The Past, The Present And The Perverse: VERTIGO As A Possession Film

65 years later.

By Rebecca McCallum · May 26, 2023, 4:38 PM EDT

Vertigo is a ruminative cinematic poem that plunges into the darkest recesses of human fear and desire. With his meticulous eye for transcendental storytelling, Hitchcock invites us to peer over the edge and into the abyss. Subject to decades of analysis, Vertigo has been interpreted as a study of obsession, a tale of misogyny, and one of cinema's most tragic love stories. While it is undoubtedly all these things and more, it is also a film in which the theme of possession dominates in a myriad of ways. This possession extends beyond the film's reach and through time as audiences and filmmakers remain bewitched by its power. Finally, of course, there is the possessor who exists both within the film and outside of it- Alfred Hitchcock.

The film's prologue concludes with a shot of protagonist Detective John' Scottie' Ferguson (Jimmy Stewart in his fourth and final collaboration with Hitchcock) hanging from a rooftop after narrowly avoiding a plummet to his untimely death. Post-incident, Scottie develops acrophobia and is left possessed by the image of a falling colleague who died trying to save him in pursuit of a fugitive. However, Scottie will soon be pulled out of the world of the living and into the world of the dead when he meets with old friend Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore).

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Instantly more authoritarian and self-assured than Scottie, Elster weaves a spell upon the somewhat already crumbling (now retired) detective. Echoing the film's many spirals, he encircles the unsuspecting Scottie in his office while requesting him to follow his wife, Madeleine (Kim Novak). First-time viewers don't know it yet, but in this pivotal interaction: Elster is in the privileged position of possessing knowledge over Scottie and the audience. After viewing the film in its entirety, we can revisit Vertigo with a fuller understanding, inviting us to align Elster with his superior, the film's director.


The Past as Possessor

During their first meeting, Elster asks Scottie: 'Do you believe someone out of the past can enter and take possession of a living being?' Such a question not only serves his corrupt purposes but also echoes the idea of the past as possessor, a theme which - like the grey fog that later surrounds Judy (also Kim Novak) in the Empire Hotel - Vertigo is steeped in.


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As part of Elster's detailed master plan, Scottie hears the tale of Carlotta Valdes, the great-grandmother of Madeleine. Possessed by the ghosts of her past after being separated from her child and disowned by her husband, these struggles resulted in Carlotta taking her own life. Through sharing this tale, the calculating Elster plants a seed, encouraging Scottie to believe the reason he wishes Madeleine followed is that her ancestor possesses her.



Standing in opposition to the ghostly Madeleine is the grounded and motherly Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes), Scottie's one-time beau turned friend. In the hope that she can penetrate Scottie's thoughts and compel him to see her as a renewed love interest, Midge attempts to possess the image of Carlotta by inserting her face into a reconstruction of her portrait. Upon presenting this portrait to Scottie - who has already viewed the original at the Legion of Honour Art Museum - he is notably horrified. This reaction shows how possession can be displacing and othering whilst also sitting in juxtaposition with the role of possessor that we will see Scottie gradually assume.


The tragic irony does not end here, however, as Scottie begins to trail Madeleine -with the objective of 'de-possessing' her from the past- he becomes possessed. In addition to the intoxication and desire Madeleine's image provokes, this is induced by the projections of death she radiates, which Scottie all too readily identifies with. A perfect vessel for possession, Scottie is as entranced by the headstone, the portrait, and the flowers as he is with Madeleine's ethereal beauty and elegance. In short, he is a man wholly taken over by the ghosts of the past and with the objects that symbolize love and death.

Possession of the Female Body

Elster's possession methods over women exploit his male privilege as he deliberately takes ownership of the female body. This pattern is continued through Scottie too, who is struck with a deep compulsion that grows into an obsession as - like Orpheus of Greek Mythology – he seeks to construct his own Eurydice in bringing the woman he loves back from the dead. After he believes he saves her from drowning, Scottie tells Madeleine: "I'm responsible for you now." In another example of his over-identification and refusal to separate from Madeleine, he attaches himself to her, and his controlling side begins to dominate. He will later remark to her in the stables of San Juan Baptista, moments before she dies: "No one possesses you, you're safe with me," a highly ironic utterance, especially once we know where the film is heading.


Many save their critique and outrage for Scottie's later makeover of Judy, but it is easy to overlook that - as keeper of the young woman whom he tutors and transforms so magnificently - Elster is the first man to subject her to this cruelty, possessing her so thoroughly that he strips her of any identity. With only Judy's mimicries of Madeleine's mannerisms and style to keep her alive, we are simultaneously left to wonder to what degree Elster also held possession over his deceased wife.

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While being a toy of Elster's, Judy soon finds herself possessed by Scottie too, who eagerly (and increasingly unsentimentally) covets her body. In one of the film's most disturbingly revealing scenes, Scottie lets slip how he has possessed Madeleine's naked body after she fell into the bay. As the pair talk outside his apartment, he says: "I enjoyed it …" trailing off into a pause, allowing us to fill in the blank with a truly horrifying realization. The body which he has possessed with first his eyes and then his hands (to what extent we never discover), crucially for him, belongs to Madeleine, not Judy. A body that he will fail to recognize when later reunited with her. Scottie's moment of acceptance of Judy as Madeleine will not arrive until his reconstruction is fully realized. However, while reveling in erotic arousal, he remains tragically ignorant that the woman he placed on such a pedestal has been right in front of him the entire time.


Possession and the Perverse

While in the first act of the film Madeleine arguably possesses Scottie, this is transferred once he finds Judy, who - in an inversion of what has gone before - becomes possessed by him. Upon spotting her talking with friends on the sidewalk, Scottie resumes his stalking in a mirroring of the film so far. However, there is a significant difference this time as Judy is totally unaware she is being followed. Scottie is immediately consumed by an urge to get a closer look and eventually approaches her in the most unromantic of ways, disturbing her in the privacy of her hotel room. After just one date, he removes her independence to have her under his full control. '"I'll look after you," he tells her, as he manages to get one step nearer to full possession of Judy in successfully persuading her to quit her job.


All this builds to the famous makeover scene where the most possessive and perverse side of Scottie's character emerges. Just as Judy became Madeleine, Scottie has now fully transformed into Elster, or one might argue, Hitchcock. While he fusses and fixates upon the right grey suit, the actual one which he idolized - sits hanging in Judy's closet, another "sentimental" souvenir (along with the necklace) that she has kept from her time as Madeleine. Despite Judy having her hair, clothes and makeup altered to resemble a deceased woman whom she has already played once before, this still doesn't prove enough for Scottie, who is only fully satisfied once in total possession of Judy as the reconstructed version of Madeleine. With this repossession complete, Scottie rekindles his desire through a passionate kiss. However, this acts not only as a gesture of love but as an extension of Scottie's desire for a constructed wholly inorganic romance.

Possessed by Hollywood

In an interview with the BFI, Kim Novak (who played the role of Madeleine and Judy) offered a fascinating insight into what attracted her to the role and provided some reflections on her own experiences in Hollywood. Her thoughts are particularly revealing when we consider the idea of possession: "It was the resistance of Judy, who was, in a sense me, trying to become the Hollywood person, trying to be Madeleine, needing to be loved and willing to be made over." The notion of Novak being exposed to a real-life possession at the hands of the studios while trying to maintain her identity is also documented in Dan Auiler's book Vertigo the Making of a Hitchcock Classic, where she is quoted as remarking: "It was what I felt when I came to Hollywood as a young girl. They do your hair and makeup and it was always like I was fighting to show my real self."


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The Master Possessor

Finally, there is the Master Possessor himself, Alfred Hitchcock. Kim Novak has spoken of how she felt he was playing the role of Scottie through his obsession over small details such as the perfect placement of her hair. There is also a strong argument for Elster -the chief puppeteer of events within the film-as being Hitchcock's surrogate. However, above Scottie, Elster, Madeleine, and even the actors who played them is the enigmatic and controlling figure of the director who sits in ultimate possession of the film.


At sixty-five years of age, Vertigo maintains its status as an expanding mandala that pulsates and grows in an ever-increasing number of directions. It exists in the present, retreats into the past, and with its continuous ability to shape-shift, hypnotizes us until we, too, are as possessed as the characters. Filmmakers such as Brian de Palma (Obsession) and David Lynch (Mulholland Drive) have been influenced by and imitated it. Filmgoers are mesmerized by its inexplicable lyricism, exquisitely dizzying visuals, and darkly enchanting score. To be possessed by Vertigo is to be suspended helplessly with nothing but a dark void beneath you, holding on despite the uncertainty that there are more questions than answers.