Bright Lights Film Journal

The Trouble with Scottie (on Vertigo)

I have yet to encounter anybody who feels my fierce outrage at Scottie’s unfairness toward the necklace. That object is all-important, not because it is the vital clue to the Madeleine-is-Judy resolution, but because it is a warning to Scottie (and to us viewers generally) not to let the final revelation have us believe that Madeleine is Judy. Judy pretended to be Madeleine. She played a role. Scottie (and we) watched Judy-as-Madeleine. But that is very different from the proposition that Judy-is-Madeleine.

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When Judy refuses to go to Scottie because he’ll “muss” her before changing her mind and asking to be “mussed,” I know it’s coming.

When Judy talks about the “big beautiful steak” she’ll devour, it’s pretty much there: the moment I always wait for with mounting excitement and barely suppressed exasperation; when Scottie sees the wretched necklace that proves everyone’s undoing.

By the time Scottie makes the fatal leap and starts thinking of the necklace painted in Carlotta Valdes’s portrait, I am over the thrill and very irritated. This is the regular trajectory of my emotions in the dozen or so times I have watched Vertigo in my life. If coats, skirts, shoes, and hair can be replicated faithfully – and God knows Scottie knows this better than anybody – then why not a necklace? Why does Scottie deny the possibility of cookie-cutter replication to an accessory while allowing, and even participating in, the similar replication of clothes and human beings? Could the necklace not be part of some cult – Carlotta’s Cute Curios, or something like that – whose members might have made and sold the stuff the lady in the portrait wears, and which Judy could have picked up along the way (perhaps even in Magnin’s where she works)? In short, why, of all the things that went into the confection that was Madeleine, must the poor necklace be forced to partake of the dubious honor of being unique, and thereby the party pooper in the Scottie-Judy affair?

Other viewers lament other aspects of Vertigo: its supposedly implausible and, to some, downright impossible plot. Quite a few can’t stand Scottie, his manipulation of Judy and his offhandedness with Midge. But I have yet to encounter anybody who feels my fierce outrage at his unfairness toward the necklace. That object is all-important, not because it is the vital clue to the Madeleine-is-Judy resolution, but because it is a warning to Scottie (and to us viewers generally) not to let the final revelation have us believe that Madeleine is Judy. Judy pretended to be Madeleine. She played a role. Scottie (and we) watched Judy-as-Madeleine. But that is very different from the proposition that Judy-is-Madeleine. She is as distinct from her as Vivien Leigh was from Scarlett O’Hara. That, I contend, is one of the critical points of Vertigo, and one which the necklace conveys in as cunning a mode as would a purloined letter in other circumstances.

The problem is that the necklace can also be mistaken for precisely what Scottie takes it to be: clinching evidence that Madeleine is Judy. This is the allure and danger of the visual clue; it can signal various choices and sometimes, misleadingly, the worst of all the ones on offer. When Scottie realizes what Judy did, he takes a step in the right direction in literal terms. But it is simultaneously a mis-step, a cognitive error with profound consequences. If the plot of Vertigo can be read as a metaphor for the process of filmmaking, of building up illusions and personae that crumble swifter than their painstaking construction, then one of the fundamental underpinnings of the drama is that it is dangerous to mistake the illusion, or the representation, for the real thing. Critics have made this point, but usually only in the context of the illusion that Gavin Elster and Madeleine conjure up for Scottie, the ridiculous charade about the dead coming back to haunt the living. What has usually been overlooked, however, is the equally powerful point Vertigo makes about identity not pivoting on the fact of the identical, and Scottie’s intermittent attention to this proposition. Objects and people may look like each other, and even be the same thing, as in the case of Madeleine/Judy (or perhaps Madeleine-Judy?), but that does not mean they are the same.

The motion picture hammers this home in many ways, particularly in the scenes involving its close counterpart: still pictures, or paintings. These appear in profusion in the first half and may prove a distraction to those who like, or even prefer, that sort of thing to the movies. Our Scottie himself is drawn to the frames that crowd Elster’s office walls. Notice how he shifts from his position across the window with its vista of the moving cranes (they always remind me of prehistoric animals trying out yoga) to a place right across a wall with pictures.

We glimpse quite a few of these in Midge’s apartment as well, some fully made and others still “undressed,” half-drawn sketches on flimsy pieces of paper. The scene right after the cliffhanger opening shows an array of paintbrushes in the foreground while Scottie balances his walking stick behind them. Even this moving picture is, in the final count, a picture – the brushes seem to say – arranged for a particular effect. Meanwhile Midge is, famously, drawing a brassiere. The object looms over the drawing board, stretched over a diamond-shaped rack and resembling a mangled parasol. Representation (the drawing) and reality (the brassiere) occupy the same space, but are clearly distinct, as the one is made with pen on paper and the other is made of whatever material one normally makes cantilevered brassieres out of. Underlining the contrast between the real thing and the sketched one is the sheet of paper pinned to the edge of the board, which mimics the shape of the brassiere’s rack. Things may echo each others’ contours and still remain themselves: paper and metal, in this case.

Our first glimpse of Carlotta’s portrait ups the ante even more. Notice how the camera jumps from the real space of the gallery to the space within the frame of the painting. Here rests Madeleine’s bouquet, on the bench. There on the wall we see the painted bouquet. Here coils Madeleine’s hair, just so; there coils Carlotta’s hair, in the picture, just like that. Here and there, here and there, in an echo of Scottie’s “I look up, I look down” routine in Midge’s apartment. And just as “up” and “down” are two extremes in Scottie’s acrophobic world (listen to how Scottie’s vocal inflections mimic this by rising on “up” and falling on “down”), so too the real bouquet, here, in our space, is posited as the polar opposite of the painted bouquet residing there in the frame, no matter the formal likeness between them. Does Scottie get the difference? Of course he does, we think. But does he? The shots that size up the woman, the bouquet, and the hair seem to be from Scottie’s point of view, but are they? The camera doesn’t linger too long on the necklace, and yet Scottie obviously got down its details by heart. Really, what does Scottie see? Is his attention focused on the things the camera focuses on?

As it progresses, the movie weans us (but Scottie? who knows?) away from the painting/object juxtapositions to the realm of the real world, quizzing us on how well we can tell the difference between two near-identical things. At first Scottie seems to acquit himself respectably in this game. When he tails Madeleine all over San Francisco, a green car very like hers turns off to the right. But Scottie stays focused on the correct car. He slips up a bit after Madeleine’s death, when he mistakes other girls and cars for her and her vehicle, but he realizes his error in each case. The challenge, of course, also involves the ability to distinguish an individual from the group: which Jaguar, out of all the green Jaguars cruising along the city streets, is the Jaguar? And when, exactly, is it just any other old Jaguar? Which girl, of all the girls working in Magnin’s and strolling along the avenues, corresponds to the girl? When is she herself, and when is she the other?

Answering these questions demands attention of a certain kind. Too much of it will inevitably turn every green car into the potential carriage of a beautiful blonde; too little will ensure that the right vehicle gets away with its booty.

In the first half of the movie, during the Madeleine-phase, Scottie seems poised on the golden mean between these intensities of attention. He tails Madeleine quite efficiently, to be sure, but he also displays a casual awareness of his surroundings. He pauses to look at a gravestone or two in Mission Dolores. He bends over to examine a painting (Allegories of the Arts: Architecture, by Charles-Andre van Loo) in the gallery. When he sets off to the McKittrick Hotel, he turns his head to look behind in one swift move, although his prey is well ahead of him. What on earth is he looking at? What can be more interesting than Madeleine?

Many things, one might respond – and correctly. Scottie is falling under Madeleine’s spell, but he still retains control over his attention, where it might linger, and where retreat. She remains at the center of his vision, but also occasionally recedes. All is well.

It is in the post-Madeleine phase that things go wrong. The effects of Scottie’s breakdown (or whatever one wishes to call it) include a powerfully concentrated form of attention. The shuffling feet, the frozen look, the constant twitching of his antennae to pick up the slightest whiff of Madeleine shatter the meandering interest in things outside Madeleine’s magic sphere that he had evinced before. D. A. Miller’s essay underlines the problem, but from the spectator’s point of view: he (Miller) cannot get himself to watch Vertigo responsibly, it seems. “Even when I most doggedly concentrate on the images before me, I find myself sidetracked – staring at peripheral details … I am transfixed, for instance, by the pale iridescent steering wheel on Scottie’s De Soto Firedome … Or I get as excited as a child with a new plaything by Midge’s bright yellow Cosco stepstool …” (D. A. Miller, Vertigo, Film Quarterly 2008-09, vol. 62, no. 2). Miller wonders whether he does not see Vertigo because, “in the effort to do so, I have contracted Vertigo … I can’t be sure what proper attention to Vertigo comprises, nor how such attention is rewarded” (Miller).

I would suggest that in inducing a form of vertigo in those viewers fortunate enough to have “caught” the disease (or whatever it is), Vertigo proffers an antidote to itself (the film) and to the (rather confusing) condition suffered by Scottie. According to popular dictionaries, Vertigo is defined as a state that involves the “sensation of whirling or loss of balance, associated particularly with looking down from a great height.” If maintaining a balance between the states of love, obsession, and interest is virtually impossible in this film (and let’s face it, balance in anything is an ideal, not a realistic possibility), then perhaps the best one can hope for is a vertiginous vision like that of Miller’s (and Scottie’s), which combines two extremes: one eye that is “aversively far-sighted [and] looks past the screen image to the remoter regions of the mind” (Miller), and another eye “intently myopic” (Miller) on the smaller details such as unfortunate necklaces. And if contracting vertigo is part of what makes Miller meander in his viewing of Vertigo, then it is a very good thing for Scottie to have vertigo as well. It is a good thing that his own gaze slips away occasionally from the seeming center to the sidelines. Where this hero is concerned, the slipping away represents a form of skepticism, a refusal to invest the entire spectrum of his sight in Madeleine. That thing behind him, as he walks to the McKittrick, is just as compelling as the girl, even if for a second or two. Vertigo, Vertigo tells us, is not such a bad state of affairs; it helps to keep Scottie on a somewhat even keel. One of the most fatal consequences of his breakdown post-Madeleine is the elimination of that equilibrating vertigo. We are given the impression that it is cured at the final moment, after Judy falls to her death. But how are we so sure of this? Couldn’t the vertigo (and acrophobia) have been banished as soon as Scottie was released from hospital? After all, something within him is able to contemplate climbing the church tower and dragging a reluctant Judy along – not a facile task for those afflicted with a fear of heights and the accompanying sensation of whirling et al. And without vertigo-vision, Scottie is able to fixate, become “myopically intent,” fuss, and focus to an intolerable degree. I suspect Scottie’s vertigo left much sooner than we think it did, possibly sooner than he himself realizes. In the second half, vertigo is dead. Long live that vertigo, I say, for it would have emphatically not allowed that ascent up the tower. It would not have allowed Scottie to single out a necklace from its companions as the unique signifier of guilt.

I have watched Vertigo in several places at varying hours of the clock. I have watched it in the afternoon in Konnagar (a town on the river Hooghly in eastern India), and I have watched it before dawn on television in Pisa (a town with a leaning tower in Italy. I couldn’t help wondering whether things might have been ever so slightly different if the tower of San Juan Bautista were also a leaning one). The Italian title of the film was La Donna Che Visse Due Volte; The Woman Who Lived Twice. I also couldn’t help but wonder why the Italians chose a title that almost gave the game away, the “due” graphically flashing forth the idea of doubleness.

Woh Kaun Thi

In Delhi many years ago, I saw a blockbuster Indian film inspired by Vertigo (Encyclopedia of Indian Cinema, ed. Ashish Rajadhyaksha and Paul Willemen, p. 382) called Woh Kaun Thi? (Who Was She?). Released in 1964 and starring the legendary Indian actress Sadhana, it is a tale about a doctor who encounters an enigmatic beauty in eerie situations: on rainy nights with snatches of haunting melody in the background, deserted cemeteries, derelict mansions, the works. The good doctor discovers in the end that the reason why the lady can appear and disappear so effectively, can be beside him but can also be spotted far away in the distance, haunting melody playing all around, is because she has a twin. Woh Kaun Thi? was a smash hit, and the director, Raj Khosla, made two other thrillers in the ’60s (Mera Saaya and Anita), also smash hits, with dubious doubles as key plot players. While I have always been a fan of Woh Kaun Thi?, I have also always been quite annoyed by the obvious expediency of the “twin” solution, just as the Italian “due” has always left an itch of discontent. (Clearly, various things related to Vertigo annoy the hell out of me, but still I watch it and enjoy it and fume in outrage every single time.)

I realise now that the Italians and the Indians (Raj Khosla, at any rate) put their fingers unerringly on a correct – if alarmingly literal – understanding of Vertigo. It is a film about two women with two distinct lives who wreak havoc on the protagonist. The trouble with Scottie is that he doesn’t see this.

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Note: All images are screenshots from the film.