The Film

Vertigo is a 1958 American psychological thriller film directed and produced by Alfred Hitchcock. The story was based on the 1954 novel D'entre les morts (From Among the Dead) by Boileau-Narcejac. The screenplay was written by Alec Coppel and Samuel A. Taylor.

The film stars James Stewart as former police detective John "Scottie" Ferguson, who has retired because an incident in the line of duty has caused him to develop acrophobia, an extreme fear of heights, and vertigo, a false sense of rotational movement. Scottie is hired by an acquaintance, Gavin Elster, as a private investigator to follow Gavin's wife, Madeleine (Kim Novak), who is behaving strangely.

The film was shot on location in the city of San Francisco, California, as well as in Mission San Juan Bautista, Big Basin Redwoods State Park, Cypress Point on 17-Mile Drive, and Paramount Studios in Hollywood. It is the first film to use the dolly zoom, an in-camera effect that distorts perspective to create disorientation, to convey Scottie's acrophobia. As a result of its use in this film, the effect is often referred to as "the Vertigo effect". In 1996, the film underwent a major restoration to create a new 70 mm print and DTS soundtrack.

Vertigo is now cited as a classic Hitchcock film and one of the greatest films ever made. In 1989, it was one of the first 25 films selected by the Library of Congress for preservation in the United States National Film Registry for being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant". The film appears repeatedly in polls of the best films by the American Film Institute, including a 2007 ranking as the ninth-greatest American movie ever. Attracting significant scholarly attention, it replaced Citizen Kane (1941) as the greatest film ever made in The Sight & Sound Greatest Films of All Time poll.


The screenplay of Vertigo is an adaptation of the 1954 French novel D'entre les morts (From Among the Dead) by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac. Hitchcock had attempted to buy the rights to the previous novel by the same authors, Celle qui n'était plus (She Who Was No More), but he failed, and it was made instead by Henri-Georges Clouzot as Les Diaboliques. Although François Truffaut once suggested that D'entre les morts was specifically written for Hitchcock by Boileau and Narcejac, Narcejac subsequently denied that this was their intention. However, Hitchcock's interest in their work meant that Paramount Pictures commissioned a synopsis of D'entre les morts in 1954, before it had even been translated into English (it appeared in translation as The Living and the Dead in 1956).

In the book, Judy's involvement in Madeleine's death was not revealed until the denouement. At the script stage, Hitchcock suggested revealing the secret two-thirds of the way through the film, so that the audience would understand Judy's mental dilemma. After the first preview, Hitchcock was unsure whether to keep the 'letter writing scene' or not. He decided to remove it. Herbert Coleman, Vertigo's associate producer and a frequent collaborator with Hitchcock, felt the removal was a mistake. However, Hitchcock said, "Release it just like that." James Stewart, acting as mediator, said to Coleman, "Herbie, you shouldn't get so upset with Hitch. The picture's not that important." Hitchcock's decision was supported by Joan Harrison, another member of his circle, who felt that the film had been improved. Coleman reluctantly made the necessary edits. When he received news of this, Paramount head Barney Balaban was very vocal about the edits and ordered Hitchcock to "Put the picture back the way it was." As a result, the 'letter writing scene' remained in the final film.

There were three screenwriters involved in the writing of Vertigo. Hitchcock originally hired playwright Maxwell Anderson to write a screenplay, but rejected his work, which was titled Darkling, I Listen, a quotation from John Keats's 1819 poem 'Ode to a Nightingale'. According to Charles Barr in his monograph dedicated to Vertigo, "Anderson was the oldest (at 68) [of the three writers involved], the most celebrated for his stage work, and the least committed to cinema, though he had a joint script credit for Hitchcock's preceding film The Wrong Man. He worked on adapting the novel during Hitchcock's absence abroad, and submitted a treatment in September 1956."

A second version, written by Alec Coppel, again left the director dissatisfied. The final script was written by Samuel A. Taylor - who was recommended to Hitchcock due to his knowledge of San Francisco - from notes by Hitchcock. Among Taylor's creations was the character of Midge. Taylor attempted to take sole credit for the screenplay, but Coppel protested to the Screen Writers Guild, which determined that both writers were entitled to a credit, but to leave Anderson out of the film writing credits.


Vera Miles, who was under personal contract to Hitchcock and had appeared on both his television show and in his film The Wrong Man, was originally scheduled to play Madeleine. She modelled for an early version of the painting featured in the film. Following delays, including Hitchcock becoming ill with gallbladder problems, Miles became pregnant and had to withdraw from the role. The director declined to postpone shooting and cast Kim Novak as the female lead. By that time, Novak had delayed prior film commitments and a vacation promised by Columbia Pictures, the studio that held her contract, and Miles had given birth and was available for the film. Nevertheless, Hitchcock proceeded with Novak. Columbia head Harry Cohn agreed to lend Novak to Vertigo if Stewart would agree to co-star with Novak in Bell, Book and Candle, a Columbia production released in December 1958.


Vertigo was filmed from September to December 1957. Principal photography began on location in San Francisco in September 1957 under the working title 'From Among the Dead' (the literal translation of D'entre les morts). The film uses extensive location footage of the San Francisco Bay Area, with its steep hills and tall arching bridges. In the driving scenes shot in the city, the main characters' cars are almost always pictured heading down the city's steeply inclined streets. In October 1996, the restored print of Vertigo debuted at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco with a live on-stage introduction by Kim Novak, providing the city a chance to celebrate itself. Visiting the San Francisco film locations has something of a cult following as well as modest tourist appeal. Such a tour is featured in a subsection of Chris Marker's 1983 documentary montage Sans Soleil.

The scene in which Madeleine fell from the tower was filmed at Mission San Juan Bautista, a Spanish mission in San Juan Bautista, California. Associate producer Herbert Coleman's daughter Judy Lanini suggested the mission to Hitchcock as a filming location. A steeple, added sometime after the mission's original construction and secularization, had been demolished following a fire, so Hitchcock added a bell tower using scale models, matte paintings, and trick photography at the Paramount studio in Los Angeles. The original tower was much smaller and less dramatic than the film's version. The tower's staircase was later assembled inside a studio.

Following 16 days of location shooting, the production moved to Paramount's studios in Hollywood for two months of filming. Hitchcock preferred to film in studios as he was able to control the environment. Once sufficient location footage had been obtained, interior sets were designed and constructed in the studio.

Hitchcock popularized the dolly zoom in this film, leading to the technique's sobriquet, amongst several others, 'the Vertigo effect'. This 'dolly-out/zoom-in' method involves the camera physically moving away from a subject whilst simultaneously zooming in (a similar effect can be achieved in reverse), so that the subject retains its size in the frame, but the background's perspective changes. Hitchcock used the effect to look down the tower shaft to emphasise its height and Scottie's disorientation. Following difficulties filming the shot on a full-sized set, a model of the tower shaft was constructed, and the dolly zoom was filmed horizontally. The ' special sequence' (Scottie's nightmare sequence) was designed by artist John Ferren, who also created the painting of Carlotta used in the film

The rotating patterns in the title sequence were created by John Whitney, who used a mechanical computer called the M5 gun director, AKA the Kerrison Predictor, which was used during World War II to aim anti-aircraft cannons at moving targets. This made it possible to produce an animated version of shapes (known as Lissajous curves) based on graphs of parametric equations by mathematician Jules Lissajous.

Costume design

Hitchcock and costume designer Edith Head used colour to heighten emotion. Grey was chosen for Madeleine's suit in an attempt to be psychologically jarring, as it is not usually a blonde's colour. In contrast, Novak's character wore a white coat when she visited Scottie's apartment, which Head and Hitchcock considered more natural for a blonde to wear.

Graphic design

Graphic designer Saul Bass used spiral motifs in both the title sequence and the movie poster, emphasizing what has been describes as 'Vertigo's psychological vortex'. Bass' unconventional framing of actress Audrey Lowell's facial features in the first images of the titles was indebted to Bauhaus photography. According to her 1997 Guardian interview Kim Novak wanted to do the opening title sequence but Harry Cohn insisted Hitchcock pay full rate for the single day's shooting and so another face was chosen.





James Stewart as John 'Scottie' Ferguson
Kim Novak as Judy Barton / Madeleine Elster
Tom Helmore as Gavin Elster
Barbara Bel Geddes as Marjorie 'Midge' Wood
Henry Jones as the coroner
Raymond Bailey as Scottie's doctor
Ellen Corby as the manager of the McKittrick Hotel
Konstantin Shayne as bookstore owner Pop Leibel
Lee Patrick as the car owner mistaken for Madeleine

Alfred Hitchcock makes his customary cameo appearance walking in the street in a grey suit and carrying a trumpet case.


The score was written by Bernard Herrmann. It was conducted by Muir Mathieson and recorded in Europe because there was a musicians' strike in the U.S.

In a 2004 special issue of the British Film Institute's magazine Sight & Sound, director Martin Scorsese described the qualities of Herrmann's famous score:

"Hitchcock's film is about obsession, which means that it's about circling back to the same moment, again and again ... And the music is also built around spirals and circles, fulfillment and despair. Herrmann really understood what Hitchcock was going for - he wanted to penetrate to the heart of obsession."