Summary: The maestro plays with the elements of lust, love, deception, guilt, truth and loss in fabricating a doomed love story that’s built on a plinth of deception. Vertigo is a brilliant tragedy from the master of suspense.
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Cast: James Stewart, Kim Novak, Barbara Bel Geddes, Tom Helmore
Alfred Hitchcock is known to evoke a sense of dread and paranoia through the narrative device of a disturbing déjà vu, repeating actions and events in the lives of his films’ and series’ characters albeit furthering the plot’s complexity each time. In an episode of ‘Alfred Hitchcock Presents’, a television series produced and presented by Hitchcock that aired for over three decades after making its debut in 1955, a woman who is found to have killed her husband in the climax appears has the scene at a grocery store thrice, once in the beginning only to buy certain items, then after a fight with her husband in which she has bruises on her cheek, and later to take a large ‘storage carton’. We, the audience members, don’t follow this woman – she is a mystery to us. We watch from the perspective of her neighbors, a ‘happily married’ couple. The wife believes something (sinister) happened to the woman’s husband after their violent argument. We agree with her, and follow her, and later her husband in finding out what really took place that night. We feel what they feel – paranoia.
For about ninety minutes in Hitchcock’s classic Vertigo, the director stokes our paranoia and intrigue by limiting our knowledge of the plot’s events to the protagonist James Stewarts’ perspective. After the opening credits, a hypnotic mixture of imagery and sound itself, we soon find Stewart’s character John, better known as ‘Scottie’, hanging from the rooftop ledge. A police officer in pursuit of a criminal, he is unable to save another officer, who falls down the building to his death, after acrophobia (fear of heights) and vertigo get the better of him. He retires, spends time with his ex-fiancé Midge Wood (Barbara Del Geddes), and hopes to get over his fear soon. He tries getting up a small-stepladder, goes dizzy and falls into Midge’s protective arms. She still loves him very much.
He on the other hand is soon fascinated by Madeleine, the mysterious wife of Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore), a wealthy acquaintance. Gavin approaches Scottie, tells him his wife might be possessed by the spirit of one Carlotta Valdes, and entreats him to follow her. With Midge’s help, Scottie learns that Carlotta was the great-grandmother of Madeleine who committed suicide. Madeleine has no knowledge of this fact, but she’s found visiting her grave, and then an art museum where a portrait of Carlotta is hung. Carlotta’s got an expensive red necklace on, and an imposing look. Later she leaps into the San Francisco Bay. Scottie dives in, rescues her and brings her to his home. He recounts the incident to her, probes her with direct questions, but she remembers little. After excusing himself for a moment, he calls up Gavin and informs about the incident. Madeleine suddenly gives him a slip. He locates her the next day, and takes her out. She is distant, reserved and otherworldly – the fascinating creature you’d usually find in Edgar Allan Poe’s poetry, perhaps. We too are intrigued and tantalized by her mystery, yet not without sensing something ulterior, something sinister – its Hitchcock after all. The guy gave us Rebecca, where the young protagonist and her husband are haunted by the memory of his dead first wife. In Psycho, he gave us Norman Bates, a motel-owner who is found to be suffering from split-personality disorder, where he is dominated by his mother’s (manic) personality especially when he is attracted to a woman.
The foreboding moment in Vertigo comes right after Madeleine and Scottie kiss passionately. She suddenly wrests herself from his arms and runs up a bell tower, saying ‘This was not supposed to happen’. Scottie pursues her, but his acrophobia weakens him and he’s unable to stop her from jumping off the tower. With his reputation tarnished completely, Scottie remains in a hospital for months suffering from acute melancholia and guilty consciousness. Midge, supportive as always, wistfully remarks that Mozart won’t heal him, as the doctors suggest; Madeleine will, but alas she’s dead. She retreats from the story thereafter. After his release, Scottie meets a Madeleine lookalike.
This woman is coarser, streetwise and less posh than Madeleine – her name is Judy. She has been ‘picked up’ more than once, she says. He tells her Madeleine’s story, and her heart melts. He invites her on a date, and she reluctantly accepts. He wants her to dress like Madeleine, to wear the same grey suit Madeleine wore, tie up her hair the same way. Judy has her own little secret, and it’s the first time Hitchcock shifts the film from Scottie’s perspective to Judy’s. We enter her mind, see a flashback that clears up the entire film for us. Now it’s time to wait and watch till the smoke clears.
You spend the last twenty minutes of Vertigo holding your seat tightly – it is uncomfortable, uncompromisingly disturbing and hard to digest. Hitchcock may be the master of suspense, but his Vertigo excels as a tragedy. By confronting the deception and guilt of his characters in the film, Hitchcock is able to draw out an emotional response from us – we pity these characters, and the tragic consequences of the (wrong) decisions they make. There is poor Midge, waiting fruitlessly for Scottie to return to her. But he’s fallen in love with Madeleine, who’s nothing but shoosh… won’t tell it! What I can say is that she is a character of great complexity, so much so that Meryl Streep would love to get her hands on the character (the actress has expressed slight resentment towards her performance in the 1982 psychological thriller film Still of the Night, because ‘the movie was just about her hair’). The part played by Kim Novak is not a one-dimensional ‘mysterious lady’; it’s much more than that. As Roger Ebert puts it, ‘she is one of the most sympathetic female characters in all of Hitchcock’.
The maestro, helped greatly by composer Bernard Herrman who creates the haunting background score, plays with the elements of lust, love, deception, guilt, truth and loss in fabricating a doomed love story that’s built on the plinth of deception.
- Hitchmania: Vertigo (1958) (canadiancinephile.com)
- This week in VERTIGO: THE MAKING OF A HITCHCOCK CLASSIC SPECIAL EDITION Elster’s Office and Scottie’s Apartment (hitchcocksvertigo.com)
- Vertigo (tbraniganpham0.wordpress.com)
- This week in VERTIGO: THE MAKING OF A HITCHCOCK CLASSIC SPECIAL EDITION (hitchcocksvertigo.com)
- Chris Marker, 1921-2012 (somecamerunning.typepad.com)
- Top 40 must-have Blu-ray discs (reviews.cnet.com)
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- “I like to watch” – Jimmy Stewart’s Passive Protagonists (moviemorlocks.com)