Deborah Ross

Why does anyone still rate Vertigo and its creepy, wonky plot?

Hitchcock’s thriller is hailed as the greatest film of all time by Sight & Sound, but its plot is full of holes and it’s creepy, and not in a good way

Why does anyone still rate Vertigo and its creepy, wonky plot?
Creepy, but not in a good way: Kim Novak as Madeleine and James Stewart as Scottie in Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo [Archive Photos/Getty Images]
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Here’s something that may interest you. Or not. (Could go either way.) I was looking over Sight & Sound’s ‘100 Greatest Films of All Time’, which has Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) at number one, having knocked Citizen Kane from the top spot in 2012. (That film always did need a more exciting reveal; would it have helped if Rosebud had turned out to be a massive fireball or dinosaur egg?)

But back to Vertigo, which is now the best film ever made. Really? That worried away at me. Who rates this film and why? The storytelling isn’t up to much. It drags and drags. (The first half is a dull schlep around San Francisco as we follow the world’s most obvious stalker.) It’s riddled with plot holes. It’s creepy, but not in a good way. It manipulates its women and then thrills in coldly punishing them while the men walk away. I have seen Vertigo on a number of occasions and every time I like it less. I have never enjoyed it once. So again: who is getting off on it? Who?

I looked at Sight & Sound’s list, which is billed as ‘the most trusted guide to the cinema greats’, in more detail. It’s compiled every decade by polling critics, directors, programmers, film academics. For the latest list 1,206 people were polled of which — wait for it — only 251 were women. So the list is 79 per cent the opinion of men? Might this also explain why, of the top 100 films, only two are directed by women? Do you want to sit with that a while? The fact that 98 per cent of the best films are by men, say men. Might this also be why it’s always Raging Bull and Seven Samurai and The Godfather and The Searchers and never Agnès Varda? Or Larisa Shepitko? Or Jane Campion? It matters because it affects what stories are told and what stories are valued, and because we have to put up with Vertigo as a ‘cinema great’, when it plainly isn’t at all.

To recap, briefly, James Stewart plays Scottie, a detective who has had to retire from the force due to a fear of heights. An old college friend then hires him to tail his wife, Madeleine (Kim Novak), because she’s behaving weirdly. As far as Scottie is concerned, Madeleine is clearly not right in the head — he has seen her attempt suicide — but he falls in love with her, and declares his love, which is presented as fine, even though he is, in effect, taking advantage of an extremely vulnerable woman. (Don’t get me started on the scene where she wakes up naked in his bed and he must have undressed her while she was unconscious.) Then there’s the twist in the middle that breaks the film in two and has Scottie remodel his new obsession, Judy, on Madeleine, forcing her to wear certain clothes and dye her hair and so on. I have always found this revolting and difficult to watch.

Fans of the film always say two things: yes, there are plot deficiencies, but that’s because it’s ‘psychoanalytic’; and Scottie may be ‘dreaming’ certain incidents, like the visit to that hotel. But how that enriches the film, I don’t know. It still doesn’t make sense. (And I’ve never understood Judy/Madeleine’s motivation.) Or they say it’s so utterly fascinating and compelling because it’s a metaphor for Hitchcock’s own objectification (and cruel treatment of) women. But for whom is that enjoyable? Who would find pleasure there? Oh yes, I think we now know the answer to that.