In 2012, the British Film Institute’s magazine Sight and Sound elected Alfred Hitchcock’s 1958 movie Vertigo as the greatest film of all time, thereby ending the 50-year rule of Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane. Although Vertigo opened to mostly poor reviews in Great Britain and just broke even, the film’s reputation has grown immensely over the years. Cinema lovers have viewed it again and again, their admiration ever increasing.
Yet there is a real question about what has repeatedly drawn them back to the film. Once one has seen it, the mystery is dispelled. The plot on subsequent viewings, moreover, seems ever more improbable.
If Scottie (James Stewart) is really as good a detective as he’s alleged to be, wouldn’t he have discovered in the first half of the film that Kim Novak’s character wasn’t the real Mrs Madeleine Elster, but a phoney? And in the second half of the movie, how could Scottie have failed to notice that the body of Judy Barton (again Kim Novak), the woman he’s romancing, is identical to that of the fake Madeleine Elster’s?
But if it is not the plot that keeps us returning to Vertigo, what is the secret to the film’s inexhaustibility? One possible source is its philosophical insight into the nature of love.
Vertigo is a twice-told tale of two love stories. In the first one, Scottie, the ex-police detective, falls in love with a woman, Judy Barton, who is masquerading as Mrs Madeleine Elster as part of Mr Elster’s plot to murder his wife, the real Madeleine Elster. Mr Elster tricks Scottie into thinking that Judy is Mrs Elster. Scottie falls in love with this counterfeit Mrs Elster (Judy), whose apparent suicide Scottie is then unable to prevent due to his fear of heights, allowing Mr Elster to murder his wife by throwing her from the top of a bell tower.
The second love story begins some time later when Scottie accidentally sees Judy on the street and follows her to her apartment. Although she looks very different from how she did in the role of Mrs Elster, there is something about her that reminds him of his Madeleine. Because of this, Scottie tries to remould Judy in the image of Madeleine Elster – having her dress like the ersatz Madeleine, having her dye her hair as Madeleine did, and even having her style her hair in a French knot like Madeleine’s. But eventually, Scottie discovers the truth about Judy’s role in the murder of the real Madeleine Elster and things end badly for everyone.
Though these two stories evolve sequentially, it is hard not to compare them. And as such, they set forth two views of the nature of love – the idea that we love our partner because of his/her/their “properties”, to use the philosophical term, or because of something unique to him/her/them.
The idea that we love our partners because of their properties comes naturally. When asked why one loves one’s partner, one often says: because of her sense of humour, or because of his looks, or because of their intelligence or generosity.
Yet there is a problem here, since those are properties that can be possessed by someone other than our partners. If I died, would my partner be just as happy with a clone of me? I hope not. And if there were someone who was better looking than me, would she trade up? Again, I hope not.
If the answers to these questions were “yes,” I would surely protest that my partner did not really love me. And what of the fact that with ageing, I may lose those very properties that first caught her fancy. As Shakespeare put it: “Love is not love/Which alters when it alteration finds.”
Vertigo makes these intuitions palpable in the scenes where Scottie attempts to remake Judy into another Madeleine Elster. He is clearly out of control and treating Judy badly and the audience can feel it as Judy pleads that Scottie love her as she really is. In short, Vertigo is a visual counterexample to the property-based view of partner-love.
But that is not all that Vertigo has to say about love. It also proposes to the reflective viewer an alternative account of love. And based on this alternative account, the film explains why love between Scottie and Judy is ultimately impossible.
The alternative is that partner-love is grounded in the historical bond between the lover and the beloved. It is in virtue of that history that the bond is unique. The lovers have lived an absolutely specific life together facing crises, sharing experiences great and small, confronting sorrows, and achieving goals in a way that has shaped both of their identities, creating a unique “we-identity”.
On this unique partner-love view, the film shows that Scottie and Judy cannot have a genuine love relationship for various reasons. For one, Scottie is not attempting to forge a common life-history with Judy. He doesn’t want that. He wants Judy as a mere simulacrum of the woman he thought was Madeleine Elster.
Yet, even more deeply, Scottie and Madeleine cannot forge a true lovers’ bond because they haven’t shared a genuine history together, but rather a deceitful illusion. Scottie can’t love Judy as she is because he did not begin a life with Judy as “she is” when she was pretending to be Madeleine Elster. That relationship was fundamentally a matter of betrayal.
Love’s bond ultimately requires honesty, insofar as the discovery of a lover’s betrayal is not merely a faithless lie but a more grievous harm that undermines the self-identity of the victim. Scottie, for example, can no longer take pride in thinking of himself as Madeleine’s knight in shining armour. It is as if one suddenly discovered that all the awards one was given at school were the product of bribes your parents paid to teachers.
Such a loss of part of one’s self-conception is experienced physically, as Hitchcock ably portrays through the seething rage Scottie exudes on his second ascent up the bell tower at the end of the film. It is as if a piece of himself has been torn from his body; he growls like a wounded animal.
In this way, Hitchcock is not only able to illustrate the structure of unique partner-love, but also the feeling of its betrayal – its phenomenology, if you will.
No wonder we keep returning to Vertigo for another look. What is more fascinating than love?
Noël Carroll is Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at the CUNY Graduate Center. He is the author of “Philosophy and the Moving Image” (Oxford University Press) and “Arthur Danto’s Philosophy of Art” (Brill).
This article is part of the Agora series, a collaboration between the New Statesman and Aaron James Wendland. Wendland is Vision Fellow in Public Philosophy at King’s College, London and a Senior Research Fellow at Massey College, Toronto. He tweets @aj_wendland.