Alfred Hitchcock Experiences “Vertigo”

17 01 2011

“I was intrigued by the hero’s attempts to re-create the image of a dead woman through another one who’s alive.” — Alfred Hitchcock

With “Vertigo,” Alfred Hitchcock explored some of his most challenging psychological terrain, and his thoughts on the movie cut right to the heart of what makes it so compelling and disturbing. Released in 1958 and starring James Stewart, Kim Novak and Barbara Bel Geddes, “Vertigo” was based on the French novel D’entre les morts, published in 1954.

Stewart plays John “Scottie” Ferguson, a San Francisco police officer who was forced to leave his job after his acrophobia causes the death of a fellow cop. While trying to pick up the pieces, he is contacted by college classmate who wants to hire him as a private investigator to follow his wife. The man, Gavin Elster, doesn’t believe she is having an affair, but does not know what to make of her strange behavior.

Ferguson explains this all to his friend, an artist called Midge (Bel Geddes), who’s in love with him. (She’s sort of a beatnik – you can tell because she calls Ferguson “Johnny-O.”) Ferguson begins to follow the beautiful, blond Madeleine Elster (Novak) as she leads him in her green Rolls Royce through a series of strange stops: A flower shop, where she looks almost wrapped in fog in her gray suit, a mission cemetery, and a museum where she sits in front of the portrait of Carlotta Valdes, who died in the late 19th century. Her final stop is at the foot of the Golden Gate Bridge, where she jumps into the water. Ferguson saves her from drowning and takes her back to his apartment.

When Madeleine regains her senses, Ferguson tries to question her, but she seems vague on the details of where she’s been and what she did. While Ferguson talks on the phone with Madeleine’s husband, he learns that Valdes was her great-grandmother, and that she killed herself after a tragic life.

Ferguson and Madeleine begin spending time together, and she reveals that she has thoughts of suicide that she must repress. After telling him about a bad dream, Ferguson takes Madeleine to the scene she describes at the Mission San Juan Batista. As he tries to bring her back to earth by showing her that her dream was not just a fantasy but a real place, he reveals that he’s falling in love with her. Looking more anxious than ever, Madeleine breaks away and rushes up to the bell tower. Ferguson follows, but can’t reach her due to an attack of vertigo, and as he struggles to climb the stairs, he sees her fall to her death.

After an inquest that clears Ferguson of wrongdoing but damns him for his weakness, Elster forgives him, but Ferguson himself is haunted by Madeleine’s death. He experiences a mental breakdown that’s expressed in a series of nightmarish images: Abstract animation that resembles the bouquet of primroses seen in the painting of Valdes, followed by an open grave and images of himself falling, shot in lurid reds. Ferguson is committed to an asylum for a time, unaware when Midge visits him.

Upper left, an image from the title sequence. Upper center and right and lower left, images from John Ferguson's nightmare; lower center, Madeleine's bouquet; lower right, Judy remade as Madeleine, enveloped in hazy green light.

Months later, Ferguson is released again, and he wanders the streets of San Francisco, visiting all the places where Madeleine had been. Eventually he spots a young woman who reminds him of Madeleine in a way. He talks his way into her hotel room, learning that her name is Judy Barton from Salina, Kansas. Although she does not seem to resemble Madeleine, with her auburn hair, plain green dress and less refined manner, Ferguson can’t stop himself from becoming obsessed with her. After getting her to agree to have dinner with him, she starts to write him a letter explaining that she was Madeleine, hired by Elster to take the place of his real wife so he could murder her, knowing that Ferguson would not be able to reach the top of the tower to see what was really happening.

After their dinner together, Ferguson begins to make her over, forcing her to get her hair bleached and finding her a gray suit like Madeleine’s. When Judy steps out of her bathroom in the suit, bathed in a hazy green light, Ferguson looks like he’s seeing an apparition. The illusion is shattered, though, when Judy asks Ferguson to help her with a necklace – the same necklace that Valdes wore in the museum portrait.

Realizing what’s been going on, Ferguson takes Judy on a drive back to the mission, where he makes her ascend the bell tower as he talks out what happened: That Elster used him and his acrophobia to create a case that Madeleine was mentally unstable so he could get away with murder. Halfway up the stairs, Ferguson realizes that his vertigo has gone away. Judy tries to explain what happened, and says that she loves Ferguson. Just then, a figure appears in the shadows. Ferguson turns to see who it is, and Judy, started by the intrusion, takes a step back and falls out the window to her death.

For foreign markets, Hitchcock was forced to create a coda that showed Midge listening to the radio report on Judy’s death and the impending arrest of Elster. As the report ends, Ferguson enters the apartment, looking completely exhausted. As Hitchcock himself might have said, the scene was simply too on the nose.

“Vertigo” may be the bleakest film Hitchcock ever made; the only light moment is the start of the scene at the beginning of the film, where Ferguson and Midge chat in her apartment; it plays like something out of “Rear Window,” in fact. From the death of Ferguson’s fellow police officer at the start of the movie to the way he thinks he sees the dead Madeleine everywhere to the end – how will Ferguson recover from Judy’s death, one wonders – the atmosphere is almost oppressive.James Stewart, in his last role for Hitchcock, looks desperate, panting and sweating as he tries to unravel the mystery. As Madeleine, Kim Novak is distracted and confused; as Judy, she is sullen and resentful. Even Barbara Bel Geddes’ Midge is hopelessly in love with Ferguson, knowing that he’ll never see how much she cares for him.

Hitch’s quote about “Vertigo” speaks to the most disturbing part of the movie, but also reflects the director’s own attitude toward actresses; Novak resisted wearing blond wigs for the part of Madeleine, and also did not wish to wear gray. Hitch’s response was that she could wear any color she wanted, as long as it was gray. (The part of Madeleine originally was to be played by Vera Miles, who had to drop out due to pregnancy.)

A dream-like quality pervades “Vertigo,” integrating the unbalanced psyches of Madeleine and Ferguson much more successfully than Hitchcock’s last exploration of similar territory in “Spellbound.” Hitchcock and cinematographer Robert Burks bathes the settings and characters in shades of reds and greens, giving everything a surreal quality (without resorting to melting watches!). The setting itself contributes to the story, from the magnificent Golden Gate Bridge to the phallic Coit Tower, from downtown San Francisco’s bustle to the quiet of the mission.

Of course, with a long sequence focusing on giving a woman a complete

Madeleine's hairstyle has a vortex all its own

makeover, costuming is enormously important here, and once again Edith Head’s contribution should not be overlooked. The contrast between Madeleine and Judy’s wardrobes tell us much about the two personas.

Bernard Herrmann once again creates a soundtrack that propels the story along, with swirling themes that emphasize the characters’ situations. Although overshadowed by his work on “Psycho,” the music for “Vertigo” is as compelling as the story itself.

“Vertigo” also featured the work of title designer Saul Bass, a newcomer to Hitchcock’s team. Bass had already set a new standard his field, making the title sequence a significant part of the movie for the first time. Here, Bass sets the tone of the movie, starting with a woman’s face under a red light, then moving in on her eye, from which emerges the first few credits. A series of swirling designs appears as the titles continue, until the eye reappears as the credits sequences comes to an end. Bass also designed the poster for “Vertigo,” which looks almost European, as it eschews the stars’ faces entirely.

Here’s the trailer for “Vertigo.” Not one of the best, considering how powerful the movie itself is — the dictionary definition of vertigo is mighty corny – but still worth a look:

Next, Hitchcock teams up one last time with Cary Grant for “North by Northwest,” Hitch’s greatest chase movie.

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3 responses

17 01 2011
Dorian Tenore-Bartilucci

Excellent review, as always, with great points about the parallels between Hitchcock’s tight leash on Kim Novak’s looks and style in real and reel life while filming VERTIGO! In a TALES OF THE EASILY DISTRACTED blog post last year, I had my own ideas on a happier outcome for Scottie and Judy, just for fun. If you’re interested, here’s the link: http://doriantb.blogspot.com/2010/08/if-i-let-you-change-me-will-that-do-it.html

17 01 2011
Ron Hobbs

Verigo is one of Hitchcock’s most complex movies and one of the most analyzed movies in filmdom. The score with it’s unresolved passages, creating a swirling sense of unbalance, is matched by the title images, the up and down locations of San Francisco, right down to the swirl at the back of Novak’s hair-do. Everything is set up to unsettle the viewer. As you point out, much of the movie is about the male control of the female image, (Scotty’s and Hithcock’s, although I think Hitch identified more with Elster) and the desire to perfect that control. Scotty is impotent and must be cured of his vertigo before he can make love, but the woman is an illusion. He is only cured of his vertigo when he revisits the past and confronts the truth, but by then it’s too late. This is Hitchcock’s most personal film.
A small indie movie called The Fluffer, released in the ninties, has a scene at a rave where a young film assistant gives a drug induced reading of Vertigo to his object of desire, describing the movie’s death/orgasm themes. That scene is worth watching, for that moment alone.
Looking at Vertigo, one sees new things over and over again. Like a spiral where you never reach the center.

6 08 2012
“Vertigo” Tops “Citizen Kane” as World’s Greatest Movie « Hitchcock and Me

[…] can look over the whole list of the BFI’s top 50 here. And here you can read my original blog post about “Vertigo.” Share […]

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