Some Alfred Hitchcock movies are tough to write about for the simple reason that so much has been written before and they have been analysed and dismembered to death. ‘Vertigo’ is clearly one of these and there’s a clear reason: it’s very, very good.
The story follows the acrophobic John ‘Scottie’ Ferguson whose feelings of guilt over a cop he couldn’t save lead to his retirement. He is tempted out of this state by an old acquaintance (Gavin Elster, played by Tom Helmore) who asks Scottie to follow his wife, Madeleine, who has been behaving strangely, obsessed with a long dead tragic woman called Carlotta Valdes. The plot thickens and twists and double crosses you – the Madeleine Scottie follows (played by the luminous Kim Novak) is not the real Madeleine (the real Mrs. Elster promptly killed by Gavin by being bunged off a clock tower) but by then he has fallen in love with this stand in. Seeing the double again in her normal clothing he then proceeds to rebuild this girl (Judy Barton) in the image of his love…his obsessional recreation of the woman he lost ending in disastrous consequences.
Saul Bass’s opening titles are justifiably feted. He seamlessly melds graphic shapes (a la Spirograph) with big close ups of eyes and mouths in primary colour washes.
It’s wonderful and, linked with Bernard Herrmann’s striking and hypnotic score, it provides a fast and concise opening to the picture. We’re straight into the rooftop chase with the beat cop plunging to his death – it’s handled fast and expertly.
Within the first minute or so of action Hitchcock has thrust Scottie into his predicament – off the job and unable to do much of anything he is good at. Interesting that it’s never explained how on earth he manages to get off the roof/gutter he is desperately clinging to at the start, but I suppose you have to go with that.
Barbara Bel Geddes, playing Marjorie ‘Midge’ Wood, has a sweet role in the picture – her love unrequited for Scottie (although they were engaged for three weeks back in college). Scottie doesn’t seem to realize the effect he has on her and each casual remark about love lives and romance hits home, Hitchcock adjusting to close-ups and slightly high angles as Scottie dawdles through his chat (in that great James Stewart way where he seems to be making it up as he goes along). I like his use of the word ‘doo-hicky’ in referenced to the cantilevered bra Midge is developing, good word Scottie. On seeing Madeline leave Scottie’s apartment she resigns herself with a ‘Well now Johnnie-o, was it a ghost? Was it fun?’ but is clearly hurting. Her ill advised replica of the Carlotta Valdes painting with her own face causes consternation from Scottie (‘not funny, Midge’ as he stalks out) and she’s mad at herself.
She even gets her own profile shot at one point, and sees her reflection in her window for maximum double-ness.
Robert Burks’ Technicolor photography is up to the very high standard established in previous collaborations – beautifully vivid colours abound, you can see why the director repeatedly chose to work with him. The film uses really strong colours throughout (particularly reds and greens) and it’s a thing of beauty to behold.
There are profile shots in the film that seem to be the reason Hitchcock ever invented such a striking technique. He firmly establishes Judy-as-Madeleine’s profile in Scottie’s first sighting of her in Ernie’s bar and restaurant – the colours here again wonderful with her vivid green dress contrasting wildly with the red wall covering, the lighting almost glowing around her.
Later, when Judy is back to being Judy, the profile looms again to stamp home Scottie’s ever more confused thoughts and rising denial of his loss, reiterated in her hotel room in a black against greenlit silhouette. This is gold standard stuff, using a simple composition device to move the story forward and propel us into the next chapter of one poor, used man’s life.
The justly celebrated driving scenes in the movie are undeniably great. Long scenes of seemingly aimless tooling around, Scottie following Madeleine with a more and more confused and exasperated expression. Hitchcock has stated he wanted the audience to be as frustrated about what was going on as Scottie, and it works a treat. It takes some kind of guts to let these scenes run so long – but they’re very effective. When Madeleine enters the McKitttrick hotel, Hitchcock pulls out a lovely camera track which anticipates similar moves in Psycho – the hotel here a large and emposing Gothic structure that also prefigures the later movie, its lobby area and staircase similar to the welcoming reception you’ll get at the Bates’ place. When Scottie climbs the staircase it’s an almost perfect dupe for the Arbogast investigator scene in the 1960 movie, without the stabbing. And you get an itty bitty role for Ellen Corby, who will achieve worldwide fame as the granny in ‘The Waltons’.
The breathtaking – literally – near drowning scene at the Golden Gate Bridge is wonderful. By now, Scottie is fascinatedly following Madeleine, unknowingly slowly falling in love with her, and so does not hesitate to dive in to rescue her as she plunges into the water. The Bridge had been mentioned in dialogue previously and had also featured visually in backgrounds, but now it’s here full force with a beautiful and classic composition as Madeleine stands to right of frame, the bridge enormous and stretching into the distance to her left. I suppose an irresistible composition, it reminds of the equally iconic image from Woody Allen’s ‘Manhattan’ (1979).
The longish dialogue scene with Madeleine back at Scottie’s apartment is beautifully acted. They both have secrets and tip toe around each other – she dressed only in his elegant red dressing gown, he in a really nice green v-neck. At one point he reaches for her coffee cup and touches her hand and the mood is electric between them. She is forbidden fruit as far as he is concerned (she is married) but both of them feel the attraction – Madeleine/Judy keeping it together to maintain the play acting. It’s a tender scene, quiet and sensitive but bubbling with emotion. It’s followed by them having a day out together with an inevitable kiss with crashing waves – I was rooting for them at this stage as they need each other badly, two people entangled in a tricksy web of deception and out of this comes real emotion and love that they can only deny.
As Madeleine lures Scottie in still further she describes the preserved 19th century religious mission location to him, knowing he will be aware of it. Hitchcock pulls of a great series of cuts – his two stars each positioned to the right of frame with a lamp to the left. The cuts place them onscreen in identical positions repeatedly – they are becoming as one. It’s a very subtle technique but very subliminally effective in bringing the two of them together**.
The film has a structure of two thirds and a third – the first part covering all the plot up to the point where Madeleine ‘kills herself’ (in fact, it’s the real Madeleine who plunges to her death). The last third covers the inquiry and Scottie’s haunted and obsessive recreation of her when he by chance spots Judy on the street. The coroner at the inquiry (played by Henry Jones) is smooth and fast talking in his sum up of the facts, and gives Scottie a pretty hard time. Jones is good in this role, you kind of want to punch him for giving poor old Scottie grief over his weakness, Hitchcock cutting repeatedly to his lead actor as he looks more and more uncomfortable.
There is a dream sequence in the film that is a stand alone in Hitchcock’s movies. It includes elements of animation and tinted images with Herrmann’s music the backing to Scottie’s nightmare. His staring face flies through frame and intercut with falling silhouetted bodies and animated images of Carlotta and her demon bouquet.
It’s astonishing and bold and bonkers – the 63 year old director pushing the boundaries and experimenting relentlessly. Not only does he have a big fat complex and intriguing story that is challenging and clever but he also throws in magisterial touches like this to lift it even beyond its already lofty heights. Wow.
There is a sad shot as Midge walks down the corridor at the sanatorium where Scottie sits in acute melancholia at his new predicament. She has told his doctor that he was in love with Madeleine, and still is and as Midge walks down the corridor you feel her pain as she loves him also but can do nothing to help***.
Hitchcock does a cute thing as Scottie revisits all his Madeleine haunts, using Kim Novak in the Ernie’s bar/restaurant for a brief cut and then a totally different woman as she moves more into closeup. It looks like he does a similar thing when, shortly after, he’s having dinner with Judy – a process shot with Novak as Madeleine entering the dining room, all clever stuff. Novak is great as Judy – very convincing as she pretends to be fairly outraged at this strange man following her to her room. As he leaves, we see the whole story in her memory with a telling dissolve through red and the rest of the picture plays out with ourselves being complicit to the lies, a clever technique as it makes Scottie’s ‘rebuilding’ of Madeleine all the more poignant, sad – and exciting. These scenes are perfectly pitched with both actors doing a wonderfully measured and subtle depiction of two people who want to be together but have been used and deceived for too long to trust.
‘It can’t make that much difference to you’ he says at one point! Because any woman would be flattered to be dressed and styled exactly as a man’s lost dead love. In the clothes store, the pair of them are tellingly reflected in a large mirror, suggestive of their dual personalities. He repeats this sentiment (‘it can’t matter to you’**** [!]) when he gets her to dye her hair the same vibrant blonde of Madeleine. It’s all very dark and strange and obsessional – and of course Judy goes along with it as she loves him and he loves her (or Madeleine?) This is the real key to the film, this complexity, this strange darkness and undeniably weird obsessive drive to rebuild the dead.
Judy as Madeleine #2 is another lovely sequence. As she emerges with her new hair, her new clothes and styling, Hitchcock clouds the lens with a beautific mist from Scottie’s point of view – Herrmann’s score rising to further illustrate this most passionate of moments.
Scottie embraces her in an impassioned kiss and the camera circular tracks around them, showing the stables they previously kissed in and then back to her room. Just in his moment of triumph – as far as he’s concerned he’s recreated his lost love with a whole different woman for God’s sake! – his euphoria is shattered as he spots the fatal necklace. His love mania twists to anger in an instant and the denouement of the picture spirals itself out inevitably. The closing scenes are pretty rapid – within 5 minutes of the necklace being spotted the film is complete.
Stewart is remarkable in the film. He’s always good but here he emotes both a sense of Scottie’s humanity and goodness and then a depiction of close to crazy obsessiveness that I think pretty much anyone can relate to – but not to this extent. Novak is also superb in her double role. As the sophisticated and smart Madeleine she carries herself beautifully and elegantly, her sleek grey suit and beaming blonde hairstyle something to behold. Later, as the more down and dirty Judy, she pulls it off again – to the extent that when I first saw the picture (upon its mid 1980’s re-release) I was genuinely confused as to what was going on and if this could possibly be the same girl. The supporting cast – in particularly Barbara Bel Geddes as Scottie’s painter friend Midge who suffers with unrequited love for him* – are all good and there’s really nothing particularly negative to say about the picture: it’s top drawer, sophisticated, refined, complex and thrilling. This is top three Hitchcock and repays repeated viewings. Stop reading this and go and watch it.
*It’s always fascinated me what happens to props in movies – where is Midge’s portrait of Carlotta Valdes with BBG’s face? Does someone have it out there or does it just get trashed? Famously, Steven Spielberg owns one of the Rosebud sleds from ‘Citizen Kane’ but where is all the acres of other stuff? Nowadays, of course, everyone squirrels away anything with the merest hint of value – thus guaranteeing that it will probably never be worth much of anything at all. But pre eBay there are millions of objects that must just drift off into the ether. Where is the Maltese falcon?
Hitchcock strolls across frame at about 10’40” carrying what looks like a music case for a cornet.
**I remember seeing a similar technique in Adrian Lyne’s fantastic 1989 movie ‘Jacob’s Ladder’, cutting between Tim Robbins and the angelic doctor character played by Danny Aiello, he framed by a halo of bright light.
***by this stage, the processing of shots started from the cut – so there’s not that big old picture clunk before a fade to black. What you do notice is a generation loss right from the start with this shot, hailing either a dissolve of fade to black. See Miscellaneous notes on ‘The Skin Game’ (Week 12).
****Personally I have a policy of never commenting on women’s hair as it always seems to cause problems. Even if someone is sitting there with a spiked up blue rinse I’ll just let it slide…
On the special edition DVD is included a very odd alternative ending that Hitchcock had to prepare for the British censors who could not have a villain get away with his crime – so, after the classic end shot of Scottie agog on top of the bell tower, we go to Midge’s apartment and see her listening to a radio that includes a report of Elster’s imminent extradition to the U.S.. Scottie then comes in, is poured a drink and…fin. It’s very odd and unsatisfactory and I’m very happy I’ve never seen it before. It seems also to give some suggestion of Scottie and Midge being together in their future, which is a kind of depressing settle-for-second-best option.