I love old movies. There’s just something about them. They seem to impart a certain home-spun wisdom that is lost in today’s movies. I’ll admit they’re not high on racial diversity or any kind of diversity for that matter. The only time you see an ethnic face is as a maid, butler or lawn man. You know….”the help”.
But if you can get past that tragic fact, you’ll find that you can really learn a lot about life from these vintage gems. Some of the most profound, thought-provoking revelations I have experienced have been while watching old movies from the 30s, 40s, 50 and 60s.
Case in point is the movie Vertigo starring James Stewart (Scottie) and Kim Novak (Madeleine). Vertigo was directed by Alfred Hitchcock but it’s not your typical Hitchcockian thriller. In fact, the movie met with disappointing box office when it was released in 1958. I suspect uptight audiences of the 50′s weren’t quite ready for a movie about obsession, deceit, murder and delusional love.
Stewart plays San Francisco police detective Scottie who develops a terrible fear of heights. His fear of heights developed after a traumatic event in which his gripping fear prevented him from saving a friend’s life and as a result, the friend falls to his death.
While Scottie takes some time off from the police department, he decides to take a job as a private detective for a personal friend named Gavin. Gavin wants Scottie to follow his wife named Madeleine.
As he follows Madeleine, Scottie ends up falling deeply in love with her. He is entranced with Madeleine. She is everything he wants. When he finally meets her, he is gentle and loving with Madeleine. There’s just one problem. Madeleine is an illusion. Nothing about her is real. She is being used by Gavin as a prop to lure Scottie into witnessing a death/murder.
After the murder has been perpetrated, Madeleine fakes her death and she is gone. (There’s a plot twist in the way the murder happens.) Again, Scottie loses someone due to his fear as he was unable to overcome his vertigo to rescue his true love and she falls to her death from the top of a mission bell tower.
She was all a dream.
After Madeleline dies, Scottie goes on a desperate hunt. He’s looking for someone…something. Could it be Madeleine? Has he gone insane? Madeleine is dead. Or is she…?
In walks Judy. It’s amazing how much she looks like Madeleine. Same bone structure. Same voice but not as husky as Madeleine’s. The audience knows the truth. But does Scottie know the truth?
We can debate it forever, but I’m convinced that he knows Madeleine wasn’t real. He knows she’s not dead and he knows he can find her. And so he does….
He finds Judy. The real Madeleine. The Madeleine who works in a department store and wears $5 floral dresses. She doesn’t have the expensive clothes, perfect chignon, and husky romantic voice. She’s a typical girl…with a shady past. Afterall, don’t forget she helped perpetrate a murder.
Scottie ends up making over Judy and transforming her into his beloved Madeleine. The real question is: who was Scottie in love with? Madeleine (the illusion) or Judy (the real).
Judy willingly allowed Scottie to change her back into Madeleine. This time she allows the transformation for love instead of money. Judy truly loves Scottie. But when Scottie comes to the realization that he was played for a fool (another cool plot twist) he is enraged and turns on Judy. He takes her to the mission bell tower. The place that his beloved Madeleine met her demise. Ultimately, history repeats itself as Judy also falls to her death.
The movie ends with Scottie standing atop the mission bell tower, dazed as he peers down at Judy. He has overcome his vertigo but now he has lost his love.
It’s fascinating to ponder why Scottie allowed his obsessive love illusions to destroy what he was truly looking for….love.
A question for the ages.