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USA, 1958

Director: Alfred Hitchcock

Production: Paramount Pictures; Technicolor, 35mm; running time: 127 minutes. Released May 1958. Re-released 1983. Filmed in part in San Francisco.

Producer: Alfred Hitchcock; screenplay: Alec Coppel and Samuel Taylor, from the novel D'entre les morts by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac; photography: Robert Burks; editor: George Tomasini; art director: Hal Pereira and Henry Bumstead; music: Bernard Herrmann.

Cast: James Stewart (John Ferguson); Kim Novak (Madeline/Judy); Barbara Bel Geddes (Midge); Tom Helmore (Gavin Eister); Henry Jones.



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* * *

Not particularly successful at the time of its release, Vertigo has come to be recognized as one of Alfred Hitchcock's greatest films, where his profounder obsessions are reinforced by his technical inventiveness. It can be argued that Hitchcock's "greatness" comes only from the accident that his recurring obsession with voyeurism is the topic that best meshes with the ontology of the filmgoing experience. In any case, the longstanding argument over the superiority of his British vs. American periods looks to have been settled in favor of the latter. The less savory aspects of Hitchcock's life revealed since his death come as little surprise if Rear Window, Vertigo, and Psycho are seen as a supreme voyeuristic trilogy.

The Peeping Toms in these films progress through ever-greater distress—from the ostensibly healthy (if significantly broken-legged) James Stewart with his telephoto lens in Rear Window through the psychotic Anthony Perkins with his motel peephole in Psycho. If Stewart's Scotty Ferguson, the private eye in Vertigo, is more fascinating than either, it's because he's so precariously balanced between their psychic states. A former police detective who's developed a pathological fear of heights since being responsible for the fatal fall of a fellow officer, Scotty is institutionalized for a year in the middle of the film after assuming (wrongly) that his "weakness" (as the coroner puts it) prevented him from stopping the suicidal leap of the woman he was hired to protect and with whom he's fallen in love. The film ends at the moment of her "second" death. It's as bleak a conclusion as in any American film of its decade; Psycho is a rich comedy in comparison.

The voyeuristic impulse behind Hitchcock's style is most immediately evident in the tourist sensibility that pervades his American films—a tourist will keep his careful distance from the grit of the world. Here, the Golden Gate Bridge, the Palace of the Legion of Honor, Podesta's flowershop, Ernie's restaurant, Coit Tower, Fort Point, the Palace of Fine Arts make up San Francisco's slick surface through Robert Burks's sharp-edged Technicolor. Hitchcock's silent film mastery pays off in the scenes involving Scotty's extended tailing of Madeleine, accompanied by Bernard Herrmann's haunting score.

Vertigo extends this passive, tourist's world into more intimate levels. The film's plotline is the hokiest of ghost stories ("Do you believe that someone out of the past, someone dead, can take possession of a living being?"), but it soon moves into tragedy through flaws wrought by sexual obsession. The highly charged, pivotal scene comes quite late: Scotty has met a woman who reminds him of his dead love (in fact, she is the same woman—her fabricated "death" having been the cover for a man's murder of his wife). They return to his bachelor apartment after an increasingly uncomfortable afternoon of buying clothes to make the woman resemble her previous incarnation. Judy's plea, spoken almost to herself, is: "Couldn't you like me, just me, the way I am?" What looks for an instant like Scotty's gaze of reciprocated love is instead his revelation of the key for her complete transformation: "The color of your hair!" The scene lurches forward into an ultimate degradation, as Judy agrees to remake her brunette-shopgirl self into the (Hitchcockian) blonde ice-goddess, with tailored grey suit and tightly bound hair. The scene, and the whole film, is the essence of the Hitchcockian sexuality—that is, sexuality only exists as obsession, one that degrades women and literally deranges men. In Vertigo, Hitchcock does manage to be pointed about the ironies of this quest: Scotty looks longingly at other blondes in harsh grey suits even while dining with a vibrant incarnation of the woman he "loves." In a sense, he gets just what he deserves.

The film's genius is depicting such perversity as merely circumstance-crossed love. In other words, its genius is in revealing the perversity behind accepted "normal" practices. What's so odd about men redressing their women? Or in women remaking themselves in the adored image? Judy's plea puts it embarrassingly straight: "If I let you change me, will that do it? Will you love me?" Traditional sexual politics swells into a grand grotesque, a Chinese-box melodrama of tricks and betrayals. The scenario itself is complicated and inconsistent, but the repeated motifs in the dialogue ("Please try!" "It's too late.") tie the disconnected love-pairings into the tightest of nets. Hitchcock is typically cruel to plain Midge, with her patient, enduring love for Scotty. Her explanation of cantilevered brassieres is a woman's anti-mystery, pathetically commonplace next to Madeleine's apparent possession by the dead. Madeleine's feigned obsession presages Scotty's genuine necrophilia. (And, as in Psycho, the psychiatrist can't strip away the necessary layers—the problem is more than the "acute melancholia, complicated by a guilt complex" offered as a diagnosis or explanation of the problem.)

It's easy enough to appreciate the best of Hitchcock's films, and to be jolted by them, but Vertigo stands alone in its ability to move audiences emotionally. Perhaps the events are uncharacteristically heartbreaking because both Scotty and Madeline/Judy are caught in another, grander (and almost unseen) male power-play: Gavin's murder of his wife, his betrayal of his friend Scotty, and his abandonment of his accomplice Judy. A bookseller, echoing Gavin's words (and his actions), tells the tale of the original Carlotta being "thrown away" by her husband: "A man could do that in those days. He had the power and the freedom." On its visceral level, Vertigo succeeds because of James Stewart's explosive fury in the climax in the belltower, a betrayed idealist's fury practiced in his Frank Capra films and mastered through his Anthony Mann westerns.

It's remarkable that, considering all its plot twists, Vertigo should work even better after a first viewing. Once the secret's out, it's a completely different film, and a better one; no longer a harrowing ghost story, it is a profound study of sexual obsession, tied together by the city that best displays the essential acrophobic metaphor.

—Scott Simmon


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What Is Vertigo?

How Do Doctors Treat Vertigo?


Vertigo (VER-ti-go) is dizziness in which people feel that they or their surroundings are moving, often causing loss of balance.


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What Is Vertigo?

Vertigo is different from other forms of dizziness because it is caused by disturbances in the structures that control the sense of balance. These structures include the vestibule and semicircular canals in the ear, the vestibular (ves-TIB-u-lar) nuclei in the brain stem, and the eyes. There are many different kinds of vertigo.

Benign paroxysmal vertigo of childhood

Benign* paroxysmal (par-ok-SIZ-mal) vertigo is a condition that sometimes affects toddlers, who may suddenly lose their balance, roll their eyes, and become pale, dizzy, or nauseated for a few minutes. They usually recover quickly and often outgrow this form of vertigo.

* benign
(be-NINE) means a condition is not cancerous or serious and will probably improve, go away, or not get worse.

Positional vertigo

Positional vertigo may occur following changes in head position, especially when lying on one ear or when tipping back the head to look up. The symptoms tend to appear in clusters that last for several days. The vertigo begins several seconds after head movement and usually stops in under a minute. Some of the causes of positional vertigo are trauma to the ear, an ear infection, ear surgery, or degeneration because of aging inner ear organs that are involved in balance. Surgery can sometimes correct positional vertigo.

Ménières disease

This is sometimes called Ménières syndrome* or recurrent aural vertigo. It is caused by damage to the balance organs in the ears, although doctors often do not know the cause of the damage. In addition to vertigo, symptoms often include tinnitus (ti-NY-tis), which is a ringing, buzzing, or roaring in the ears. It may also cause gradual deafness in the affected ear. Menieres disease can be controlled but not cured with medication.

* syndrome
means a group or pattern of symptoms and/or signs that occur together.


Labyrinthitis (lab-i-rin-THY-tis) is an inflammation of the labyrinth in the inner ear, possibly as a result of viral infection in the upper respiratory tract. The labyrinth is a group of canals in the inner ear that is important for balance. Symptoms of labyrinthitis are sudden onset of severe vertigo lasting for several days, hearing loss, and tinnitus in the affected ear. During the recovery period, which may last several weeks, rapid head movement causes temporary vertigo.

Vestibular neuronitis

Vestibular neuronitis (noo-ro-NY-tis) is sometimes called epidemic vertigo and is thought to be the result of a virus that causes inflammation of the vestibular nerve cells. Vestibular neuronitis

usually causes a single attack of severe vertigo with nausea and vomiting that lasts for a few days. There is no hearing loss or tinnitus, and doctors will often prescribe medication to help with the dizziness and nausea.

Traumatic vertigo

Traumatic vertigo is one of the most common types of vertigo. It usually follows a head injury. The symptoms generally start to improve within several days but may last for weeks. Deafness often accompanies the vertigo on the side of the head that received the trauma. In some cases, surgery may be required to correct damage to the ear structures.

Acoustic neuromas

Acoustic neuromas are benign tumors that form in the vestibular nerve, affecting nerve signals for balance and hearing from the ear to the brain. Symptoms are hearing loss, tinnitus, dizziness, and unsteadiness. Surgery to remove the tumor improves the vertigo.

How Do Doctors Treat Vertigo?

Doctors often prescribe medication to reduce the dizziness, nausea, and sense of motion of vertigo. Other treatments will vary according to the cause of the vertigo.

See also

Motion Sickness



The U.S. National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD) posts information about hearing and balance at its website, which includes a special section called Kids and Teachers.

Vestibular Disorders Association, P.O. Box 4467, Portland, OR 97208-4467. The Vestibular Disorders Association posts information at its website about vertigo, labyrinthitis, neuronitis, Menieres disease, and other inner-ear balance disorders. It also offers a video and brochure called Dealing with Dizziness.


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Vertigo ★★★★ 1958 (PG)

Hitchcock's romantic story of obsession, manipulation and fear. Stewart plays a detective forced to retire after his fear of heights causes the death of a fellow policeman and, perhaps, the death of a woman he'd been hired to follow. The appearance of her double (Novak), whom he compulsively transforms into the dead girl's image, leads to a mesmerizing cycle of madness and lies. Features Herrmann's haunting music. 126m/C VHS, DVD . James Stewart, Kim Novak, Barbara Bel Geddes, Tom Helmore, Ellen Corby, Henry Jones, Raymond Bailey, Lee Patrick; D: Alfred Hitchcock; W: Samuel A. Taylor; C: Robert Burks; M: Bernard Herrmann. AFI ‘98: Top 100, Natl. Film Reg. ‘89.


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vertigo (vert-i-goh) n. a disabling sensation in which affected individuals feel that either they themselves or their surroundings are in a state of constant movement. It is a symptom of disease either in the labyrinth of the inner ear or in the vestibular nerve or its nuclei in the brainstem. See also benign paroxysmal positional vertigo.


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ver·ti·go / ˈvərtəgō/ • n. a sensation of whirling and loss of balance, associated particularly with looking down from a great height, or caused by disease affecting the inner ear or the vestibular nerve; giddiness.


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vertigo Dizziness, often accompanied by nausea. Due to disruption of the sense of balance, it may be produced by ear disorder, reduced flow of blood to the brain caused by altitude, emotional upset, or spinning rapidly.


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vertigo XVI. — L. vertīgō, -gin-,
So vertiginous XVII. — L. vertīginōsus.