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.