Sunday, September 21, 2008

"If I let you change me, will that do it?" HITCHCOCK MARATHON

Vertigo-1958-Alfred Hitchcock


lfred Hitchcock’s films are at once entertaining and puzzling. He was able to draw things out of the cinematic language that so many directors forget, especially modern directors. All that needs to be done is a comparative look at Hitchcock’s Rear Window and DJ Caruso’s Disturbia to find out an idea can be portrayed differently through the language of cinema. Hitchcock uses subtlety and what the audience doesn’t see to create suspense and fear in the mind of the viewer.

For an example of Hitchcock and enigmatic I offer you Vertigo. A film that didn’t catch on in its own time, but is now required viewing for anyone interested in film.

If you don’t already know, Vertigo is the story of Detective John ‘Scottie’ Ferguson, played by Jimmy Stewart. He suffers an accident while on duty as a detective and is imbued with a case of vertigo. He retires from the force, but is asked by a friend (Gavin Elster) to follow his wife Madeleine, played by Kim Novak, to see where she goes all the time. He says she’ll be gone for hours and return and say she didn’t remember where she went. We find out she supposedly is being possessed by the her great grandma, Carlotta Valdes. After some convincing, Scottie, still hesitant agrees to help his old friend out. When it turns out that Madeleine’s real name is Judy and it was all a scam, Scottie tries to change Judy into Madeleine(his dream) and in the end realizes that life may really be “nothing but a dream”. What follows leaves the viewer asking what his vertigo has to do with the film, until the two key scenes where characters die.

The first thing to notice again is Hitchcock’s use of subtlety. When we open and see Scottie hanging from the side of the building and his partner falls to the ground and dies, we don’t get a shot of him getting back up, we only see him hanging and then are brought directly into the next scene, which seemingly has little to do with the incident we just witnessed.

When Scottie is chasing Madeleine up the tower and suffers vertigo and cannot reach the top, we see a body fall, but we aren’t told how it fell until later. Did she kill herself? Did she slip? Was she pushed? These linger in the mind of the viewer. It is thought that she jumped on her own volition but it is never thoroughly examined until later on in the film. Here Hitchcock only shows us Scottie’s reaction to Madeleine falling(or so we think) and then he runs to his car and leaves. We aren’t told where he goes or what he does afterwards, next we see him he is in court.

Having examined the tiniest bit of Hitchcock’s filmmaking technique, not even bringing up the pan/zoom shot he created specifically for this film that has been used by every subsequent director in the history of filmmaking, I cannot help but wonder what this film is trying to say.
The Woman:

The first step to examining Vertigo lies in the woman of the film.

They are all blonde and they all play different roles in John’s life.

The first woman we meet in Vertigo is Marjorie ‘Midge’ Wood.


Midge is Scotties only seemingly real friend in the film. Gavin uses Scottie for his own personal gain, but Midge just enjoys talking to Scottie and trying to help him out.

What Midge ultimately represents is a mother figure for Scottie.

Scottie: I'm a man of independent means as the saying goes. Fairly independent.
Midge: Hmm, mmm. Well, why don't you go away for a while?
Scottie: You mean to forget? Oh now, Midge, don't be so motherly. I'm not gonna crack up.

She seems to be trying to help him mature as well. The scene in which they discuss the bra she is working on she discuss’ how he’s a big boy he needs to know these things.

What happens next in the arc of Midge is a little unexpected, but needed. We eventually find out, from little shots of her, that she is in love with Scottie. Which reminds me of another Hitchcock film, Psycho, where the mother and son have a very oddly close relationship. This only further becomes a problem when Scottie falls in love with Madeleine. We see her jealousy in a discussion between Scottie and Midge when she first hears of what Scottie has been up to.

Midge: Is she pretty?
Scottie: Carlotta?
Midge: No, not Carlotta. Elster's wife.
Scottie: Yes, I guess you'd consider that she would...
Midge: I think I'll go and take a look at that portrait.

Furthermore she sees Madeleine exiting Scottie’s house after he rescued her from San Francisco Bay, and the jealousy escalates.

Midge: Well now, Johnny-O. Was it a ghost? Was it fun?
We can feel in her turn that she isn’t to happy with what has transpired and in a subsequent scene get further evidence of her longing for Scottie.

Scottie walks into Midge’s place and they plan on having dinner, while Midge tells him she took up painting, which was her first love(which hints back to her love of Scottie, because she painted the picture for him). When he looks at the picture it is her face on Carlotta Valdes’ body. Scottie leaves upset. This also represents her longing to be Madeleine because Scottie is in love with her. Midge is to Scottie what Scottie is to Madeleine

Lastly, Midge refers to herself as Scottie's mother in the Psychiatric ward scene.

Midge: Oh, Johnnie, Johnnie. Please try. Try, Johnnie. You're not lost. Mother's here...John
O, you don't even know I'm here, do you?


What Madeleine ultimately represents is Scotties dream woman. We constantly see her in soft colors and seemingly surrounded by a glossy, fogginess. Scottie becomes obsessed with her from the get go, because she isn’t real. He falls in love with her, but does he even know her? He says things like “Once you’ve saved a persons life, your responsible for it forever.” But what exactly does he mean by these things? What has he saved her from? Yes he saved her from the Bay, but is he going to save her from Galvin, from her “illness”. Furthermore, she seems to fall in love with him just as easily, while knowing just as little about him. Are they each other’s dream?

When Madeleine comments about history repeating itself it is a comment on the film and how things will repeat themselves. The women in Scotties life, the longing for love where it cannot be found, the death of Madeleine and the death of Judy are all signs of repetition.

Even when Scottie and Madeleine kiss it is so obviously staged, it is as if God was making a play, with the waves crashing behind them with each kiss, it’s just so perfect.

When the end of Madeleine approaches and she is running for the tower, Scottie yells, “No one possesses you.” What we may be able to gleam from this is Scottie’s ignorance to what is actually going on, or that no one but him can possess her. This is his dream getting away from him, just like his job did. He loses them both because of his illness. Or might they represent the same thing.


Judy is reality. She is a pretty, brunette girl, who is a little shy and not as easily taken as Madeleine. But Scottie pursues her because he reminds her so much of Madeleine, his dream. He so desperately wants to relive his dream that he will go to any lengths to change her to make her the way he wants her to be.
While she reluctantly agrees to go out with Scottie we discover that Judy was Madeleine while she stares in the mirror contemplating what had just happened. She only wants Scottie to love her for her, as she loves Scottie. But once Scottie arrives and they start dating, she becomes a possession to him. He first wants to find the dress that Madeleine wore, and then he wants her to dye her hair blonde as Madeleine's. Is Judy the portrait of the average woman, she feels like to please her man that she must be something she isn’t.

Judy is constantly seen in front of mirrors, whether it is when she is contemplating being with Scottie, or trying on what Scottie wants. It seems to always be when she isn’t being herself, but a mirrored image of herself.

When Judy finally makes the full transformation and she emerges for Scottie to see, we see her as we first saw Madeleine. The shot and her movement is precisely the same. Scottie is again enthralled with her, until he notices she is wearing the same necklace that Madeleine had. It was a one of a kind necklace that she received as a hand down from her family, he realizes this by looking at Judy in the mirror and seeing who she really is. Upon his realization, he decides to go back to the scene of the crime. Where his heart was broken and dreams shattered. When he tells Judy his reasoning, he is the one who is acting this time. The roles seem to have reversed. She is unwillingly going up the steps as he is making her, as it could be seen that Madeleine did to him in a sense.

When they reach the top of the tower and Scottie tells her he knew after he saw the necklace she is frightened, and although Scottie is hostile, nothing seems to be going wrong until a nun comes from the shadows. In the shadows the nun is shaped as the grim reaper, which because of Judy’s guilt, causes her to jump. Scottie again loses the girl. Could she have really been his dream girl if he let her? It lingers on.
What most stands out in Vertigo to me is the way Scottie goes from innocence to obsession to possession. The way the character shifts happens so seamlessly that it is hardly noticed at first. Some have said the woman in this film represent the typical Hitchcock woman; Blonde, beautiful, and mysterious. Could Hitchcock have been facing his own obsessions with this film. I like to think that directors choose, or write their work out of personal identification with that work. The easiest way to draw the line to Hitchcock is through the woman, as he always had a strong, blonde female lead.

Interestingly enough Scottie is obviously cured of his vertigo in the end because he is able to look over the edge and doesn’t seem slightly fazed by it at all. Could this mean that through the death of Judy, he is now able to move on from the past and onto something new?

I think a major underlying message of Vertigo is that fear is the cause of most death. Scottie’s fear of heights was hindering him, and led him into the situations he was in with Madeleine, Judy, Galvin. These things would not have happened had Scottie not been afraid of heights. The same goes for Judy, her fear of being without Scottie led her to her own death. But mainly her guilt and fear of what might happen caused her death when she thought she was seeing the grim reaper. Her fear led her to jump and lose her life, and it was foolish. Because of this maybe Scottie was able to get over his vertigo by realizing that being afraid of life only leads to death.


FilmDr said...

Nice analysis. I like to think of Vertigo in terms of Hitchcock's desire to recreate his blond ideal in movies that stretch from The 39 Steps (I hear that Hitchcock fell in love with Madeleine Carroll of that film--interesting resemblance of names) to The Birds with Tippi Hedren. Could Hitchcock have been exploring his obsessive side with his portrayal of Scottie? One wonders. He seems to understand the character well.

Dead Pan said...

Exactly. I wanted to go more in depth with that, but felt I had already said enough.