It is typical to get believe that Alfred Hitchcock gave the title Vertigo to his 1958 suspense film due to the unusually kinky character portrayed by Jimmy Stewart penchant for getting dizzy whenever he looks down from tall heights. In fact, Stewart’s character technically suffers from acrophobia: the irrational fear of heights. The dizziness he suffers when looking down from tall heights is symptomatic of acrophobia, but is not synonymous with vertigo as is often believed.
Alfred Hitchcock must have clearly understood this subtle differentiation because it is quite clear that the highly idiosyncratic title was chosen specifically due to a defining symptom of vertigo that is much more deeply resonant than mere dizziness. The most significant symptomatic differentiation between common dizziness and genuine vertigo is the illusion the sufferer experiences that the world around them is spinning wildly out of control. When a person becomes dizzy, it mainly inhibits proper motor control; it can make it impossible to walk without wobbling and even presents difficulty in maintaining a straight posture.
When a person experiences vertigo, that lack of stability expands to every perceptual sensation. Rather than feeling as though you may fall flat on your face if you try to walk, you may experience the fear that you will be falling helplessly through space. The distortion of perceptions extends beyond the physical to the emotional and psychological, making it difficult to distinguish between reality and fantasy and between what is actually happening and what you may be only be hallucinating is happening.
Such an experience accurately describes not only the content of Vertigo, but its very legacy. In the ten years between the release of the American Film Institute’s list of the 100 greatest American films of the first hundred years of cinema, Vertigo leaped from number 61 to number 9. The film also occupied the number 18 position on both the AFI’s list of the 100 greatest thrillers and 100 greatest love stories and its musical score was recognized as the 12th greatest of all time. In 2012, Vertigo was named the greatest movie of all time by Sight and Sound magazine, bringing to an end the five-decade long stranglehold on that position held by Citizen Kane.
Pretty dizzying stuff for a movie whose reality until the late 1980s was one of box office failure and the literal disappearance from view. In its initial release, Vertigo became one of Alfred Hitchcock’s very few box office disappointments and he attributed its failure to the miscasting of a too-old Jimmy Stewart. As a result, it was the final collaboration between the two. Adding to the perceptual disconnect between the reality of Vertigo today and the reality of Vertigo in the past is that the film was one of five that Hitchcock purchased the rights to and subsequently made unavailable to the public for the next thirty years. In essence, then, the background of Vertigo is one in which it is either an unqualified failure barely deserving of being seen or it is one of—if not the—greatest films of all time.
You will be forgiven for getting a little dizzy while watching Vertigo to decide for yourself what is real and what is illusion.