Alfred Hitchcock’s best movie is based on a novel with a title much better than the movie’s title. Boileau-Narcejac’s Dentres les morts means “From among the Dead.” I haven’t read the novel, but it’s a better title because it’s what every frame, every twist and turn, every character, and the eventual solving of the mystery in Vertigo is all about.
The movie starts with the traumatic event that caused the main character’s vertigo. When we see his attempts to recover from the trauma, we see that he sees himself still as living among the dead (among those who died in the traumatic event). He agonizes over whether or not he could have saved anybody, if he did the best police work he could have done, if the whole matter was his fault.
He learns that his vertigo can only be cured by another traumatic event. He’s quit the police force but gets a call out of the blue asking him to take up a private job of detective work. It’s a ridiculous offer with a ridiculous premise, but he accepts it because he is trying to find his way out from among the dead. Just as he thinks his vertigo will be cured if he finds his way into another traumatic situation, he thinks he will have the opportunity to answer all the questions that nag him about the last one. So the whole plot to solve the mystery put in front of him is for Scottie (Jimmy Stewart) a way to recreate his past and see if he can make it turn out differently, in a way where he’s not disappointed in himself anymore.
He didn’t fail in the situation that haunts him, but that doesn’t stop him from believing he’s a failure and from living as if he’s a failure from that point forward. He didn’t just quit the police force, he quit living until getting obsessed with this new case. It was his way out of his situation “among the dead.”
It’s not only the Jimmy Stewart character who finds himself “among the dead,” but every character in the movie. At the beginning, we see him with Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes) who’s in love with him, but he sees her more as a sometimes-maid, sometimes-nurse, and sometimes-mother. They had a romantic relationship long ago that she wants to resurrect but he doesn’t show any signs of wanting any life back to their relationship as it once was. She sees him as her only hope to find her way back from “among the dead.”
In case you haven’t seen the movie, I can’t tell you about any of the other characters and how they are “from among the dead” without giving away major plot points. And being an Alfred Hitchcock movie and the greatest mystery movie of all time, Vertigo is loaded with twists and turns. Except for what I’ve already described as far as everyone’s place “from among the dead” and their pursuit of a way out, nothing is ever as it seems until the very last second of the movie.
But if you have seen Vertigo you know that this doesn’t matter for multiple viewings. Knowing all the revelations doesn’t make it any less rewarding to rewatch and rewatch. I watched it last week for about the 10th time. There’s always more depth to the characters and to the storyline than meets the eye, so even knowing how things turn out, there’s always something to be missed that needs another viewing. But I wish that Hitchcock would have given the movie a title like the novel. From among the Dead tells us that this is a movie about attempting to regain life when it’s been stolen. And even though we don’t get to know for sure if Scottie ever finds his way out “from among the dead,” we do know that he had a chance. These spiritual, philosophical, and psychological concepts that fill every second of this film are what makes it come alive.