The Daily Stream: No Wonder They Say Vertigo Is The Greatest Movie Of All Time

(Welcome to The Daily Stream, an ongoing series in which the /Film team shares what they've been watching, why it's worth checking out, and where you can stream it.)

The Movie: "Vertigo"

Where You Can Stream It: The Roku Channel

The Pitch: "Do you believe that someone out of the past, someone dead, can enter and take possession of a living being?" This is the question that an old acquaintance asks Scottie Ferguson, the retired San Francisco detective played by Jimmy Stewart in "Vertigo." It sounds like the suggestion of something supernatural, but the only ghosts in "Vertigo" are figurative ghosts of the past.

Anyone can be possessed by the memory of a person or the idea of a person. Scottie becomes obsessed with the prototypical Hitchcock blonde, Madeleine Elster (Kim Novak). He's haunted by the loss of her, even when the brunette who embodied her, Judy Barton (also Novak), is staring him right in the face.

The film's title refers to the phenomenon brought about by a traumatic incident that has left Scottie with acrophobia, the fear of heights. It's a momentary sensation of swirling that leaves him dizzy and scared of falling — into the past, as it were. Vertigo strikes when he is looking down but also when he is looking back at the steps that have led him to where he is.

If you're going to close out Noirvember, you might as well do it with "Vertigo," the noir-inflected classic that dethroned "Citizen Kane" as the greatest movie of all time in a once-a-decade poll, conducted by the British Film Institute's "Sight & Sound" magazine back in 2012. We're coming up on another one of those polls in 2022. In the meantime, there's no excuse to live without seeing Alfred Hitchcock's "Vertigo."

Why It's Essential Viewing

From the moment Bernard Herrmann's music tees it up, "Vertigo" is enthralling; even more so, perhaps, if you've seen it before and know where it's headed. The movie begins with a black-and-white face shifting to red: a color that will prove important, Film School Rejects notes, as it comes to be identified with Scottie. The door to his house, for instance, is red.

Art of the Title observes the use of spirographic images during the title sequence. The eye of a woman becomes not just a window, but a whirlpool to the soul, sucking the viewer into a tale of murder, mistaken identity, and hearts filled with longing and regret. At one point, the movie refers to the pillars of the Portals of the Past monument in Golden Gate Park. Yet "Vertigo" itself offers a portal into film history. When you watch it, you are walking through those pillars.

Scottie tails Madeleine, whose husband — coupled with her own strange behavior — leads him to believe that she is possessed by the ghost of her great-grandmother, Carlotta Valdes. A bookshop owner explains Carlotta's history: how her husband abandoned her and she was left wandering the streets, asking strangers if they had seen her child. The Sad Carlotta became the Mad Carlotta and "there are many such stories," the owner says, which is truer than Scottie knows because he is on his way to becoming one of them.

Scottie and Madeleine — these two separate wanderers, going somewhere together — become tiny figures, posed against the backdrop of the Golden Gate Bridge and the towering trees of Muir Woods. Hitchcock frames them in such a way that we are reminded of how small and insignificant our own lives are in the grand scheme of things.

'Always Green, Ever Living'

When Scottie first lays eyes on Madeleine, she is dressed in green, the color of her car and dress and the neon sign outside her apartment window (which might just as well be the bedsit that Thomasin McKenzie tenanted in "Last Night in Soho.") Hitchcock films her against striking red interiors, as if she were inside Scottie's mind, which, in a way, she is.

After he saves her from drowning, he gives her his heart in the form of a red robe, which she discards upon leaving. Meanwhile, he adopts a green sweater, which brings out the green in his eyes and shows that his heart now belongs to her. His ex-fiancee, Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes), wears red because her heart still belongs to him.

In the redwood forest, Scottie and Madeleine stand among 2,000-year-old trees, "the oldest living things." The cross-section of one and its dendrochronological rings shows all the events of human history that played out during its lifetime, from the Declaration of Independence to the discovery of America, all the way back to the year 909 AD.

Madeleine doesn't like being around these trees. They remind her of her own mortality, the way of all flesh. "Their true name is sequoia sempervirens," Scottie says. "Always green, ever living."

For Madeleine, however, their thick trunks bring into relief the fleeting nature of human existence. Touching the cross-section, almost talking to the tree, she says, "Somewhere in here I was born, and there I died. It was only a moment for you. You took no notice."

"Vertigo" is a psychological thriller, but it's an unusually sophisticated one. Moments like these tap into a deep, primordial sadness that leaves a lingering impression long after the bell tolls for a tragic ending.

This Love Is Gone

"Vertigo" takes on even more weight as Scottie begins to retrace his steps through the movie. Visual echoes play out before us, but it's not the same this time. The frame is emptier because Madeleine is not there. She has fallen to her death from a bell tower ... or so he thinks.

He was in love with her and still is. A doctor played by Raymond Bailey (Mr. Drysdale on "The Beverly Hillbillies") says he "suffers from acute melancholia, with a guilt complex." The movie holds empathy for both him and Midge, who tried to paint herself into his Carlotta fantasy and was left jilted and juxtaposed with her own self-portrait. She's last seen walking down the lonely hallway of her own life outside the doctor's office.

When Scottie meets Judy, she becomes a doll for him to dress and style like Madeleine. As his illusions begin to fade, he realizes a fundamental truth: the inability to recapture the magic of the moment. It was there once but now it's gone, lost to time and the tree rings. All that's left for him is a mausoleum of memories.

I've only visited San Francisco once, for a few days, 15 summers ago now. However, for years, the magnet pull of a different city on the other side of the world has drawn me back to certain landmarks, much like Scottie. It has kept me visiting and revisiting the same places on my own or with different people.

You go somewhere once, then you go there again, and the colors are less vivid, the tastes less flavorful, the smells less fragrant. There will never be a sunset quite as gorgeous as that one. Madeleine is the moment, and the moment is gone.

Back Into the Past, Just Once More

Is "Vertigo" really the greatest film of all time? That's for the redwoods, with their long view of history, to decide. All I can say is, it still holds the power to devastate.

Back in early August, I went with the obvious choice of "Psycho" on my list of all-time favorite movies here on /Film. A week later, Hitchcock's daughter, Pat Hitchcock, who co-starred in "Psycho" and "Strangers on a Train," passed away. Writing her obituary and subsequently revisiting both of those films made me realize they are both diamonds with flaws.

Few if any movies are perfect, even those that have been canonized as true masterpieces. The only thing that undid "Psycho" for me a little this time around (keeping in mind that it's still a genius work) was the last-minute introduction of the psychiatrist character, who comes in at the very end for the sole purpose of delivering exposition about Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins).

"Vertigo" devises a more elegant, personal solution. When it uncovers its mystery, the explanation comes from Judy herself as she sits writing Scottie a letter.

In love with the ghost of Madeleine, who was never really there, Scottie takes leave of his senses. As they go back to the bell tower and ascend the steps, he rambles about second chances and being free of the past. "I have to go back into the past once more, just once more, for the last time," he says.

He could just as easily be speaking of a modern film franchise like "Ghostbusters," trading on nostalgia. "You were the copy, you were the counterfeit," Scottie cries. Revelation is at hand. "It's too late, there's no bringing her back."

There's great and then there's great. "Vertigo" is the latter.