Monday, February 18, 2008

Vertigo (1958)

“Vertigo” (1958) is called director Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece these days, but received criticism at its release. It might be coincidental to the original unpopularity that this is a film so rich in imagery it takes more than one viewing to catch everything. In a sense, you could say this is one of those classic films saved by television, VHS and DVD, where multiple viewings are possible. For years this film was unseen due to copyright restrictions.

Then again, it might not be coincidence that it takes many viewings to appreciate the film. That is the way with works of art. The first time seeing the film one is absorbed by the mystery. On subsequent viewings, one is diverted more by the colors and reflections, and the artistry of the film. A film with an abrupt, disjointed ending, it becomes on subsequent viewings less a suspense story and more a character study with unanswered questions. We are left not so much with an unresolved story, but a story with an ending of our choosing.

Any discussion of Alfred Hitchcock films invariably becomes an analysis of the psychosexual quirks of Hitchcock himself; of his use of blonde actresses both idealized and humiliated, of domineering mother figures, of mirror reflections and double images, of impotence. Perhaps no other director’s films takes on his own personality so intimately. I humbly confess to being ill-qualified to psychoanalyze the Master of Macabre, so I will keep this essay on his “masterpiece” to the qualities about it I find most arresting even after you’ve seen the film a few times.

James Stewart and Kim Novak give what are among the best performances of their careers. Mr. Stewart, able to play the good guy, with a wry comic delivery and a bit of goofy charm throughout his younger years, never lost this boyish appeal as he aged, but he also had the ability to play on man on the edge of sanity. Hitchcock used him in a few films probably for this reason. Underneath his “aw shucks” personality, Stewart could appear shockingly desperate and sickeningly afraid. It is used sparingly and has a far greater effect than the most violent scene played by a more brooding actor. It can be said that the creepiest part of the film is not the murder mystery, but the way Stewart’s personality changes as he become more obsessed with Kim Novak’s role as Judy, trying to remake her as Madeleine. His domination of her to the point of choosing her clothes is what we least expect from the average Joe with a fear of heights that we meet at the beginning of the film.

Kim Novak plays a person imitating another person, so her role is not exactly dual as it is layered. You don’t catch this on first viewing when you really think she is playing two people. It’s after you’ve seen the film again, knowing the ending, that one can really appreciate the depth of her fine performance.

The location shots in and around San Francisco, with sweeping rooftop views of the city and the bay, the iconic image of the Golden Gate Bridge, the sharp, steep hills, all create the texture of this film. It is a city of jagged fault lines. The music by Bernard Hermann, particularly with its Spanish suggestion of castanets is subtle and contemplative in the art museum, and during Stewart’s nightmare, becomes grotesquely exaggerated and frightening. It follows us in one variation or another all through the film, just as James Stewart tails Kim Novak.

One could make a game counting all the mirror reflections and shots in profile, and patterns of swirls and spirals. Beautiful Miss Novak looks especially striking in profile, and it is obviously reflective that we are never shown a full picture of who Madeleine is, who Judy is, because neither are as important as what James Stewart wants them to be.

We are also never told who Midge is. Played by Barbara Bel Geddes, Marjorie, with the less glamorous sounding nickname of Midge, is Stewart’s friend from college days. She appears in pastel sweaters and skirts, as if perennially the college girl. We are told they were once engaged, but their relationship now is more of camaraderie, and he teasingly refers to her mothering him. We get only a brief, concerned glance from Midge, and the suggestion that perhaps though it is she who broke off their engagement, she still loves him. When he climbs a stepstool to challenge his fear of heights, a disability which made him recently retire from the police force, he becomes dizzy and faint, and falls into her arms. Her embrace is indeed motherly, comforting, supporting.

We discover late in the film that Stewart’s fear of heights is why the murderer chose him as a ruse to set up his crime, but we see another aspect to Stewart’s character that makes him the perfect chump for the murderer’s scheme. Stewart, seeming emasculated by his vertigo, and appearing to keep an emotional distance from the old girlfriend who mothers him, is immediately attracted by Miss Novak’s vulnerability. Here is a person more lost and vulnerable than he is, and it is a boost to his ego that, at first hired to observe her, he soon becomes her protector.

We are teased throughout the film by red herrings. Kim Novak’s character of Madeleine at first seems to be the victim of possession by the ghost of a tragic ancestor. Then the ghost story appears to become one of the old movie cliché of hereditary insanity. Each of these story lines is gradually ruled out. Stewart, the cynical ex-cop, does not believe in demonic possession. After he falls in love with Madeleine, he also rules out insanity and substitutes a gentler diagnosis of her merely being obsessed with a sad family story, a lonely woman who needs reassurance and comforting.

We are never really shown the moment Stewart falls in love with Madeleine. In his apartment, when they both reach for a cup and their hands touch, the moment is erotic. In an earlier scene, Stewart’s character and Midge are chummily conversing in her studio apartment where she works at a drawing board as an illustrator of women’s undergarments. They examine a bra together like two children looking at a keen model airplane. There is a humorous lack of eroticism. (The blinds and configuration of her windows reminds me of “Rear Window”. He even asks her how her love life is, the same question Grace Kelly asks James Stewart in that film.)

Yet all it takes is his hand to touch Novak’s over a cup of coffee and the moment becomes electric. When he tells her his name is John Fergusson, she comments that it is “a good strong name.” Just this sentence helps him begin to shed the humiliation of his vertigo and his resentment at being mothered.

However, Stewart’s obsession must have started before this. When Madeleine, in her melancholy trance, leaps into San Francisco Bay in a suicide attempt, he rescues her. In the very next scene, he is back in his apartment. We are given a peek at her clothes hanging in the kitchen as if to dry, and then the camera pans over to through the open door of his bedroom, where Novak’s naked shoulder exposed from the blankets tells us on one sweeping movement he has chosen to take her home with him, undressed her while she was unconscious and most vulnerable.

We might have been given an intervening scene which would show his indecision as to what to do, a scene which showed him making this choice. Giving us a point at which he has fallen in love. But Hitchcock leads us on with a scene that is as sexy as it is senseless. A street-wise cop would not take a suicidal woman, unconscious and suffering from hypothermia back to his apartment, strip her naked and put her in his bed. One would assume he would know there might be legal ramifications to this.

It does not occur to him either to take her to her own home and back to her worried husband, or to a hospital. One might argue that in bringing her to his home he was attempting to protect his client with discretion. But Hitchcock never argues this. He just shows it to us and lets our own confusion be his toy. We do not realize that Stewart is being set up until much later.

When Miss Novak awakes, she remains enigmatic, with few words and minimal, if graceful movement. She slips on the robe he has left her, and sits down obediently on the cushions he has tossed on the floor for her. She does not glance around, wondering if a female on the premises removed her wet clothing, no wife or girlfriend, or housekeeper, no visiting old maid aunt. She seems to accept the situation and demurely thanks him. She apologizes for being a bother.

A later outing together walking among a dark and Wagnerian redwood forest deepens her dependence as she unburdens herself to him, and when the waves crash behind them and she begs him not to let her go, what else can he do but kiss her? We know by now he has completely forgotten about his client, her husband, and wants her for himself. Not only he is going to comfort her anxiety, he is now going to cure it, and brings her to the fateful scene at the mission.

When his vertigo prevents him stopping what appears to be her suicide, his guilt sends him on a psychedelic nightmare, which sends him to a sanitarium. There, even motherly Barbara Bel Geddes is unable to comfort him this time, and she walks down the long gray corridor in her long gray coat and out of the film. We never are told the beginning of their story together, and we are shown no goodbye. One wonders why it does not occur to Stewart that young women who hide behind enormous eyeglasses and wisecracks might also be concealing their vulnerability.

Many months pass, and when we next see James Stewart, he is roaming the familiar venues of 1950s San Francisco, still haunted by his lost love. He sees similarity to her in Judy, as Judy, a dark-haired shop girl stands for a moment, in profile of course, before him on the street. He follows her, and strikes up a friendship with this girl who though favors Madeleine, is not an exact replica. She dresses more colorfully, with a lack of Madeleine’s sophistication and taste. She speaks in a harder Midwest accent, not the cultured eastern finishing school, slightly English-sounding tones which Madeleine spoke. Judy wears her hair differently, wears heavier makeup. She is a more coarse person, and we may wonder what it is exactly about her that attracts James Stewart. Perhaps it is the same wistful sadness. It is one thing, besides the actress playing them, that the two characters have in common.

Miss Novak is particularly effective as the downtrodden Judy, so desperate to be loved by the man she duped, but helplessly fell in love with, that she agrees to let him make her over into the image of his lost love. Never is good guy Stewart so harsh and disgusting as when he whines, cajoles, and bullies her into her new clothes, stares at her feet in her new shoes like a man with a fetish, and orders that her brown hair be dyed blonde.

But when he sees his creation emerge and his expression shatters into a look of wonder, heartache and unspeakable joy, we are still sorry for him. The 360-degree shot of their climatic kiss was reportedly not trick photography with scenes of the fateful carriage house appearing suddenly in her drab hotel room, but an actual set on a turntable.

Mention should be made as well of the “vertigo affect” by cinematographer Robert Barks that will actually give you vertigo if you haven’t got it already. Robert A. Harris work on the 1996 restoration of this film is marvelous, and should also be noted.

At this point, Mr. Hitchcock does the unthinkable in a murder mystery and tells us the ending before the end of the movie. We see Judy and Madeleine are the same person, and that Stewart was a dupe to a murder arranged by his client. It is a striking moment when Stewart discovers this himself when he notices the necklace Judy wears is the same one in the infamous portrait that had mesmerized Madeleine. However, it may strike the audience as incongruous that so carefully planned a murder would be fouled by coincidence. That the murderer would have allowed Judy to keep both the famous gray suit and the necklace when the rest of his plan was so meticulous seems unlikely. That she would have remained in San Francisco and not be sent away after the crime seems unlikely. That she would have been recognized and pursued by James Stewart makes a wonderful tale of eerie fantasy, but it is based on mere chance which seems unlikely.

Most unlikely of all is when Judy leaps to her death at being startled by the approach of a nun when Stewart, having conquered his vertigo, angrily drags her up the bell tower. The murderer gets off free, and the cycle of death by falling, and guilt, is repeated.

It is a film with no beginning, as we come into it in the middle of a rooftop chase, and Stewart dangling from a drainpipe. It ends with the plot dangling. One can see why the critics and the audience in 1958 might have felt that the movie lacked a complete story and the end was missing.

But repeated viewings show us a different film. Like the paintings in the art museum Madeleine frequents, the film is a painting, not of the ghostly Carlotta or even a series of postcards of San Francisco, or cartoonish parody like the painting Midge does of herself as the portrait of Carlotta. The film might be a little bit of all those things, but it is also in and of itself, a painting.

Sometimes a painting will tell a story, but sometimes it will only suggest moods, meanings that might add up to many different stories. We when we look at paintings we are seeing color, and patterns, and brush strokes if we look really close. We may see different things each time we look at it. That’s what happens when you watch “Vertigo.” The ghost story that is really about insanity, that is really about love, that is really about obsession, that is really about vindication, that is really about a murder mystery where the murderer gets away, is a movie about all these things. The next time you see it, you may notice something else.


J.C. Loophole said...

Wonderful post! This is one of my all time favorite Hitchcock movies, and I consider myself a Hitchcock superfan. Saul Bass's poster and artwork are also stupendous and Bernard Hermann's score is inspired. This is what happens when crew and cast are at the top of their game. Pros all.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Thanks, J.C. It's an amazing film, to be sure. I've read that Hitchcock found fault with Kim Novak's performance, and even blamed James Stewart for being too old for the part, when the release of this film was not immediately successful. His frustration must have been acute.

Campaspe said...

I admire this film a great deal but I can't describe it as my favorite Hitchcock simply because it depresses the bejesus out of me. While you're right that it reveals layers upon layers on repeat viewings (like any masterpiece) I find that it just gets darker every time I see it. It's one of the bleakest views of men and women and whether we can truly connect with one another that I have ever seen. When Judy says (words to the effect of) "will you love me now?" I cringe for her and for everybody who ever tried to mold themselves to impossible demands. And I completely agree with what you write here: "It can be said that the creepiest part of the film is not the murder mystery, but the way Stewart’s personality changes as he become more obsessed with Kim Novak’s role as Judy, trying to remake her as Madeleine."

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Hi, and thanks for stopping by. Actually, I was wondering today when reading your excellent blog ( what the Siren thought of this film.

I agree that it leaves the viewer feeling, if not devastated by the loss of this character (all over again) at the end of the film, then at least feeling empty. I don't know if an ending with some emotional resolution is called for or not. I know that an alternate ending for the European market leaves us with a wordless Stewart and Bel Geddes in her apartment brooding over the events. (Can be seen on YouTube.) I suppose that might put a period at the end the sentence, but it doesn't really help much. It's just a powerful film that the viewer wishes to heaven would not rip your guts out, but like Judy and Scotty, we can't not help but get sucked into it.

I always come back to the ending as the keystone to this problem, if it really is a problem. Suppose Judy had not taken the dive? The film to that point has become a romantic triangle. Madeleine's always going to be there. It's never going to be Judy and Scotty. It's always going to be Judy and Scotty and Madeleine, and that's what's so tragic and heartbreaking. It's not a flesh and blood rival for Judy. Judy can never compete with her, and can never be good enough. And Madeleine will always be beyond Scotty's reach.

I suppose if you had Stewart turning Judy into the police, we'd have a kind of "Maltese Falcon" ending of "Sure, I'll wait for you, kid." Would that work? Maybe not.

Perhaps when you come right down to it, for this film to work at all, it's got to rip out our guts.

Love that scene you mention where Judy says "will you love me" if I do these things. Novak is heartbreaking.

Campaspe said...

No, I think the weird and rather abrupt ending is perfect. You're right, any attempt to imagine them as happy just breaks down, it's ludicrous. And while I love Bel Geddes (if you can get your hands on it and haven't seen it already, get "Caught"!) to me the closing image is also perfect--Scotty, standing straight in the belfry and looking down, having conquered his fear but lost his love forever.

yep, pretty damn bleak. I'm getting depressed just thinking back on it.

but one thing I can watch over and over -- the credits! The best ever in a Hitchcock movie, and my favorite Hermann score too.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

I could watch this film 'til the cows come home. It's never a comfortable experience, but it's such good storytelling, even if the end is frayed and not tied up in a neat little package.

Who's face is that at opening credits? I've read where it's Novak's, but it doesn't look like her to me.

Anonymous said...

Great piece. I enjoyed your examinations of the performances--particularly why Jimmy Stewart's against type portrayal of Scottie works so well. Recently I viewed a film starring Stewart, the anti-Nazi melodrama The Mortal Storm (1940). Watching that film I expected to see Stewart's familiar homespun charm, but he plays a character increasingly more desperate to escape nazi persecution. It's quite a performance though not nearly as flawless as his turn as a man obsessed in Vertigo. Thanks for helping me to see why it works so well.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Hi, Thom, thanks so much for your comments. I've not seen "The Mortal Storm" yet but I hope I can sometime. Sounds intriguing.

Stewart is quite powerful in Vertigo. I don't think any other actor would have done so well. To be strong and command a scene by sheer presence, and yet to crumble emotionally in such a pitiable, ugly way is the measure of not only a good actor but I think a really sensitive and understanding human being as well. Remarkable when you see him and Novak together, so many layers of emotion, such intensity and yet no scenery chewing.

Anonymous said...

Comments …

Vertigo is my favorite movie. I first saw it by chance on a B&W TV as a little kid, 9 yrs old or younger, one Saturday night, sometime pre-1962. All I remember is being stunned, mesmerized by the final bell tower scene. Didn’t understand a bit of it, but the images were imprinted in my mind. I didn’t see it again until it’s re-release in the 1980’s.

Given how many of my favorite movies he’s in, Jimmy Stewart has to be my favorite actor. Vertigo is the epitome of Stewart’s ability to project a character’s inner life. Here it’s Scottie’s isolation, wanderings and, later, obsessiveness. This is Stewart’s special quality as an actor and what distinguishes him from another Hitchcock favorite Cary Grant. (Grant had a greater talent for comedy than Stewart.)

It’s easy for me to understand how some viewers might be indifferent to Vertigo: if you are not captivated by Scottie’s emotional journey… well this one aint for you. After all the plot is ridiculous – maybe the most of unbelieveable of all Hitchcock stories! - given how pivotal Scottie’s not realizing Judy’s identity is to the movie. I mean “it’s in her kiss”, right?

Interesting question: Is this the most unbelieveable of all Hitchcock movies?

Kim Novak – Looking at her other movies, not a great actress; but in Vertigo she is excellent, though I think it takes repeated viewings to appreciate her, especially the “Judy” half of the movie. Her performance and role remind me of Faye Dunaway in the movie “Chinatown”.

Wanderings …

• Among Hitchcock’s cinema motifs, obsessions is dangerous heights and falling, and “Vertigo” has to be the most prominent example. Just a quick list of Hitchcock movies that include some falling or height scene/theme: Rebecca (early cliff scene), Saboteur, To Catch a Thief (roof tops), Rear Window, N by NW, Psycho (Balsom fall down stairs). Others?

• The guy being chased in the opening rooftop scene always resembles Lenny Bruce to me. My ironic funny bone likes the notion of the very catholic, repressed Hitchcock and the much prosecuted Bruce together. Who’s this actor? The “uncredited” Jack Ano? Thinking of bit players in famous movies, who’s the actress that plays Charlotta in the nightmare sequence?

• Great script, but one thing always makes me flinch: “You were a very apt pupil, weren’t you?” “APT”?? When in a moment of great excitement did you hear someone blurt out the word “apt”? In my mind I just substitute the word “good” when this scene plays.

• “It can’t matter to you” – another flinch or laugh-out-loud moment when Stewart suggests the hair color change.

• “Stupid! Stupid! Stupid!” What a line for Bel Geddes’ movie epitath.

• Raymond Baily, the doctor who explains Scottie’s condition, like Simon Oakland’s role in Psycho – can’t help seeing Mr. Drysdale from the Beverly Hillbillies TV series.

• At this point after so many viewings I sometimes just watch the photography in “Vertigo”. It is just a pleasure to watch, especially the S.F. locations. Has anyone been on one of the “Vertigo” tours? What was it like? And it’s fun to notice Hitchcock repeat some of his favorite movie stock shots and moves.

Thanks for this blog topic. That’s it for now.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Thanks so much for your comments, and judging by the detail, if they were awarding prizes for "Vertigo" fans, I guess you'd be the champ. You're a very apt pupil.

Anonymous said...

Sorry for reading, such a great review ,after so many days, well the film is a masterpiece and yet mysteriously haunting with its human weakness ,
one point i like to mention is that Kim Novak has been a predecessor to many beautiful actresses in mystery movies, you feel that,like you say- ok, so its Kim Novak ,who started it all.Of course thanks to Alfred Hitchcock's, much ahead of times-plans, for a new kind of cinema experience.

Mark Notarberardino said...

What a wonderful entry in your library of astute film criticism! The famous Vertigo effect it should be pointed out was designed by second unit cameraman Irmin Roberts after Hitch gave him an idea of what he wanted. The dream sequence was designed by John Ferren, who also painted the portrait of Carlotta. Film is a collaborative art!

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Welcome, Mark, and thanks so much for filling us in about Irmin Roberts and John Ferren. Both are mentioned briefly in Dan Auiler's book, "Vertigo - The Making of a Hitchcock Classic." You're right, the film's special points and qualities were entirely collaborative. I think, other than noting the Bernard Herrmann score, we sometimes fail to acknowledge that.

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