Before You Vote, Watch ‘Vertigo’

What Hitchcock's thriller can teach us about sexism, nostalgia, and the gospel's call to justice.
Before You Vote, Watch ‘Vertigo’
Image: Paramount Pictures

As I write this, we’re less than 20 days from Election Day 2016. A great deal is at stake. It matters, doesn’t it, what we do with our minds and our hearts during this time?

So why bother with movies? What film could possibly make a difference?

Last week, I invited readers to watch a documentary that does, I believe, matter. This week, my recommendation is a murder mystery—one that a 2012 survey of film critics declared to be “the greatest film of all time.”

Vertigo? That creepy Alfred Hitchcock movie? The one that makes us so uncomfortable we want to throw things at the screen?

Hear me out.

Vertigo seems familiar at first: A suave and sexy detective on the verge of retirement is persuaded to investigate “one last case.” Detective Ferguson begins following a mysterious and meandering woman to answer her husband’s questions. Madeline becomes his most confounding mystery. The more he shadows her around San Francisco, the more obsessed he becomes. And as her mysteries prove unsolvable, he grows desperate to possess and control her.

Then, he loses her. Devastated, his ego shaken, his appetites unsatisfied, Ferguson falls into a funk. He wants back what never belonged to him in the first place.

He meets Judy, who bears a suspicious resemblance to Madeleine. Despite her protests, he molds her into the image of his lost ideal. We’re dismayed by how he charms her, traps her, exploits her. How could this archetypal American hero—one played by Jimmy Stewart, no less!—morph into such a misogynist?

The way that Vertigo shifts our sympathies from the detective to his victim convinces me that it’s as timely as ever. Oceans of ink have been spilled in the last few weeks on subjects like sexism, misogyny, and sexual assault. Last week, when recordings revealed a presidential candidate’s boasting of sexual assault, author Kelly Oxford invited women to testify about assaults they have suffered. Many thousands responded. Meanwhile, more women accused the candidate. His response? He mocked one accuser’s physical appearance and said, “Believe me, she would not be my first choice.

For all of our alleged progress toward gender equality, it is still alarmingly ordinary for women and girls to live in fear of unwanted advances and to struggle with the expectations of a materialistic, sex-obsessed culture. And when crowds cheer for unapologetic misogynists, abusers are empowered and the world becomes more dangerous for women.

Vertigo is about more than a man’s sexual obsession. It’s also about the dangers of sentimentality.

If the gospel calls us to listen, serve, and suffer alongside those who cry out for justice, then yes, we would be wise to meditate on movies like Vertigo: horror films that make us squirm and protest at the arrogance of selfish men.

This week, I showed Vertigo to 20 freshman writing students (18 of them women) at Seattle Pacific University. It was new to them. And in our post-viewing discussion, their discomfort was palpable. As one summed up how the movie made her feel, she made gestures as if trying to wave off some oppressive cloud. Others described Detective Ferguson as a “creep” and a “monster.” Then we read an extraordinary essay by Lauren Wilford, a recent Seattle Pacific University graduate, about how Vertigo reflects lessons she learned the hard way.

But Vertigo is about more than a man’s sexual obsession. It’s also about the dangers of sentimentality.

When we become susceptible to nostalgia—pointing to the past and saying “We want that world back again!”—we invite a resurgence of past evils. What would wise old Solomon say? In Ecclesiastes, he lays down some heavy wisdom: “Do not say, ‘Why were the old days better than these?’ For it is not wise to ask such questions.”

Detective Ferguson’s descent into desolation is driven by nostalgia. He wants to regain a sense of being in charge. His fantasy leads him to oppress, manipulate, abuse, and destroy the flesh-and-blood beauty within his reach.

This occurs when men treat women as deserving of anything less than respect and dignity. It occurs when a nation whitewashes its sin-scarred past in pursuit of a false ideal. Bob Dylan calls this “the disease of conceit.” If America, like Detective Ferguson, succumbs to such obsessions, our nation may suffer a costly justice that we have so far, by grace, been spared.

I recommend Vertigo for moviegoers ages 17 and up. It is currently available on DVD, Blu-ray, and most streaming platforms.

Questions to Discuss and Consider:

  1. In the opening scene, a man dies to save the helpless, struggling Detective Ferguson. How does this change his life?
  1. Discuss Ferguson’s relationship with his friend Midge. What do we learn about their past and their relationship? How does he treat her? What does she want from him? Where do things go wrong?
  2. We watch Ferguson following Madeleine. At what point does he first go from being a detective to being a stalker? What is the difference?
  3. What is it about Madeleine that Ferguson finds appealing? What is it about Ferguson that draws Madeleine and Judy to him? Who seduces whom? Are they both at fault?
  4. “I don’t like it—knowing that I have to die,” says Madeleine. How does the fear of death influence characters in this film? What choices do they make out of this fear?
  5. Alfred Hitchcock grew up in the Catholic church. Do you sense any hints of religious significance in Vertigo? (Consider that Ferguson lives under the shadow of someone having “died to save” him. Is he willing to accept his weaknesses? Do you sense any signs of conscience in him?)
  6. If you know anything about director Alfred Hitchcock’s history with women—particularly his leading ladies—consider how this film might reflect his own struggles. (Hitchcock was famously obsessed with a certain “type” of actress—Grace Kelly, Tippie Hedren, and others—and was also famously possessive and controlling, even though he was already married.) Does this film condone such behavior?
  7. Consider the fact that the two scenes of greatest consequence occur in a place of religious significance. Is there anything to this? What might be motivating Judy’s fear-driven act in the final moments?
  8. What are some ways in which you see culture persuading us that men and women should conform to certain ideals of appearance and behavior? Which, if any, of these ideals honorable? Which are harmful?
  9. What are some ways in which you find yourself susceptible to the appeal of nostalgia? Where do you see nostalgia being used as a marketing tool? Is the church vulnerable to nostalgia? (Consider the popularity of nostalgic art in evangelical culture—pictures preoccupied with sentimental scenery, art that avoids discomforting us with any evidence of sin or suffering. Is there anything wrong with longing for a better world?)
  10. “If I let you change me, will that do it?” Judy asks. “If I do what you tell me, will you love me?” Have you ever suppressed or sacrificed something about yourself to win someone else’s approval?
  11. What would have to change in Ferguson’s relationship with Judy for it to become a healthy relationship?
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Before You Vote, Watch ‘Vertigo’