Scottie Ferguson Investigates

To Edinburgh Filmhouse, to investigate Park Circus’s release of Universal’s new 4K restoration of Hitchcock’s VERTIGO, a dazzling sight. Not only does the painstaking work turn back the clock on the wear and tear the film suffered before its previous restoration, but it undoes some of the less thoughtful decisions of that controversial face-lift — gone are the shockingly modern-sounding, ricochet-heavy gunshots from the opening chase scene, replaced with more period-appropriate BLAM-BLAM FX I don’t know if they’re the ones Hitchcock originally used (whereas the Robert A. Harris/James C. Katz job junked all the original FX and added all-new foley, this one was reportedly able to salvage about half the original footsteps, doors, guns, etc).

When Hitch walks by with his horn, and Scottie (James Stewart) turns in at the entrance to visit his shady friend, you can actually read the headlines on the news-stand here. I don’t have the film on Blu-Ray, nor do I own a massive TV or projector, but I’m uncertain anyone ever saw these before. There’s a story along the lines of COMPANY DIRECTOR AND SECRETARY FOUND MURDERED. The secretary might be Marion Crane, from Hitchcock’s next again feature, I guess. The company boss might be Brenda Blaney, director of the marital agency in FRENZY. Fanciful, I know. But the headline sounds a note of warning right before Scottie meets Elster, and the warning includes a company director, a woman, and murder.

That’s the kind of thing that’s so on-the-nose it SHOULD be small, otherwise you get the hilarious LUCKY TO BE ALIVE headline in EYES WIDE SHUT, the dumbest thing I’ve ever read off the screen.

A little over halfway through the film, when Scottie is reduced to wandering the streets (like sad, mad Carlotta in the story), he keeps thinking he sees the departed Madeleine. And he does: even in this giant longshot, in 4K you can see that it’s genuinely Kim Novak coming out of the building and chatting to the doorman. But, after a brief reaction shot of Scottie, the figure appears subtly different — Novak has been replaced by Lee Patrick (associated with another San Francisco detective — she was Sam Spade’s secretary, the estimable Effie, in THE MALTESE FALCON). On my DVD I can kind of see this, but I could never be sure.

(I’m told that the tiny Novak in this shot, hovering above the hedgerow on the right, is also quite identifiable if you have the 2014 Blu-Ray and a biggish screen.)

This substitution trick was first played by Hitch in SABOTAGE, when Sylvia Sidney thinks she sees her slain little brother in the street — cutting quickly, Hitch first shows the boy we know, then replaces him with a stranger. A heartbreaking and uncanny moment in a film Hitch was never really satisfied with. So he replays the effect, multiple times, here.

VERTIGO is constantly mirroring itself — replaying scenes from earlier. Scottie revisits the places he associates with Madeleine, and each time he thinks he sees her, and Hitch pulls the same gag. Returning to Ernie’s, where he first saw Madeleine, he sees her again, and it’s definitely Novak. One reaction-shot later, and she’s been switched for a pod person.

Only in the gallery scene does Hitchcock resist the temptation to slip a Novak in: the young woman studying the Portrait of Carlotta remains stubbornly herself.

But, obedient to the Rule of Three, Hitch has another spectral walk-on by Novak later, AFTER Scottie has met up with Judy, who really is (sort-of) Madeleine ~

Fiona: “Her arms are MASSIVE.” (Not criticising, just impressed.)

Back at Ernie’s, Scottie looks past Judy and sees Madeleine — two Kim Novaks in the same shot. The fact that Hitchcock routinely uses rear projection stops this effects shot seeming that out of the ordinary. But though Scottie clearly registers surprise, I’m not sure I’d ever seen what was surprising him before. If I had, I’d forgotten it, and seeing the film so much sharper made me feel I was seeing it anew. Madeleine, in that familiar grey suit, enters Ernie’s (in the distance, to the left of Judy)

There’s a reaction shot of Scottie — he notices Judy has noticed him looking — and he furtively looks at his plate. Judy looks over her shoulder, and in Scottie’s POV we see that her doppelganger has been replaced by the shiny-faced intruder from the previous Ernie’s manifestation.

So, Scottie, having found Judy, is still satisfied. His subconscious is still seeking Madeleine as she was. And he knows these visions are hallucinatory, he knows he’s still crazy, but he knows he has to act sane and not admit to them…

Maybe I never caught this moment because I was too fascinated by the sight of Novak eating.

And then he starts the creepy makeover thing with Judy. And this time, I formulated a new theory (or so I thought) about what he’s up to. I call it the second murder plot.

You see, according to this theory, Scottie is not just trying to make Judy look just like Madeleine so he can have sex with her and pretend Madeleine’s alive. That’s part of it, the part he can admit to himself but not to her. But I think there’s another scheme, that he can’t even consciously recognize.

In the first half of the film, Scottie, a natural sceptic (a Scot, like the hero of MARY ROSE, Hitch’s unmade ghost story), has become convinced that the dead can possess the living. And the way this happens is when the living first become obsessed by the dead. When Madeleine wears Carlotta’s jewellery, gazes at her portrait, styles her hair with that vertiginous whorl, visits Carlotta’s home and her grave, she gradually gives herself up to Carlotta’s spirit.

So it would make sense that, styling Judy after Madeleine, Scottie is preparing a new body for Madeleine’s spirit to inhabit. Judy, who doesn’t matter to him, can be replaced by the departed loved one, an inversion of Elster’s replacing wife Madeleine with lover Judy (everything in VERTIGO seems to get replaced, repeated, mirror-flipped at some point).

It’s a frightful scheme, perhaps worse than Elster’s. But maybe we’d all do it, if we thought it could work.

NB: Novak is brilliant as Judy. If we study her performance as she walks through the green fog effect, we can see that she’s definitely still Judy as she emerges.

Counter-arguments: if this interpretation is wrong, it’s because of two things. One (1), there isn’t an obvious moment where we can see Scottie hatching this plan. It’s more like a series of increments, with Scottie fixating on Judy’s clothes, then her hair, etc. I would normally expect Hitchcock to crystallise the moment the scheme comes into focus, but here it kind of doesn’t, because Scottie never admits it to himself. Two (2), after the big motel room special effects love scene, Scottie seems content to be with Judy, even though she’s still talking like Judy, evidently hasn’t been taken over by Madeleine’s spirit. He seems content with his makeover. But something hallucinatory/supernatural happened to him in that green fog. Like he thinks Madeleine took over just for the sex (Judy was smart enough to keep her mouth shut) and he can get her back anytime.

And now that I reread my piece from Hitchcock Year, I find that I was onto Scottie’s scheme back then, and that it’s spelled out in the novel. I forget many things. But this one was worth rediscovering and spending some more time on, I think.


5 Responses to “Scottie Ferguson Investigates”

  1. “Vertigo” IS “Mary Rose”

    As for what Scottie wants I’d compare his search for Madeline to John Wayne’s search for Natalie Wood in “The Searchers.” What Wayne WANTS to do is kill Natalie Wood because she’s had sex with a non-white. Of course that can’t really happen because if it did it make the film’s racism plain — which of curse it doesn’t want to do –so he quite unrealistically and in defiance of the entire narrative trajectory picks her up in his arms and says “Debbie we’re going home.” Scottie by contrast secretly longs to punish Judy for the eradication of Madeline. But the death of Judy means the SECOND death of Madeline and Scottie is worse off than he was before.

  2. I never picked up on those Novak appearances in hallucinations before.

    The more times I see Vertigo, the less sympathetic Scottie becomes to me. He’s obviously incredibly self-obsessed and self-centered. There’s that sense of romantic male entitlement in every thing he does.

    And I actually don’t know about Scottie being a skeptical sort. I actually think it’s the opposite. He’s actually a romantic very gullible person. Think about Elster’s scheme which has to be his, and Hitchcock’s, judgment on him. Elster is the true Hitchcock stand-in, not Scottie. The arch-manipulator, who gives the actors their scripts, and walks them through their parts, and of course Henry Bumstead later designed Hitchcock’s office modeled on the set he made for Elster here. For Elster’s scheme to work, i.e. that Scottie would fall for Madeline, and would betray his professional ethics and have an affair with his best friend’s wife who is (within the Carlotta Valdes story) suffering from some kind of mental illness, means that Scottie is some kind of creep to start with.

  3. That’s an interesting comparison there with The Searchers, which is also about an obsessive impulse. But I think it resembles Vertigo in another way, and that is in Ethan Edwards’ sense of emasculation. Remember that Ethan is in love with Debbie’s mother who eventually abandoned him and married his brother when he went to fight in the war. And in the start, Ethan finds out that Scar raped and killed her, while before his brother married her. And now Debbie becomes part of Scar’s tribe as well. So throughout the film, he’s obsessed and resentful of that lack of fulfillment. And of course, the fact that he doesn’t kill Scar at the end (he does scalp him however) only heightens that. In Vertigo, Elster is Scar…and Madeline is “Martha” while Judy is both “Martha” and “Debbie”.

  4. So, in the context of The Searchers, is Scar a stand-in for Ford?

    No, I’ve gotten carried away.

    As the improbable schemer who manipulates the other characters, Elster is certainly a good Hitch surrogate, especially as he has so little personality of his own. He’s obviously a cipher for SOMETHING. And Hitch as uxoricidal plotter may explain why he felt Alma didn’t like the movie. (My previous theory: she saw herself in Midge, which may also be true.)

  5. Well since a movie director is always striving for control over the circumstances of production, editing, and so on…they inevitably tend to identify with the villains because for most of the movie the villain has control over the plot and situation. The heroes are always a projection by the maker of their intended audience. The hero is what the director thinks about the audience, and is in essence a puppet in which the audiences emotions are stretched within. And I think it’s always a mistake, especially in the classical cinema, to assume that directors identify with their heroes or connect to them. They might say that for marketing reasons, but I don’t think it is true. In the case of The Searchers, as John Milius and others point out, since Scar and the Comanches are aligned with the beauty of the landscape, Ford’s aesthetic principles go over to his side. Of course in The Searchers as the story proceeds, Ethan Edwards becomes the villain, and Jeffrey Hunter becomes the hero…so towards the end Edwards is Ford since as David Ehrenstein points out, the suspense is about what he will or will not do with Debbie.

    In the case of Hitchcock and Vertigo, the second half is interesting. Because technically Judy has the control and agency. She knows that Scottie is insane, she knows the plot, and we identify with her but we also see her submit to Scottie’s fixation. So our sympathies are divided and bifurcated there. It’s not talked about how unusual Vertigo’s second-half is. There are literally no secondary characters, it’s just a two-character chamber drama. Vertigo has the smallest supporting cast of Hitchcock’s films. Even Psycho is more chatty with its wonderful small character turns across the films and instantly iconic figures (the Cop with the Insect glares standing imperiously across the used car shop).

    But I actually think we need to pushback on the idea of Vertigo being a very personal film for Hitchcock. It’s auteurist doctrine and like all doctrines that get accepted (it’s always cooler when they start out as heresies), its time has past. I think Vertigo is a reflection of Hitchcoc the Artist, and not Hitchcock the Person. I think Vertigo is about what he as a film-maker can do, how he tells stories and how he’s aware of the power of those stories to affect and transform characters. Psycho is also about that. In terms of Hitchcock the Person, I think Suspicion, The Wrong Man, and Marnie are closer to who he is. Those three films are entirely about people trapped and powerless…Suspicion’s Joan Fontaine is under the thumb of a perfect romance, The Wrong Man is about a marriage reduced and destroyed by a legal system and economy, and Marnie is about people trapped by their parents, and the prison of marriage. As an artist, Hitchcock was interested in exploring vulnerability, but to do that he had to put across a facade of control and power. So his movies hardly ever revolve around people who are powerful and his best villains are in their own way vulnerable. Gavin Elster is the big exception to that, so that’s why I think he’s Hitchcock…i.e the Artist.

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