The Crimes of Gavin Elster
Is 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.