Vertigo: Hitchcock was wrong


“VERTIGO: ver´ti-go –
a feeling of dizziness . . .
a swimming in the head . . .
figuratively a state in which all things seem to be engulfed
in a whirlpool of terror.” – from Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958)

The title of my post is somewhat deceiving but that’s the idea. Today I’m going to talk a little bit about deception in the movies, particularly when it comes to the medical condition known as vertigo.

Earlier this week I was diagnosed with vertigo after waking up one morning and discovering that my bedroom was spinning. It was a deeply frightening and unnerving experience that left me feeling vulnerable and bewildered. To make matters worse, the unsavory side effects I’m experiencing from vertigo include nausea and random headaches. When my doctor gave me my diagnose I was surprised and confused. Like many people, I had always assumed vertigo is something associated with the fear of heights and caused by looking down from a great distance.

My ignorance was due to the fact that I’d never experienced vertigo before and I naïvely assumed that the movies I’d seen depicting the condition were medically accurate. Au contraire! Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1959), Jules Dassin’s Topkapi (1964) and Guy Hamilton’s adaptation of Evil Under the Sun (1982 film) all got it wrong. A fear of heights can make you dizzy and disoriented but the acute sense of spinning associated with real vertigo is something altogether different and can come at any time no matter where you happen to be.

In Hitchcock’s defense, his 1958 film defines its main character, the psychologically damaged and sexually obsessed John “Scottie” Ferguson (James Stewart), as suffering from a fear of heights known as acrophobia AND vertigo but the two have become interchangeable since the film’s release. Having not read the original Boileau-Narcejac novel Vertigo was based on I can’t tell you if Hitchcock’s film supplemented the term “vertigo” or just adapted it because it sounded more frightening and compelling than the typical “dizziness” associated with a fear of heights. It’s also possible that the word was misread when the French novel was translated into English. Whatever the case may be, acrophobia and vertigo have now become inseparably linked.

A quick Google search will pull up hundreds or even thousands of misinformed articles that wrongly associate the two medical conditions. Even some online dictionaries such as Merriam-Webster claims that a “simple definition” of vertigo is “a feeling of dizziness caused especially by being in a very high place” but their “full definition” is “a. sensation of motion in which the individual or the individual’s surroundings seem to whirl dizzily or b. a dizzy confused state of mind.” More importantly, their medical dictionary contains a much more accurate definition of the word.

Pronunciation: v rt-i- g
Function: noun
Inflected Form(s): plural -goes or -gos
1 : a disordered state which is associated with various disorders (as of the inner ear) and in which the individual or the individual’s surroundings seem to whirl dizzily
- from Merriam-Webster’s Medical Dictionary

Unlike “Scottie” in Vertigo, my own vertigo isn’t a physiological disorder that can be cured with a good shock to the system. My treatment involves physical therapy and medication that will hopefully cure it or at least make it more manageable. It can be caused by a number of things but my vertigo seems to be an inner ear disorder and it may be associated with a car accident I was in a few years ago. Worst of all, vertigo typically arrives without any warning and appears out of the blue. Like me, you may just wake up one morning and discover your world has been transformed into a spinning top.

Hitchcock may or may not have been wrong, I’ll leave that up to you to decide, but that doesn’t explain the thousands of journalists and writers who continue to perpetuate the myth that vertigo and acrophobia go hand-in-hand. I’ve been dizzy, suffered from a muddled sense of depth perception due to climbing great heights and I’ve now experienced vertigo. Believe me when I tell you that they are all very different things.


28 Responses Vertigo: Hitchcock was wrong
Posted By Flora : June 16, 2016 9:29 pm

My answer is in two parts – I will talk about the movie aspect first.

My guess is that Hitchcock used the term Vertigo because he made suspense films and his job was to frighten you. Mission accomplished.

I have had a hard time seeing this movie because of the ending of it where Scotty is left with Geddes in the sanitorium.

I have not read the book either, but I understand that the Barbara Bel Geddes character was added so that there would be a third party view to what was happening to Scotty – so that the viewer would have a reality check.

Second part of my answer is personal to you.

I am sorry to hear that you have Vertigo and that the movies have made your condition confusing.

I have always known that Vertigo was not a fear of heights.

I myself have bad balance due to a disability I have from being born with forceps.

I have lived with this all my life so I am used to it in some ways in terms of getting used to people asking me if I had had a sporting accident where my leg did not heal properly.

There is one bright spot in this and I know it does not sound like a bright spot but it is;

You have a diagnosis now. No more guessing. No more worrying about why you are dizzy and what the diagnosis is.

I just learned that I have anemia. Need more iron.

Not happy about it. But I can do something about it.

take care of yourself.

Posted By Steve R Burrus : June 16, 2016 9:37 pm

Abouit the movie “Vertigo” a nd not the condition, I still wonder to this day how exactly how “Scotty” Ferguson got off of that roof top, dangling by his hands, and suddenly in Midge’s apartment talking to her just like the earlier incident had never happened?!

Posted By missrhea : June 16, 2016 9:52 pm

My condolences on your experience with vertigo. Christmas morning 2014 I got out of bed to go to the bathroom and couldn’t walk because the room was spinning. It lasted for more than an hour and we had to cancel Christmas dinner with my aunt’s family because of it. For more than a week it would come and go and I finally was scared enough to see a doctor. She gave me some anti-nausea meds and an offer of a PT referral but I’d been through the exercises with my mom a few years ago so I could do them myself. Even now if I tip my head back at the wrong angle I have to close my eyes because I start spinning. My poor mother had to deal with it for nearly a year before it got bad enough that the exercises made a difference.

Film makers, including Hitchcock, haven’t got a clue.

Posted By Arthur : June 16, 2016 10:03 pm

Steve, I believe, he never made it safely off the ledge. The entire movie is a dream before dying. Recall it ends with him again poised on a ledge, despondent that Madeline has fallen and teetering as if to join her. Thus, dream and reality concur.

I came to this conclusion after watching Lee Marvin in POINT BLANK. He is shot repeatedly at point blank range and somehow then swims across San Francisco bay. Film critics say the entire film is a dream before dying. I submit the same thing here.

btw the last time I took a spill, I noticed that as I was falling, I had a strange sense of freedom.

Also, is it my imagination, or is that image of Scottie, lifted from the dream sequence, reminiscent of the Wizard’s image in a key scene in THE WIZARD OF OZ?

Kimberly, I hope you make a speedy recovery. Get well soon!

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : June 16, 2016 10:25 pm

Thanks for all the kind comments everyone! Obviously I’m not alone in dealing with vertigo.

Arthur – Totally agree with you about Point Blank, which I’ve written about in the past but I never applied the same logic to Vertigo until now. You’ve got me thinking differently about the film and I appreciate that. I like the way you think!

Posted By Arthur : June 17, 2016 1:59 am

Thank you, Kimberly. Since VERTIGO came out first the director of POINT BLANK may have perceived that angle in VERTIGO and copied it.

Also, in BABY BOY, the film begins with a premonition of the hero that he will be killed. Towards the very end he is shot at point blank range, but then somehow he is not shot, and the movie goes on to have an implausibly happy ending. Was Singleton copying POINT BLANK?

btw there are many similarities between DARK PASSAGE and POINT BLANK. Both start off in a Northern California prison, both involve getting out of prison, both possess a hero who, to everyone’s surprise, cannot be present but somehow is, both have a low life (who actually resemble each other) being beaten in a car, both involve the villain accidentally falling to their death from a towering apartment building in spectacular fashion, and in both the hero escapes the apartment building for fear that they will be blamed for a killing they did not commit.

It seems that DARK PASSAGE may very well have influenced POIINT BLANK. Maybe a column could be written about films that though not acknowledged or recognized as being influenced by earlier films, but very well may have been?

Posted By Emgee : June 17, 2016 8:16 am

“The entire movie is a dream before dying.” Maybe life is but a dream. Maybe i dream that i’m reading this. Am i even here?

Posted By Arthur : June 17, 2016 2:02 pm

Emgee, precisely the theme of THE MATRIX. “Have you ever had a dream that you thought was real?” Morpheus says to Neo. I don’t know about you, but I always think my dreams are real. Row row row your boat gently down the stream. Merrily merrily merrily merrily . . .

Posted By Emgee : June 17, 2016 4:15 pm

Isn’t that from Star Trek V?

But more seriously: that would mean a LOT of time hanging off that ledge or lying wounded on Alcatraz to dream up that entire complex story.
Unless indeed life itself is an illusion; but then so are all movies.

Posted By Arthur : June 17, 2016 7:06 pm

Yes, Hollywood is The Dream Factory. And think about it, a movie is a controlled dream. . .

I saw POINT BLANK as a teenager, when it first came out, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Yes, there were a few things that didn’t make sense, but I felt I should look past them, part of the suspension of disbelief. It was only many years later, reading R. Barton Palmer’s HOLLYWOOD’S DARK CINEMA that I came to see, as Palmer points out, the film functions on two levels, one as a shoot ‘em up detective story, and also on a much, much deeper psychological level.

As for how much time it would take to dream all that up, a wounded, dying man does not go quickly and delirium is likely to set it in. As for Scotty hanging on that ledge, a literal cliff hanger, a friend who nearly drowned said that in the brief time he desperately fought the current, his whole life literally flashed before his eyes.

Also, keep in mind that dream researchers, stretching all the way back to Freud, note that very detailed dreams can take place quite quickly.

At any rate, recall Steve’s query, “I still wonder to this day how exactly ‘Scotty’ Ferguson got off of that rooftop, dangling by his hands, and suddenly in Midge’s apartment talking to her just like the earlier incident had never happened?!”

Remember now, a policeman reaches down to grab him and tumbles over the side to his death. And there is no one else to try. Scotty cannot be reached, except by a hook and ladder fire truck. But he only has scant seconds left, if that much.

Well, brush past it, suspend disbelief, or look deeper. The entire film is a two and half hour cliffhanger that literally comes full circle, whirling, falling, vertigo. . .

Posted By Flora : June 17, 2016 7:41 pm

I always make sure I have a willing suspension of belief when I watch a lot of movies or I cannot enjoy them. This movie being complex is fine with analysing.

But imagine instead that you are watching a comedy or a WWII send to the troops montage like Thousands Cheer. Try analysing that and you hate the movie.

Posted By Emgee : June 17, 2016 7:51 pm

Let’s just say that you find the dream hypothesis attractive and satisfying, whereas for me the whole notion that “it was all a dream” is completely frustrating and makes both stories devoid of real drama. Instead of two men unable to face unsettling, harsh realities they just dreamt them up.

But why would they, in their dying, well, hours dream up such for them highly disappointing fates? There’s Scotty, hanging on for dear life, thinking about how he’s cheated by the woman he loves and who ultimately dies?

I agree about the deeper psychological level, but disagree that it takes place in the realm of dreams; the very fact that they’re based in grim reality give them meaning.

“his whole life literally flashed before his eyes.” Yes, because his life really happened, he didn’t have to make it up on the spot.

how exactly ‘Scotty’ Ferguson got off of that rooftop? Hitchcock very wisely left the mundane details to the imagination of the viewer. Directors do that all the time; they shorten events so as not to make movies go on for ten hours.

“The entire film is a two and half hour cliffhanger. ” I totally agree; that’s why it’s one of my favourite movies, but the very notion that it DID take place in reality gives it the tragic weight that makes it a masterpiece.

Posted By George : June 17, 2016 8:44 pm

Flora and Kimberly: Hope you’re feeling better soon.

As for VERTIGO, Hitchcock never let facts or logic get in the way of the movie he wanted to make. His films are more dreamlike than realistic, something you just have to accept if you’re going to watch his movies.

Posted By Bill : June 18, 2016 12:15 pm

You’re ignoring Vertigo’s extreme autobiographical elements – which may have caused Vera Miles to get out of the project. The movie is, if nothing else, a training film on how to take an ordinary woman, completely dominate her, and turn her into a star/goddess.

Hitchcock finally found his Judy in Tippi Hedren – didn’t end well there either.

Posted By Emgee : June 18, 2016 12:41 pm

Vera Miles got out of the project because she was pregnant, to Hitchcock chagrin. His comment:”She should have taken the pill instead of wasting the chance of a lifetime.”
He added that one child was sufficient, two was overdoing it but having a third child, as in her case, was obscene.

Posted By Bill : June 18, 2016 12:49 pm

I know that, but there’s a question that the pregnancy was deliberate. Since she was under personal contract to him, an “Act of God” would be the only legal recourse to get out of the film. I’ve seen a still of her, all laquered and blonded up for Vertigo – she doesn’t look happy. In any case, he abandoned his transformation fantasies, and lent her out, notably to John Ford, to whom she served as his Earthwoman – a far more comfortable fit the Madeline would’ve been.

Posted By Arthur : June 18, 2016 2:28 pm

If the pregnancy was an “Act of God” then the child is the Messiah! VERTIGO has a lot of bells and whistles and operates on many different levels. One that really grabbed me was the double cross of the double cross.

Scotty thought he was cheating on his client with the client’s wife, but the client was actually double crossing him. But the guy double crossed me, the viewer, too because through Scotty I vicariously fell for Madeline, and felt guilty about it too!

Posted By Emgee : June 18, 2016 3:28 pm

In other stills she looks perfectly content, and getting pregnant to get out of a movie with Hitchcock? Really? OK, he was very dominant but that seems a tad extreme. But if that’s what you believe, go with it.

Posted By Bill : June 18, 2016 4:11 pm

Being under his personal contract was the closest thing to legalized slavery. She could not refuse a film assigned to her, and there were early signs that he’d prepared a transformation that made Scottie’s look casual. A planned pregnancy the only legal recourse. There were lines he couldn’t cross. She was married – to Tarzan, yet. But anything short of that….Nor did Miles seem Hell-bent on stardom – at least not to that degree – a passive puppet.

‘Course he lucked out. Novak had the ethereal qualities that Miles, the better actress, lacked. Miles could’ve given Judy/Madeline two distinctly different characters, changing the film’s focus from willful illusion on Scottie’s part to that of a clever mystery, woven by a female chameleon.

See Tippi Hedren for how that scenario could’ve played out – an ingénue, single, with a child, under the same contract. An opportunity to go Full Scottie….

Posted By Emgee : June 18, 2016 7:29 pm

In the photos i could fins online she looks a lot like Kim Novak would eventually look in Vertigo.

I wonder if she ever gave her own version of evenst; i’d love to read that. One source has it that “author Dan Auiler has claimed that both Hitchcock and Stewart had expressed reservations about her ability to play the role as early as November 1956 and that Novak was being seriously considered as an alternative. ”

I agree that Hitchcock had a Svengali complex about women and the case of Tippi Hedren has indeed shown to what lengths he could go too far. That she got pregnant expressly to avoid such a fate remains debatable.

Posted By Bill : June 18, 2016 7:44 pm

I wouldn’t presume to state it as fact, but if she did want out, that was a legal way. Despite Novak and Stewart, he blamed them both for its financial failure – tho I think he realized it was too personal, too unpleasant, too non-Hollywood for an audience then. A Hitch without the thrills, or a happy ending.

Posted By Emgee : June 18, 2016 8:01 pm

And now the BFI voted it the best movie ever made; go figure.
But i’m sure Hitchcock would have preferred better box office results.

Posted By George : June 18, 2016 8:16 pm

Silly BFI voters! Don’t they know SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION is the best movie ever made? All those IMDB voters can’t be wrong! (Yes, I’m being sarcastic.)

Posted By Emgee : June 18, 2016 8:25 pm

And at number three Tokyo Story instead of Toy Story. What were they thinking?

Posted By Flora : June 21, 2016 4:47 pm

Since Kimberly and I were talking about our health on this blog and I mentioned my anemia, I thought I’s update from my appointment – I am actually still borderline anemia as my iron packs are low. So that is akin to borderline diabetes apparently, so I am still facing an uphill and long term plan.

Again, not a movie comment, but some people wished me well and I wanted to update them.

Posted By robbushblog : June 21, 2016 7:41 pm

I have, for years, been plagued with a feeling of head-spinning stemming from too-high pressure in my eyes, placing pressure on my retinal walls. This is due to severe myopia. The pressure eventually became too much and I have since detached each retina – the right one multiple times. Unfortunately, these releases of pressure and repair did nothing to assist with future easing of said pressure. I actually have to be more careful than before in what activities I participate. Bending over, running, and lifting weights exceeding 30 pounds cause the head-spinning, dizziness, and spot-seeing that is commonly referred to as vertigo. However, one day last month I woke up with actual vertigo. Apparently the crystals in my ears had shifted in my sleep (I had slept on my side the night before) and I woke up feeling dizzy, nauseous, with my head spinning. I toyed with staying home from work, but hated the thought of doing that. I went to work, not feeling right at all. Driving to work seemed risky as my head spun worse each time I would turn my head to check for cars in other lanes. When I got to work, a co-worker admitted she had suffered from actual vertigo as well, and it lasted for weeks. She showed me some exercises and positions that helped her rid herself of the problem. Though my initial reactions to these activities were the symptoms of the retinopathy variety of head-spinning and what not, my vertigo was relieved, and thank goodness, short-lived. I pity anyone who suffers from the condition for any duration.

Posted By Paul Dionne : July 28, 2016 3:00 pm

@Arthur “Steve, I believe, he never made it safely off the ledge. The entire movie is a dream before dying. Recall it ends with him again poised on a ledge, despondent that Madeline has fallen and teetering as if to join her. Thus, dream and reality concur.”

Actually, that logic does not work, because soon after the opening we are with Ellster in his office, “hiring” Stewart to tail his wife, because he read of Stewart’s near death in the paper. Then the plot of Vertigo follows -

anyway, as far as the use of vertigo, I believe vertigo describes all the swirling that Stewart experiences with Novak, such as the scene when she is transformed in the hotel room, and when they are at the mission and stewart kisses novak….

Vertigo is a movie & it’s a Hitchcock movie. Hitchcock has many scenes, even in Vertigo where you are supposed to suspend disbelief? How is it possible for Madge to catch Scottie when he falls from the ladder? etc – movies are dream-states -

Posted By Arthur : July 28, 2016 4:02 pm

I hear you, Paul. But you said the term “vertigo” refers to all the swirling that Stewart experiences with Novak. Yes, but also to all the swirling that takes place in the film. From sanity to madnenss to maddening despair. From loving her to losing her to finding her to losing her again. From Scottie (and the viewer’s) doubting then believing Elster’s story to discounting it again. From dangling off a ledge to a normal life to back again tottering on the precipice between life and death.

Remember you said “movies are dream states,” so why not a dream within a dream?” But then again what difference does it make? It is all a dream. It is just a mooovviiee, as Hitch was wont to say. BTW Gavin Elster’s relationship to Scottie was the same as Hitchcock’s relationship to the viewers, master manipulator. .

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