Following a dramatic rooftop chase where the detective Scottie loses his footing and is left hanging by his fingertips from guttering twenty or so floors up, a policeman, attempting to rescue him, falls to his death. Scottie is retired from the force, diagnosed with acute agoraphobia which leads him to suffer episodes of vertigo. The now retired Scottie is asked by an old college friend Gavin Elster, played by Tom Helmore, to go ‘on the job’ one more time, to trail his wife Madeline, also played by Kim Novak, who he claims is acting bizarrely. He claims she is being haunted, even possessed, by the tragic figure of Carlotta Valdes, a woman from the 19th century, seduced by a rich and powerful man, who had a child resulting from the affair which was taken away from her when the man abandons her, she later committed suicide. Madeline apparently makes unexplained journeys during the day that she claims to have no memory of. Scottie, reluctant at first, is ‘seduced’ by the sight of Madeline at the wonderfully evocative Ernie’s restaurant and agrees to follow Madeline.
He spends a day following Madeline around San Franciso - to the Podesta Baldocchi flower shop, the old Spanish Mission Dolores which is the site of Carlotta’s grave, the Legion of Honour art gallery, home to a portrait of Carlotta, and the McKittrick hotel, the former home of Carlotta. Scottie continues to follow Madeline the next day – she drives out to the Golden Gate Bridge where she attempts suicide by throwing herself into the bay, and Scottie rescues her.
He takes her unconscious back to his apartment. Upon awakening Madeline appears to have no memory of her movements prior to going to the Golden Gate Bridge, or how she came to ‘fall’ into the bay. Scottie and her begin to become more closely involved with each other, and ‘fall’ in love. Madeline attempts to explain to Scottie her feelings of possession and haunting (the wonderful scene in the sequoia forest – the ancient monuments to ‘time’ – the oldest living things).
Madeline proceeds to explain to Scottie her deep fear of madness, destruction and death. She describes a dream to Scottie about an old Spanish mission with a tower, where the past is seemingly preserved. Scottie realises that she is describing an actual preserved Spanish mission to the south of San Francisco and drives her there – to show her that it’s ‘real’ and not a dream, to confront an object of her fear, in some attempt to dissipate it and ‘free’ her from being haunted by the past. When they arrive Madeline becomes extremely distressed and insists upon going into the chapel alone. Upon entering she climbs the stairs of the tower. Scottie attempts to follow her but is prevented from doing so by his ‘vertigo’. Madeline throws herself to her death from the tower.
The now traumatised and guilt-ridden Scottie slides into an acute form of stasis, depression and withdrawn, which is signalled by a bizarre dream sequence – and described quite comically by the psychiatrist as ‘acute melancholia with a guilt complex’. Upon seemingly recovering and out of hospital Scottie is seen wandering around familiar landmarks in search of Madeline. After a number of failed encounters when he appears to see Madeline from a distance, but is disappointed to discover that it is a different woman when closer, Scottie spies a woman in the street who bears an uncanny resemblance to Madeline. He pursues this woman to her hotel room where he demands to speak to her. We learn that this woman is called Judy, she is a brunette from Kansas, and is apparently devoid of the social grace and charm of Madeline. Scottie persuades her to have dinner with him. We then learn, in a narrated section where Judy writes a letter to Scottie, that Judy is in fact Scottie’s Madeline. She reveals the part she played in Gavin Elster’s plot to kill his wife. The seduction and manipulation of Scottie (she played the role of a Madeline haunted by the past in the form of Carlotta), and the leading of him to the tower where they knew he could not ascend, in order that Elster could throw his real wife from the tower and make it look like a suicide caused by her being haunted by Carlotta. However, Judy had been in love with Scottie, and appears to abandon her plan to flee from Scottie, and dares to try and stay and have a relationship with him. The traumatised and haunted Scottie, in a series of disturbing scenes, attempt to ‘make-over’ Judy so that she better resembles Madeline – shoes, clothes and hair. He finally achieves this in the famous scene in the hotel room where he manages to resurrect Madeline from the dead.
Judy, however, makes an apparent ‘slip’ and attempts to wear Carlotta’s necklace. Scottie realises the truth – realises that he’s been ‘had’. He drives Judy to the old Spanish mission – ‘There’s one more thing I need to do before I can be free of the past’. Once at the mission he reveals to Judy that he knows the truth and he forces her to climb the tower, to the ‘scene of the crime’ – to become ‘free of the past’. Once in the tower, Judy, startled by the appearance of a dark shadowy figure (which turns out to be a nun) falls to her death, and the film ends with a shot of Scottie staring down at her body from the top of the tower.
Vertigo brilliantly dramatises the interior mental anguish of the protagonist Scottie by demonstrating the progressive infusion of memory into the mechanism of his thought.
Scottie’s haunting – his possession by the figure (memory) of Madeline drives him to attempt to recover the past and instantiate it in a resurrected figure of Madeline through Judy – Judy-Becoming Scottie’s Madeline. Scottie spirals into the past (like the spirals in the opening credits) – trapped by an obsessive and traumatic image of the past which he attempts to repeatedly instantiate (to bring Madeline back from the dead, from the ‘dead-time’ of the absolute past of memory, into the present). The film manages to dramatise a subject’s possession by time – Scottie is ‘lost in time’ – and the drama of a traumatic division between the pure memory (Scottie’s obsession with Madeline) and his present/actual recollections (his attempts at repetition with Judy). The indiscernability between the two realms instantiate what Deleuze calls the crystal-image.
This is captured in Eric Rohmer’s writings on Vertigo: ‘In Vertigo we travel in space in the same way we travel in time, as our thoughts and the characters thoughts also travel. They are only probing, or more exactly, spiralling into the past. Everything forms a circle, but the loop never closes, the revolution carries us ever deeper into reminiscence. Shadows follow shadows, illusions follow illusions, not like the walls that slide away or mirrors that reflect to infinity, but by a kind of movement more worrisome still because it is without a gap or break and possesses both the softness of a circle and the knife edge of a straight line.’
Cinematic works of art such as Vertigo are able to create extraordinary images that weave a transverse continuity between different layers of the past and elaborate an entire network of non-localisable relations between them. In this way such works are able to express in the most profound manner non-chronological time – or direct images of time. Immediate and direct confrontations take place between the past and the future, the inside and the outside, at a distance impossible to determine, independent of any epistemologically fixed point (indiscernibility). Such an image no longer has space and movement as its primary characteristic, but topology and time. Cinema has the capacity of infusing images with a real sense of the transcendental form of time, its ceaseless differentiation of present into the past and the preservation of the past in the constitution of the future.