[T]here are six people involved in every encounter: the two people as they see themselves, the two as they are seen by the other, and the two as they really are, whatever that is.
Charles Barr on Hitchcock’s Vertigo
I may be a hopeless reactionary when it comes to politics, philosophy, and theology, but I’m pretty conventional when it comes to movies. What I think is good is pretty much what everyone else thinks is good. Well, to a large extent, anyway. Star Wars? Sorry, can’t stand it. David Lynch? Ugh. But Citizen Kane, Blade Runner, The Third Man, The Godfather and its first sequel, High Noon, even 2001: A Space Odyssey, ending and all -- yes, they deserve the hype. And then there’s Vertigo. The mystery genre may be the greatest of film genres, and Vertigo is certainly the greatest of mystery flicks. AFI says so, so there. (On the other hand, they put Lynch on the list.) And as everyone knows, the reason it is the greatest mystery movie is not because of the murder, but because of the woman.
You know the plot. (Though if you don’t, be warned that there are spoilers in the summary that follows.) Jimmy Stewart plays John “Scottie” Ferguson, a retired police detective in San Francisco hired by his old college friend Gavin Elster to keep tabs on Elster’s wife Madeleine (played by Kim Novak), who has been behaving oddly. Scottie suffers from acrophobia, and left the force after an incident during which his condition kept him hanging from a rooftop paralyzed in fear, and a fellow officer died trying to save him. Madeleine also appears psychologically wounded in some other, more mysterious way. She spends her days driving around the city revisiting the same haunts -- Mission Dolores, the art museum, the McKittrick Hotel -- all associated in one way or another with her long dead grandmother Carlotta Valdes. Madeleine is also beautiful and elegant, and Scottie -- who for a good portion of the movie only ever views her from afar -- quickly becomes obsessed with her.
As Scottie spies on her one day at Fort Point, Madeleine jumps into San Francisco Bay in an apparent suicide attempt. Scottie comes to the rescue and is thereby enabled at last to meet her, without revealing that he has been trailing her at the behest of her husband. It soon becomes clear that their attraction is mutual -- to the chagrin of Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes), Scottie’s more down-to-earth and somewhat frumpy ex-fiancée, who clearly still carries a torch for him. Scottie and Madeleine begin to wander the city together, though she remains alluringly distant. Evidently possessed by the spirit of Carlotta Valdes, Madeleine fears she is descending into a suicidal madness; and when visiting Mission San Juan Bautista with Scottie, she flees up to the top of a bell tower in a panic. Paralyzed by his acrophobia, Scottie is unable to follow her, and watches in horror as she falls to her death.
His heart broken, Scottie falls into a near-catatonic depression. As time passes he begins to wander the city again, revisiting the places he had first spied Madeleine. And then one day he spots Judy Barton (also played by Novak), an unsophisticated woman whose hair, clothing, and general appearance and demeanor are very different from Madeleine’s, but who nevertheless for some reason reminds Scottie of her. He insinuates himself into Judy’s life, and we discover -- though Scottie does not -- that Judy really is the woman he knew as “Madeleine.” She is not the true Madeleine Elster, though, but was hired by Gavin Elster to impersonate her as part of a complex murder plot. It was the real Madeleine -- whom neither Scottie nor the audience had ever really known -- whose body Scottie had seen falling from the bell tower. Truly in love with Scottie but unable, for obvious reasons, to reveal to him that she hadn’t really died, Judy had returned to her normal life after Elster’s plot reached its climax. Now that Scottie has reentered her life, she hopes that he will come to love her as Judy.
Scottie, however, is still obsessed with Madeleine and tries gradually to make Judy over in her image, oblivious to the fact that Judy and the woman he thinks is dead are one and the same. Judy is increasingly uncomfortable with Scottie’s demands, but accedes to them in the hope that he will eventually love her for who she really is. When at last she has completely taken on the appearance of Madeleine, Scottie is able to lose himself in the illusion and the couple finds momentary happiness. But then, on finding that Judy is in possession of a distinctive necklace that could only have come from Madeleine, Scottie suddenly realizes who she really is -- and that he has been cruelly manipulated by her and Elster. Without revealing his discovery to her, Scottie takes Judy for a drive, and she grows suspicious as she learns that they are heading for Mission San Juan Bautista.
Forcing her up to the top of the bell tower, an outraged and once again heartbroken Scottie confronts Judy with what he knows. She confesses, but also, and pleadingly, professes her love for him. “It’s too late,” Scottie says in despair; “It’s too late, there’s no bringing her back.” Still, he gives in to one last desperate embrace -- which is broken off when Judy is surprised by the figure of a nun who suddenly emerges from the darkness to investigate the voices she heard in the tower. A scream, as the startled Judy slips and falls from the tower to her death -- and Scottie, now apparently cured of his acrophobia, stares down at her, having lost for a second and final time a woman he never really had or could have had.
So that’s the story. There is much philosophical food for thought in it. A worthy essay could be written just on the general aesthetic of the film -- on Hitchcock’s success in making a rather far-fetched story work with just the right combination of actors, geographic setting, music, pacing, and so on, down to the famous mood-setting Saul Bass title sequence. There is also the complex psychological interplay between Scottie and Madeleine, neither of whom can reveal everything he or she knows (or thinks he knows) about the other to the other. Scottie cannot tell Madeleine that he has been hired by her husband, has been spying on her for some time, and already “knows” much of what she reveals to him. Madeleine cannot tell Scottie that she already knows that he “knows” all of this and that it is all part of an elaborate plot he is being made unwittingly to play a part in. Each of them knows that Scottie has taken Madeleine out of her wet clothes after rescuing her from the bay and put her in his bed to recover -- during all of which she appeared to be unconscious -- and each of them knows the other knows it. But neither of them can explicitly acknowledge this fact, given social proprieties, given the implications of this fact in light of their obvious mutual attraction, and given that Madeleine is (so Scottie supposes) already married to another man. (“Theory of mind” adepts will appreciate the rich examples of second-order intentional states the story provides.) Books like Charles Barr’s Vertigo and Dan Auiler’s Vertigo: The Making of a Hitchcock Classic, though not written from a philosophical point of view, have interesting things to say about such issues.
What I want to focus on here, though, is the very core of the story -- Scottie’s obsession with Madeleine. Why do we find it plausible? Why do we sympathize with him? Of course, you might not find him plausible or sympathetic. For one thing, for Scottie to pursue a romantic relationship with the woman he knows as Madeleine would (as far as he supposes) be adulterous. But that is not to the point. The film does not require us to sympathize with adultery. The guilt Scottie presumably feels over his attraction to Madeleine, and her unavailability given her purportedly married status, only adds to his torment, and it is that torment -- the intensity of his longing for what he cannot have -- that the movie needs us to feel with him.
Still, even the most sympathetic viewer wants at times to say “Steady on, Scottie! She’s just a woman!” Surely only stalkers and other oddballs are capable of this much interest? And yet Scottie is not a stalker or an oddball. He’s good old Jimmy Stewart, and Stewart makes the role work. And if you’ve ever been in love you understand how. Scottie’s passion for Madeleine reflects something deep in human nature; and if it is excessive, it is an excess born of something deep in the human condition, especially in modern times.
How so? First the nature, then the condition. In his fine chapter on romantic love in The Four Loves, C. S. Lewis distinguishes Eros from Venus. Venus is sexual desire, which can be (even if it shouldn’t be) felt for and satisfied by any number of people. Eros is the longing associated with being in love with someone, and no one other than that one person can satisfy it. Obviously, Venus can and very often does exist without Eros. Eros typically includes Venus, but it not only focuses Venus specifically on the object of romantic longing, but carries that longing to the point where Venus, along with everything else, might even sacrificed for the sake of the beloved if necessary. Sexual release is the object of Venus; the beloved is the object of Eros.
As Lewis wisely notes, it is an error to think that Venus without Eros is per se morally suspect. We might wish that every husband and wife felt for each other as did Tristan and Isolde, or Romeo and Juliet, or Catherine and Heathcliff; or maybe not, given the tragic ends of these couples. Needless to say, real human life is rarely like that, and very frequently it does not even rise to the level of a more sober approximation. Arranged marriages were common for much of human history; modern marriages for love often lose their passion and settle into routine, or at least have their ups and downs, but without the disappearance of Venus; and some people simply do not have Erotic temperaments (in the relevant sense) in the first place, but still have normal sexual desires and wish to marry. Eros is too unstable and outside our control to think it essential to the moral use of Venus. Sometimes mere affection (which, like Venus itself, can be felt for any number of people) has to suffice to humanize Venus.
All the same, there is a reason Eros is commonly regarded as an ideal, and is indeed often achieved at least to some extent, even if passion inevitably cools somewhat. Like Venus, Eros is natural to us. It functions to channel the unruly Venus in the monogamous and constructive direction that the stability of the family requires. Of course, a respect for the moral law, fear of opprobrium, and sensitivity to the feelings of a spouse can do this too, but unlike Eros the motivations they provide can all conflict with the agent’s own inclinations, and are thus less efficacious. A moral man will confine the gratification of his sexual appetites to the marriage bed; a man who is in love with his wife wants to confine them to the marriage bed. Eros also brings us out of ourselves in a way Venus by itself never can, and thus raises Venus not only above the merely animal but even above the merely social. As Lewis writes, the sheer selflessness of Eros at its most noble, and its fixation on the beloved to the exclusion of everything else, make it an especially fitting model for the sort of love we are to have for God. (This can also make of Eros an especially tempting object of idolatry. More on that presently.)
Eros thus makes possible what cognitive psychologist Robert Sternberg calls “consummate love.” Sternberg’s influential “triangular theory” of love distinguishes between intimacy, commitment, and passion, and six kinds of suboptimal love, each of which involves only one or two of these elements. Intimacy by itself involves the kind of closeness typical of friendship. Commitment by itself is characterized by Sternberg as “empty” love, a bloodless sort of thing that might suffice for an arranged marriage, at least initially. Passion by itself amounts to mere infatuation. What Sternberg calls “companionate love” combines commitment with the intimacy of friendship but is devoid of passion. “Romantic love” combines passion with intimacy, as in a relationship that begins with infatuation and leads to friendship or vice versa. “Fatuous love” combines passion and commitment, as in a marriage which was entered into suddenly on the basis of passion before true intimacy has developed. “Consummate love,” Sternberg says, combines all three of the basic kinds of love -- commitment, the intimacy of friendship, and the passion that begins with mere infatuation but develops into something more stable. It is difficult to achieve, but is commonly regarded as the ideal.
Eros -- which is more or less what Sternberg calls passion -- is what distinguishes this ideal not only from mere Venus, but also from a marriage which merely adds Venus to friendship and commitment. One can have many friends and be in some way committed to many people -- to siblings, parents, children, and very close friends. Venus itself, as we have seen, could in principle (even if for moral reasons it shouldn’t in practice) be satisfied by any number of people. Eros alone adds to the love between a man and a woman an exclusive interest in the beloved which, as Lewis notes, is analogous to the love we are to have for God.
Now when Eros is not associated with intimacy and commitment we have what Sternberg calls mere infatuation. And when this infatuation reaches a kind of fever pitch we have what psychologist Dorothy Tennov calls “limerence,” an obsessive, ongoing romantic attraction that might be felt even for someone one does not personally know very well or even know at all. Indeed, as Tennov observes, the more unattainable the object of this sort of attraction is, the more intense the limerence tends to become. The lover obsesses over every piece of the beloved’s behavior as a possible sign of either returned love or rejection. Each “sign” then becomes a source of either hope or despair. And as with Eros and infatuation more generally, the object of limerence is idealized. In all of this we seem to have further interesting parallels to love for God -- in the forbidding distance and perfection of love’s object, and in the alternation between hope for blissful reciprocation (compare mystical union) and the dread that one’s longing will remain forever unrequited (compare the dark night of the soul).
As I have said, Eros can be an especially tempting object of idolatry. This is only natural given the perceived perfection of the object of Erotic love, the complete sacrifice of self that one is willing to make for the beloved, and the intensity of Erotic desire and the relative, disappointing “flatness” of any love that does not include Eros as a component. Accordingly, it is also only natural that in a culture in which religion has waned, romantic love should become a kind of substitute for religion. That is, of course, the condition in which we find ourselves in modern Western society. It is true that unbridled Venus has a large role on the modern stage as well, but it would, I think, be a mistake to suppose that the average post-Christian Westerner has made of her his chief idol. She is exciting, but rather too obviously far from the true God. Pornography may increasingly dominate our entertainments, but in the end we always want them to end in True Love. It is Eros we worship, a nobler idol than Venus. But still an idol.
And this brings us back to Vertigo. Scottie’s is an Erotic love of the most rarefied sort, his obsession with Madeleine being a classic case of Tennovian limerence. He falls hard for her well before he ever meets her, and when he does finally meet her he does not get to know her well or for long. Her irresistible attraction lay precisely in her unattainability and mystery. And the intensity of Scottie’s passion is plausibly seen as an instance of the post-Christian tendency to idolize Eros -- not only because the setting of the movie is modern, but to some extent for reasons internal to the story. After Madeleine’s “first,” only apparent, death, Scottie does not merely fall into a depression; he is initially catatonic, completely unresponsive to Midge’s attempts to talk to him. Even those of an Erotic temperament are bound to find a mental collapse of this sort over-the-top, but it is intelligible if Eros has become a kind of idol. A desire which can find its ultimate satisfaction only in what is eternal and infinite has been entirely directed onto something finite and fragile, but something which at the same time seems as unique and irreplaceable as the proper, divine object. When this something is seemingly lost forever, how can madness and despair not follow?
Consider also that the old religion hovers like a specter in the background of the film. The missions Dolores and San Juan Bautista each play a crucial role in the story, in part as representative of a San Francisco and California that have now disappeared. The nun who emerges from the shadows at the end of the film, and who is the immediate cause of Judy/Madeleine’s true, fatal fall from the tower, seems like the voice of the old faith returning to deliver judgment on Judy as accomplice to murder, on Scottie as a man willing to commit adultery, and on the pair together as having made an idol of Eros.
Madeleine even has a kind of pseudo-Resurrection, in the famous scene in which Judy, surrounded by an eerie green glow, emerges from the bathroom completely transformed into the dead woman. The lovers then embrace, and time and space melt away as Scottie momentarily finds himself transported back to an earlier setting at which he had been with Madeleine. The music written for the scene by Bernard Herrmann echoes Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, and like the Liebestod it conveys a longing that reaches for divine eternity yet can end only in tragedy and death.
Which it does. Only in the end do both Scottie and Madeleine finally see each other and themselves as they really are. This does not destroy their love, but it does reveal the price they must pay for it. The nun gets the last word in Vertigo, literally as well as figuratively, and her words are the final word on anything, however noble, that is merely human: “God have mercy.”