Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock, 1958)

Re-posted as part of the For the Love of Film: Film Preservation Blogathon

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(Warning: plot and story discussed in close detail)

Was looking at Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock, 1958) again, drinking in all the little details. Like: Gavin Elster offers Scottie a drink, who turns it down; later Scottie pours himself a drink at Midge's mini-bar. He doesn't trust Elster enough to accept alcohol from him; Midge he trusts like an old friend--that is, completely, though this does him little good in the long run (Midge is about as effective as Scottie's instincts in keeping him out of trouble).

And it's delicious fun this re-viewing, discovering along the way a little clue that should have alerted Scottie to Elster's shenanigans much earlier. When they meet, Elster calls him Scottie; Midge always calls him Johnny, or Johnny-O. When he and Madeline introduce themselves, he offers her several choices: John, or Johnny for close friends, Scottie for acquaintances (again, a reminder of where Elster stands in Scottie's regard). Madeleine settles on John, even calling him by that name once. Then an odd thing happens: through their many scenes together (I checked the 9/12/57 draft
of the script, which is yet another interesting read for what Hitchcock cuts out as being too expository, too obvious (a long voiceover by Elster over Scottie's pursuit of Madeleine through the city, for example)), not once does Madeleine call Scottie by name until they reach the seaside (ah, the narcissism of beauty--particularly an endangered beauty whose sense of peril is (presumably) shared by both parties), where she runs and he catches her and they embrace for the first time--at which point she calls him Scottie.

So when did he become Scottie to Madeleine instead of John? Isn't that going in the reverse direction, against his wishes, from good friend to mere acquaintance? But you must remember, Elster called him Scottie; in a moment of (probably acted, possibly genuine) distress she may have forgotten to stay in character and called him by the name under which Elster--and by extension her as Judy, Elster's mistress--knows him.

What d'you think? Does the theory float? Must admit, though, the necklace is a simpler, far more visually compelling giveaway.

But one can leave or take the little details; when all is said and done, I believe Vertigo isn't about love, or obsession, or sex or death (or it isn't just about those things), it's about storytelling, the pull and power of a good narrative. Consider: Elster weaves a plotline about his wife, throws in bits of San Francisco local lore to make it just this side of convincing (remember he's been in the city a year--a year in which to prepare and research for his little drama (but then, doesn't the story need Scottie's accident? Some months then, possibly the period of time during which Scottie wears his corset--maybe a little more if Elster has been at it for a while, and Scottie's accident occurred just in time to allow Elster fit it into his master plan)).

So--Elster tells Scottie this story, and he's brilliant at it, even to backing away and admitting it's all a bit fantastic ("I'm not making it up; I wouldn't know how"--I can't believe Elster kept a straight face saying that). This and Novak's beauty and the spell Hitchcock weaves around him using the magical world of San Francisco seals Scottie's fate.

(On Novak--let's just forget all this talk about her being a bad actress, shall we? She may not have been the most talented performer in Hollywood at the time, but she was perfect as the 'apt pupil' of a bait Elster dangled before Scottie. If as Bresson might put it a human being in a film is just a 'model,' to be used like any other prop to realize the filmmaker's ambitions, then Novak made for a superb prop, from her lacquered elegance as Madeleine to her animal vitality as the more common Judy Barton. More, she was a powerful sexual presence, especially when she broke through the lacquer--the first time when stepping out of Scottie's bedroom (she'd just jumped into the San Francisco Bay): the doorway framing her, her body in a half crouch, her face tilted slightly upwards as if in offering, Scottie's red nightgown pulled tight around her like gift wrapping; the second time in Judy's own hotel room, her body posed in the same slightly crouched, upturned-face position. At such moments she was less an actress than an object, a mannequin of illimitable desire; in the bell tower, however, she was an actress--or to be more precise, she was Judy, the girl from Kansas, wearing a perfected Madeleine mask, frightened to death of her crazed lover, her judge, her possible executioner.)

(Speaking of mannequins, I just love the side-view shot Hitchcock inserts, of Judy's feet being dragged up the bell tower steps. If the subtext of Novak's performance is that she's a department store dummy being dressed up by different men for their different designs, then this shot turns the whole into an explicitly grotesque joke, one with not a little hint of pathos--the corpse already being mistreated before it has had the chance to expire).

Elster tells his story, and it works far better than he dreamed; Scottie finds himself trapped in Elster's creation, going mad because Elster, flawed artist that he is, didn't bother providing his story with a resolution (his interest applied only up to the point where his wife is killed). Elster never cared what happens to Scottie; in terms of filmmakers he doesn't have the empathy of, say, Jean Renoir, or Jonathan Demme, or Robert Altman, who show a lively and consistent concern for their characters. Elster is more like Hitchcock himself, who sets his characters in motion motivated by some silly MacGuffin, then puts them through hell-- or what, when you step back and take a really close look, seems suspiciously like the plot outline of a thriller flick.

And Scottie can't take it. Like a man listening to a ditty in an endless loop ("Merry Go Round Broke Down
?"), or to a poem that repeats itself over and over, or to a story without any real end, poor Scottie's driven mad by the lack of a resolution.* He wants closure, dammit (partly and possibly because, as someone puts it, he's been there already), and he's going to get it even if someone suffers along the way. Which he does; he in effect sits himself on the very canvas chair Elster has abandoned (the one with the name "Alfred Hitchcock" printed in the back), and continues direction of the drama from where Elster left off.

* (Here for your information is a theme song Hitchcock heard and considered but ultimately rejected--possibly because it might drive you crazy (I think I agree with him))

And then there's poor, poor Judy, remade first by Elster, then, with much resistance, by Scottie (one senses that her reluctance isn't just because of the insult--the man she loves looking at her and seeing someone else--but the sheer dreariness of playing the role for the umpteenth time), her life a metaphor for the beautiful actress writhing under the hand of the sadistic director, giving her finest performance despite herself on the set of the ultimate movie.

While we're at it, where does love come in? Not often, I think; Scottie displays signs of obsession, of being utterly caught up in the circumstances of the film's first half, then of being caught up in the possibility of re-creating those circumstances in the film's second. Does he care for Madeleine? Does it matter to Scottie that Madeleine is actually Elster's wife recreated in the figure of his mistress? That later she's recreated by Scottie himself, in Judy's hand-me-down flesh? I think not, at least for the most part; I think the moment when the emotion was well and truly felt, when there was genuine selflessness, or at least genuine regard for a living, breathing other, occurs near the end, high up in the bell tower. Scottie had just wrung a confession out of Judy; all veils have dropped, all illusions shattered. The possibility arises that Scottie might accept Judy for what she is: a scared young woman foolishly fallen in love, foolishly hoping to make a man love her "as I am, for myself." For at least that moment in time it isn't Elster's or Scottie's designs that rule the two lovers in the bell tower; it's life, pure and simple.

Vertigo stands as testament to how far we will go, what lengths we will pursue, how close to the borderline of madness we will hew (and how far beyond that line we will, on occasion, venture), to indulge our thirst for whatever makes us feel alive. It's testament in particular to our need to know What Happens Next--even what happens in a narrative Hitchcock oh so carefully and perversely ends just moments (seconds?) before its proper resolution. Like many a great story, it leaves us in the same place it left Scottie--hanging on to a ditty in an endless loop, to a poem repeating itself over and over, to a story without real end or hope of any kind of resolution. 

March 16, 2008


John McElwee said...

That is some great analysis, sir. One of the best I've read on "Vertigo". I'll be thinking of it next time I watch the film.

Noel Vera said...


Noel Vera said...

Might add that the 'John' and 'Scottie' theory might not have originated from me. I remember one of those Hitchcock books making a bit of a fuss about Stewart's names, don't remember if it arrived at exactly the same conclusion...

I, Candyman said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Campaspe said...

Great analysis of this film, which I don't re-watch often because it depresses the hell out of me. I don't think Hitchcock ever made a bleaker movie, and it's much much more than just the grim ending, as you point out.

Love the defense of Kim Novak, and what a brilliant take on that walk/drag up the belfry stairs. Just an excellent post all around.

Noel Vera said...

Thanks, ma'am! Have to say, your praise means a lot to me...

Flickhead said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Noel Vera said...

Interesting, Flickhead. I thought Scottie hesitated a touch too long about Gavin's offer, myself, indicating suspicion. But the scene could bear out either interpretation...

Tim said...

You have confirmed why I've placed Vertigo in one of my top two Hitchcock films ever. Your language describing the films brings it back very vividly and makes me want to see it again. I love your theory about how the need for resolution drives the people in the film, and us in turn.

Truly, isn't indulging the "thirst for whatever makes us feel alive" what makes us hunger for stories (films, novels, sequential art), in the first place?

ps. what're your other favorite hitch films?

Noel Vera said...

The Birds, his follow up to the success of Psycho. It's an unusual Hitchcock in that it plays in a huge canvas--a small town, then most of San Francisco--and the source of conflict is eventually left unexplained (even in Vertigo (but not Psycho, not with that final shot, and I wonder if that gave Hitchock the germ of an idea for this picture) you got a rational explanation).

It's Hitchcock's vison of the apocalypse, and he plays it better than almost any filmmaker I know.

Of classic Hitchock, I like Notorious, for the interplay between Bergman, Grant and Rains, for Grant going further than almost any time in his career in playing an unredeemable bastard, for Rains playing a mama's boy in Norman Bate's league, and for Bergman being the incandescent object of desire caught in the middle of these two problematic men (come to think of it, didn't Grant represent the potent and sadistic father figure Rains so clearly missed for most of his life?).

Marnie's rep is growing, and seeing it a second time, I can appreciate it more as the flawed yet fascinating work that it is--Marnie being Scottie and Madeline wrapped up in one complicated enchilada, and Connery (Scotty without the hangups--or better yet, Grant's secret agent reborn) sticking pins into her hapless psyche to see what her reaction would be.

Anonymous said...

I really enjoyed your analysis. I have just finished watching the film for the first time and was utterly transfixed. Suspicion is spelt out, isn't it when Stewart talks to his artist friend and states that he hasn't seen Gavin for a long time and looks slightly bewildered by his offer of a drink. I didn't know where the film was going so I didn't take too much notice - just love watching Jimmy! Kim Novak was outstanding - I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall when she was arguing with A.Hitchcock about hair colour and clothing.
A channel here is putting on a Hitchcock movie every Sat night for 6 nights - it has been all GOOD!

Noel Vera said...

I hope there are no commercial breaks, no cuts (needn't worry about Hitch till you get to Frenzy) and the prints are shown in the correct ratio. Only TCM has been more or less good about that...

HimeHina said...

Oooh thanks it's like you described everything I need for a test tomorrow xDDD

Noel Vera said...

I'd love to check out a school where Vertigo is part of an exam.

wilkielisa said...

My school does it for A2 film studies ^.^ which is what Im doing

Roma said...

Loved this post.
One thing that always gets me about this flick (my favourite Hitchcock) is how quick Scottie/Johnnie is to see that the locket is THE locket. Not once does he think, "Could be an imitation". Yet he never stops to think that the girl might be THE girl herself, not even when she ends up looking exactly the same. The object triggers instant recognition, not the woman.

Grand Old Movies said...

That's a GREAT point you make, of Scottie being trapped in Elster's "creation"; as if Scottie, like Madeline/Judy, is also a dangling puppet (enforced by the image of Scottie hanging off the building at the film's beginning), with no will or 'story' of its own -- as if everything that's happened to him, such as his accident and his vertigo, has happened only to suit Elster's purposes. It becomes rather like the vertigo effect itself, a constant spiralling inward, with no end -- where does Elster end and Scottie & Judy begin?

Madeleine/Judy's slip in calling Scottie "Scottie" instead of "John" -- good point there, Scottie (or Johnny?) should have caught it. Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot undoubtedly would have; but then, neither detective would have allowed himself to fall under Madeleine's spell. In doing so, Scottie becomes part of Elster's narrative (but, then, how did Elster know that would happen?) I'm coming to this post via the Blogathon, really enjoyed it!

Noel Vera said...

"The object triggers instant recognition, not the woman."

Y'know, never thought of that!

"Scottie becomes part of Elster's narrative (but, then, how did Elster know that would happen?)"

The way everyone including Elster becomes part of Hitchcock's narrative.

How did Elster know that would happen? He took a huge huge risk. Probably a degenerate gambler.

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