Arguably Hitchcock’s greatest film, Vertigo is nonetheless the creepiest tale of obsessive love ever filmed.
Detective Scottie Ferguson (Jimmy Stewart) discovers he has vertigo at the worst possible moment: chasing a crook across the rooftops of San Francisco. When a fellow police officer is killed trying to rescue him from plummeting to his own death, Scottie retires from the force.
Nearly a year later, a rehabilitated Scottie is contacted by old college buddy, Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore). Elster, a wealthy industrialist, woos Scottie out of retirement with an odd story about his wife, Madeleine (Kim Novak), whom he believes is either crazy or possessed by a spirit.
Scottie tails the beautiful, mysterious Madeleine, and, after rescuing her from a suicide attempt in San Francisco Bay, he falls in love with her. Then, a tragedy, and Scottie’s world spirals helplessly out-of-control. Everything that seemed one way is in fact the exact opposite and Scottie becomes a man obsessed.
Not much can be said about Vertigo that hasn’t already been said. Sure, it marks Jimmy Stewart’s most mature performance. Yes, Kim Novak is the most beautiful woman in the world. Fine, Bernard Hermann’s score is maybe the greatest -- and most imitated -- movie soundtrack ever. Great, Hitch made an incredibly personal film even within the framework of a psychological thriller.
Oft overlooked, however, are the role of Midge and the fine performance of Barbara Bel Geddes, the stage actress who played her. Midge was not a character in the novel D'entre les morts on which the film was based, nor does she appear in playwright Maxwell Anderson’s first draft of the screenplay. She was wholly an invention of screenwriter Sam Taylor, who felt Stewart’s character, Scottie, needed someone who represented the past, stability and normalcy even as Scottie’s own world was spiraling out-of-control.
If Midge is the symbol of stability and normalcy, then I must be whack. Her obsession with Scottie, whom we discover is her former fiancé, is even creepier than Scottie’s obsession with Madeleine. It just manifests itself in more subtle ways, but no less insidious. Her compulsion is evinced with the portrait of herself as Carlotta, the painting on which Madeleine’s look is based. When Scottie sees the picture and mutters, “Not funny, Midge,” on his way out the door, Midge’s crazed reaction is to tug her hair and utter the infamous, “Stupid, stupid, stupid.”
What more evidence of her Scottie-fixation do you need than Midge’s visit to the hospital, where she plays Mozart to the catatonic Scottie and whispers eerily, “I’ll always be there for you.” Strangely, however, Midge disappears from the film shortly thereafter. Did she abandon Scottie in his darkest hour because she knew she could never have him? Was she balled up in a fetal position, cowering in a corner, muttering, “stupid, stupid, stupid” to herself in the same hospital Scottie convalesced? Or perhaps Midge was off painting her face and Scottie’s into reproductions of other works of art?
Was Midge what Hitch would refer to as an “icebox” -- something unanswered in the film that will instigate discussion later while helping oneself to a midnight snack? If so, genius!