by Dr. Alvin Burstein
Oh, the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall,
Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed …
Gerard Manley Hopkins
I learned the other day that in the British Film Institute’s poll of film critics, Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane had been displaced as the best film of all time by Alfred Hitchcock’s 1958 Vertigo.
Classic tales like Oedipus Rex or Cinderella or Hansel and Gretel, persist over time, because the stories resonate with some basic aspect of being human. What was it, I wondered, that the Hitchcock film tapped? With that question in mind, I recently viewed a re-mastered DVD of the movie.
The plot is intricate. The protagonist (Jimmy Stewart) is a police detective forced to retire because of debilitating acrophobia. The phobia resulted from a traumatic experience. While attempting to assist Stewart, who was dangling in space after slipping during a roof top pursuit, a colleague fell, and Stewart saw him plunge to his death.
After his retirement, Stewart is pulled into an intricate murder concocted by a friend who wants to kill his wife. The friend has recruited the second protagonist, played by Kim Novak, and groomed her to look and dress like his blonde wife. He persuades Stewart to tail his “wife” suggesting that she may be suffering from a combination of split personality and possession by her grandmother, a woman who had killed herself. He persuades Stewart to follow Novak to determine whether she is actually possessed.
Novak and Stewart fall in love, but Novak, unable to extricate herself from the murder plot, lures Stewart into following her to the top of an ancient church tower. Trapped by his phobia part way up, Stewart watches what he believes to be Novak jumping to her death. In fact, Stewart’s friend, has flung his murdered wife’s body off the tower’s top.
Stewart slowly recovers from the crushing depression of this reprise of his earlier trauma, but is haunted by the experience of seeing women he takes to be Novak. He encounters Novak again, with her hair its original color and no longer dressed like the wife. Taken by her resemblance to his lost love, he persuades her to date him, and, ultimately, to bleach her hair and dress like the woman whose death he thought he had failed to prevent.
When Novak inadvertently dons a piece of jewelry that she had worn before her faked suicide, Stewart realizes the imposture, and forces her to return to the tower and climb to its top with him. At the tower’s top, Novak confesses her complicity in the crime, but pleads her love for Stewart. Just as he is about to embrace her, a nun walks out of the shadows, and Novak, startled, steps backward off the tower’s edge, falling to her death. The movie ends with Stewart walking to the brink of the tower and staring down at Novak’s body.
A central issue in this film is that of love and loss. Stewart and Novak fall in love. There is a powerful irony in the fact that the woman with whom Stewart falls in love is an imposter, one who has an assumed identity, and that when he encounters the “real” Novak, he forces her to re-assume her alien self. This can be understood as a demonstration of the power of transference, of our attempt to construe new relationships as recreations of our past. It also reflects a tragic element, the inextricable link between love and loss, the truth that every love relationship must end in loss, a truth that mortality imposes on us. Stewart loses Novak when he thinks that she has died, recreates her, only to lose her again, twice, once when he realizes she was an imposter, and again when she actually falls from the tower.
At another, even deeper level, one might wish to recall Freud’s comment, … the act of birth is the first experience of anxiety, and thus the source and prototype of the affect of anxiety…. The very act of being born must leave deep preverbal, non-conceptual traces of the painful loss of the natal environment, the primal fall out of Eden. Stewart’s attempts to undo the terrifying inevitability of that fall, doomed to failure is captured in Vertigo.
The terror of loss is expressed in his symptom, and the symptom evaporates in grief when the loss is undeniable.
[Dr. Alvin Burstein is Professor Emeritus, University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and currently serves on the faculty of the New Orleans-Birmingham Psychoanalytic Center where he moderates their Film & Discussion Series.]