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Vertigo is a American psychological thriller directed by Alfred Hitchcock and starring James Stewart, Kim Novak and Barbara Bel Geddes. The film was written by Alec Coppel and Samuel A. Taylor and based on a novel by Boileau-Narcejac. In the film, a retired police detective who has acrophobia is hired as a private investigator to follow the wife of an acquaintance and uncover the mystery of her peculiar behavior. The film received mixed reviews upon initial release, but has garnered much acclaim since then and is now frequently ranked among the greatest films ever made.


Kim Novak and James Stewart
San Franciscomarker detective John "Scottie" Ferguson (James Stewart) develops a fear of heights after he witnesses a police officer (Fred Graham) fall to his death during a rooftop chase and is unable to assist him. Because of his acrophobia, he experiences vertigo when looking down from heights and explains to his friend Marjorie "Midge" Wood (Barbara Bel Geddes) that he feels compelled to retire from police work.

Scottie is hired as a private investigator by a college acquaintance, Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore), who wants someone to follow his wife, Madeleine Elster (Kim Novak) and help him understand and resolve her strange behavior. He tells Scottie that there are times when she does not appear to be herself and she sometimes wanders about the city in a trancelike state.

Scottie begins to follow Madeleine as she spends hours in various activities associated with a dead woman named Carlotta Valdes. Madeleine visits Carlotta's grave, her former home and a painting of her at the California Palace of the Legion of Honormarker. Scottie has been told that Carlotta Valdes was Madeleine's great-grandmother and committed suicide long ago. From the portrait, Scottie notices that Madeleine wears the same hairstyle and occasionally carries a similar bouquet of flowers.

One day, he trails Madeleine to Fort Point, San Franciscomarker at the foot of the Golden Gate Bridgemarker. She walks to the edge and jumps into the San Francisco Baymarker. Scottie rescues her and brings her to his home to recover. He receives a phone call from Gavin, during which he learns that Madeleine is 26 years old, the same age Carlotta was when she committed suicide.

A day later, Madeleine stops by to thank him. Scottie takes her to see the coastal redwoods at Muir Woods National Monumentmarker (filmed at Big Basin Redwoods State Parkmarker). Once there, Madeleine enters into a trance and seems to speak from Carlotta's perspective. By the ocean, Madeleine confesses to Scottie her fear that she is going mad. She falls into Scottie's arms and he promises to protect her.

The next morning, Madeleine recounts the details of her dream. Scottie correctly identifies the location as the Mission at San Juan Bautista and takes her there to show her it's not a dream but real. Madeleine suddenly runs into the church and up a steep staircase to the bell tower. Scottie chases after her, but his acrophobia prevents him from making it to the top. Frozen on the steps by vertigo and paralyzing fear, Scottie hears a scream and, through a window, he sees Madeleine plummet to her death.

At the inquest, Scottie is acquitted of criminal charges but is devastated by feelings of guilt. Gavin absolves him and blames the link to Carlotta Valdes, saying, "You and I both know who really killed Madeleine." Gavin intends to cope with his grief by leaving San Francisco and traveling far away. Scottie has nightmares and becomes depressed. He is placed in a mental hospital, where he descends into a silent, catatonia passivity. Midge makes futile attempts to console him as she realizes that Scottie had fallen in love with Madeleine.

Kim Novak as Judy
Weeks later, released from the hospital, a brooding Scottie begins to haunt the places where he had followed Madeleine. One day he sees a young woman who bears a striking resemblance to her, although this woman wears much more colorful clothing and makeup and has darker hair.

Scottie goes to her hotel room, where she reluctantly tells him her story—she is Judy Barton, a department store salesgirl from Salina, Kansasmarker, now making a life for herself in San Francisco after a series of bad relationships. She shows him family photographs and a driver's license as further proof.

Scottie invites her to dinner and she hesitantly agrees. He gives her an hour to get ready and then the truth is revealed. Judy starts to pack a suitcase, and to explain everything to Scottie by leaving behind a letter. She confesses in it that she was, in fact, the woman that he knew as "Madeleine," but was not really Gavin's wife. Gavin had bribed her to pose as his wife and pretend to be mentally unstable and possessed by Carlotta Valdes.

Gavin had faked the suicide by hiding at the top of the bell tower and tossing over the body of his already-murdered wife. Gavin then used Scottie to corroborate claims of his wife's unstable behavior and to be the perfect witness to her apparent suicide by correctly assuming that Scottie's fear of heights would prevent him from following "Madeleine" to the top of the tower.

Judy feels guilty now for the pain she has caused Scottie. She takes a chance and decides to stay, destroy the letter and join him for dinner.

Scottie is attracted to her, but their romance is engulfed by his obsession with Madeleine. He gradually persuades Judy to dress more and more as Madeleine, even shopping for her clothes to find an identical suit. After dying her hair blonde, the transformation is almost complete. Scottie asks for the same hairstyle Madeleine wore. She emerges as the mirror image of Madeleine, which causes Scottie to fall in love with her all over again.

Some time later, while preparing to go out to dinner, Scottie casually notices a necklace that Judy decides to wear. He realizes to his horror that it is the same one Carlotta Valdes wore in her portrait, one that Gavin's wife must have inherited.

Instead of going to the restaurant, a grimly determined Scottie takes her on a long drive back to Mission San Juan Bautista, the scene of the crime. There he reveals that he has seen through Judy's ruse. He intends to re-enact the moment that he failed to save Madeleine's life. He forces Judy up the bell tower while he recounts the incident and presses her for the truth. While struggling with Judy on the way up, Scottie conquers his acrophobia and, with no vertigo to stop him like before, he makes it to the top.

In the bell tower, Judy confesses to the deception. But she pleads to Scottie that she loves him. They embrace, but Judy, suddenly frightened by the shadow of an approaching nun, steps backwards and falls from the tower to her death.


The screenplay is an adaptation of the French novel Sueurs froides: d'entre les morts ("Cold Sweat: From Among the Dead") by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac. Hitchcock had previously tried to buy the rights to the same authors' previous novel, Celle qui n'était plus, but he failed, and it was made instead by Henri-Georges Clouzot as Les Diaboliques. Although François Truffaut once suggested that D'Entre les morts was specifically written for Hitchcock by Boileau and Narcejac, Narcejac subsequently denied that this was their intention. However, Hitchcock's interest in their work meant that Paramount Pictures commissioned a synopsis of D'Entre les morts in 1954, before it had even been translated into English.

Hitchcock originally hired playwright Maxwell Anderson to write a screenplay, but rejected his work, which was entitled Darkling I Listen. (Hitchcock scholar Dan Aulier calls Anderson's screenplay a "standard B detective picture".) The final script was written by Samuel A. Taylor — who was recommended to Hitchcock due to his knowledge of San Francisco — from notes by Hitchcock. Among Taylor's creations was the character of Midge. Taylor attempted to take sole credit for the screenplay, but Alec Coppel protested to the Screen Writers Guild, which determined that both writers were entitled to a credit.

When actress Vera Miles, who was under personal contract to Hitchcock and had appeared on both his television show and in his film The Wrong Man, couldn't act in Vertigo owing to her pregnancy, the director declined to postpone shooting and cast Kim Novak as the feminine lead. Ironically, by the time Novak had tied up prior film commitments and a vacation promised by Columbia Pictures, the studio that held her contract, Miles had given birth and was available for the film. Hitchcock proceeded with Novak, nevertheless.

A coda to the film, a one-minute scene, was shot that showed a more-or-less healed Scottie and Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes) listening to a radio report (with unseen San Francisco radio announcer Dave McElhatton giving the report) of Gavin Elster's capture in Europe. This ending was mandated by British censorship requirements, however, and was not featured in the American cut of the film — it is included as an extra in the restored DVD release.

Musical score

The score was written by Bernard Herrmann. It was not conducted by him, but was recorded in Europe, due to a musician's strike in the U.S.

In a 2004 special issue by Sight & Sound devoted to Film Music, Martin Scorsese described the qualities of Herrmann's famous score:
"Hitchcock's film is about obsession, which means that it's about circling back to the same moment, again and again ...
And the music is also built around spirals and circles, fulfilment and despair.
Herrmann really understood what Hitchcock was going for — he wanted to penetrate to the heart of obsession."


Contemporary reception

Vertigo premiered in San Francisco on 9 May 1958. Its performance at the box office was average, and reviews were mixed. Variety said the film showed Hitchcock's "mastery", but was too long and slow for "what is basically only a psychological murder mystery". Similarly, the Los Angeles Times admired the scenery, but found the plot "too long" and felt it "bogs down" in "a maze of detail"; scholar Dan Aulier says that this review "sounded the tone that most popular critics would take with the film". However, the Los Angeles Examiner loved it, admiring the "excitement, action, romance, glamor and [the] crazy, off-beat love story".

Additional reasons for the mixed response initially were that Hitchcock fans were not pleased with his departure from the romantic-thriller territory of earlier films and that the mystery was solved with one-third of the movie left to go.

Vertigo was nominated for Academy Awards in two technical categories: Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Black-and-White or Color (Hal Pereira, Henry Bumstead, Samuel M. Comer, Frank McKelvy) and Best Sound.

Hitchcock and Stewart received the San Sebastián International Film Festival for Best Director and Best Actor respectively.

In an interview with François Truffaut, Hitchcock stated that Vertigo was one of his favorite films, with some reservations.


In the 1950s, the French Cahiers du cinéma critics began re-evaluating Hitchcock as a serious artist rather than just a populist showman. However, even François Truffaut's important 1962 interviews with Hitchcock (not published in English until 1967) mentions Vertigo only in passing. Dan Aulier has suggested that the real beginning of Vertigo's rise in adulation was the British-Canadian scholar Robin Wood's Hitchcock's Films (1968), which calls the film "Hitchcock's masterpiece to date and one of the four or five most profound and beautiful films the cinema has yet given us". Adding to its mystique was the fact that Vertigo was one of five films owned by Hitchcock which was removed from circulation in 1973. When Vertigo was re-released in theaters in October 1983, and then on home video in October 1984, it achieved an impressive commercial success and laudatory reviews. Similarly adulatory reviews were written for the October 1996 showing of a restored print in 70mm and DTS sound at the Castro Theatermarker in San Francisco.

In 1989, Vertigo was recognized as a "culturally, historically and aesthetically significant" film by the United States Library of Congressmarker and selected for preservation in the National Film Registry in the first year of the registry's voting.

The film ranked 4th and 2nd respectively in Sight and Sound 1992 and 2002 polls of the best films ever made. In 2005, Vertigo came in second (to Goodfellas) in British magazine Total Film book 100 Greatest Movies of All Time.

In his book Blockbuster: How Hollywood Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Summer, however, British film critic Tom Shone argued that Vertigo's critical re-evaluation has led to excessive praise, and argued for a more measured response. Faulting Sight and Sound for "perennially" putting the film on the list of best-ever films, he wrote that "Hitchcock is a director who delights in getting his plot mechanisms buffed up to a nice humming shine, and so the Sight and Sound team praise the one film of his in which this is not the case – it's all loose ends and lopsided angles, its plumbing out on display for the critic to pick over at his leisure."

American Film Institute recognition

Home media

In 1996, director Harrison Engle produced a documentary about the making of Hitchcock's classic, Obsessed with Vertigo. Narrated by Roddy Macdowell, the film played on AMC, and has since been included with DVD versions of Vertigo. Surviving members of the cast and crew participated, along with noted filmmaker Martin Scorsese and Alfred's daughter, Pat Hitchcock. Engle first visited the Vertigo shooting locations in the summer of 1958, just months after completion of the film.


In 1996, the film was given a lengthy and controversial restoration by Robert A. Harris and James C. Katz and re-released to theaters. The new print featured restored color and newly created audio, utilizing modern sound effects mixed in DTS digital surround sound. In October 1996, the restored Vertigo premiered at the Castro Theatremarker in San Francisco, exhibited for the first time in DTS and 70mm, a format with a similar frame size to the VistaVision system in which it was originally shot.

One bone of contention regarding the 1996 restoration was the decision to re-record the Foley sound effects from scratch (to allow Dolby-quality mixing for surround sound and stereo). Harris and Katz wanted to stay as close as possible to the original: "It was our intent to re-mix the original music tracks with dialogue culled from the old mono and new Foley and effects tracks, which were to have been created following Mr. Hitchcock's original notes. That was the intent. It is not what occurred, the studio having made the decision to re-invent the track anew." Harris and Katz sometimes added extra sound effects to camouflage defects in the old soundtrack ("hisses, pops and bangs"); in particular they added extra seagull cries and a foghorn to the scene at Cypress Pointmarker. The new mix has also been accused of putting too much emphasis on the score at the expense of the sound effects. The 2005 Hitchcock Masterpiece Collection DVD contains the original mono track as an option.

Significant color correction was necessary because of the fading of original negatives. In some cases a new negative was created from the silver separation masters, but in many instances this was impossible because of differential separation shrinkage, and because the 1958 separations were poorly made. Separations used three individual films: one for each of the primary colors. In the case of Vertigo, these had shrunk in different and erratic proportions, making re-alignment impossible. As such, significant amounts of computer assisted coloration were necessary. Although the results are not noticeable on viewing the film, some elements were as many as eight generations away from the original negative.

When such large portions of re-creation become necessary, then the danger of artistic license by the restorers becomes an issue, and the restorers received some criticism for their re-creation of colors that allegedly did not honor the director and cinematographer's intentions. The restoration team argue that they did research on the colors used in the original locations, cars, wardrobe, and skin tones. One breakthrough moment came when the Ford Motor Company supplied a well-preserved green paint sample for a car used in the film. As the use of the color green in the film has artistic importance, matching a shade of green was a stroke of luck for restoration and provided a reference shade from which to work.

Filming locations

Filmed from September to December 1957, Vertigo is notable for its extensive location footage of the San Francisco Bay Areamarker, with its famous steep hills, expansive views, and tall, arching bridges. Some have noted that in the numerous driving scenes shot in the city, the main characters' cars are almost always pictured heading down the city's steeply inclined streets. In October 1996, the restored print of Vertigo debuted at the historic Castro Theatremarker in San Francisco with a live on-stage introduction by surviving cast member Kim Novak, providing the city a chance to celebrate itself.Visiting the San Francisco film locations has something of a cult following as well as modest tourist appeal. Such a tour is featured in a subsection of Chris Marker's documentary montage Sans Soleil.

Areas that were shot on location (not recreated in a studio):
  • The Mission San Juan Bautistamarker, where Madeleine falls from the tower, is a real place, but the tower had to be matted in with a painting using studio effects; Hitchcock had first visited the mission before the tower was torn down due to dry rot, and was reportedly displeased to find it missing when he returned to film his scenes. The original tower was much smaller and less dramatic than the film's version.
  • At Mission Doloresmarker, for many years tourists could see the actual Carlotta Valdes headstone featured in the film (created by the props department). Eventually, the headstone was removed as the mission considered it disrespectful to the dead to house a tourist attraction grave for a fictional person.
  • Madeleine jumps into the sea at Fort Pointmarker, underneath the Golden Gate Bridgemarker.
  • The gallery where Carlotta's painting appears is the California Palace of the Legion of Honormarker in San Francisco. The Carlotta Valdes portrait was lost after being removed from the gallery, but many of the other paintings in the background of the portrait scenes are still on view.
  • Muir Woods National Monumentmarker is in fact represented by Big Basin Redwoods State Parkmarker; however, the cutaway of the redwood tree showing its age is a replica of one that can still be found at Muir Woods. However, the timeline shows English historical events instead of American ones.
  • The coastal region where Scottie and Madeleine first kiss is Cypress Point, a well-known location along the 17 Mile Drivemarker near Pebble Beachmarker. However, the lone tree by which they kiss is in fact a prop brought specially to the location.
  • The spectacular domed building past which Scottie and Judy walk is the Palace of Fine Artsmarker.
  • Coit Towermarker appears in many background shots; Hitchcock once said that he included it as a phallic symbol.
  • Gavin and Madeleine's apartment building is "The Brocklebank" at 1000 Mason Street, which still looks essentially the same. It is across the street from the Fairmont Hotel, where Hitchcock usually stayed when he visited and where many of the cast and crew stayed during filming.
  • The "McKittrick Hotel" was a privately-owned Victorian mansion from the 1880s at Gough and Eddy Streets. It was torn down in 1959 and is now an athletic practice field for Sacred Heart Cathedral Preparatorymarker School. The historic St. Paulus Lutheran Church, seen across from the mansion, was destroyed in a fire years later.
  • Podesta Baldocchi is the flower shop Madeleine visits as she is being followed by Scottie. The shop's location at the time of filming was 224 Grant Avenue. Using Google Earth's "street view," you can also see the alley location used in the film. The Podesta Baldocchi flower shop now does business from a location at 410 Harriet Street.
  • The sanatorium is 351 Buena Vista East, formerly St. Joseph's Hospital, now Park Hill condominiums. It looks much the same from the outside; the best view is from the Corona Heights neighborhood park.
  • The Empire Hotel is a real place, called the York Hotel, and now (as of January 2009) the Hotel Vertigo at 940 Sutter Street. Judy's room was created, but the flashing green neon of the "Hotel Empire" sign outside is based on the actual hotel's sign (it was replaced when the hotel was re-named).
  • Ernie's Restaurant (847 Montgomery St.) was a real place in North Beach, not far from Scottie's apartment. It is no longer operating.
  • Scottie's apartment (900 Lombard St.marker) is one block downhill from the "crookedest street in the world". Although the door has been repainted, the entrance is easily recognizable save for a few small changes to the patio. The doorbell and the mailbox, which Madeleine uses to deliver a note to Scottie, are exactly the same as they were in the movie.
  • One short scene shows Union Squaremarker at dawn, with old-fashioned "semaphore" traffic lights. Pop Leibl's bookstore, the Argosy, was not a real location, but one recreated on the Paramount lot in imitation of the real-life Argonaut Book Store, which still exists near Sutter and Jones. One historian said it would have been located in the middle of Union Square if it were a real location, judging by the back projection shots.

In popular culture

  • Director Brian DePalma made a mystery-thriller inspired by Vertigo in 1976 called Obsession with Cliff Robertson and Geneviève Bujold. Bernard Herrmann, who scored Vertigo, also scored Obsession.
  • DePalma's 1984 movie Body Double also featured many plot elements from Vertigo.
  • In Mel Brooks's film High Anxiety, which is a pastiche/homage to all Hitchcock films, the final scene takes place in a twisting staircase inside a bell tower.
  • South Korean director Park Chan-Wook once said that Vertigo was the film that made him want to be a director.
  • Faith No More's music video for their 1997 song "Last Cup of Sorrow" is directly inspired by Vertigo, featuring a semi-parodic version of the film.
  • The band Harvey Danger has a song on their album Where Have All the Merrymakers Gone? called "Carlotta Valdez", which describes the plot of the film.
  • Alejandro Amenabar's film Abre Los Ojos has been said to be a "virtual remake" of Vertigo. The film duplicates the scene in Vertigo when Judy enters the room with her hair done in the same style as Madeleine.
  • The film Death Becomes Her makes some superficial references to Vertigo. The blonde protagonist Madeline Ashton is, like Vertigo's Madeleine Elster, a 'living-dead' character.
  • The short film La Jetée by Chris Marker, about a time traveller trying to recapture his past, quotes some scenes from Vertigo directly (most notably, the characters discuss the place of their lives within a Redwood tree trunk's rings). In his essays, Marker has joked that his film is a remake of Vertigo set in Paris.
  • Terry Gilliam's feature-length adaptation of La Jetée, Twelve Monkeys, contains a scene in a movie theatre that is showing Vertigo. Later in the film, music from the score of Vertigo is heard. The scene in which Kathryn (played by Madeleine Stowe) emerges with her blonde wig on duplicates the scene in Vertigo when Judy enters the room with her now-blonde hair done in the same style as Madeleine.
  • A second season episode of the comedy series Sledge Hammer!, entitled "Vertical", faithfully parodies Vertigo throughout.
  • The film was parodied on the Halloween episode of That '70s Show third season, where Eric Forman develops vertigo after almost falling from a roof of a small shed and seeing Fez falling while trying to lift him back up from where he was hanging.
  • In the Batman: The Animated Series episodes "Off Balance" & "Perchance to Dream", the climax in the church tower is identical to the one in the film. "Balance" even features a villain named Count Vertigo.
  • The Tim Burton adaptation Batman also features an identical climax with Batman following the Joker, and his captive, Vicki Vale up the stairs of an enormous bell tower, in an overt reference.
  • In one episode of The Simpsons, "Principal Charming" in season 2, a scene depicts Principal Skinner ascending the school's bell tower (and experiencing the Vertigo zoom shot on the way up).
  • Australian Director Douglas Horton's music-theatre production Phobia (first staged in 2003 by Chamber Made) is a homage to Hitchcock and Vertigo in particular.
  • The opening chase sequence from The Matrix bears resemblance to Vertigo.
  • In the film Wakko's Wish, the Animaniacs come to a steep cliff and Wakko asks "Do you get vertigo?" Yakko replies "Nah! I've seen that movie three times and I still don't get it."
  • In Martin Scorsese's remake of the film Cape Fear, the camera close-up of Juliette Lewis's eye references the opening credits of Vertigo.
  • ABC's fairytale mystery show, Pushing Daisies parodied the nightmare sequence from the film in the episode "Bitches."
  • A one-sheet poster for this film can be seen in Dr. James Wilson's office in several episode of the television series House MD
  • The dresses that Sharon Stone wears throughout the Paul Verhoeven's Basic Instinct (1992) were designed to match, in the same order, the dresses that Kim Novak wears in Vertigo. Moreover, there are numerous similarities in plot, characters, scenery and psychological elements in both of the films.
  • Lady Gaga makes references of Vertigo, Psycho, and Rear Window in her 2009 song "Bad Romance".
  • Zakk Wylde guitar is based on the swirl of the original poster of the movie.

See also


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