“Could Scottie’s real beau ideal be Gavin Elster?”
Vertigo is famously about obsession. Brian Da Palma’s homage/rip-off is even called Obsession. But what is Scottie’s obsession, really?
San Francisco’s past may not be all that’s old and gay in this film. As played by forty-nine-year-old James Stewart, Scottie is getting old. Could he be (a deeply closeted) gay man as well? At first the suggestion seems absurd. The story is all about a man’s obsessive quest for a woman. The Kim Novak of those days was the object of male fantasy as depicted in numerous films, including 1962’s Boy’s Night Out, which she herself produced. Stewart was the portrayer of Glenn Miller, Charles Lindbergh, and Monty Stratton and a literal former Boy Scout. Consider, however: Scottie has never married. He lives in San Francisco not far from North Beach, heart of the ambisexual Beat scene. For all his years on the force, he has no cop buddies. His only relationship with a woman is a platonic one with the motherly Midge. He is more comfortable than a straight male ought to be in fashion showrooms and hair salons.
Is Madeleine a sex object or an art object? For a red-blooded American male of the 1950s, the fleshy and friendly Judy should be more appealing than the high-maintenance Madeleine. If Scottie’s passion were only sexual, he could gratify it for the price of a second dinner at Ernie’s, yet Judy complains that Scottie refuses to touch her. “Why can’t you like me the way I am?” asks Judy, and the women in the audience laugh knowingly. Good question.
Hitchcock’s decision to give away the plot two-thirds of the way in is less bold than it seems. The weakest element in Vertigo is the preposterous murder scheme that requires everything to fall perfectly into place in a way that doesn’t happen in reality. Preston Sturges’ Unfaithfully Yours imagined how a much simpler plan could go comically awry. A l960s black comedy might have been made from the plot of Vertigo seen from Gavin Elster’s point of view. Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Diabolique, based on material by the same writers, uses the same plot device: a person seen to have died is actually alive. The difference is that Vertigo doesn’t depend on its plot and repays repeated viewing even after the twist is known. The real strength of Vertigo is in its emotional undercurrent, a maelstrom of guilt and longing.
Could Scottie’s real beau ideal be Gavin Elster? It’s not that Scottie is attracted to Elster physically (except, perhaps, on some deeply repressed level), but he wants what Elster represents. Although Scottie is mysteriously affluent, he does not have Elster’s great wealth. As portrayed by English-born Tom Helmore, Elster is all poise and social graces. Elster’s Jaguar exudes timeless elegance in contrast to Scottie’s DeSoto, a year old and already dated by a newer version with bigger tailfins and wraparound windshield. In turning Judy into Madeline, Scottie also recreates himself as Gavin Elster. Vertigo owes a bit to Laura, but unlike the waspish Waldo Lydecker, Elster isn’t jealous. He contrives for Scottie to see his mistress nude. Sharing the woman creates a bond between the two men.
The little montage that depicts Judy’s makeover recalls the transformation of Esther Blodgett into Vicki Lester in A Star Is Born and, of course, Marilyn Pauline Novak’s emergence from Harry Cohn’s Columbia as the last star created by the studio system. Aside from his trademark gag appearances, Hitchcock rarely put much of himself in his movies. In two of the four films they made together, Stewart serves as a kind of surrogate. In Rear Window he’s a photographer, and in Vertigo he’s a quasi-director. In both he suffers impairments that render him helpless (impotent?) but that he ultimately transcends. Encased in fat even when young and limited in ability to walk as he got older, Hitchcock could still command from the director’s chair. Midge is somewhat of a cross between Hitchcock’s sensible-shoes wife and collaborator Alma Reville, and his bespectacled daughter Pat, who appears in a few of his movies. Kim Novak is the fantasy woman previously played by Grace Kelly and recreated in the person of Tippi Hedren. Before she puts her hair up, Novak also looks like Doris Day in The Man who Knew Too Much. Midge demystifies sex appeal. One of her commercial art jobs is for a strapless brassiere designed by an aeronautical engineer.1 Knowing how the trick is done does not diminish Madeleine’s allure in Scottie’s eyes. In a miscalculated attempt to bring Scottie back to Earth, Midge paints herself as Carlotta Valdes only to find that Scottie is so wedded to his fantasy that it has become his raison d’etre.
Robin Wood’s analysis of Vertigo depicts its subject as discontented with reality – a condition that can lead to neurosis but can also be transmuted into art. Scottie is an artist of sorts. He wants to create something beautiful. But he doesn’t create – he recreates, and what he recreates was a deception to begin with. He is Pygmalion with a second-hand Galatea. Psychotherapist Otto Rank contended that the artist must free himself from his past; Scottie remains trapped in his. Hitchcock honors the artistic impulse but slyly mocks it as a mixture of self-deception and imitation.
If Scottie is a failed artist, he isn’t much of a detective either. It never occurs to him that Judy and Madeleine are the same person. Judy gives herself away by wearing the Carlotta Valdes necklace. Even then, he’s so dense that Hitchcock hammers the point with a zoom in, a cutaway (and zoom out) to the portrait in the museum, and some Bernard Herrmann chords.
Even amidst Hitchcock’s best period, the mid-to-late ’50s, Vertigo stands out for its careful construction. Dialogue-heavy scenes alternate with what Hitchcock called “pure cinema.” In the first shot, one hand, then another, grips the rung of a ladder. A frantic rooftop chase in the style of a Feuillade serial ends with a real cliffhanger. Scottie dangles from a bent gutter ten stories up with no help in sight. The slam-bang opening allows Hitchcock to risk a little dullness in two long, talky scenes in Midge’s apartment and Elster’s office that provide the complex exposition. These in turn are followed by an eight-minute passage, mostly from Scottie’s point of view, in which he follows Madeleine to the flower shop, the churchyard where Carlotta Valdes is buried, and then to the Palace of the Legion of Honor art museum where she sits before the painting. Accompanied by Herrmann’s music and selective use of natural sound, the pursuit is wordless except for a brief exchange with the museum guide. When Midge leaves Scottie in the sanitarium, her walk down a long hall serves as an act curtain. She will not figure in the rest of the film.2
Hitchcock reminds us that his apprenticeship was in 1920s Germany with expressionistic touches at odds with the literal-mindedness of the wide-screen era. Bergman aside, by the 1950s, dream/fantasy sequences were mainly found in comedy. Hitchcock gives Scottie a nightmare complete with stylized sets. When the bookstore owner tells the story of Carlotta Valdes, the light gradually dims. As Scottie opens the door to his apartment, Madeleine is in silhouette, then suddenly illuminated. Hitchcock cheats a bit when Scottie thinks he sees Madeleine in Ernie’s: it looks as if that really is Kim Novak in the long shot but another actress on second glance. Cinematographer Robert Burks uses a fog filter to give a gauzy quality to Mission Dolores (but only the exterior) as Scottie tracks Madeleine to Carlotta’s grave. The filter reappears in the sequoia forest. It is used again when Scottie visits Madeleine’s grave, thus connected visually to Carlotta’s. It is used for one last time when Scottie and Judy walk past the Palace of Fine Arts. Judy has supplanted Carlotta/Madeline. Green is a recurring motif: the silk stole Madeleine wears when Scottie sees her for the first time, the green Jaguar, Scottie’s soft green sweater in his first scene with Madeleine, Judy’s first appearance in a green sweater dress, and finally in the neon sign outside Judy’s hotel.. When Scottie sees the recreated Madeleine emerge, she is in double exposure, the ethereal becoming corporeal as she advances toward him in the green haze.
Vertigo stands out in another respect. Although it was one of the ten top-grossing films of 1958, the receipts were a fraction of the Hitchcock-Stewart Rear Window and well below To Catch a Thief and The Man Who Knew Too Much. (Only The Trouble with Harry and The Wrong Man, neither being what the public expected from Hitch at that stage, did worse.) Hitchcock invested three decades of directorial craft and revealed something of himself in Vertigo only to meet disappointment; initially, he distanced himself.
He lived to see Vertigo go from semi-flop to cult classic, its mystique enhanced by his withdrawal of it from circulation (although it was shown on television).Now it has been pronounced the Greatest Film of All Time in the Sight and Sound poll. A backlash is no doubt forming: the plot is absurd, the characters are ciphers, it’s too creepily self-referential to have the humanistic spark of great art. And just how did Scottie get down from that building? Suspension of disbelief, indeed! Still, there will be that 360-degree shot of Scottie and the reconstructed Madeleine in which “past and present, illusion and realty merge” (Robin Wood) and Herrmann’s musical cue titled “scene d’amour” described by him as a “long crescendo of emotional fulfillment.” It may well stand as the greatest single scene in the history of movies.
- Howard Hughes, who famously designed such a bra for Jane Russell in The Outlaw, dropped Bel Geddes from RKO for a lack of sex appeal. Vera Miles, who got as far as wardrobe tests, fell somewhere between Barbara Bel Geddes and Novak on the hotness scale. Hitchcock thought her the more accomplished actress, but the role required a star (Novak’s subtle performance improves with each viewing). [↩]
- A rediscovered alternate ending shows Scottie and Midge in Midge’s apartment where they hear on the radio that Elster has been arrested in Europe. [↩]