John ‘Scottie’ Ferguson (James Stewart) has to retire early from the police force after he discovers that he suffers from acrophobia – a fear of heights – when a colleague of his dies due to his condition. Shortly after his unemployment comes around he’s approached by a close friend of his, Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore), to follow his wife around and report her whereabouts. He’s worried about his wife, Madeline Elster (Kim Novak), and her recent obsession with her past and the fact that she can’t ever seem to remember what she does during the day.
It’s always refreshing for me to watch some of these older films, because for the most part I go in with nothing more than its reputation. I don’t go searching for trailers to then gauge whether I want to watch it or not, I just watch it and let the film speak for itself. This is the film that I’ve heard as the movie about a guy afraid of heights, but I find out very quickly that that gimmick is pretty much a backdrop to the real story of Madeline and her strange behaviour and John’s investigation into her.
This film is what I think should be used as the standard example when people describe what an Alfred Hitchcock film is. The film sucks you in with its characters. John starts off simple enough with this small problem, but from the first frame of the film you just want to like him. He’s the normal likeable James Stewart character that you’ve seen in all his other films. Then you get to watch him get put through the ringer as he tries to make heads and tails of Madeline and fall in love and try to figure out what to do with it all.
Where this movie shines is in the finale. Hitchcock purposefully sets us up only to surprise us with an ending that engages us, like all his previous films, with such a simple task but in the respect of the characters who are completing it it’s not so simple which is why we’re pretty much glued to our seats.
It’s one of the best climaxes I’ve seen in a film simply because for the entire last ten minutes of the movies I spent it hanging on every word trying to figure out if Stewart’s character had figured it out and we actually never find out the answer to that question until the very last moment which is fantastic.