Scottie Ferguson (James Stewart) is a retired detective whose fear of heights while on the force had led to the death of a policeman. Now an old college chum has put Scottie on the trail of his disturbed wife Madeleine (Kim Novak), who believes herself possessed by the spirit of her suicidal great-great-grandmother. Scottie follows Madeleine up and down the hills of San Francisco, a vertiginous setting where even the streets have lost their balance. At first he is a detective tracking his suspect; then he is an infatuated adolescent duped by glamour. He could also be a moviegoer transfixed by the light on the screen, or a director turning an actress into a fantasy figure, or a psychoanalyst falling in love with his patient — falling, always falling, into and out of a dream that keeps slipping beyond his reach. When Madeleine falls to her death from a great height, Scottie finds himself still in love, in a necrophilic passion for what was or may never have been.
In adapting a novel by the French authors of Diabolique, Hitchcock builds his seductive, nightmare logic, notably in a 10-min. slow-pursuit sequence with no words, only Bernard Herrmann’s hypnotic score. The movie points Stewart’s farm-boy common sense inexorably toward sexual neurosis and fashions Novak’s street-girl sexuality into a dream girl swathed in soft light. Vertigo is Hitchcock’s creepy crowning achievement in implicating moviegoers in his own cinematic fetishes — voyeurism, the movie’s essential impulse, raised to art.