The Greatest Film of All Time

You shouldn’t read this if you’ve never seen Vertigo.

At the bottom of the list of my ten favorite films of all time sits Alfred Hitchcock’s 1958, critically lauded masterpiece Vertigo. Just this year, the film supplanted Citizen Kane as number one in The British Film Institute’s deca-annual, world-wide critic poll to determine the greatest film of all time. Much has been written about why. Google it.

Aside: Only in cinema are we audacious enough to crown one single example of the medium as the “greatest ever.” I mean, can you imagine someone trying to say any one song is the greatest ever? Or any one painting or play or dance? I think we think we can do this with movies because the medium is so young, the field of contenders is so narrow, and the differences between films are so few. The “Mona Lisa” and “Starry Night” are so incredibly different. Intolerance and Cloud Atlas are basically the same film.

Back to Vertigo. Krista and I watched it recently because it’s one of my favorite movies, she’d never seen it before, and I wanted a creepy but not scary movie to watch close to Halloween. I’ve seen it many, many, many times, and one of the reasons I love it is because I see new things and understand it better every time I see it.

For instance, this time when we watched it I understood why the camera revolves around Scottie and the remade Judy when they kiss for the first time to show them standing in a dream-like echo of the stable at the mission from earlier in the film. It’s because that was the last time Scottie was with Madeline. The loss of Madeline has haunted him. In a way, he died when she died, and in that moment, when he kisses Judy as Madeline, he reconnects to that moment in the past, regaining Madeline, and most importantly, himself. It’s this regained sense of identity that allows him to notice the necklace soon thereafter, I think, and propels the final sequence of the film.

I also loved watching Vertigo with Krista. I grew up with this movie and Hitchcock’s other films. I first saw Vertigo when I was 10 or 11 years old, and I’d already seen The 39 Steps, North By Northwest, Spellbound, The Lady Vanishes, and maybe The Birds before then. Krista hasn’t seen any of these, so she was unprepared for Hitichcock’s unsettling kind of cinema.

I especially enjoyed the way she picked up on details in her first viewing that I’ve missed in my many viewings. For instance, Krista noticed that Madeline has brown eyebrows that don’t match her platinum blonde hair. This is, of course, because Madeline is really Judy, and Judy is a brunette. Those off color eyebrows contribute to Madeline’s oddness though and are a hint that she is not who she appears to be but rather a made-up woman.

Krista is also much more intelligent than I was when I first saw this movie, so she picked up on the very disturbing way Vertigo’s characters treat one another, and in particular the disturbing way men treat women and women respond to men. Krista’s revulsion heightened my own sense of revulsion actually. It was a better experience watching it with her.

Of course, Vertigo itself is critical of these gender dynamics, and this internal criticism couched within Hitchcock’s canon is what grants Vertigo its critical esteem. In Vertigo we see our finest cinematic personality self-criticizing his own inclinations. It’s as if Hitchcock was thirty years ahead of the rest of us even in criticizing his own films. That the story itself is so compelling, the characters so memorable, and not a beat, not a shot out of place is all the more remarkable.

After it was over, Krista asked me why I like it so much. The preceding paragraph is part of why I love it now, but in all honesty I loved it long before I understood what I just wrote. Something prior to my developing a critical acumen must account for my predilection for this film. Besides, we don’t always personally love the movies we critically admire.

I didn’t begin loving Vertigo until I was in high school. I think I was 17 or 18 before I actually understood even the basic foundation of the plot – that Madeline and Judy really are the same person. Looking back, I think what appealed to me was the idea of the Ideal Woman that so permeates this film.

Scottie is searching for his Ideal Woman from the beginning. Recall his early conversation with Madge. He latches onto Madeline because, I think, she is someone he can save, someone who needs him. Madeline’s need for him reestablishes his masculinity which was robbed from him in his vertigo-inducing accident as the film opens. The fact that he “steals” Madeline from her husband only further reestablishes his manliness. When he fails to save her in her moment of greatest need because of his vertigo, his un-manliness, and she falls to her death, it plunges him into a comatose-like despair. He is, he fears, forever emasculated, the un-man without identity in a heavily gendered world.

(Incidentally, why does he consistently reject Midge’s advances? First of all, she dumped him in college. Perhaps this was the first time he felt judged unworthy by a woman. Secondly, and I think more importantly, she is always motherly toward him, treating him like a boy and not like the man he wants to be. In the hospital after his traumatic experience with Madeline, she even (creepily) says to him, “Mother’s here.”)

Then he meets Judy, a woman who reminds him of Madeline. She is his chance to resurrect Madeline and therefore his own masculinity. Judy is the second chance life should not afford Scottie. Hitchcock consistently lights Judy in that weird green light form the sign outside her apartment window. She becomes zombie or ghost-like in those moments, because for Scottie, Judy is the undead Madeline, a reanimated corpse. It’s eerie.

Backing up, Hitchcock explains very quickly the reason that Judy resembles Madeline (because she is Madeline). A lesser filmmaker would have drawn that mystery out and not revealed until the end that Judy and Madeline are one and the same. Instead, by revealing it almost immediately, the audience understand why Judy allows herself to be remade by Scottie – Judy is in love with Scottie. Once, they were in love with each other, and she is willing to give up her true identity to regain his love.

Had Hitchcock held back that Judy is Madeline, the story would have only been about Scottie. Judy would have been marginalized. Is it somewhat twisted to craft a female character that will allow herself to be made up in the image of another woman to win a man’s love? Sure, but it’s also a much richer story than one that focused purely on Scottie.

Vertigo is equally about two people – one in desperate search of an Ideal to prove his masculinity and the other willing to remake herself to win another’s love. I think Vertigo has long been one of my favorite films, because I resonated very strongly with both of these characters.

In my early teens, I committed to waiting until I was “ready for marriage” before I would date. This began a search for my mythical “Wife,” an ideal woman who would complete me and allow me to realize my true identity. I could blame any number of books or conference speakers for my relational predicament, but in the end it comes down to me and my decisions. I yoked my psyche to an unobtainable Ideal, and in its perpetual absence, I was lost.

Long before I made that fateful commitment though, I committed my life to Christ. I promised to pursue Him above all. Recognizing the strength of desperation that fueled my search for my Ideal Mate, I was terrified that I would remake myself to win my Ideal’s affections should it ever come to that. Tragically, I was Scottie, and I was scared I would become Judy as well (and we all know Judy’s fate).

Scottie finally finds his Ideal and then very quickly realizes that his Ideal is nothing more that a construct. She was fashioned by another man, by himself, by her own will. His Ideal doesn’t actually exist. He has been duped by the world.

I too eventually met my Ideal, and that moment was every bit as eerie as the one when Judy-as-Madeline walks out of the restroom. Also, like Scottie, I quickly learned that my Ideal was nothing more than a facade, the amalgamation of assumed traits I had been made to value by other people, by myself, and even by the very object of my desire.

As I pursued my Ideal, I, like Judy, was presented with the opportunity to remake myself to gain another’s affection. I was presented with a  subtle choice – her or Christ. We were riding in my car to a hardware store. She asked me what I wanted to do with my life. I knew the answer she wanted – something definite and stable – and I knew the answer that was true – something less grounded in financial security and more focused on faith. I’ll never forget that moment.

It is the only moment missing from Vertigo, perhaps because Judy doesn’t have any other greater loyalty like I do to Christ. The camera doesn’t follow her into the restroom where she puts up her hair in the Vertigo spiral. The camera stays outside with Scottie. Of course, this makes for a better reveal when Judy-as-Madeline walks out of the restroom, but it also robs us of the moment when Judy decides to give up her true identity completely to gain Scottie’s love. That happens in the restroom.

It happened for me at a traffic light, and I made the decision Judy doesn’t – I stayed faithful to my true identity. I chose Christ, told the girl the truth, and gave her up. Shortly thereafter, my story with the girl ended. Vertigo, however, still has a bit to go.

As I wrote before, Scottie learns very quickly that his Ideal is nothing more than a ruse. This revelation drives him to take her back to the place where his masculine identity was definitively taken from. They return to the mission, and he forces her to climb with him up the spiral staircase that he could not climb before. They reach the top, he is made whole, and he and Judy reconcile.

But the movie isn’t over, because it’s not just about Scottie. Judy still has to pay for her transgression. A shrouded figure mounts the stairs. She is startled. She backs away, falls, and dies. What was her transgression? Well, more than aiding in the murder of the real Madeline, Judy has already killed herself. She murdered Judy Barton to become Madeline Elster, and she pays for her crime. Scottie is culpable in this murder as well, so as the movie ends, he stands on the edge of the bell tower, looking over the body of his now dead Ideal, fully man but fully aghast at what he has become.

I, thankfully, didn’t have to experience anything quite so traumatic during my own relational ordeal, but I did experience a lot of psychological stress as I saw my Ideal for what it really was – an idol. I’m forever grateful for God’s presence and the help of my family and friends during that time. It gives me great peace to know that my commitment to Christ overcame all my other selfish desires. I surrendered my Ideal, didn’t surrender my true identity, and didn’t have to bear the consequences for failing to do or doing either, respectively.

I’m a few years past that experience now. As I type this, I look over the top of my laptop screen at my wife doing whatever she’s doing on her own laptop on the other side of the room. Krista is so much more than any wife I ever imagined. She’s better than the Ideal. She’s so much more substantial and intelligent and pretty. I wouldn’t change her at all, and I’m so eager, not to use her to assert my own identity, but to give myself up so that she reaches the fullness of her identity in Christ.

Thinking back through all this and trying to figure out why Vertigo has long been one of my favorite films has caused me to reconsider whether or not it and the other nine movies on my list still resonate like they used to. Veritgo was a movie that spoke strongly to what was happening in my life in the past. It’s not so pertinent anymore. God is doing a new thing in my life, and I’m sure there will probably new favorite films to go along with God’s new work.