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I'm Not Afraid of a Ghost. Well, Sort Of.
by Jon Schuller

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I've never been a big fan of horror movies but I do enjoy a well-made thriller. There are so many great films in this genre and the list is far too long to recount them here. The American Film Institute has, among its many "100" lists, a category named The 100 Most Thrilling American Movies. The titles are all familiar and the range of their plots and locations is quite large. Stars are, of course, famous, and you will probably find more than a few of your favorites on the list. I found many I love and never get tired of watching. The one I found was #18 on this list, from 1958, an Alfred Hitchcock classic and, some say, maybe his best thriller ever made. Vertigo. The picture starred James Stewart, Kim Novak, Barbara Bel Geddes, Tom Helmore and Henry Jones. The memorable music was composed by Hitchcock's favorite movie music man, Bernard Herrmann.
A former San Francisco police detective, John "Scottie" Ferguson (Stewart), has to take early retirement because, during a dangerous rooftop police chase, a fellow policeman was killed as Scottie has a case of acrophobia (fear of heights) and vertigo (dizziness even in stable surroundings). An old college friend, Gavin Elster (Helmore), who owns a shipyard, hires Scottie to follow Elster's wife, Madeline
(Novak), around the city. Scottie's problems with heights have aroused his ex-fiancé's, Midge Wood's (Bel Geddes), feelings for him. She's concerned that he'll become too involved in this new assignment.

Scottie begins to follow Madeline around the city as she buys flowers at a local florist shop and then takes them to the cemetery at the Mission Dolores, where she places them on the grave of Carlotta Valdes. She goes to the Legion of Honor Museum and sits looking at a portrait of the same woman. He continues to follow as she enters the McKittrick Hotel but he doesn't see her leave. Scottie looks into the history of the woman, Valdes, and finds out she was a mistress of a wealthy man and bore his illegitimate child. She committed suicide as a result of the shame. Elster is worried his wife has become obsessed with Carlotta Valdes and may harm herself. Scottie follows her to Fort Point where she jumps into the icy, cold waters of the Bay.

He rescues her and they travel the next day to Muir Woods together to see the famous redwoods. She tells him about a nightmare and they go to the Mission San Juan Bautista, Carlotta's home in childhood. Madeline suddenly runs into the church tower and Scottie, held back by his fears, watches in horror as Madeline
jumps to her death from the tower's roof.

The police conduct an inquiry as the coroner (Jones) rules that Madeline's death was a suicide. Gavin doesn't blame Scottie and tells him he's leaving the city and Madeline's death behind him forever. Scottie becomes depressed and winds up in a sanatorium where Midge visits him and attempts to help him.

When he's released, he wanders the city, going back to all the places he followed Madeline to and the ones they went to together. In his wanderings he notices a woman who reminds him of the dead Madeline. He approaches her and she says her name is Judy Barton from Salina, Kansas. It's the same woman and she realizes that Scottie has found her. She writes a letter to him, saying she was part of Elster's plot to kill his wife and make it look as if the real Madeline was possessed. She can't bring herself to give him the letter and then just disappear. She's in love with Scottie.

Scottie has become obsessed by the ghost of Madeline and begins to change the woman he knows as Judy Barton. He makes her change her hair, make-up and how she dresses. She eventually becomes the woman he wants her to be, the woman he knew as Madeline Elster.

They frequent local clubs and one evening as Judy is getting dressed,
Scottie – ever the detective – notices a piece of jewelry that looks familiar. It was the same necklace Madeline wore that was (supposedly) one of Carlotta's. He confronts Judy and she admits the plot and how the real Madeline was murdered and thrown from the roof.
Scottie tells her they're going to the scene at the bell tower so he can get the entire story. He forces Judy up the steps as he pushes himself upstairs, struggling with his overwhelming fears. They reach the top, she admits what happened. Suddenly, the trapdoor begins to open and Judy, frightened, falls to her death. A nun had heard voices and came to investigate. All of Scottie's fears disappear as he stands outside and looks down upon another dead woman's body in the same courtyard below. His phobias are gone but the memories will last a lifetime.
This movie is still exciting, scary and, of course, riveting. I try not to let critics influence my own personal views of films, especially when they're directed by the masters. Vertigo discussed serious mental problems like obsession and the terrors of frightening events on humans. The choice is always ours to make. The pictures speak for themselves. Chris and I made our own Vertigo tour in San Francisco once, stopping at the movie's locations. It was a lot of fun.

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Cinema Savant
Every other Thursday

My views on an eclectic mix of films and personalties, past and present; emotional interpretations; some laughs, some cries.

Other Columns
Other columns by Jon Schuller:

Another Unlikely Friendship. Again.

Thank Goodness, We'll Always Have Villains

Don't Judge A Book by Its Color

How To Capture a Famous Year on Film

40 Is So Young

All Columns

Jon Schuller
I am a former New Jersey native, living in Charlotte, N.C. for almost 30 years. I am a lifelong movie lover with lots of movie trivia knowledge and soundtracks in my CD collection. I enjoy sharing my love of films with everyone and have so many fond memories growing up in darkened movie theaters. I have been married 50 years (as of December 22, 2018) and we both share a passion for film (and each other of course).

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