“Only one is a wanderer; two together are always going somewhere.”
In its final form, VERTIGO doesn’t feel like it could be called anything else, even if the hero’s acrophobia is only an occasional plot point — the film inspires all kinds of dizziness, and is perhaps finally about the fear triggered by standing on the brink of eternity.
But the source novel was called D’entre Des Mortes, (Wikipedia suggests Sueurs Froides: D’entre des Mortes, or Cold Sweat: From Among the Dead) translated into English as The Living and the Dead, which served as the first working title for the movie. Maxwell Anderson produced a draft called DARKLING, I LISTEN, a title which nobody could take seriously. Hitch suggested DOUBLE TROUBLE, as a joke, in a letter to Anderson. When his WRONG MAN co-scenarist Angus MacPhail bowed out of script duties due to alcoholism (sadly, the inventor of the MacGuffin never wrote again), Alec Coppel was hired to write a new draft, titled FROM AMONG THE DEAD, which included the dream sequence much as it appears in the final film, but did not satisfy the demands of Jimmy Stewart for believable characterisation.
Samuel Taylor was hired to solve this issue, producing a draft whimsically named FROM THE DEAD or THERE’LL NEVER BE ANOTHER YOU, credited to “Samuel Taylor and Ambrose Bierce.” (Bierce, a great author of ghost stories and supernatural mysteries, longtime resident of San Francisco, vanished off the face of the earth in 1900. Fans of VERTIGO’s warped and death-defying love might like to try his necromance Beyond the Wall.) Taylor’s other joke title was TO LAY A GHOST.
As the film moved into production, Paramount execs started offering up titles: A MATTER OF FACT was suggested by Arthur Kram (what a pathetic title that is!) and Sam Frey drew up a list of seventeen alternatives, including such zingers as TONIGHT IS OURS, POSSESSED BY A STRANGER and THE MAD CARLOTTA. Six titles including the word “face” — FACE IN THE SHADOW was Hitch’s favourite — were thrown out when Warners started making A FACE IN THE CROWD.
Dan Auiler’s otherwise exhaustive Vertigo, The Making of a Hitchcock Classic doesn’t say where the title VERTIGO comes from, but it instantly became Hitch’s choice, and he defended it against stiff studio opposition. Very possibly it was his own idea.
From the start, Hitchcock seems to have been intent on following the novel’s two-part structure, which translates in the movie into the Madeleine half and the Judy half. The novel sets these sections of story in France before and after World War II, with the doomed romance blossoming amid the misguided confidence of France’s entry into the conflict. After the war comes a truer understanding. This loose mirroring of the personal and the political doesn’t really form part of Hitchcock’s scheme, and he doesn’t seek to establish the events of his story in relation to any real-world equivalent. This probably assists the dreamlike quality of the movie.
The hero of Boileau & Narcejac’s novel, the gloomy, introverted and cowardly Gevigne, clearly needed work to become a Jimmy Stewart character — although by the end of Hitchcock’s film, Stewart has come as close as he ever came to demolishing utterly his nice-guy image. The novel’s protagonist even fails in his role as patsy: hired to stand witness to a fake suicide, he flees the scene and never appears at the inquest, causing a cloud of suspicion to settle on the Gavin Elster character. Hitchcock and Taylor wisely have Stewart play his unwitting part in the murder quite faithfully, getting blamed for Madeleine’s death from sarcastic coroner Henry Jones (whose snide, wheedling performance sparked libel fears among the censors, since the county coroner was a real individual).
Run the movie!
Enter Saul Bass: the graphic genius brought into movies by Otto Preminger here contributes a truly hypno-romantic dream descent, aided by avant-garde filmmaker John Whitney, who had been working separately on the question of how to animate Lissajou spirals (graphic visualisations of mathematical formulae). The nameless woman in Bass’s opening sequence adds another blurring to the identity of the woman in VERTIGO — Carlotta-Madeleine-Judy are all, in a sense one person. Midge paints herself as Carlotta-Madeleine at one point. Jimmy Stewart’s character, Scottie, spots several false Madeleines before finding Judy (one of these is Lee Patrick, Effie in THE MALTESE FALCON, another San Francisco detective story about “the stuff dreams are made of). The real Madeleine, glimpsed in the murder flashback, is played by Kim Novak’s stand-in. And the nun at the end is dubbed with Novak’s voice…
Feeling dizzy yet?
Gripping stuff! The hand grasping the rung is such a strong opening, and then we’re into an exciting rooftop chase! The process shots in VERTIGO are generally of a very high standard, and there are a hell of a lot of them. Perhaps Hitch’s reputation for sloppy effects shots stems from the fact that quality control is bound to slip somewhere if you do so many effects. Anyhow, this sequence is notably unreal but still effective and convincing, in its unreal way.
James Stewart, as John “Scottie” Ferguson (“A good strong name,” says Kim) slips on a loose slate and dangles. “Give me your hand,” hollers a cop, before plunging to his doom. Do you mind if I don’t? The exponential zoom yawns before us, a miniature alleyway constructed by FX man John Fulton and photographed sideways for ease. (No photographic record — besides that in the film — exists of the miniature alley and church tower interior.)
A classic John Fulton matte shot.
This exciting opening is only referred to in the novel by way of memory, but Hitch wisely avoids flashbacking for now, and gets a cracking opening scene out of it, which leaves Scottie cliffhanging over an urban abyss. If anything, it runs the risk of setting too exciting a pace for the film to follow, since this is one of Hitch’s slowest and most floaty films. “We never find out how he gets down,” observe the restoration team in the DVD commentary track. But we do — why does Scottie need a walking stick and a support garment in scene two? Because he’s fallen four storeys shortly after the end of scene one. How come he didn’t die? Maybe Conductor 71 missed him in the fog. (But cinematographer Robert Burks — on top form — doesn’t use a fog filter until we get to the graveyard scene…)
Thinking of A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH reminds me of my late friend Lawrie, with whom I last watched this movie. “Oh, I’m sure I’ve seen it at some point,” he said, airily. Either he hadn’t, or he’d forgotten it in the last forty years, because it was all new and wonderful to him. He would shoot glances of amazement at me all through it. “The most interesting thing Hitchcock ever did!” he proclaimed. Lawrie did like his hyperbole, but he’s not actually wrong.
Midge is Samuel Taylor’s invention, and one we can be grateful for. She grounds the movie, without totally earthing it and letting the energy escape. Apart from her scenes, it’s surprising how closely the action of the first half mirrors that of the book. Even Madeleine’s grey suit is there. Barbara Bel Geddes, who also acted for Hitch in Lamb to the Slaughter, an Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode based on a Roald Dahl story, gives the film added humanity. The other masterstroke is Jimmy Stewart, who is Mr Credible. Oddly, the script insists they were at college together, except he’s 50 and she’s 36. The cantilever bra on her drawing board is described as the invention of “an aircraft engineer” — a Howard Hughes reference? Recall that BBG played opposite a Hughes surrogate, Robert Ryan as Smith Ohlrig in her other big movie, Max Ophuls’ CAUGHT.
Midge is, I think, the last Hitchcock character who draws. Artists figure obsessively in his work, and often use their drawing and painting to woo, as Midge does later. Think of the sleazy painter in BLACKMAIL, the stick figure courtship in RICH AND STRANGE, or John Forsythe trading his abstracts for a double bed in THE TROUBLE WITH HARRY. (The painter of those abstracts, John Ferren, also designed VERTIGO’s “Special Sequence.”) And after all, Hitch had used his art to snare Alma, in a way.
Hitch, perhaps returning his French horn to the Friends of the Evergreen Society?
I enjoy how, learning of Elster’s dockside address, Midge and Scottie speculate that he may have fallen on hard times. Love how the nonentity Elster is assumed by his old friends to be a washed-up failure, implying that if he hadn’t married money, that’s just what he’d be.
“Power and freedom” — the first CLUE in the movie, a refrain introduced by Gavin Elster (another college chum of Stewart’s, even though he’s English) and soon taken up by Pop Liebel in the Argosy Bookshop and finally Kim Novak herself. Although VERTIGO’s status as a twist-ending tale is arguably it’s least interesting attribute, it’s still quite satisfying to follow the breadcrumbs when rewatching the movie, seeing how the hocus pocus works. Of course, the idea of Madeleine being possessed by a reincarnated ancestor is, if anything, MORE plausible than the Rube Goldberg assassination scheme used to “explain” it — maybe that’s why the hero strangles the heroine in the book, because she’s ruining a perfectly good supernatural story.
(It was just after this film that Hitch seriously tried to make MARY ROSE, his JM Barrie ghost story adaptation. He went as far as obtaining the original score of the London stage production he saw in his youth, to inspire Bernard Herrmann in his Wagnerian soundtrack for VERTIGO. Incidentally, the star of that stage show was Fay Compton — owner of Hill House in THE HAUNTING, and co-star of Hitch’s WALTZES FROM VIENNA.)
Exactly as in the book, Elster uses a trip to the opera to bring his detective and wife-impersonator together (Kim Novak’s great roles always cast her as wife-impersonators: cf Polly the Pistol in Billy Wilder’s KISS ME STUPID). Herrmann brings on the love theme for its first outing, and proceeds to show us how many changes he can ring on it in the course of the story. Madeleine is seen for the first time in profile, a recurring motif — Judy is also introduced this way.
Following Madeleine: the long, slow, obsessive sequence, which started life much longer (until Hitch instructed editor George Tomasini to ignore San Francisco geography) and was to have VO dialogue between Elster and Scottie. The black wipe opening up on the flower shop. The museum (source of all those DePalma Steadicams). The cemetery, which it’s curiously localised fog effect (Burks’ fog filter doesn’t really try to suggest actual fog, it’s the mist of dream — and very effective, in spite of Hitch’s SPELLBOUND ruling that dreams are always quite sharp).
Madeleine checks into the McKittrick Hotel, and vanishes, without explanation. Hitch apparently shot a section of Judy’s later flashback that shows the hotel receptionist being bribed to facilitate this vanishing act, but he cut it — perhaps realising that he was replacing an old mystery, forgotten by most viewers, with a fresh one — why enlist the receptionist unnecessarily? Why vanish at all? The scene has a direct ancestor in the book, but Madeleine doesn’t vanish there. Here it’s just a bit of enigma to spice up the slow part — Hitch was acutely aware that he had nothing but slight intrigue to hook his audience here, and then only a love story to snare them with until Madeleine does a Waring Hudsucker.
Now both Elster and Hitchcock need to move their plot to the next level, so Madeleine jumps in the bay. Stewart rescues her, dragging her up a set of steps that don’t, in fact, exist at the at location — nicely prefiguring the belltower at San Juan Battista, which likewise doesn’t exist.
Novak speaks — in a strange posh quasi-English accent, perhaps modeled on Tom Helmore’s Elster-speak. In fact, she sounds a bit like Dr Evil. Novak’s performance here only really works if we see her as Judy playing a role, not too skillfully. Even the muttering in her sleep — I can just make out “The house, my child…” — is in character as Madeleine/Carlotta. I listened to it very carefully, because it was amusing to think that if Judy talked in her sleep for real, and Scottie heard her, she might give away the whole plan before it’s really started.
As meet-cutes go, it’s pretty memorable. The censors objected to everything here — the underwear drying in the kitchen, Novak being nude, Novak being embarrassed, and Stewart’s pause in the next scene with her: “I enjoyed… talking to you.” Hitchcock ignored their concerns, and Stewart really milks that pause for maximum suggestion.
Nice plotting when Stewart sets off to follow Novak the next day — the same places, inevitably, with Herrmann’s score adding heavy doom notes — and finds her stopping by his apartment to thank him. Which gets us to the first “date” (he’s already undressed her so it’s a backwards kind of relationship) and the giant redwood, referenced so beautifully by Chris Marker in LA JETEE. “Here I was born, and here, I died.” Novak starts to get more into her role. In the forest, she seems to disappear again, then is rediscovered. The sea! The first big Wagnerian love scene, and the problem of Madeleine’s possible madness is now stated. It’s Scottie’s task to cure her by proving she’s not mad, that there are reasons she remembers all this stuff — perfectly rational explanation. Some hope.
Scottie must now play detective-shrink, which is what leads him and Madeleine inexorably to the old mission house. Madeleine’s invented dream — which will soon become Scottie’s ACTUAL dream — provides all the clues. But although Scottie constantly does what a good detective and shrink should do, it never works out. My friend, the arch-genius Comrade K, suggests that VERTIGO can be seen as Hitch’s anti-Freudian story, where confrontation with the truth just leads to renewed trauma. Hitch WAS skeptical about therapy: after all, he was well aware of the source of his policeman phobia, but knowing its origins did him no good at all.
Midge’s role continues to be essential for now — she represents the reality Scottie is drifting loose from. With her commercial art and her hanging bras, it’s been suggested that Midge demystifies sexuality, which is why Scottie prefers the unreal Madeleine. But I know a lot of guys who are crazy about Midge, and BBG is so sweet in the role…
Taking Madeleine to the site of her dream seems like a good idea, but it backfires rather badly. Note the very compressed editing as Novak flees — Alma objected to Novak’s run, and Hitch had George Tomasini cut the sequence to the bone. “She will just leap from one side of the square to the other, but nobody will notice it because we will cut from big head to big head.”
(I love Hitch’s use of “big head” instead of close-up. Reminds me of Put Money in They Purse, Micheal MacLiammoir’s memoir of shooting Welles’s OTHELLO. According to Welles, an emigré director in Hollywood’s silent days had been in the habit of asking for a “Big Head of Pola” when shooting his star, Pola Negri. From then on, all closeups in OTHELLO are referred to as Big Heads of Pola.)
More vertigo effect exponential zooms as Stewart chases Novak upstairs. Now, we’re told that no record of the model used exists. But I’m not convinced it IS a model. In the first shot, Stewart’s hands can be seen in the foreground — and the finger move. It’s not a GI Joe doll or something. If they can raise the camera vertically two flights, why not more? Indeed, there is a high angle of Stewart descending at the end, so they certainly COULD situate the camera up there, though lowering it while zooming would certainly be trickier. I’m wondering if they alleyway was a model shot and the tower shot real? The tower was built, it seems, full-scale, for the actors to act in. If I’m right, this would explode a major piece of accepted wisdom about the making of this movie…
Great matte painting showing Madeleine’s body being recovered from the roof, while Scottie wanders off in a daze. The God Shot.
Now we get Henry Jones’s drolly vicious turn as DA, one of the few sequences of plodding prose left in the film — verging on the dreaded “photographs of people talking” — not a bad scene, just a necessary rather than an exciting one. Jones is delightful in Tashlin’s THE GIRL CAN’T HELP IT, whose nominal star, Tom Ewell, is excellent in The case of Dr Pelham, an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents directed by the man himself, which deals with a Doppelganger, and is one of only a couple of Hitchcock films to avoid a rational explanation — the story’s nightmarish events are the work of an agency “more than human…”
The Special Sequence! Fiona demands I prepare for her, somehow, a T-shirt bearing Jimmy Stewart’s Big Head flying disembodied through a Vortex of Insanity. Maybe I will, maybe I will. It’s the ruffled hair and little corner of neck that make it. Dig also the plunge into open grave — replayed in Gilliam’s BRAZIL, a decade before her recombined VERTIGO in 12 MONKEYS — and the splay-legged knock-kneed unstrung puppet figure of Stewart dropping bedazzled into an aerial landscape that bleaches out into the White Screen of Death — a cinema screen with nothing projected on it.
And now the psych hospital scene, a recasting of THE WRONG MAN — even the nurse, with her professional smile, and the doctor, with his professional concern, seem the same. (In fact, Scottie has the same doctor as THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN — and he’s equally helpless in both cases.) Scottie sits zombified in the care home listening to exactly the kind of light classical music he objected to Midge playing in scene two.
From Chris Marker’s SANS SOLEIL.
Long pan of San Francisco skyline, which stands in for any explanation of what’s happened to Midge or how Stewart has recovered. This odd transition actually backs up Chris Marker’s semi-crackpot theory that the whole last 45 minutes of the film are Scottie’s fantasy, rewriting part one in vain hope of making it come out better, rather like the second part of LOST HIGHWAY and the first part of MULHOLLAND DRIVE seem like fantasy attempts at rewriting the intolerable fact of death.
Stewart now revisits the scenes where he saw Madeleine, behaving at once like a madman — since what can he hope to find? — and a detective (methodical, plodding). Lee Patrick’s scene as the new owner of Madeleine’s green Jag illustrates the dangers of the Hitchcock style — her voice trails off before Stewart cuts her off, an awkward bit of sound editing that reminds us of how pre-packaged and artificially assembled everything here is.
But then Judy’s entrance redeems all that — laughing with her friends, she seems like a figure from a parallel documentary, although Hitch takes care to catch her in profile, and her strange Groucho Marx eye-brows add a note of artifice. “She very obviously does not wear a bra,” observed M. Truffaut, and as a teenager reading that I thought, “What a typical Frenchman.” But now I find her breasts awe-inspiring and impossible to wrench my eyes from. What a dirty old man I have become.
Novak as Judy is a superb, natural and moving as she is stiff and weird as Madeleine, which totally works and is at least somewhat intentional on the actress’s part (although I’d favour playing Madeleine as a completely separate character with complete conviction, but that’s just me). As a big Vera Miles fan, I’m still curious as to what her casting would have been like (a Portrait of Carlotta featuring Miles does exist) — some will talk about the surprising qualities Novak brings to the role, but my own view is that a superior actress is ALWAYS better, whatever qualities you want to talk about. And Miles beats Novak hands down, BUT — Novak is utterly excellent in part two and I don’t know if anybody could have done it better.
Now: the controversial decision to dispel mystery by explaining Judy’s resemblance almost as soon as she’s been introduced. Hitchcock actually argued for removing this scene just before the release, and got in quite a savage argument with his associate producer, Herbert Coleman (really, Coleman was the producer, but Hitch’s desire for sole authority was such that he preferred to leave that title unclaimed). The scene has one major effect apart from clearing up the confusion and focussing us more on suspense as to the outcome — it makes Judy into a more sympathetic character at the end. If we didn’t know of her role in the murder, we’d be shocked, I guess, to discover that this poor doormat had tricked Scottie and us, so the compassion we feel for her up until her unmasking would be broken, right before the conclusion. So I think the scene is defensible on those grounds. Seeing Judy write a confession to Scottie, we get to hear of her guilt and desire to do the right thing by him. On the other hand, treating the story as a typical Boileau-Narcejac twist-in-the-tale yarn would certainly work, and may have been more popular. The trouble with those movies is, I seldom want to watch them twice — the exception being LES DIABOLIQUES.
Judy’s flashback is anticipated in the scenes which suddenly switch to Midge’s POV earlier, as when she sees Madeleine leaving Scottie’s apartment late at night. Hitch always seems to do this — establish a clear POV character, then switch away for brief but telling moments — usually to the POV of a woman.
Following the colours in this movie is fascinating. Stewart most often in brown, but he picks up the green from Novak’s car, and the Edith Head gown she wears at Ernie’s, and wears a green jumper after rescuing her from the bay. Judy is first seen in her green dress, which ought to be a clue. Later, a green skirt and brown top, harmonizing with Stewart’s suit (his blue eyes practically sear through the screen amid all these earth tones). The gray suit is useful because you can give it any colour value, so the green neon of the Hotel Empire sign hazes Judy into the ghost of Madeleine, and then Judy/Madeleine seems to walk THROUGH Robert Burks’s fog filter, without breaking it, like Bela Lugosi passing through the spider’s web on the stairs of Castle Dracula, or like Death walking through a mirror in Cocteau’s ORPHEE.
Stewart’s plan, to possess Judy with the spirit of dead Madeleine, as she was possessed by Carlotta (like Boris Karloff in THE MUMMY?), is quite crazy, and faithful to the book, leading to the famed obsessive makeover. It’s a very Poe idea — specifically, it’s the plot of Ligeia, where the narrator seeks to use his unloved second wife’s body as host to the soul of the departed, and still adored, first wife. It’s Judy’s desperation to be loved that Novak excels at, the emotion which causes her to allow Stewart’s attempts to erase her and replace her with a phantom — a woman she knows never really existed. It’s very much a film about a filmmaker and fantasist, in this sense, because Scottie does not, in the end, love a dead woman, he loves somebody who was an invention, an unreal construct. And his quest is to make her real. Whether Hitchcock tried to do this with Tippi Hedren or not, he certainly did something similar every time he made a film on paper and then attempted to actualize it.
Incidentally, Taylor and Hitchcock get over the weirdness of Stewart’s quest quite neatly — he never fully explains what he’s doing. What we see is the sinister makeover, which is disturbing enough, but the real goal is hinted at (and comes straight from the book). I don’t think there’s any way to deny that this is what Scottie’s up to.
As Arthur S helpfully pointed out yesterday, Stewart BECOMES Elster — the villain of the piece — making over Judy as Madeleine and dragging her to the old mission just as Elster had done. So there are multiple cases of possession going on here. Stewart, meanwhile, becomes truly terrifying towards the end — all the more so because he’s still Jimmy Stewart, still in some way making a claim on our sympathies. The scene where he decides he has to dye Judy’s hair — brilliant! He’s staring at her head EXACTLY like Gaston Modot stares at the statue’s foot in L’AGE D’OR. Oblivious to the suffering human being in front of him, fixated on the image of his fetish idol.
“It can’t matter to you!” The greatest line in cinema. Taylor denies any intention of provoking a laugh here, but it usually gets one (I’ve never heard anyone laugh at Judy’s place or origin, “Salina, Kansas,” although Taylor was convinced they’d be rolling in the aisles). And not, I think, a bad laugh — it’s the laughter of shock. It doesn’t take people out of the picture, and it isn’t an expression of superiority… well, maybe over Scottie. And it’s usually women who laugh most because the sentiment is more grotesque, and maybe more recognizable, to them, from their dealings with the male of the species…
The rotating turntable shot of Scottie and Judy embracing in the hotel, with space-time melting around them, and Herrmann’s great score freaking out on the soundtrack, is one of the greatest moments of cinema ever, I contest. I particularly dig the moment when Jimmy Stewart looks up and NOTICES that he’s elsewhere, then kind of shrugs and goes back to kissing Novak. And the blue-green haze that engulfs them at the end is sublime, like an abstract space that isn’t the hotel or the mission or anywhere. The embrace of death.
Post-coital satisfaction, and a happy, charming, naturalistic performance by Novak, before Scottie’s detective side reasserts itself and he rumbles the deception, due to her extremely foolish error of putting on the Carlotta necklace. Off to the mission! The same shots used, though now day-for-night, emphasizing the quality of hypnotic reenactment here. Recall Midge quoting the doctor who said Scottie’s vertigo could only be cured by another emotional shock…
The mission, with its painting of a tower (the first time we see it, the Scary Nun of Death can be seen walking across the lawn, on her circuitous way to terrify Novak to her death). Stewart is now the detective explaining why he’s called us all here today, and reenacting the crime, he’s an Elster surrogate re-staging the original murder, a doctor treating a patient with vertigo (himself), and a betrayed lover confronting his mistress with the proof of her infidelity. He fails rather badly at all his roles, except in seemingly curing his high anxiety — which does him no good. He loses his fear, while discovering just what he had to be afraid of.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve never wholly liked the nun. I like her better now that I’ve spotted her elsewhere (she’s at the inquest too), and now I know she’s dubbed by Novak. But despite her bringing in Hitch’s Catholicism, she always seemed a slightly unwelcome addition to a movie that’s practically a two-hander. I mean, Elster doesn’t count as human, and Midge, though very warm and real, has disappeared entirely from part two and we don’t actually miss her. So the Scary Nun of Death is a bit of a Deus Ex Machina. But as Sidney Lumet says, nothing has to be perfect.
In any case, the ending is more intriguing and satisfactory than that of the source novel, where the hero strangles the heroine — interestingly, because she’s explained the plot to him, and he can’t accept it. I guess a few audience members have felt that way. But the idea that our protag prefers to kill the woman rather than face the reality that his great love was based on an illusion is an interesting one. My problem with the nun is that she seems, on the face of it, arbitrary.
If she represents a maleficent fate, she’s making a late entry into the story-world. If anything, she’s like the return of the numinous specters haunting part one, seemingly banished by the explanation of the murder plot, but still lurking in the belfry of the subconscious. “…someone within me, and she says I must die…” In the end, we are left with a man standing on the brink. John Boorman would probably suggest he’s imagined the whole story while hanging from a drainpipe at the end of scene one — like the hero of Ambrose Bierce’s An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge. Certainly, Scottie’s situation has spiraled back to the end of part one. How many more times does he have to climb this tower? The novel’s last line is superimposed across my mind’s eye — ‘I shall wait for you,’ he said.
For B. Kite.