Why People Like Vertigo so MuchBecause they love intrigue (while concommitantly, hating the obvious) and nothing intrigues like a sequence of ambiguous events and misinterpreted intentions. People love trying to get to the bottom of things; to follow the trail of clues en route to final illumination. Film directors, and Hitchcock paradigmaticaly, oblige the desire for the half-lit by withholding, eliding, deferring and generally obstructing insight. When parts finally fit into a whole and plot strands coalesce in an intelligible pattern, the hidden order of the universe is miraculously restored. People love to be entrapped, provided the trap gets sprung in the fullness of time. Yet some film riddles resist the satisfaction of final resolution, even if we do more or less figure out the skein of motivations informing them. Vertigo is one of them. People love Vertigo because it's an enduring mystery in love with its own mysteriousness.
They love it because its exemplifies the oneiric transformation of time, weaving past present and future in a mytho-poetic potentiation of simple linear sequentiality. Because it enacts the archetypal drama of man and woman from the male perspective, displaying the female as the unfathomable, enigmatic tease, the primordial trap, the ‘helpless’ snare. To whatever lengths Hitchcock goes to depict his Woman as the victim of her own delusions subsequently forced into impersonating whom she really is (or ought to be), the viewer recognizes the praying Mantis going about her business. In this regard choosing Novak, whose epic falsehood is so obvious, to embody the female reflected in the male, works to transmit the latent moral valence of dissimulation 'in stereo.' She expertly pulls off the hollowness at the center of the project of striving to resemble, to embody, a projected image.
The endeavor to appear, someone once observed, is the striving of ghosts. Here it coalesces with Novak's striving to act natural as the mysterious cipher. Our reflecting light has to be trained just so lest her vision evaporate into the nothingness of mere pretending.
This is Hitchcock's final word on male-female interfacing: the female as dissembling semblance (altogether "vain"), the male as unwitting visionary and transformer. But lest one conclude that he was just another misogynist, recall that all genuine hatred springs from helplessness. His emplotment of Woman is neither a celebration nor an evisceration--it is an exorcism.
Kim Novak reminds me of an Oldsmobile 98 attempting to maneuver through narrow European streets. She make it through, but there is a sense that disaster has been narrowly avoided. She never hits her marks without transmitting her well-thought-out preparation in the process. Her job was definitely simplified by the fact that she had to convey diffuseness, for which her thespian faculties mostly suffice. Or would have had she had the ability to forget, even for a milli-second, that she was in broadcast mode. To her credit, she models her evolving series of modish coiffeurs on par with the most accomplished mannequin.
Barbara bel Geddes sports a new nose, the fleshier aquiline proboscis of old now suitably curtailed to correspond to the pert proto-nose of mid-Century American mainstream tastes. Her temperament is correspondingly sassy yet resourceful as the advertising pragmatic cheering Stewart on to confront his phobia of dangling from gutters.
Stewart's Scottie gets sucked into the web of intrigue through no fault of his own. Besides being the wounded (enfeebled) warrior, he is the entangled innocent drawn into the web of faux-femalia--read as the interference pattern created by the collision of two pathic individuals. Hitchcock orchestrates the progressively more layered tale of intrigue around the equivocations of the Female’s labyrinthian surprises as Scottie's literal professional business. But on the surface of the film (= its symbolic depth) he remains, as host of an obsession, Madeleine's hapless prey. The most judicious characterization of their entanglement would probably be as a sad symbiosis of souls.
Vertigo is beloved in no small part because it holds fast a moment in history before feminism toppled the male ego from its hegemonic cultural perch; a moment when artifice and vulgarity ruled without any sense of shame, and America’s automobiles, skyscrapers and brasiers were the envy of the world.
Oh, and because of Hitchcock's supreme mastery of pacing, narrative, and atmosphere.