Director: Alfred Hitchcock
What's that old Oscar Wilde thing? "Each man kills the thing he loves . . ." That I think is a very natural phenomenon, really.
—Alfred Hitchcock, in a 1963 interview
In his fifty-five year long career in films, Alfred Hitchcock directed sixty-seven movies. At least a dozen of these are bona fide masterpieces, and about an equal number are excellent movies that fall just short of the masterpiece mark. By any measure that's an impressive record, one unequaled by any other filmmaker I can think of. Even more impressive is that Hitchcock's pictures are not rarefied works of art of interest mainly to aesthetes and film scholars, but full-blooded movies that appeal equally to ordinary filmgoers looking for accomplished entertainments and to cinephiles looking for an intellectually and artistically stimulating film-viewing experience. Of all Hitchcock's pictures, none managed to combine these two modes—entertainment and art—so skillfully, so intriguingly, and so pleasingly as his 1958 film Vertigo.
Most people are familiar with the plot of Vertigo. A retired San Francisco police detective, John "Scottie" Ferguson (James Stewart), psychologically traumatized after a rooftop chase to apprehend a criminal ends badly, is targeted as a dupe by his old college friend Gavin Elster, who exploits Scottie's crippling fear of heights to bring off an intricate scheme to murder his wife Madeleine (Kim Novak). The film's plot is a clever one and since this is a mystery thriller with hints of the supernatural (can Madeleine really be the reincarnation of her ancestor, as she believes?), neither the audience nor Scottie realizes what is really happening until quite far into the film. This allows the viewer's understanding of the situation to be manipulated, just as Scottie's is, to create a mood of suspense and, after the truth is revealed to the viewer about three-quarters of the way through the film, for that suspense to be prolonged as the film proceeds in a completely unexpected direction right up to its shock ending.
Such a narrative strategy requires that the viewer's reactions be precisely guided at every turn, and nobody was more expert at this than Hitchcock. Well known for his need for absolute control over all aspects of his films from conception to release, Hitchcock was by temperament the epitome of the film auteur, the director who puts his stamp on every element of his work. The way he accomplished this was by meticulous attention to detail. Because each shot was storyboarded in advance, the final film essentially needed no editing and thus was immune to tampering with by producers and studio executives. Like most filmmakers who began by directing silents, Hitchcock viewed cinema storytelling as essentially a visual process, with dialogue, music, and sound used to augment the film's imagery. Because the way he chose to show the action—placement and movement of the camera, the use of visual effects that form his famous set pieces, the exact way images succeed one another to form a spatial and narrative continuum—was the product of his own imagination, his films always seem expressions of a personal and very distinctive vision. Many directors have made movies in the Hitchcock style, but I can't think of a single one of those films that on close viewing could actually be mistaken for the work of the master himself.
Because of the convoluted and deceptive nature of its plot, Vertigo is even more dependent on Hitchcock's almost obsessive attention to detail as a means of controlling audience response than any other film he made. But in Vertigo he uses his working methods as much more than merely a practical means of telling a story in his own way. He amplifies his control-freak approach to directing until it becomes an all-encompassing aesthetic used to suggest a great deal more than is apparent in what at first seems little more than a deftly contrived suspense melodrama. It is this effect of using every device in his vast repertoire of cinematic tricks to evince the complex psychological and thematic undertones of the film that makes Vertigo Hitchcock's greatest achievement. It's a haunting film that can be watched again and again and still continue to entertain and thrill and deliver new revelations.
Perhaps the most powerful and resonant thing about the film is the way Hitchcock uses repetition to emphasize the idea of doubling. Elements in the first part of the film recur later in the film, and elements in the later part of the film mirror those in the first part, giving the film a strange pattern of symmetrical associations. Scottie seeks out places where he saw Madeleine in the beginning of the film and revisits them later in the film: the missions, the florist's shop, the museum, Ernie's restaurant. He watches Judy at her hotel window the same way he watched Madeleine at her hotel window earlier. His transformation of Judy into Madeleine exactly duplicates Elster's transformation of Judy to pass her off as his wife.
Near the end of the picture Hitchcock expresses the complete fusion of Madeleine and Judy, of past and present, of Scottie's memories and his dreams, in the most striking of several memorable set pieces in the film—a long, passionate kiss between Scottie and Judy after he sees her for the first time as the fully re-created Madeleine. The camera swirls, Scottie and Judy swirl, and the room appears to revolve around them. The background fades from Judy's room to the stable where Scottie and Madeleine kissed for the last time and finally back to Judy's room again, while Bernard Herrmann's glorious music—clearly inspired by Wagner's Tristan und Isolde—surges and pulses in unison with the intense emotions of the passage. It's the most rapturously erotic scene in a Hitchcock movie since the kiss in Notorious.
Hitchcock was famous for his lack of interest in the acting of his performers, and for saying that actors should be treated like cattle, that is, prodded into doing what he needed for the shot he was working on. This was perhaps a holdover from his silent days, when facial expressions, body language, and movement were more important than character development and line delivery because the director essentially created the performance visually, through the staging and editing of the film. This is one reason experienced theater actors often found working with Hitchcock such a frustrating experience. Yet for all this, in Vertigo he gets two remarkable performances from his stars.
It is well documented that Kim Novak was not Hitchcock's first choice to play Madeleine/Judy; Vera Miles was. But by the time he was ready to begin shooting, Miles was pregnant and so somebody else had to be cast. I have no idea how he hit on the idea of casting Kim Novak, but I did notice that just as Elster and Scottie transform Judy into the image of Madeleine, Hitchcock almost seems to transform Kim Novak into an uncanny image of Grace Kelly, right down to her hair and makeup, and her accent and diction. I can't help wondering if one of the reasons Vertigo seems to be Hitchcock's most personal film is his own understanding of the compulsion behind Scottie's Pygmalion-like behavior.
In any event, Novak, who under the right conditions could be a much better actress than she is generally given credit for, does a tremendous job as the mysterious, spaced-out Madeleine. But her more demanding incarnation as Judy is even more impressive. If Madeleine is an enigma, Judy is a fully defined character. Hitchcock and his writer, Samuel Taylor, make a daring narrative decision that happens soon after Scottie meets Judy. The conventional thing to do would have been to conceal the truth about the murder plot from the audience until the end then reveal it to the viewer and Scottie at the same time, in the kind of twist ending typical of films of this kind. Instead Hitchcock and Taylor devise a situation in which Judy writes a letter to Scottie explaining everything to him then impetuously tears it up before he sees it.
The audience is now aware of the true nature of events even if Scottie isn't, and the entire tone of the movie has changed. Now that we know the truth, the point of view shifts much more in Judy's direction. The crux of suspense is no longer what really happened, but how long will it take Scottie to figure it out and what will be his reaction when he does. What all this means for Novak's performance is that she can no longer play her character as an enigma, but must externalize the conflict Judy feels about what she has done to Scottie and the ambivalence she feels about his controlling attitude. Novak's role immediately becomes much more demanding, and she handles the requirements of those demands admirably. If only she looked less like a caricature of a rather common shopgirl!
But the real center of the movie is James Stewart's Scottie, a character who inspires Stewart to give one of the most remarkable performances of his career. We tend to think of the screen persona of James Stewart as that of an optimistic, boyish everyman. But in truth Stewart's characters often had a dark side to them, a willfulness that threatened to cause the passion of their emotions to spill over into obsession. We tend to forget this because until Vertigo, even though that dark side might threaten to take over whatever character Stewart was playing—George Bailey or even Jefferson Smith for Frank Capra or one of the revenge-driven men in the Westerns he made with Anthony Mann, for instance—at the end of the film his character always managed to pull back from the brink before he went over the edge. Hitchcock himself perceived the latent darkness in Stewart's screen image and used it as a sort of dangerous recklessness in the characters Stewart played in Rope and Rear Window. But in Vertigo, for the first and only time I can think of, Stewart's character is completely overcome by the darkness in him and propels the film to a catastrophic conclusion.
During the course of the picture, Stewart must convincingly go through a series of changes that illustrate the stages of the disintegration of Scottie's personality. At the beginning of the movie, he seems like the familiar James Stewart. He has experienced a traumatizing event, his life has been drastically changed by it, and he must live with his disabling acrophobia. But his resilience and sense of proportion intact, he seems able to cope with the changes in his circumstances and determined to overcome his handicap. As he reluctantly follows Madeleine, he finds his detective's curiosity about this mysterious woman aroused. Curiosity soon turns to fascination and then to passionate love. At this point he is already beginning to lose his objectivity as he desperately tries to rationalize Madeleine's delusional behavior.
After Madeleine's death, he is a broken man, a state he conveys in his scenes in the mental hospital through his dazed expression and total lack of affect. If he seems to have regained a precarious sense of balance after several months of treatment, he begins to lose it as soon as he first spots Judy. As he grows closer to her, he progressively loses control of himself until he has become an emotional juggernaut moving inexorably toward the annihilation of both himself and the object of his love. This idea that external and internal forces could collude in such a way to transform a person's ego into an unstoppable engine of destruction is a chilling one indeed.
By the film's conclusion, Hitchcock has carefully guided us to a place where he is at last able to make the point he has been aiming for all along: the fine distinction between passion and obsession, between real life and dreams, between creation and destruction. The death of Judy at the end makes real the fake suicide that was staged for Scottie's benefit earlier. What began as make-believe has taken on a terrible life of its own and become reality, a reality born of the destructive potential when love overpowers reason.
You might also like:
• A Dedicated Man: An Appreciation of James Stewart
• The Wrong Man (1956)
• I Confess (1953)
• Young and Innocent (1937): A Neglected Early Hitchcock Masterwork
This post is part of A Month of VERTIGO at The Lady Eve's REEL LIFE. Click here to learn more about the event and read more posts on Vertigo.