Unless a movie is a fantasy, like The Wizard of Oz (1939), people tend to feel cheated if they find out that most of a movie has just been a dream. To keep the audience from feeling cheated, some movies will be ambiguous as to whether what we are seeing is reality or a dream, and this is the case with Vertigo.
The movie begins with a close-up of a woman’s face. The camera moves in even closer on her eye, in which we begin to see swirling animation along with the opening credits. Moving into her eye suggests that we have moved into her subjective state, allowing us to see what she is imagining or remembering. And the animation is a further indication that what we are seeing is not real. One might be justified, even at this early stage, in wondering if the movie that follows is a woman’s dream.
After the credits, the movie jumps right into a chase sequence on the rooftops of tall buildings, when police detective John “Scottie” Ferguson (James Stewart) slips and finds himself hanging from the gutter above the city street below, which causes him to have vertigo. A uniformed policeman tries to pull him to safety, but slips and falls to his death. When the scene ends, Ferguson is still hanging there, and we do not see him being rescued nor is there any reference to his being rescued afterward, leading some critics to argue that the rest of the movie is his hallucinatory dream while he remains suspended. However, my preferred point at which this movie becomes a dream is in neither of these two scenes, but comes somewhat later.
Presumably, then, Ferguson is rescued, but he is forced to retire on account of the acrophobia resulting from the incident on the rooftop. In a subsequent scene, we meet Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes). In her conversation with Ferguson, whom she calls “Johnny” or “Johnny O,” we find out that they were engaged for three weeks while they were in college, but that she broke off the engagement, even though she says that she never married because he is the only man for her. From the surreptitious glances she gives him as they talk, we suspect there is more to the story than Ferguson is aware of. Barbara Bel Geddes, who plays Midge, is a nice looking woman with no sex appeal. We can easily believe that she broke off the engagement when she realized that he had no passion for her. Platonic relationships are often characterized by saying that the man and woman are like brother and sister, but several remarks suggest that she is more like a mother to him. This implies that there is something naïve and inexperienced about Ferguson, as when they talk about braziers, and she says, “You know about those things. You’re a big boy now.” Ferguson is an old bachelor. Today, a man who has been a lifelong bachelor would be assumed to have had sexual relationships along the way. But in 1958, when this movie was made, it was not uncommon for bachelors to be virgins, and that is probably the case with Ferguson. This makes it easy to believe that he might become madly and obsessively in love with Madeleine (Kim Novak) later on in the movie.
This Madeleine with whom he eventually falls in love is the wife of an old friend, Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore), who asks Ferguson to follow her around. He is worried about her because she goes into dream-like trances, which he believes have something to do with her obsession with her great-grandmother, Carlotta Valdes, who committed suicide. Ferguson reluctantly agrees to follow her. When Madeleine tries to drown herself in the bay, he rescues her. Eventually, however, she manages to kill herself by leaping from a bell tower. Ferguson was unable to stop her because his vertigo prevented him from keeping up with her as she ascended the stairs. He feels responsible, and he ends up having nightmares, in which he sees himself falling the way Madeleine did. As a result, he winds up in a mental institution, in catatonic state.
Supposedly, he gets out of the mental institution, discovers a woman named Judy, who looks like Madeleine, and begins trying to make the resemblance even greater by getting her to dye her hair and wear it like Madeleine, to dress like Madeleine, until he eventually discovers she really is Madeleine. Or rather that the real Madeleine was murdered by her husband, and that Judy helped him do it by pretending to be Madeleine. When Judy got to the top of the bell tower, Elster was already there with his dead wife, whom he threw off the tower. In the process of discovering that this is what really happened, Ferguson forces Judy to go back to the mission with him and once again ascend the stairs of the bell tower. This leads to a climactic scene in which Judy accidentally falls to her death, which apparently cures Ferguson of his vertigo.
Though the movie can be understood realistically in this way, there is a good reason to suspect that the second half is just a dream. In any movie you have ever seen in which someone is in a hospital, there is almost always a getting-out-of-the hospital scene, as in The Glass Key (1942), Kiss Me Deadly (1955), and The Godfather (1972). But there is no such scene in this movie. And considering Ferguson was in a psychotic state, the need for a getting-out-of-the-hospital scene would be even greater than in the examples just given, where only physical conditions were involved. Instead, we suddenly see Ferguson outside the building where Madeleine once lived, and the fact that he had once been under the care of psychiatrists is never even referred to during the rest of the movie.
Other than Vertigo, there is one other movie in which there is no getting-out-of-the-hospital scene. In the movie Four Daughters (1938), John Garfield plays a character who dies in a hospital. But in the remake, Young at Heart (1954), Frank Sinatra, who played the corresponding character, Barney Sloan, did not like the unhappy ending, and so he insisted that Barney live instead. The result is a tacked-on happy ending, in which Barney goes from dying in the hospital to suddenly being home and in great health. Whether intended or not, one cannot help but interpret this final scene as Barney’s wishful dream in the hospital in the last moments of his life. And considering that Barney had been gloomy and miserable throughout the movie, the fact that the final scene shows him playing the piano, happy and content, even further invites the dream interpretation.
In any event, by regarding the second half of Vertigo as a dream, the movie as a whole becomes more realistic. The murder plot revealed in the second half is far-fetched and would have been extremely difficult to arrange. Elster would have had to get his wife to wear the same clothes that Judy was wearing that night, find some reason to get her up to the bell tower, break her neck, and then wait for Judy to arrive before throwing the real Madeleine out of the tower. And then he would have to hope that Ferguson would not look at the body and discover that it was a different woman. There are easier ways for a man to get rid of his wife than that. The idea that Madeleine was mentally unbalanced, had found out about her great-grandmother and become obsessed with her story, leading her to commit suicide, is much easier to believe.
Furthermore, the Judy of the second half of the movie appears to be working class, whereas the Madeleine of the first half strikes us as middle class. We would have to believe that Elster was like Professor Higgins to Judy’s Eliza Doolittle of My Fair Lady (1964), but that once the murder was accomplished and Judy was abandoned by him, she lapsed back into her working-class mannerisms.
Finally, Midge is not seen in the second half of the movie. She represents rationality and common sense, as well as being the woman Ferguson should have married. Her absence in the second half of the movie is an indication that only irrational forces are at work in his wish-fulfilling dream. By dreaming that the woman he loved really did not die that night, that she was involved in a murder plot to kill the real Madeleine, he absolves himself in his dream of any responsibility for her death.