We had been married only a month the first time I showed my wife Vertigo, Alfred Hitchcock’s psycho-drama about a man so obsessed with a dead woman that he remakes another woman in the dead woman’s image. This was perhaps the wrong film to show my new bride. “That’s one of your favorite movies?” she asked as the movie ended. “That’s very disturbing.” I figured she was talking about the movie itself—which is disturbing—but she might also have been thinking of my esteem for it.
I had loved Vertigo since I first saw it at age 11. My parents, huge Hitchcock fans, showed it to me and my siblings one Sunday afternoon after church. Though I had watched it many times since then, I had never given much thought to why I liked it. Marriage has a way of prompting you to reconsider things you once took for granted.
Over the next two years, I continued watching Vertigo regularly. I read every bit of critical scholarship I could find. I used all my powers as a film scholar to better understand how it works. I appealed to my seminary training to plumb my own heart and fathom why it makes such an impression on me.
What I discovered about myself is complicated. But what I discovered about Vertigo I can state simply: Vertigo is a film about a man’s obsession with achieving his ideal and his willingness to take advantage of others to achieve it. It is also—thanks to its clever twist and Kim Novak’s pathos-filled performance—a film about how, in pursuing our ideals, we allow others to take advantage of us. Vertigo is about the horrors wrought by selfishness on the individual and the community. It is disturbing because it is so candid about how selfish we can be. ...1
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