It always happens


On a whim — I’m a whimsical fellow — I made a gif of a dummy Kim Novak falling past the mission tower window in VERTIGO.

Stare at it long enough and you will begin to get past the initial amusement. You will see that what is happening is not funny, but terrible.

The shot in the movie itself is bathetic rather than tragic, escaping a Bad Laugh only because it’s part of a powerful montage with good acting and music. What’s wrong with the shot?

I think Hitchcock is up against the fact that figures falling past windows are somehow comic. There’s a whole Monty Python sketch about this, and one also thinks of Charles Durning’s cartoony plunge in THE HUDSUCKER PROXY. Rigid dummies are also funny, though not as much as floppy ones. Did nobody think of manufacturing a realistically articulated dummy with a degree of stiffness in the joints? The expense of the exercise may have been a factor, but I bet I could knock up a better dummy in a day, if supplied with some mannikin parts and a wig and costume.

Are you actually reading this or have you become hypnotized by the perpetual motion falling Novak?

As often with Hitchcock’s less effective moments, the artificiality is an issue. He’s built a full-sized window and a big bit of background art, more of a cyclorama than a matte painting (we know this because it’s recycled in ONE-EYED JACKS). So there’s no reason I can see why the dummy has to be superimposed, but it appears to have been matted in afterwards. You could actually have placed a trampoline off the bottom of frame and dropped a real Kim Novak into it — it would have been hilarious when she bounced back into view, but George Tomasini would have cut by then. You could rely on George to get things like that right.

(Unlike Frank J. Urioste, who allows us to see a stuntman’s legs waving as he hits a crash mat just out of frame in ROBOCOP, even though he’s supposed to have been flung from a high window. Strange carelessness, in what’s otherwise a superbly cut film.)


Then there’s the pose. Of all the possible angles of descent, head first seems to me the most potentially comical. Because it shows the ersatz Novak full-figure, in her most recognisable aspect (although we’re not used to seeing her upside down), Hitch may have thought it would be helpful for clarity, since we would only have an instant to recognize the plummeting figure. But I think the context he’s set up would allow him to get away with being less clear, and a less perfect angle would enhance the sense of glimpsed reality. Basically any angle that’s not upskirt would be better.

(See Polanski’s POV shot in ROSEMARY’S BABY of Ruth Gordon on the phone in the bedroom. The cinematographer was astonished that Polanski chose to obscure most of the actor with the door jamb, but that awkward framing is what convinces us we’re seeing something through the eyes of a real-life onlooker who cannot be expected to have a perfect view.)


Anything else? Well, the dummy (and even in under a second we are in no doubt that it IS a dummy) seems to be falling at a very slight angle. I guess that’s possible if she stood on the edge and pitched forward, or did an Olympic-style dive, but it makes us wonder about things that aren’t relevant to the emotion of the scene.

Still, it’s been voted the best film ever made, so I guess Hitch was doing something right.



15 Responses to “It always happens”

  1. He was doing pretty much everything right. Except THAT.

  2. And possibly the floating head of Scottie in the dream sequence.

  3. The great thing about that shot in Rosemary’s Baby is the way Polanski encourages us to peer around the door — as if we were actually there.

  4. There’s another great one when Rosemary returns to the living room just after the deal has been done to seal her fate. Her husband and Roman Castavet are both largely out of shot and the subject seems to be the Satanic cloud of cigar smoke hanging in the middle of the room.

  5. YES! Roman can be so subtle.

  6. Poor Hitchcock. Seems like every great film he makes has a shot that just looks silly today.

  7. True, but the strong setting overcomes the little flaws. “Great films are rarely perfect films,” to quote la Kael.

  8. It looks as if the arm is attached to a rod so the dummy’s motion can be precisely controlled if you rotate the image so that the arm travels left to right along the bottom of the screen it becomes apparent. Ingenious but still silly.

    Sent from my iPhone

  9. With the shot looped like this it feels like the dummy is on a wheel, rotating through shot, attached by the arm.

    In which case, it’s not a dummy but a doll. Even sillier. I wonder if that’s true? It would allow them to vary the speed, I guess, but it seems a bizarre way to do things.

  10. Preston Johnson Says:

    It’s a “Death by Defenestration”
    I love that word! You have to think Hitchcock did too, he did variations of it often enough (e.g., Rear Window, The Man Who Knew Too Much). And he’d have surely known about the Defenestrations of Prague, which ignited the Thirty Years’ War in 1618.

  11. Is that a gnat quote? Never forget the gnat.
    I still find Vertigo a bafflingly popular Hitchcock. The blase nun ringing the bell for a dummy caught mid-salute is hilarious, as is that exposition-packed scene at the beginning where the actors take turns sitting on every piece of furniture in the room in an attempt to liven it up. People falling is simply funny, which is why it makes such a great death for a villain – utterly without dignity. What am I missing?

  12. I suspect Vertigo is the most popular Hitchcock for critics because it’s so much fun to write about. It seems inexhaustible. I get more entertainment out of Rear Window while watching it, but would run out of observations faster.

    But Vertigo is the most romantic, perverse and visually and musically beautiful film Hitch ever made.

    Yes, i was thinking of the gnat in Through the Looking Glass. The first title to pop into my head was This Always happens, which MAY be a title from Goya’s The Horrors of War: it sounds like it should be. And Bowie’s haunting Always Crashing in the Same Car was also floating around.

    Hitch defenestrated a lot, but he was quite keen on stabbing also.

    What was the comic book that had a character called The Defenstrator? He carried a window around with him to throw people through.

  13. Oo, I’ve no idea. It doesn’t really seem in the spirit of defenestration. Mountains to Mohammad and all that. Herrmann doesn’t have to be exciting in Vertigo I suppose – it’s nice to hear him be brilliant at something else.

  14. It was something by Garth Ennis, I’m sure…

    There’s more to Herrmann than thrillers — even for Hitch, The Trouble with Harry and The Wrong Man show him working outside of suspense music.

  15. The Ghost and Mrs Muir! Such a romantic score, and one that also manages to be heartbreaking and uplifting at the same time. The beauty and tragedy and inevitability of life and death.

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