Scottie Ferguson was a lawyer, then he was a cop, but a year ago he let another officer fall to his death from a great height and now he is just out of sorts. He has too much anxiety to go back to work and too much energy to just sit around his house sulking. So when an old college friend calls Scottie up out of the blue and says he wants to meet up for drinks the ex-cop immediately says yes.
At the tail end of their reunion Gavin Elster reveals that he had ulterior motives for contacting Scottie. You see, Gavin's wife Madeleine is the heir to an immense shipbuilding fortune and he is worried that she is struggling under an undue influence. She seems to be going in and out of trances, and she has recently developed an unexplained obsession with her great-grandmother, a beautiful woman who committed suicide decades ago after a lover did her wrong. Gavin wants to know if Madeleine is being possessed by a ghost, or if she's losing her mind, or if she's faking the whole thing for some unknown reason. It is the sort of unbelievable story that Scottie would never have bothered with before, but now that he's got a lot of time on his hands...
Naturally the case isn't as simple as it first appears, and before too long Scottie is neck deep in a mystery he can't shake. Before all is said and done there will be suicide attempts, murders, extramarital affairs and even an unannounced trip to a sequoia forest. Vertigo is a psychological thriller that is full of hairpin twists, sudden reveals and icy blondes. In other words, it is very much an Alfred Hitchcock film.
Some would even say that it is the old masters' masterwork. Vertigo has a lot to unpack, particularly about the nature of obsession and about the nature of identity. There is also a lot to be said about how the triangle between Scottie, Gavin and Madeleine illustrates the ways in which men try to define (and redefine) the women in their lives. You could dissect this movie's psychosexual plot from a Freudian perspective, or examine its complicated gender politics using a feminist approach, and the cinema-minded like to think of it as a movie about movie-making...
Or you could just let it be the crowd-pleasing thriller it was clearly meant to be. I am not one of those people that thinks Vertigo is philosophically fascinating. In fact, I think that it is one talking dog away from being a Scooby Doo mystery. My problem hinges entirely from the central conceit: I think the idea of a private eye trailing a potentially ghost-infested millionaire heiress to a bunch of art museums is fairly silly, and I think that any man who is this quick to get obsessed with such an obviously fake case must have been a terrible cop.
Which isn't to say that the movie doesn't work; far from it. Hitchcock knows how to wring suspense out of even the wonkiest premise, so even when this film is unbelievable it is still fun. Furthermore, the acting is a wonder to behold. Both Jimmy Stewart (who plays Scottie) and Kim Novak (who plays Madeleine) modulate their performances perfectly, being tight lipped and straight-laced in the early going and then going wide eyed and bonkers once the unlikely plot goes into overdrive. But the fact remains that the plot does go into overdrive and once the double-crosses start doubling back on themselves it becomes a bit hard to take Vertigo too seriously. So while it is a bit crass to compare it to a Scooby Doo episode - after all, Madeleine never literally rips off a rubber mask to reveal her secret identity - they are definitely in the same ballpark because the whole film builds to a dramatic reveal where we discover that Madeleine is not really Madeleine.
I would never dismiss any complex critical interpretation of Vertigo out of hand, but I also don't think that such explications are completely necessary. Hitchcock was a consummate showman and I think he is merely putting on quite a show here. The script's twists and turns seem to be less motivated by an urge to comment on the vagaries of human behavior and more by a need to keep the audience engaged and guessing. And since Vertigo does keep you engaged and since it does keep you guessing I would say that it is an unqualified success even if it isn't the deepest movie in the great-film canon. If you are interested in essays about the Freudian interpretations of gender identity then by all means have fun, but me? I'm just going to settle in and enjoy watching an icy blonde trying to outwit a gullible detective in a phantom-themed thriller and leave it at that.