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Merry Go Round Broke Down
(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 listening pleasure is the 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