The Vertigo Puzzle: A Movie Memoir

A poster for Alfred Hitchcock’s 1958 thriller ‘Vertigo’ starring James Stewart and Kim Novak.

The curtain came down. The house lights came up. The ushers entered the theater to tidy up spilled popcorn, candy wrappers and other movie mementoes.

The movie was over, but the audience wasn’t over the movie. No one was moving. Some were expressing bewilderment. Some had hoped for a final scene to clarify the climax and explain the meaning of the film. Others sensed it was up to themselves to do that, assuming they could interpret the intent of director Alfred Hitchcock.

It was 1958 and we were among the first San Franciscans to see “Vertigo,” a film we had first heard about when it was shooting locations in and out of Frisco. That made us wonder what Hitchcock was up to. We wondered even more when we saw the result. 

We expected to be entertained and perhaps even delighted by the story of a police detective turned private eye (James Stewart) entranced by an elegant mystery woman (Kim Novak) whom he was hired to investigate and later obsessed by a San Francisco shopgirl (Novak in a dual role) who seemed unworthy of  his attention. The end of it all found most of us mystified, remaining in our seats to see if any of us could explain what we had seen. That was certainly the wish of my moviegoing mom.

“Howard,” she said, turning to me, “you read mysteries and you like Hitchcock. Tell me what the heck that was all about.”

Here was a golden opportunity to impress mom with my cinematic expertise. Given my reading preferences and the fact that I had seen such recent Hitchcock classics as  “Dial M for Murder” and “Rear Window,”  mom must have thought I had all I needed to interpret “Vertigo” for her.

Having graduated to almost-adult status, there was no longer any reason for her to wave her hands in front of my eyes, as she had done throughout my childhood if anything  inappropriate, improper or offensive dared to present itself on the big screen. Now that I had full vision without interruption and a degree of familiarity with Hitchcock themes and techniques, could I explain to mom what she had just seen?

In fact, I had no more idea what the movie meant than she did, baffled as I was by Stewart’s obsessions and grievances. Nor could I reckon his obliviousness to the one woman in his life (Barbara Bel Geddes) whose concern for him was a ticket to a happy ending, assuming Hitchcock would grant his tormented hero a ticket to happiness.

Scene from the 1958 film Vertigo.

Much of our puzzlement was due to the mystery of obsession. The title itself was a clue. Vertigo is defined as a case of dizziness, a condition with a sense of whirling and a tendency to lose balance. It was what we saw happen to police detective John “Scottie” Ferguson on the job and off. The very first scene left him hanging by his fingernails on a rooftop after a dangerous chase. Later, as a private eye, he accepted a case that made him the unsuspecting pawn in a cunning murder plot. Left bereft by that, he pursued the salesgirl who fascinated him for reasons we couldn’t comprehend. Did this unlikely person hold a key to the mystery? Was the detective hoping to rewrite the past and regain whatever he had lost?     

The film provided no easy resolution to Scottie’s problems, but it did shape a warning. The past is never how you imagine it. If you try to relive or remake it, you’re only fooling yourself. The moral of the story has more than a movie meaning for us today, when native San Franciscans such as myself try to make sense of how and why the city of our youth lost much of the charm and sophistication that once was synonymous with its name. Besieged today by issues of crime, homelessness, business closures, political rancor and other woes, the San Francisco we cherished is gone.  Try as we may to recapture it, the city of yesterday exists only in memory.

And what did I tell mom years later, when the subject of “Vertigo” happened to come up in a Hollywood conversation?  

“Well, mom, if I had to take a guess, I’d say Hitchcock was cautioning us about the hazard of solving mysteries better left unsolved.”

Actor James Stewart as Scottie Ferguson rescues Kim Novak as Madeleine Elster from drowning under the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, in a scene from the film ‘Vertigo’, directed by Alfred Hitchcock, 1958.

“But what was the detective supposed to do?” she asked.

She had a point. After all there wouldn’t be a movie if Stewart’s character said no thanks to the challenge. On the other hand, he seemed to have a talent for overlooking the obvious–including the compassionate heart of Midge, the woman who never stopped caring about him and loving him. Was he unaware of her feelings or dismissing them?

 A different ending could have reunited these two and given viewers some hope for the sleuth’s recovery from tragedy. The absence of such a scene, sentimental as it might have been, leaves unanswered the question of where (if anywhere) Scottie can go from here. Perhaps it is Hitchcock’s way of saying there is no easy answer to the enigma of the human mind and the abysses that lie within it. Perhaps he preferred to explore the futility of the dizzying detective without catering to popular taste.

The last and most insoluble mystery of “Vertigo” is why the evildoer responsible for Scottie’s losses and sorrows is not brought to justice, much as movies of that era routinely did with such villains. If the detective had been allowed to do so, justice would have been served and Scottie’s remorse and regret might have been cured, especially if Midge was waiting to take his hand and lead him to the pathway of recovery. 

The man who at the beginning of “Vertigo” somehow managed to escape falling to his death becomes a fall guy and proceeds to deceive himself. It is an irony most filmmakers would choose to avoid, but in Hitchcock’s hands it became the mechanism of a mystery that has given the film the status of a classic. 


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  • Guess I need to rewatch this movie. It’s been a while! Time flies! I sure did like the Hitchcock films & Jimmy Stewart growing up.

  • This is a great take on the film and makes me realize how little we know about people/the community around us. That is why I like mystery stories because they force you to overturn the truth. A smart person does not accept fear, but instead learns who creates the fear.

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