Lawrence Russell

Vertigo (1958) dir. Alfred Hitchcock writ. Samuel Taylor (and Alex Coppel) (based on the novel D'entre les Morts by Boileau and Narcejac) cine. Robert Burks edt. George Tomasini art. Bumstead and Pereira costumes Edith Head music Bernard Herrman

star. James Stewart (Scotty), Kim Novak (Madeline/Judy), Barbara Bel Geddes (Midge), Tom Helmore (Gavin Ellster), Henry Jones, Ellen Corby, Lee Patrick, Raymond Bailey, Konstantin Shayne


misogyny and the make-over

John "Scotty" Ferguson is a middle-aged San Francisco detective gripped with a psychosexual obsession that manifests itself as a fear of heights or vertigo. His phobia appears to be a dream phobia, as the opening sequence shows him hanging from a gutter several stories above the street. Another cop has just fallen to his death trying to save him... and the criminal they were pursuing gets away. While we are expected to take these events literally, they are the stuff of common human nightmares and the recurrent imagery of Mr. Alfred Hitchcock, a director well-known for stranding his dreamers on the edge of a cataclysm.

Following this event, Scotty takes early retirement to convalesce, but is soon contacted by an old alma mater, one Gavin Ellster, a local shipbuilder who fears his beautiful young wife is about to commit suicide because she too is possessed by a dream. Madeline believes she is the reincarnation of her great grandmother, Carlotta Valdes, a beauty who committed suicide after she is separated from her child and abandoned by her rich lover. So now Madeline's days are given to "wandering" in a trance, visiting the graveyard where Carlotta is buried or viewing her portrait in the San Francisco Art Gallery. Scotty is detailed to follow Madeline, make sure she comes to no harm. His quest seems legitimate enough at first but such is the curious psychology of this story, he ends up as her stalker, a lover in search of an obsession.

Vertigo: James Stewart as ScottyVertigo: Kim Novak as Madeline

In pages 242-44 of his 1978 Hitch biography, The Life And Times Of Alfred Hitchcock, John Russell Taylor opens up the uneasy core of this emotional film as well as anyone. "Vertigo... is alarmingly close to allegorical autobiography," says Prof. Taylor, and although we reply what fiction isn't? we nod in agreement when he goes on to say that "Hitch seems (to be) the great exponent of male sadism." Taylor sees in Vertigo an allegory to Hitchcock's obsession with blondes (his leading ladies) and their "make-over". When Scotty forces Judy to become a blond and dress as Madeline, his actions are like that of a director manipulating an actress into a theatrical ideal. That this game sequencing has a sexual pathology goes without saying. Hence Taylor sees a strong streak of misogyny in the films of Alfred Hitchcock.

We see more, however. We see Vertigo as the transition from the old technology of film noir into the technology of neo noir. This technology extends beyond Technicolor and Vistavision into the psychology of post-modernism. What Taylor describes is really the self-referencing typical of the culture of contemporary art -- if Fellini had made Vertigo, James Stewart would've been playing a movie director, not a detective.

In noir, an expert is required to complete a crime. He has to be in love, and he has to be a dupe. In a sense, the woman who uses him is an idealization of his art. We could be describing Walter Neff in Double Indemnity, Ned Racine in Body Heat... or Scotty Ferguson in Vertigo. While Neff and Racine are willing criminals, Scotty isn't, unless we view Madeline's final fall from the Mission tower as a homicide. Scotty suffers from a mental illness, so it's easy enough to profile him as a sex killer, no matter how kindly Jimmy Stewart's persona appears to be. The question of his guilt is submerged in the apparent accidental nature of her demise. Demented, he drags her up the stairs into the Belfry, rages at her as he recreates the crime... and of course a full reenactment requires Madeline to fall from the portal, just like the cop in his nightmare or the real Mrs. Madeline Ellster in his deception. We can leave the symbolism of the Nun for another time. Hitchcock, the old bourgeois, has just legitimized a murder.

The brilliance of the ending is of course in the finality of it... when there's nothing final about it at all. Madeline lies smashed on the terra-cotta tiles while Scotty, frozen in his dream orgasm, is left transfixed in the tower. Where does he go from here? Does he finally awake... or does he simply return to San Francisco, find another woman, do it all again. From what we've seen, his dream appears to be a serial dream.

Sex is an off-stage act in the movies prior to the sixties. What are we to make of Scotty's actions following his rescue of Madeline from drowning in San Francisco Bay? Instead of taking her home, he takes her back to his place, undresses her, puts her in his bed. She is pretending to be in a trance, pretending to drown... and we must wonder, is he pretending to be a gentleman? Between the melancholy and the sentiment, the dream and the reality, they become lovers. We don't see it, but we know it. The deception calls for it, and the dream determines it. There are four kisses: two when Madeline exists as Gavin Ellster's make-over, two when she exists as Scotty's make-over. "He made you over, Judy -- just like I made you over... but he made you over better...!" Scotty raves as they embrace in the tower. Their final kiss is the prelude to her death.

One or two unlikely aspects of this supernatural conspiracy are easy to overlook or rationalize. That the smooth patrician Gavin Ellster is able to keep his real wife in the dark while publicly choreographing his mistress as her understudy is one. Another is the somewhat incredible performance of Judy, a coarse shop girl from Hicksville, Kansas, as a pedigreed society woman with lovely diction, manners, and a desire to act. While nothing is impossible, her relapse from Madeline -- the reincarnated fatale Carlotta Valdes -- back to Judy the chick who lives out of a suitcase and works at Magnum's is, uh, incredible. That she could be bought off with a piece of Carlotta's jewelry and dumped, devolving gracefully from her persona of ghost fatale is even more incredible. Having attained that character, she would've stayed in it and found another lover.

We note, of course, that she did find another lover... or rather, he found her. Only in our dreams can we create a totem and bring back the dead. This is exactly what Scotty does. He revisits the places of his former surveillance detail -- Ernie's restaurant, the graveyard, the Art Gallery, the flower shop... and it's on the street outside the florist's that he has his moment of deja vu, spots Judy. He stalks her back to The Empire Hotel where he immediately impresses himself upon her. In the normal course of events only a boor or a sociopath would be as insistent. We accept his actions as those of a grieving man (who has never shown any conscience about being in love with another man's wife) although he is clearly on the lunatic fringe. Our tolerance, our sympathy, comes from the fact that we recognize this game within ourselves. Alfred Hitchcock isn't the only person to do a make-over on a ghost masquerading as a ideal.

sex, civilization and the cargo cult

The make-over of the persona is at the core of civilization. We hunt, we kill. We dress, we undress. Actions become art, and art becomes a cargo cult. Scotty Ferguson turns Judy into a cargo cult object -- and it works. Madeline returns, willed into existence by a man who has been waiting for her all his life. He was briefly engaged to Midge while in college... but he was unable to commit. Midge paints a picture of herself as a parody of Carlotta Valdes but the gesture fails miserably. In fact, Scotty is so far gone he sees it as a desecration. "That's not funny, Midge," he says tragically. "Not funny at all." Following Madeline's fake suicide, he ends up a traumatized zombie in a clinic listening to but not hearing Mozart. He doesn't hear Midge either when she fusses around trying to cheer him up. No totem, no power. We last see her walking away in sad defeat down an empty corridor.

Scotty's madness is an elegant and beautiful thing, because it manifests as an elegant and beautiful thing, namely, Madeline. She visits the grave of her incarnate as the morning mist renders her ethereal. When she emerges from Scotty's bedroom for the first time, she shimmers... but the greatest shimmer of all is when she emerges from her bathroom after Scotty's make-over. The effect is supernatural and Freudian.

Thus the crime in Vertigo isn't the murder of the real Mrs. Madeline Ellster but rather that of her masquerade.

the anatomy of melancholy

A Prologue followed by 3 Acts -- so goes the melancholy romanticism of Bernard Herrman's hypnotic score, perhaps the single most unifying element in this mystical film. Music is the best means of engaging the supernatural, and this score is a descendant of a number of such astral dramas. Wagner's Tristan And Isolde is the most obvious, or even his Pandora And The Flying Dutchman. Those opening minor chords immediately draw us into the acrophobia of Scotty Ferguson, although the flattened couplets and spiralling colorations develop a metaphor for something far more sinister than a mere fear of heights.

Music is the means by which we make contact with the spirit world. Wind in the forest, waves on the beach, beating hearts in a lovers' embrace, these tones exist in Eternity. If the music is right, we don't give a damn if what happens next makes any sense. Through Herrman's fabulous score, we enter the dream of two somnambulists in search of one another. The ritual is elaborate, involves deception, but this deception is merely a game used to excite the perception of one for the other. Love is, as they say, a masquerade.

© LR 1/2001


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Film Court | copyright 2001 | Lawrence Russell