Vertigo is too fussy and hermetic to be the best film from Alfred Hitchcock (that would be Rear Window), yet it certainly is his defining picture – the one that reveals the obsessiveness at the center of his art. Kim Novak is the center of obsession as Madeleine, a suicidal San Francisco socialite who is being watched by her husband via a retired police detective (James Stewart). Stewart’s Scottie, who suffers from both romantic disappointment and vertigo, becomes fixated on her, eventually falling in love with a woman who may not really exist. Madeleine is a classic Hitchcock figure: the cool, distant blonde. Yet she also is his most tragic female character, for in the end Madeleine becomes both the manipulator and the manipulated. Stewart, meanwhile, dives headlong into Scottie’s descent into madness. His increasingly unhinged state is emphasized by Hitchcock’s indelible filmmaking techniques, including the moments when he has the camera lens zoom in while moving the camera itself back to convey Scottie’s sense of vertigo.
Hitchcock is in control of every frame of the movie – you can feel it in the careful compositions, the repeated spiral motifs and the restrictive, almost imprisoning wardrobe for Novak. Vertigo is so intimate, so intensely personal that watching it has the feel of spying on someone. It’s like reading the diary of Hitchcock’s id.