Kim Novak and James Stewart in Vertigo.
Everett Collection

Many movie people, and especially movie critics, adore Vertigo, a movie about a man’s obsession with a woman who isn’t real—or, rather, she is real, but he fails to acknowledge any reality existing outside of his own view of her. The obvious metaphor is that this is like being obsessed with the movies, which are similarly not-real and yet, within our imaginations, staggeringly alive. But seeing Vertigo mostly as a movie about oneself is missing the point. It’s great precisely because it isn’t—or Alfred Hitchcock wasn’t—particularly interested in catering to our personal obsessions. Instead, it’s a film so pure in its emotional selfishness that it achieves something like a state of grace. This is a romance of self-absorption and deep sadness, about the undiluted tragedy of a man’s life when he fails to see the woman in front of him. At one point that woman is Madeleine, as poised as a great sculptor’s dream in her granite-colored suit; at another she’s the much coarser Judy, a shopgirl-type in a too-tight sweater. Both women are played by Kim Novak, descended from Mount Olympus just for the occasion. James Stewart’s Scottie is the ex-detective so deeply invested in the idea of Madeline that he tries to remake Judy in her image. This Stewart is no longer the stammering sweetheart we saw in the ’30s and ’40s, but instead a man who’s sleepwalking through a nightmare of his own making. You can always see the gears turning with Hitchcock, especially in Vertigo: the movie is as meticulous and exacting as the workings of the tiniest Swiss wristwatch. But he gets poetry out of those gears. It’s the most wistful of his films, reaching out to something beyond his grasp. And if Hitchcock can’t reach it, you know there’s no hope for the rest of us.

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