The definition of vertigo is a sensation of dizziness or abnormal motion resulting from a disorder of the sense of balance. In Alfred Hitchcock's picture, Vertigo is translated as John "Scottie" Ferguson's (James Stewart) fear of heights. Scottie was a police detective and is now retired. A wealthy man asks him to follow his wife (Kim Novak) and check on her because he thinks that she is contemplating suicide. Sadly, Madeleine (the wife) commits the irreparable even with Scottie's close surveillance. While following this woman, Ferguson falls obsessively in love with her. Shortly after her tragic death he meets a woman who practically looks exactly like Madeleine. This is where Scottie's "disorder" comes in action, he is still madly obsessed with Madeleine and he will try to "recreate" her with Judy.
This relationship is already doomed at day one. It smells bad if you prefer and we clearly sense that Scottie is intoxicated by Madeleine's persona. Their love story is unwholesome and the way Scottie acts when trying to convert Judy into Madeleine is desperately sad and exposes how childish he reacts to this lost. He does whatever he can to get what he can't have anymore. Evenmore, he doesn't get it, he obviously doesn't need it. It just accentuates his sickness and dooms him.
Just like the somewhat outdated flashes, Scottie seems to keep falling from the first scene of the film until the final moments. One of the most interesting aspect of this story is how the obsession of the main character becomes our own obsession as the viewer. We really want to watch Scottie getting over his fear and his state of depression by making up with Judy's presence. Hitchcock accomplishes he most subtle tricks of metaphorical meanings by placing common objects and right framing in his movie. Many scenes involve mirrors and depending on what he wants to tell with his images. Hitch makes some claustrophobic effects or double reflection of the characters in the mirror. Few Hitchcock films have been so abstemious in their visual but few have been mastered has well either.
The plot of Vertigo is a free adaptation of Boileau-Narcejac's Entre les morts. It was in direct reaction to Hitchock's lost of the rights of the novel Les diaboliques to Henri-Georges Clouzot written by the same duet of authors. Hitchcock said later in interviews that Clouzot's film was the only picture he wish he had made. To be honest, I think Hitchcock surpassed Clouzot but the later's near-masterpiece is one heck of a movie. It is one of the films, Les diaboliques (1955), I always highly recommend to anyone who likes French Horror films of the 1950's along with Eyes Without A Face by Georges Franju. However, Hitchcock never literally adapted a novel to the screen he was a very literate man and he added many elements of fellow Englishman Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray to the plot of Vertigo. Added to his successful storytelling techniques and the culmination of his Art, Vertigo is one of the many pinnacles of Hitchcock's 1950's work.
In Vertigo we found many classic Hitchcock elements: the doppelganger played by Kim Novak in the two women Madeleine and Judy, the icy blond "à la" Grace Kelly, James Stewart's acting almost child-like, the bay-area locations and the landmark signature settings. For many reasons Vertigo is considered as Hitch's masterpiece and it is always into the top 5s of the greatest films of all time. However, I don't think it is the "master of suspense"'s greatest achievement, even if it is one of his most contemplative and deep films I think it is surpassed by Rear Window, Psycho and North by Northwest just by the fact that those films are more personal entertainment for Hitch. The themes of those films connect more with his storytelling techniques and they feel more like his major work. Vertigo is still a masterpiece but just a bit under the trio aforementioned.