I can’t recount the elaborate plot of Vertigo here, and if you have deprived yourself of the pleasure of watching this masterpiece until now, I suggest you run—don’t walk—to your nearest library to borrow it. What’s that you say? You can stream it? All the better—sit down and watch it now, then come back and read my reflections on it.
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So, you’re back. I’ll bet you’re feeling as Scottie did when he was told of the possession of Gavin Elster’s wife by the ghost of her suicidal ancestor. You need a drink too, don’t you?
At the start, Vertigo seems to be a story about the living possessed by the spirit of the dead and an ex-policeman, a “hard-headed Scot,” who is hired as a private detective to solve the “mystery” of this possession. But unlike the usual formula of the detective story, in this film the mystery remains after the problem is solved. Scottie Ferguson, the protagonist in the film, follows a painful journey of self-discovery in which he must die to his old, pragmatic ego, the self that thinks that everything in life is explainable. “There’s an answer for everything,” he says. Scottie suffers from vertigo and wants to cure himself of this mundane fear of heights. He doesn’t believe Elster’s “mystery” when he first hears it, and of course on one level, that is correct—the story is a fraud. Elster sets up the interpretation that “the other dimension” possesses his wife. The rational Scottie doesn’t buy it. Yet, even though it’s a set-up, there is a deeper truth—a mystery—greater than what Elster or anyone else knows. It goes beyond Ferguson’s profane, purely pragmatic and rationalist mind.
Philosophers such as Gabriel Marcel have distinguished between problem and mystery. Problems have solutions that leave no mystery. What we sometimes call “mystery stories” are really whodunits that are merely problems to be solved. But mystery remains, not as a problem to be solved but as the holy mystery that is God, to be worshipped. Was Hitchcock a master of suspense or master of mystery? I think Vertigo show him to be dealing with mystery.
Scottie lives within a horizon that has been disenchanted. Like the fear of heights he didn’t know he had, the whole film is the challenge of his facing up to his own mystery. Elster’s fraud serves to bring out a side of the pragmatic Scottie that he’s been denying; as the hard-headed Scot, he wants to explain away his own mystery. He thinks he can conquer himself by sheer intellect and will: “if I could just find the key and put it all together.” In the end, we do not know whether he accepts the fact that reason does not evacuate life’s ultimate mystery. Whether he will die to his old self to become a new creation is left unanswered but what seems clear is that by the end of the film, Hitch has exposed Scottie’s pragmatic denial of mystery as self-destructive and vain. The film demythologizes an evil scheme but deepens the sense of mystery.
And that’s why I think of Newman when I see this movie. In the sermon “On Justice, as a Principle of Divine Governance” he argues that pagan superstition—the kind of thing that we associate with Halloween—should not be seen as demonic or evil but as the quite reasonable response to the human condition of those lacking the gospel. “They who are not superstitious without the Gospel,” Newman tells us, “will not be religious with it: and I would that even in us, who have the Gospel, there were more of superstition than there is; for much is it to be feared that our security about ourselves arises from defect in self-knowledge rather than in fulness of faith…” Scottie’s reductionist rationalism—just the opposite of superstition—is a “defect in self-knowledge.” He is a man who has lost control of himself—in love, then in depression, then in anger. For Newman, it is better to be superstitious than to imagine that we live in a disenchanted universe. Reason without faith in the holy mystery is a fearful self-deception.
David Hammond teaches theology for Saint Joseph’s College Online.