relate to that because he is too. It’s no accident that after Madeleine is gone, Scottie keeps mistaking much older women for her.

Images of “the past” pervade Vertigo, and it always has a psychological connotation. San Francisco is a modern enough city, but most of the settings are chosen for their antique qualities: Gavin’s office, Ernie’s Restaurant, the Elsters’ apartment building, Mission Dolores, the museum, the McKittrick Hotel, Argosy Bookshop, Gavin’s clubhouse, and San Juan Bautista all evoke an idealized past. The redwoods take the characters far back like a psychoanalyst leading a patient through a memory regression. Driving back to the mission at the end, Scottie speaks of becoming “free of the past” and going “back into the past once more.” It should be clear that he’s thinking of his childhood.

Vertigo - Alfred Hitchcock - Kim Novak - Judy Barton

If Madeleine’s name begins with “Ma”, so too does Midge’s name, Marjorie; but Scottie won’t call Midge by her real name, while he persists in calling Judy “Madeleine” when he knows it’s not her name. Typically for Hitchcock, Vertigo is full of plays on names. Scottie’s surname “Ferguson” refers to the Celtic warrior hero Fergus, whose wife deposed him from the throne of Ulster to replace him with her son. “Gavin” comes from Paul Gévigne in Boileau and Narcejac’s source novel, but it also corresponds to Gawain of Arthurian legend, who inducts “innocent fool” Parsifal to the Knights of the Round Table, leading to Parsifal’s seduction by the sorceress Kundry with a “mother’s kiss”. When Scottie and Judy kiss in her hotel, everybody associates the music with Tristan und Isolde, but Hitchcock was a great fan of Wagner, and he would have known that there’s another major Tristan chord on the same “mother’s kiss” in Act 2 of Parsifal.

Vertigo opens with a woman’s mouth in the title sequence. It foreshadows the kiss, which itself stands for the perverted consummation Scottie longs for, but it’s also relevant that the titles move immediately from the mouth to the eye. This order reflects the shifting locus of an infant’s bond to his mother, from the suckling mouth of a newborn to the desirous eye of the young child. The spiraling graphics and drowning melodies of the titles simulate the feeling of vertigo, but they also suggest the dizziness of an unformed psyche and the ecstasy of a child basking in its mother’s affection.

The most jarring production flaws in Vertigo are in the opening chase sequence on the downtown San Francisco rooftops. The three actors run with such an exaggerated zeal that it looks unconvincing, more like a comic book chase than real life – but that’s also the point. Like James Stewart’s boyish character in Rear Window who fantasizes himself as an action figure, he’s being introduced here as a grown man stuck in the mind of an immature boy. There’s also a plot hole when Scottie is left hanging onto the gutter – his unlikely rescue would normally demand an explanation, but in fact we’re meant to see the whole opening as unreal, the mere fantasy of a boy who secretly wishes to be free of his father.

Vertigo - Alfred Hitchcock - Kim Novak - James Stewart - Scottie Ferguson - Madeleine Elster - Judy Barton

The first person we see is the criminal scampering across the rooftops dressed in white. Vertigo will be about a criminal, but the villain will be Scottie dressed in the seemingly innocent garb of the genial, all-American actor James Stewart. In fact he is far from innocent. He is a dangerous man, a creep who uses Judy for his own satisfaction and destroys her in the end. His psychological weakness makes him a useful stooge in Gavin’s plot, and Hitchcock as usual is more interested in the crimes of ordinary people who should know better than in the schemes of sociopaths like Gavin Elster. Hitchcock’s films reveal a belief that the psychological horrors of the modern world are rooted in childhood sexuality. In Freud’s thinking incest was a normal phase of development, but it becomes dangerous when men fail to outgrow it, resulting in juvenile and self-absorbed personalities, possessive behavior toward women, and rivalrous hatred toward perceived father figures.

Scottie’s sexual immaturity is represented by the metaphorical illness of vertigo, a malady associated with vision. At the end his vertigo is cured, his eyes figuratively opened. This would seem to be opposite to Oedipus Rex, where Oedipus blinds himself; but the Greek hero gouges his eyes precisely because they’ve been opened, when he learns the truth of his incest. Scottie’s story ends at the point of discovery, right before his mythical counterpart would do violence to himself. Scottie may be cured, but by no means is it a fortunate ending for him.

On its release Vertigo was misunderstood, dismissed, and ignored. No wonder that Hitchcock would remake it two years later in such a way that nobody could miss his point.


The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari – Appears to be a supernatural tale but proves to be psychological riddle

The Lady Vanishes – Woman replaced by another in same clothing; story of juvenile sexuality

Rebecca – Incest; large portrait of female ancestor; question whether the dead watch the living

Mildred Pierce – Argument about the social effects of juvenile incest carried into adulthood

Spellbound – Literal vs. figurative amnesia; Empire State Hotel / Empire Hotel; Ballantyne / Scottie (both allude to Scotch whiskey)

Brief Encounter – Basic question leads to a deeper one: If Laura’s wrong about one man, could she be wrong about the other? / If Judy reminds Scottie of another woman, could Madeleine also remind him of another?

Les parents terribles– Disruptive force of oedipal incest

The Third Man – Warning against the dangers of a juvenile mindset in adults

Les enfants terribles – Distorting effect of childhood incestuous longings on adult life

Strangers on a TrainOedipal male as a threat to society

Rear Window – James Stewart as a boyish and sexually immature middle-aged man

Psycho – Oedipal male as a threat to society; female lead disappears halfway through; villain retrieves woman from bay/shower; Second Empire house representing psychological past; opening scenes progress from rooftops to interior to a ground floor office to driving

Marnie – Kiss in stables; Herrmann score; color for memories; zoom/tracking; journey into past at end

Topaz – The name McKittrick (a hotel in Vertigo, a spy in Topaz)

The Man Who Left His Will on Film – Someone seen on street reminds protagonist of someone who fell from a building

A Clockwork Orange – Warning against the dangers of oedipal sexuality

The Moon in the Gutter – Insights into the psychology and social consequences of adult incest

Dry SeasonStory of oedipal immaturity disguised by a cunning deflection

Burning – Oedipal character with “son” in name; oedipal complex resulting in danger to women