The Crimes of Gavin Elster

0121Is this the face of a killer?

In VERTIGO, shipping magnate Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore, who had played a minor functionary in SECRET AGENT), perhaps the only movie villain to be called Gavin, carries out a fiendish plan to murder his wife by throwing her from a church tower. In order to make it look like suicide, he has an impersonator (Kim Novak) play the part of his wife, and hires a detective (James Stewart) to follow her around, counting on the man’s fear of heights to prevent him from pursuing her to the top of the tower.

(Speaking to the BBC, screenwriter Samuel Taylor not only couldn’t summarise the story accurately himself, he was reduced to a fit of giggles just thinking of it.)

The plan is brilliant in its simplicity. Nothing left to chance. And it would have worked, too, if the detective had not fallen in love with the impersonator, then met her again after the scheme had been carried out, failed to recognise her as the same woman, but noted her resemblance and tried to make her over, before figuring it out and chasing her to her death up the same clock tower…

I wondered if this ingenious bit of homicide was Elster’s first offence. It seemed unlikely. Surely he must have honed his skills on other nefarious plots. I assigned Shadowplay’s own international man of mystery, Guy Van Stratton, to investigate Elster’s shady past and compile a confidential report detailing any other criminal conspiracies in which Elster had a hand…

1914. The young Elster makes his first foray into illegality, while still a mere schoolboy. Determined to pass a maths test, he hires an impersonator to take the place of the boy sitting next to him. As the teacher watches, another boy, bribed by Elster, copies the answers from the impersonator, who is actually a midget mathematician of celebrated intellect. While the teacher is apprehending the copycat, the impersonator throws himself from the window, into a waiting haywagon, which is whisked from view before anyone knows what has happened. Taking advantage of the confusion, Elster swaps his answers with those of the copycat.

Result: Elster and the copycat are caught and expelled, the midget fractures his collarbone.

1926. A crime of opportunity. Elster spots a Bentley limousine with the keys left in the dash. Spontaneously hiring a passerby to impersonate a chauffeur, Elster has himself driven to a shady car dealership, where he trades it for a station wagon. Then, disguising himself as the chauffeur, he steals the limousine back and abandons it in a No Parking zone where it will get towed. Selling his station wagon, Elster buys a beat-up old Bentley and has it repainted to look like the stolen one. Breaking into the pound, he exchanges the run-down limo for the new one, swapping license plates. Elster will now be the legal owner of the car he stole.

Result: Elster is mauled by a guard dog and arrested for grand theft auto.

1930. Elster robs a bank with a big gun.

Result: Elster escapes with $50,000.

1931. Refining his previous plan, Elster robs the same bank with a trio of trained attack dogs and a canister of poison gas. Taking hostages, he deliberately sets off the silent alarm and announces by telephone that he has smuggled heroin into the country so that the FBI are called in. Disguising himself as a hostage, he hits himself with a hammer to induce amnesia so he can pass a lie detector test, after feeding a package of priceless industrial diamonds to one of his dogs. Then he blows up the bank and escapes disguised as a dog.

Result: Elster spends a year in a coma, in the dog pound.

1939. Traveling to Europe, Elster tries to enlist as a war criminal, but is rejected by the German army due to his flat feet. He then steals the Mona Lisa from the Louvre, replacing it with a mirror. By blind chance, the next 3,0012 visitors to the Louvre all bear a striking facial resemblance to Da Vinci’s La Gioconda, so his deceit is not reported for three days, by which time he is in Belgium, under arrest on a charge of impersonating Tintin.

Result: the painting is recovered. Hergé sues.

1942. Elster is released from jail as part of twelve-strong task force of hardened criminals, sent on a suicide mission behind enemy lines. Learning that suicide is against the law, Elster attempts it repeatedly, before the dozen can even arrive at their destination.

Result: Elster is abandoned at Charenton insane asylum, where he passes the war with amateur theatricals.

1946. Back stateside, Elster busies himself wooing America’s wealthiest shipping heiresses, intending to add bigamy to his extensive rap sheet.

Result: Olive Strewage, Elster’s first victim, turns out to already be bigamously married, so her marriage to Elster isn’t legal. This means his marriage to Madeleine IS legal, and he has failed at bigamy.

1950. Elster plans to sink his biggest ocean liner, the Gargantic, and claim the insurance, while simultaneously extorting a ransom from his own company by anonymously threatening to blow the vessel up. Elster creates a fictional terrorist, George Kaplan, assigning him a complete wardrobe, history and psychological profile, but his plans are thwarted when the non-existent Kaplan is recruited by the CIA.

Which brings us up to VERTIGO, whose deleted tag scene informs us of Elster’s probable extradition for murder from the South of France. But what of his subsequent activities? Perhaps YOU can fill me in on those.

31 Responses to “The Crimes of Gavin Elster”

  1. —————————–
    Which brings us up to VERTIGO, whose deleted tag scene informs us of Elster’s probable extradition for murder from the South of France.

    Please France doesn’t have an extradition treaty with the US as everyone in America and Switzerland know very well by now. Gavin Elster likely lived happily ever after in some villa there. Maybe in the same area as John Robie in TO CATCH A THIEF.

    VERTIGO however is totally uninterested in Elster as a figure or a narrative agent. What mattters is the uncanny way in which Scotty takes on Elster’s identity and performs the same actions as he did. But what Elster wanted was “money and power”, what Scottie wants is passionate, deeply felt romantic love.

    The opening scene in his office(Bumstead’s designs impressed Hitchcock so much he insisted that he recreate his office as a replica) is probably the most overt political subtext where Elster waxes nostalgia for the old days of San Francisco when men could do whatever they wanted as they had the money and the power then. According to Krohn, the Carlotta Valdes story is a reference to the Latin American origins of Frisco(originally called Yerba Buena) this story about a Latin Woman destroyed by an American man. Hitchcock however shows how a normal, average good guy destroys a woman.

  2. AnneBillson Says:

    Love it. Elster’s MO always cracked me up.

  3. If only he’d use his powers for good.

    It’s intriguing that Hitch shot this extra ending to appease censors who objected to Elster getting away, but audiences simply don’t care. And the scene as Hitch shot it is so desultory — even though I think we DO care about Midge, the tag fails to satisfy any of our real concerns, and robs the ending of its terrible abruption (as in The Birds, Hitch seems to really want to shock us awake at the end).

    Elster is an empty suit. The comparison to George Kaplan in Hitch’s next film is fascinating, since Grant ends up supplanting him…

    Elster uses his “power and freedom” to rid himself of a wife and flee his responsibilities — interesting that the authors send him to the South of France, like Robie, when the narrative purpose is to prepare extradition. I don’t think anybody’s heart was in this scene, least of all Stewart’s!

  4. Well it was a ridiculous plot and crime scheme that could have fallen apart at any time. The kind of plan that’s either improvised or dreamed up on a high. Which actually is not that different when one describes the plot of VERTIGO or many Hitchcock films. People talk a lot about how Hitchcock identified with Scottie but actually what Scottie does is imitate Gavin who apears briefly and works in the shadows. Just like a movie director. And Hitchcock modelled his office after seeing Bumstead’s designs for Elster’s office.

  5. Sorry I thought it was “power and money” when it was “power and freedom”.

  6. Elster is Dickie Greenleaf’s Uncle (in the Minghella version of The Talented Mr. Ripley)

  7. A dapper man needless to say. And one of the great masters of his craft.

  8. AnneBillson Says:

    Always did want to know more about Gavin Elster, one of the great mystery men of cinema. Truly you out-do David Thomson from his Suspects era. (And it’s funnier.)

  9. In a way, I feel like Mr. Taylor. This is one movie where the little “suspend disbelief” switch in my head is just not being tripped, and I feel mildly alienated by the proceedings. All that masterful filmmaking does nothing to change it, either. Hitchcock’s talent was always in getting the audience to swallow a huge load, but this film is where it ain’t going down for me, much like Torn Curtain. I’ve seen it three times in the last five years and never has it sparked any interest except academic. I’ve had arguments with people about it IRL (they arguing with me rather than the other way ’round). Sigh, maybe some good drugs could get me over the hump.

  10. Elster discovers that a huge percentage of California state senators and lower house representatives have twin siblings… he’s also pretty run down from all of that scheming and is dying for a three-day weekend–and Memorial Day has just passed…

    he rounds up the congressional doppelgangers, lures the real McCoys to Reno and then has his agents push through an emergency Carlotta Valdes Day bill

    result: Gavin takes ‘er easy on Monday June 13th, 1960… dies in his sleep

  11. Love it!

    Mark, the implausibility of Vertigo need hardly be dwelled on. But Hitchcock spoke of the fact that he was really making two films. The first half is a spooky love story, very much in the mode of Mary Rose, his dream project. in this section, there’s nothing implausible at all, given the rules of supernatural drama — Madeleine is possessed, that’s all.

    In part two, we have a “rational explanation” that’s more implausible than the fantastic one, and I can see that being a stumbling block. Chris Marker’s interpretation, which I shall promulgate tomorrow, may prove useful to you there…

  12. I certainly hope so, David. I feel like James Earl Jones trying to open the bomb bay doors here.

  13. To me the story of VERTIGO needs little defense since what the film is aiming for is a mood and an atmosphere. The form and the style of the film, the sparseness of the world of the film(there’s just four characters – Scottie, Madeleine/Judy, Midge and Gavin) creates it’s own self-contained universe. It’s set in San Francisco but it seems to have a mystical aspect to it that the rational explanations might subvert and make ironic but otherwise incapable of nullifying. We know the first half is an act and the famous ressurrection scene is a ruse on Scottie but it has the same effect and power and pull however many times we may see it.

  14. Christopher Says:

    I can accept it as fanatsy and leave it at that.I don’t need many just works its spell,and thats why I keep coming back..
    in 10 more years LSD will hit the streets of San Francisco and we’ll all understand!..

  15. That’s a lovely thought. I did think of Petulia just once when watching it this time.
    Well, the enormous Vertigo post is mostly written, will go up sometime tomorrow, probably late morning.
    This is a movie which was never intended to do the various things Shadow of a Doubt or Rear Window do, it’s far more dreamlike and occult — refusing to accept the story as it’s presented could actually be a good way to understand its dark heart…

  16. AnneBillson Says:

    The more I watch Vertigo, the more tragic and moving I find it. The fact that he’s in love with an illusion, and that all he can think about is recreating that illusion while rejecting the two real women in his life, resonates so strongly with me as a sublime dissection of the attraction and self-delusion of romantic obsession. I’ve been there – we all have. It’s supremely cynical – yet utterly romantic at the same time. The illusion is so glamorous and seductive… and hopeless.

    One of the things I love is that although Scottie is the main character and we’re ostensibly following the story from his point of view, we actually see HIM from the point of view of the two real women, Midge and Judy. In that respect, I find Hitchcock’s approach almost… feminist.

    And was there ever a line so heartbreaking as Judy’s, “If I let you change me, will you love me?”

  17. David Boxwell Says:

    GE is the face of Big Swinging Dick Capitalism. And he exploits poor saps like Scottie and unsophisticated women like Judy who dream of becoming “stars.” He can set the plot in motion because he has the wherewithal and brass balls to do it.

  18. So Elster is the Americans taking San Francisco from the Spanish, he’s macho capitalism exploiting women, he’s the dark side of Scottie’s psyche, and he’s — ultimately — a cypher and a plot function who disappears utterly from the story after an hour and ten minutes (save the flashback).

    Agree re Hitchcock’s feminist side — he always claimed to identify more with the women in his films, and the sudden shift of POV to the heroine is a recurring trope in his work.

  19. This to me seems a film unlike many others directed by Hitchcock, in that the story has a subtlety that demands one’s attention, otherwise it becomes difficult to follow and comprehend, at least on first viewing. I admit that that was my problem the first time I saw it. I think part of it had to do with its pacing, somewhat slow and deliberate. I remember being surprised by Judy’s death at the end, even though she was an accomplice in the death of Elster’s wife, because she seemed perhaps weak and easily manipulated as opposed to someone genuinely evil, and had developed genuine feelings toward Scotty. But of course one has to acknowledge her nonchalance in having been party to murder, although justice would’ve been equally served had Elster fallen from the tower. But that would’ve been a different movie altogether.

  20. Yeah, it doesn’t feel like she dies to pay for what she’s done, especially as Elster disappears off to Europe. The second death is in some way inevitable, following on from the first like a refrain — even though the means of death (Scary Nun) comes out of the blue. The film is particularly unusual in that it has a structural perfection while still containing lacunae and mysteries and chasms beyond rational understanding. In a way, Judy has to die just to complete the fearful symmetry.

  21. Scary Nun- my mind flashed to Kathleen Byron in all her demented glory appearing to Novak in that tower.

  22. Christopher Says:

    a little touch of Gavin in the night…Hes the puppet master who has abandoned his pets,one with a cracked head another all in a tangle..

  23. Nah…Gloria Grahame in THE COBWEB is America’s Sister Ruth…

    The Scary Nun at the end of VERTIGO who appears in black via the silhouette of her hood is the figure of Death. Don’t forget that one of the films which convinced Hitchcock that cinema was his calling was Lang’s DER MURDE TOD.

  24. She IS pretty quick to start tolling that bell…

  25. She first makes the Sign of the Cross after the fall and then tolls the bell and Jimmy Stewart walks at the ledge with his hands outstretched almost as if he’s bearing stigmata. Pauvre Hitchcock, he’s Catholic in all the unexpected places.

  26. Of course when Novak first sees the nun, in silhouette, she obviously perceives her as the ghost of Madeleine, back for revenge. And indeed, the nun is dubbed with Novak’s own voice!

  27. Joining the conversation belatedly but can’t resist: Elster is the “absent villain,” superfluous to the claustrophobic world of his own film – but fascinating to think about afterwards. Bravo, Mr. Cairns, for fleshing him out, albeit tongue in cheek!

  28. Glad you enjoyed! For more on Elster’s weird insubstantiality, do check out pt 2 of The Vertigo Variations at Moving Image Source.

  29. Dear Mr Cairns, I would love to send you a complimentary copy of a novel about Judy Barton – you may reach me at, if I may send you the information. Thank you!

  30. Thank you so much!

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