Vertigo (1958)

Film and Plot Synopsis

In San Francisco, Scottie Ferguson is a brilliant but acrophobic detective who’s hired to shadow a friend’s suicidal wife named Madeleine. After he saves her from drowning in the bay, Scottie’s interest shifts from business to fascination with the icy but alluring blonde. When he finds another woman remarkably like his lost love, the now obsessed detective must unravel the secrets of the past to find the key to his future.

‘Vertigo’ Movie Summary

The summary below contains spoilers.
In Alfred Hitchcock‘s 1958 classic Vertigo, San Francisco detective, John “Scottie” Ferguson, narrowly survives a near fall from a rooftop that results in the death of a fellow officer. Scottie develops vertigo, and retires from the police force.

Afterwards, Scottie’s ex-fiancée, Midge Wood, consoles him, but lets it be known that only another emotional shock can cure him; kind of like the Saturday morning cartoons where one blow to the head causes amnesia, and another brings your memory back.

Meanwhile, old college buddy, Gavin Elster, asks Scottie to follow his wife, Madeleine, who he believes is a danger to herself. Scottie reluctantly agrees to help, and follows the beautiful woman around town from a florist shop to the Mission San Francisco de Asís, and to the Legion of Honor art museum. There, he finds Madeleine gazing at the Portrait of Carlotta.

He finally tails her to the McKittrick Hotel where he watches her check in, but she never checks out. However, she disappears from the scene which is very odd.

Scottie learns that Carlotta Valdes, the girl in the portrait, committed suicide because she bore a child from a wealthy married man who then ostracized her while keeping their baby. Gavin believes Carlotta now possesses his wife Madeleine because she is Carlotta’s great-granddaughter.

Once again, Scottie tails Madeleine around San Francisco. Eventually, they end up at Fort Point where she jumps into the bay in a suicide attempt. Don’t worry though. Scottie rescues her. He’s just that kind of boy scout.

The next day, Scottie follows Madeleine again. (Isn’t this getting creepy?) The two end up meeting, and spend the day together. They head to Cypress Point on the scenic 17-Mile Drive in picturesque Pebble Beach, California! There, Scottie grabs her by the ocean as they warmly embrace.

Madeleine tells Scottie of her dream about the childhood home of Carlotta at the Mission San Juan Bautista. Scottie drives her there where they profess their love for each other after having only met 24 hours earlier. Then, in a spinning, blustery whirl, Madeleine races into the church, up the bell tower, and jumps to her death.

Scottie takes chase, and tries to stop her, but that damned acrophobia keeps him from following her to the top. There is a trial where the coroner and a jury rule her death a suicide. While Gavin doesn’t blame Scottie, Scottie becomes clinically depressed with a case of melancholy and the infinite sadness.

Eventually, the sanatorium releases Scottie, who then roams the streets; retracing the places Madeleine often visited. He sees her image everywhere to the point where he spots a woman in green, who looks different from Madeleine, but still reminds him of her.

That woman is Judy Barton from Salina, Kansas.

There’s a quick flashback of Judy Barton from Salina, Kansas impersonating the late Madeleine Elster that Scottie fell in love with. Judy writes Scottie a confession to her part in Gavin’s murder plot to get rid of his wife; taking advantage of Scottie’s acrophobia while still making him a credible witness to her suicide. However, Judy tears up the letter, and pretends she’s just met Scottie for the first time because damn it, she loves that man!

Scottie’s obsession with Madeleine consumes him. He forces Judy to change her clothing, her makeup, her hairstyle, her carpet, her drapes; her everything…eventually, you can’t tell the two apart.

Now that Scottie is happy with Judy’s appearance, Judy hopes to live happily ever after with him. However, as they get ready to leave for dinner, Judy puts on a necklace; the exact same necklace Carlotta wears in the painting, but how would Judy know about that, and where would she get such a thing?

Scottie realizes the truth; Judy was Gavin’s mistress, and Gavin dumped her after he no longer had use for her…just like that wealthy married man who dumped Carlotta in her sad, sad story.

Scottie snaps; he crackles, and he pops!

He drives Judy to the very mission that Madeleine killed herself. There, Scottie tells Judy that he’s figured everything out, and he forces her to the top of the bell tower; thus conquering his fear of heights.

Judy frantically confesses her part in the scheme, and begs Scottie for forgiveness because damn it, she loves that man!

Their commotion attracts the attention of a nun who comes to see what the ado is all about. Startled, Judy falls off the bell tower to her death as Scottie looks on without emotion.

In the end, Gavin is our big winner of this story as he committed the perfect crime, and got away with it.

That, folks, is Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo!

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Paramount Pictures released Vertigo on May 9, 1958. Alfred Hitchcock directed the film starring James Stewart, Kim Novak, and Barbara Bel Geddes.

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