Norman N. Holland
I was reviewing movies for WGBH-TV in Boston, 1957-59, when Vertigo came out. Most critics simply said, ho-hum, another Hitchcock thriller. I thought it was a brilliant film, and said so. When we did our parody of the Academy Awards, we gave it what we called our "Anatomy Reward" for Best Picture of 1958. Now, of course, everybody says it's a masterpiece. I was there first, though. I feel I discovered this movie. It is oddly precious to me.
Among the regular critics' readings of Vertigo, I find Robin Wood's the most telling. Wood talks about the film in terms of the mysterious, in every sense, including the religious, breaking into an otherwise ordered and lawful world. The film upsets the world of the 1950s: enlightened, rational, progressive, surpassing, even discarding, the past. In Vertigo, this is Midge's world, in which a brassiere is designed by an engineer like a cantilever bridge. He, incidentally, works "down the peninsula" (Silicone Valley?). The phrase is later used to describe the mysterious San Juan Bautista.
The premise of the film, Wood writes, is a man who has faced death. At first he tries to pick up his life again, logically, step by step, on the ladder in Midge's apartment. Then he is offered something else: mystery, the supernatural, a life beyond death. He is offered, in short, Madeleine, the Magdalene, the woman who opens the mysteries of love.
The opening chase sounds one theme like a prelude: Scottie's fear of heights leads to the death, not of the criminal, the guilty man, but of the policeman trying to rescue Scottie, an innocent, even a hero. The theme is guilt, irrational, undeserved guilt.
Then, throughout the first two parts of the film, Scottie's two women square off around the question of what's rational. Midge is the rational human, who doesn't for a minute believe a ghost from the past is taking over Madeleine Elster. She laughs at the idea. Madeleine represents that irrational idea as not only possible, but as actually happening. She embodies the mysterious. Judy, in her turn, de-mystifies the mysterious. As I read the film, by their last night together, Judy and Scottie might put their relationship together again on an honest basis. In the last moments of the film, however, a nun breaks into the film frame. The mysterious breaks into the rational again--and Judy falls from the tower, for real this time.
Hitchcock's own cameo appearance seems to me to bear out Wood's reading. (I think one can show that all of Hitchcock's signature appearances in his films "fit" their themes--at least as I interpret them.) He walks across the film frame, carrying a trumpet case, as Scottie is about to go upstairs to Elster's office in the shipyard. I read Hitchcock as marking the move from one world to another. He is a Pied Piper, leading Scottie away from the realistic world, where, as "hard-headed Scot," he has just been trying rationally to overcome his acrophobia. He enters the mysterious world that Elster will build for him. Elster's office, Wood says (112), takes us from enlightened modernity in Midge's apartment to a fantastic past in which men had the freedom and power to use women and throw them away.
If I follow out Wood's reading, in the first third of the film, Scottie is himself the rationalist. He tries to overcome his acrophobia rationally. He tries to correct Elster's apparent delusion. He tries to persuade Madeleine that "There's an answer for everything." In the second third, he is overwhelmed by his guilt and mourning--irrational forces. In the last third, he is lost in mystery, but we know what he doesn't know. He, not we, submits to the irrational, the mysterious, only to find what we have known since Judy Barton's soliloquy, namely, that it was not irrational at all. Restored to rational understanding, however, he suffers the same loss again, now in a truly mysterious way--because of the nun, who breaks into the scene. "I heard voices."
My summary cannot capture Wood's complex and subtle treatment of many details. What I carry away is his general idea. It gives me a way of reading the film that makes intellectual sense of many details. What it does not do is give me a way of coping with the flaws I see in this film.
I feel I discovered this film. Accordingly, I feel possessive. As if it were my child, I want it to be perfect. I resent its flaws, and they are many and obvious. For example, how did Scottie get down from the roof? A loose end. Another is the visibly artificial color process, Technicolor distorted in some way. In this, as in many of Hitchcock's movies, he uses process shots: he photographs some action against a projected background, so that the studio doesn't have to make an expensive set or shoot on location. These scenes look fake when the projected background doesn't match the colors or the contrast ratio of the rest of the scene. Hitchcock, I think, lets that happen deliberately.
In Vertigo, I sense such a mismatched process shot when Scottie and Madeleine kiss by the cedars of Monterey, itself a movie cliché. Scottie's mute driving around San Francisco as he trails Madeleine Elster, seems equally "off." Yet the off-ness fits. It adds to the strangeness and unreality of mysterious Madeleine. Hitchcock keeps me in two different states of mind. In one, I know I am watching a fake, a fiction, an untruth. In the other, I feel as though it's real because I am involved and I want to know what will happen next--I care.
The key process shot--and, of course, this one is deliberate--occurs when Scottie has finally, utterly re-created Madeleine in Judy. He kisses her passionately, totally. The camera circles the kissing couple, focused on them, romantic music soaring. The background, however, changes from the pale green of Judy's hotel room to the black wood and leather of the stable at San Juan Bautista where Scottie last passionately kissed Madeleine. Hitchcock is using the unreality. Intellectually I get the idea that the two women are now one. Emotionally, at this moment of love triumphant, I feel dizzy and confused.
The most important unreality is, of course, the whole murder plot itself. It's preposterous. Who on earth would hatch this incredible scheme to murder his wife? All this fakery so that people will believe Elster's wife fell off the mission tower? What ever happened to blunt instruments or the taste-free poison? Why not hire a killer instead of a detective?
How could Gavin Elster be sure that Scottie would fall for Madeleine or that his vertigo would outweigh his love for her? How could he possibly be sure that Ferguson would not look at the first Madeleine's body after it fell from the tower and realize this was not his Madeleine? Ferguson is, after all, a detective. He has fallen in love with Madeleine. And he won't look? How could Elster be sure Judy playing Madeleine wouldn't slip up somewhere? As she does in the last part of the movie.
I find myself thinking how absurd all this is. But I think that after the movie is over, not during it. It is Hitchcock's art, his genius, to sucker me into belief. He displaces my attention from Elster's plan, which we do not learn about until two-thirds of the way through. He focuses me instead on the possibility that a dead woman from the nineteenth century is taking over a live one. He gets me to believe that.
I think what Hitchcock is encouraging is my projection. We have fifteen minutes of dialogueless film as Scottie drives around after Madeleine's Bentley, seeing her follow out the life of Carlotta Valdes. All that time, I watch as Scottie watches. I wonder, as he wonders, What the hell is going on? There is no critique, no "voice of reason." And I believe.
Hollywood these days tries to make us believe by elaborate make-up or special effects or quadraphonic sound. This ultimate in realism puts a finis to projection. The current Hollywood "product," the "McMovie," as Harvey Greenberg calls it, leaves no room for our imagination. Today's thriller or horror film acts out a fantasy literally. By doing so, though, they limit us to that one fantasy.
Hitchcock, by his unrealities and improbabilities, gets me to judge them. In doing so, I participate in the movie and, ultimately, project into it, remedy its defects with my own imagination. Let's face it, most people nowadays, brought up on a visual diet of commercial television, never develop much sense of unreality or imagination. By contrast, Hitchcock mobilizes my wish to believe, to not feel that the movie is fake. In doing so he gets me to help create the movie, to project my wishes into it, my wish that a Madeleine not die, but go on immortally. My denial of death.
I think Hitchcock gets me to project by his use of "the uncanny." Freud gave a prescription for eerie or "horror" effects in films and stories in his remarkable 1919 essay, "The Uncanny." Hitchcock elicits belief and consequent fear by presenting some infantile or unconscious mode of mental functioning as if it were actually happening. Wood's reading-- the irrational breaking into the rational--sets the film precisely into Freud's formula.
In Vertigo, the regression is the belief that one is being possessed by the dead. That is, after all, a kind of version of the normal mourning process, of (in psychoanalytic jargon) introjecting the lost object, less formally, not "letting go." In effect, Madeleine is introjecting and identifying with a lost object, Carlotta Valdes. Then in the second and last thirds, Scottie cannot let go of the lost Madeleine and tries to re-create her.
That would be an object-relations reading. Back in 1958, however, I built my review around Freud's ideas of the uncanny and the repetition compulsion. Here is a transcript of that forty-year-old television program, a specimen of New Criticism (please forgive my spoken English):
The much more subtle and complex way of making a frightening movie [than by special effects] is by what Freud called "the uncanny." He meant: a work of art which translates into reality something which is either an infantile way of thinking, which you have since outgrown, or a repressed thought buried in your unconscious. Both these, when they come back and seem to be happening in reality, are terribly, terribly frightening.
This image of looking down past things repeated is the central image of the picture, because this is a picture which is essentially about a variety of different kinds of repetition. The picture itself, the plot, is built on a twofold structure, where the first episode, which comes to an end in the middle of the picture, is repeated in a sort of horrible way in the second episode of the picture. The picture has this double repetition of plot. But there are all kinds of repetitions in the picture. That spiral which was bouncing around on your television screen not so long ago was an attempt to duplicate what Mr. Hitchcock does during the screen creditsú.ú.ú. A whole lot of spirals, which are, after all, repeated figures whirring around on the screen.
There are other kinds of repetition. At one point Jimmy Stewart and Kim Novak go out to a redwood forest, and they look at a cross-section of a redwood tree, seeing the various rings of the redwood tree, which again suggest the succession of seasons, a repetition of things in time and space.
Through it all there is a structure of two-ness. There is the double plot I have already mentioned. Two, if you have ever gone into medieval number symbolism, or if you have ever looked up Freud's speaking of numbers in dreams, two is a feminine number, for obvious anatomical reasons.
[Midge] is a sort of sweater-and-skirt type. Mrs. Holland pointed out, all the sweaters are the same kind of sweater, the same monotonous design of cardigan, just in different colors.
Another element repeated in the picture is water. The husband of Kim Novak is a shipbuilder, as we have seen, and this associates him with the water. A lot of the critical scenes of this movie take place in or around water. Now water suggests repetition by the wave surface, which is another form of repetition, but also water in a Freudian sense (we are just bristling with Freud tonight) is one of the powerful symbols for mother. And mother is a powerful repetitious force in our lives.
For a man, every woman he falls in love with after his mother will have something to do with her. For a woman, all of her behavior patterns will be determined in part by her mother. So when [Midge] says to Jimmy Stewart, "Just call me mother," she is picking up this water image but also she is reminding you of the repetitious quality of family.
Reality around us is cyclic. The human being himself tends to return to death, to an earlier state of affairs when he was just dead matter. In the cycle of the seasons, in all the cyclic processes of nature around us, we see this tendency to return to an earlier state of affairs. Vertigo is dealing with this compulsion to repeat, this idea of the death wish, something that is deeply buried in our own psyches. That makes the film frightening, but also developing a universal principle of reality, which in a very real sense describes the human predicament. That is why this is so much better a picture than any Hitchcock has done before.
Much in the manner of 1958, I looked for a centering essence to the picture, an essence that would express some universal human principle. I found it in psychoanalytic ideas like the uncanny and the repetition compulsion.
Vertigo is also a film about the triple goddess. This is an idea popularized by Robert Graves, and it figures prominently in Jungian criticism. I first encountered it in Freud's essay on The Merchant of Venice and King Lear, "The Theme of the Three Caskets." Mythologists point to the repeated occurrence in myth and legend of triads of women: the Gorgons, the Graces, the graiai, the moirai (Fates), the Norns, Macbeth's "weird sisters," and so on. Often, the triad follows the pattern of the Fates, the first associated with birth, the second with the course of life, the third with death--in T. S. Eliot's phrase, "birth and copulation and death." Sometimes they follow the related pattern of a virgin or spring goddess, a mother or harvest goddess, finally a crone or death-goddess. Persephone in her six months on earth, Demeter the goddess of fertility and harvest, Persephone-the- destroyer in her six months in Hades. Sometimes they follow the pattern of virgin or unattainable love, the lush, sensual woman, the old woman.
The pattern occurs over and over in fictions, and it occurs in Vertigo, which is, most of us would say, a film much about women or Woman. Midge identifies herself at least three times as "mother." "Mother's here," she says to Scottie in the mental hospital. By contrast, Madeleine is an idealized image of woman, like a goddess, a Venus. The deadly third woman is the nun, dressed in black, who causes Judy/Madeleine's death. She echoes Carlotta Valdes, the Mater Dolorosa, who also burst into Madeleine's life (supposedly).
Midge is altogether different, the woman to relate to, to talk to, to be friends with. Madeleine is the woman to look at. Indeed, Scottie looks at her naked after he fishes her out of San Francisco Bay. (Death and rebirth? Botticelli's Birth of Venus?) The nun is the woman we don't see, the woman in darkness and shadow. So is Carlotta Valdes, another destroyer (supposedly).
In the film, Scottie realizes that Judy and Madeleine are one, when Judy puts on the red jeweled pendant that had supposedly been Carlotta Valdes'. I see a contrast between that bloody red and the greens that Hitchcock deliberately associated with Judy/Madeleine: Madeleine's and Judy's green dresses; the green soft-focus effect associated first with Madeleine, then with the remade Judy; the green neon sign flashing outside Judy's window; the giant redwoods, sempervirens, always green.
Red and green. Stop and go. Green and go occur with looking, fantasizing, with the unreal and ideal woman from the past. Red and stop occur with sexuality or the genitals, the moment when the ideal woman is seen to be the low, sluttish woman or vice versa. In other words, the recognition scene in the movie acts out the same split in male sexuality that Madeleine and Judy do: the ideal, unreal woman and the available, sexual tramp. The cliché: is Madonna-whore. The mirror in that scene splits Kim Novak in two, as so many mirrors in this film have done. Then the film undoes that split. The two kinds of women are one, and that is a horror.
A red oval jewel with ornamentation around it, hanging down. As so often in Hitchcock's work, the symbolism is "Freudian" and a bit obvious. Interestingly, we never see Madeleine wear that jewel, although Elster tells Scottie, "When she is alone, she takes them [Carlotta's jewels] out and handles them gently." We see the pendant in Carlotta's portrait. We see it in the mock portrait Midge paints of herself in the role of Carlotta. And, of course, at the climactic moment of the film, we see Judy wearing it. It is as though we can the red object on the other versions of Woman but not on the idealized goddess.
Hitchcock, I think, is playing in this film with my emotions about my mother. He uses the anxious combination of the ideal love one feels (or felt) toward a mother and one's feelings toward a woman announcing her sexuality. That is the love (or lust) Scottie feels for Madeleine, and evidently he has never before experienced this kind of total love (or lust) as an adult. It is total commitment. She is an ideal, cool, aloof, mysterious, a goddess.
Madeleine is a woman located in past generations, but she is also now. There is a hint of eternity about her. She is both all-powerful and helpless, needing to be rescued from the spirit that is possessing her. She is the woman-to-be-looked-at, the goddess on a pedestal, one of Hitchcock's blond heroines like Madeleine Carroll.
I think we are seeing something about Hitchcock's idea of woman. The "royal road" to Hitchcock's psyche, it seems to me, is the changes Hitchcock did and did not make in his source. Vertigo is based on a novel, D'entre les morts (From Among the Dead) by the two French writers, Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac. They had written the screenplay for Diabolique, one of the scariest movies ever made. According to Fran;ccedil;ois Truffaut, in his book of interviews with Hitchcock, they wrote this book precisely for Hitchcock. They were not on contract. They just hoped he would option it and make a movie of it, and he did.
Some things Hitchcock took over directly from the novel. He kept the basic plot. A husband gets rid of a wife by involving a friend with a woman playing the role of the wife, who then is killed. In the novel, the villainous husband's name is Gévigne. This becomes Gavin in the film. Hitchcock also kept the name Madeleine. She is the Magdalene, the woman Christ transformed from a prostitute to a saint. Medieval paintings show Mary Magdalene as a penitent with a box of ointment or reading alone before a tomb or a skull. The film shows her that way when she sits before Carlotta Valdes' portrait holding a bouquet.
Some changes Hitchcock made simply to suit American audiences, like changing from Paris-Marseilles to San Francisco. Others are more ingenious, like using the same church tower for the two deaths.
One major addition Hitchcock made was the Midge character and the whole plot associated with her. Entirely Hitchcock's, she is the rational foil to the fabulous, mysterious Madeleine. Midge is the non-ideal, an available woman, the woman to relate to as an equal or even to patronize a bit, a pal, the gal next door. "Mother's here." She is the woman Scottie has apparently outgrown, a woman who would like to be seductive and sexual, but is cozy instead.
Then, both Madeleine and Midge contrast with the sluttish Judy Barton who lets us know that many men have tried to pick her up (and some succeeded). Midge draws brassieres for a living, and both she and Madeleine are well girded in the bra department. Kim Novak, however, Hitchcock told Truffaut (248), took particular pride in not wearing a bra when she was playing Judy Barton.
Hitchcock, as I read him, is playing with a powerful tension I felt, perhaps all men and women feel. He plays off the idealized goddess-mother of infancy against the later, more realistic mother, necessarily less the total possession of the infant. He gives us two versions of that later non-ideal, one asexual (Midge) and one sexual (Judy). Judy is or was the father-figure's (Elster's) woman. Hitchcock had originally planned to use Vera Miles for Madeleine/Judy, he told Truffaut (247), but she "became pregnant." "After that I lost interest." "I couldn't get the rhythm going with her again."
If I read the film for what it did for Hitchcock, I find an image of his wish fulfilled. As Donald Spoto points out (275), Hitchcock in making Vertigo is like Pygmalion, an artist creating the perfect woman to show up the deficiencies of ordinary women. Here, The ideal woman is secretly the sexual woman, and the sexual woman can be turned into an ideal. Not the merely "nice" woman. When nice, pure Midge shows him the picture of herself as Carlotta Valdes, Scottie is disgusted, turned off, angry. The ideal has to be the sexual, even sluttish, woman. From her, Scottie (and earlier Gavin Elster) made the ideal.
Guilt is another Hitchcockian change from the source. Many critics have pointed to the Catholic-raised Hitchcock's preoccupation with guilt, particularly undeserved guilt. Here, he makes the Scottie character present at the first death (not so in the novel). He makes the falls take place from a church tower, with priests and nuns as witnesses. He adds a long, droning monologue by the coroner, stressing Scottie's guilt (undeserved). He gives Scottie a guilty nightmare and a nervous breakdown. In the second death in the novel, the Scottie character himself kills his re-created love. In the film, Scottie is innocent, but who is going to believe him? That coroner? A man twice present when a woman he is involved with falls from the same church tower? No way.
There are minor Hitchcockian themes as well: "the woman with glasses." Here, it is Midge. In Strangers on a Train it is the repellent first wife (to be killed) and the homely kid sister (and Hitchcock cast his own daughter Patricia in that role). There is something wrong with people with glasses, particularly women. They don't "look right." They are not pleasant to look at, and they themselves can't look, and looking is terribly important to Hitchcock. In this movie, like many of Hitchcock's, the core of the action is looking (think of Rear Window). Here it is looking at that goddess-like blonde.
Stairs are another Hitchcock preoccupation. Horrible things happen in Hitchcock movies at the top or the bottom of stairs-- as in this film. Some critics have spoken of a "Hitchcock image," a corridor, tunnel, or drain, some receding hole, anyway. Something goes into it and disappears or something scary comes out of it. Here we see it in Judy's coming down the corridor or out of the bathroom when she is finally toute Madeleine, Midge going down the corridor at the mental hospital, above all, the look down the stairway in the church tower. As a psychoanalytic critic, I can't help referring this to fantasies or memories of the primal scene (a child's witnessing sexual intercourse). I would expect such preoccupations with a gifted filmmaker.
There is a famous effect in this film. Some have dubbed it "the Hitchcock shot," It could be called the Vertigo shot. Three times he achieves the dizzying and disorienting effect of vertigo. We see it first when Scottie looks down and freezes, causing the policeman's death. We see it the second time when he runs up the tower after Madeleine the first time. We see it the second and third times when he runs up the tower after Madeleine. In the final shot, however, looking down from the tower, Scottie does not have vertigo. He has been cured, but at what a cost!
Hitchcock had wanted to do such a shot for a long time. After fifteen years (and some technological innovations), he realized he could do it by zooming the lens in (increasing its focal length) and dollying the camera out at the same time. Why did he obsess about it for fifteen years? Perhaps because one goes in and out at the same time, both closer to the subject and more distant.
Hitchcock carried over some of the larger elements of the novel unchanged, like the trip to the cemetery or the old hotel. He also took unchanged some of the smallest details from the novel such as the "gray suit, very tight at the waist" (Boileau and Narcejac 1956, 25), "severely cut." (28). But the Madeleine of the novel is "dark and slim" (20), with "dark hair discreetly tinted with henna" (23), "abundant hair which seemed too heavy for her face" (20). Hitchcock's transcendent Madeleine is one of the luscious blonde women who step through his films in almost endless procession: Madeleine Carroll, Joan Fontaine, Marlene Dietrich, Janet Leigh, Doris Day, Tippi Hedren, above all, Grace Kelly.
Scottie re-creates the goddess Madeleine from the tarty Judy (as Christ, the Hanging Man, transformed the Magdalene). But Scottie is only re-creating. At the end we learn that Gavin Elster was the first to create the blond goddess from the tramp. (Robin Wood cleverly points out that Elster is a shipbuilder, ships are she's, Elster is a she-builder.) But even Elster was not the first.
That was Hitchcock himself. As he said of Vera Miles, this was "the part that was going to turn her into a star." It is Hitchcock who will create the blond goddess. When he chose Novak, he annoyed her by making her set her hair and wear clothes in ways he liked and she didn't.
Hitchcock's contempt for actors was legendary. "Actors are cattle," he is said to have said. In later years, I've read, he would drive up in his Rolls Royce, check the scene out, then drive off, leaving the actual shooting to his assistant. To be sure, he had elaborately and meticulously sketched out the whole scene on paper the night before. But even so! Actors for Hitchcock were not supposed to act, they were just supposed to be there. "James Stewart," commented Truffaut (111), "isn't required to emote; he simply looks-- three or four hundred times--and then you show the viewer what he's looking at."
What gives Hitchcock's actors their emotion is the Kuleshov effect (Holland 1989) It's not their acting, but the surrounding situation. And that Hitchcock controlled totally.
Consider Kim Novak's acting, about which critics (and Hitchcock himself) have had their doubts. Take the scene after the supposed drowning, when she comes out of the bedroom. Seeing the movie the first time, you think she's embarrassed because Scottie has seen her naked. Seeing the movie the second time, you realize that Novak's character was pretending to be unconscious and is now pretending to be embarrassed. The actress is pretending to pretend to be embarrassed. What a challenge! Wow! Terrific! And Novak carries it off! Or does she? Isn't it the situation that clues us to read her behavior as a double-level pretense? The meaning of her acting depends on what we know of the circumstances around the event. It depends on what Hitchcock has set up, not what Novak does.
I think Hitchock's practice is part of his world-view: people are at the mercy of their surroundings, dwarfed, for example, by Mt. Rushmore or the Statue of Liberty. I think that is why Hitchcock is drawn to psychiatric explanations, which are invariably over-simple (as at the end of Psycho or Marnie). In Vertigo, a psychiatrist describes Scottie's breakdown as "acute melancholia together with a guilt complex," labels that say nothing. I think Hitchcock uses such cookbook psychiatry to image people as controlled by circumstances. Psychiatric explanations are worthless, because the problem is deeper. If you are guilty, undeservedly guilty, the reason is in the universe.
My point is, that is why Hitchcock insisted on as much control over his films as he could get. He was the controlling circumstance. He was the god in charge of creating the blond goddess. "Miss Novak arrived on the set with all sorts of preconceived notions that I couldn't possibly go along with," he told Truffaut (247-8). "I went to Kim Novak's dressing room and told her about the dresses and hair-dos that I had been planning for several months. I also explained that the story was of less importance to me than the over-all visual impact on the screen, once the picture is completed." Exactly what Scottie does in the film itself.
Hitchcock wanted to look at that ideal blond woman. The operative word is look, something he shared with most male moviegoers and probably many women. (Nowadays critics talk about "the gaze.") For example, there is a scene where, it is clear, Scottie has seen Madeleine naked. (I read his expression when he ministers as a possessive smirk, even a leer.) This being 1958, we do not see her nude. We infer what happened. (Hitchcock is using, as always, the audience's projection.) Conversely, according to Hitchcock,
Cinematically, all of Stewart's efforts to re-create the dead woman are shown in such a way that he seems to be trying to undress her, instead of the other way around. What I liked best is when the girl came back after having had her hair dyed blond. James Stewart is disappointed because she hasn't put her hair up on a bun. What this really means is that the girl has almost stripped, but she still won't take her knickers off. When he insists, she says, "All right!" and goes into the bathroom while he waits outside. What Stewart is really waiting for is for the woman to emerge totally naked this time, and ready for love (Truffaut, 244).
Truffaut comments simply, "That didn't occur to me." (And he a Frenchman!) It didn't occur to me either, and I think Hitchcock's idea that he is undressing Judy has more to do with his fantasies than anything we are seeing on the screen. (It has been suggested to me, though, that that final bun is another symbol for the female genitals--golden this time.)
Re-creating Madeleine was evidently the fun of the film for Hitchcock. It is for me, too, and so is looking at the cool elegant Madeleine during the first third, as it probably was for Hitchock. Then there are two other moments that trouble me, that make me feel distinctly uncomfortable.
In one, Midge cheerily shows Scottie the portrait she has painted of herself in the role of Carlotta Valdes (complete with the fateful red jewel). She expects him to laugh along with her and get past his obsessive belief that Madeleine is being possessed by a dead woman. Instead, he is repelled. Mild Johnny reacts strongly, rejecting the picture--and her. His harsh words are, I believe, the last words he speaks to her in the film. She cries bitterly over her foolish attempt at a joke after he leaves. Why was it so awful?
The other discomfort comes right after Scottie has seen Judy Barton on the street. He comes up to her hotel room and begs her to have dinner with him. She finally says yes. Right after that, Hitchcock lets us in on Judy's secret. She starts to write Scottie a confession and farewell, but changes her mind. It is at this point that we learn what Gavin Elster's plot was and how Judy abetted him in it.
Telling us the answer to the mystery two-thirds of the way through is Hitchcock's most brilliant stroke in Vertigo. In the novel, that is the mystery, revealed only in the last pages. Hitchcock's team all told him not to do this, but it is a genuine stroke of genius. From that moment, we know what Scottie doesn't know and Judy does know. As Hitchcock put it--
The truth about Judy's identity is disclosed but only to the viewer . . . that Judy isn't just a girl who looks like Madeleine, but that she is Madeleine! Everyone around me was against this change; they all felt the revelation should be saved for the end of the picture. I put myself in the position of a child whose mother is telling him a story . . . . In my formula, the little boy (sic), knowing that Madeleine and Judy are the same person, would then ask, "And Stewart doesn't know it, does he? What will he do when he finds out about it?" . . . . We give the public the truth about the hoax so that our suspense will hinge around the question of how Stewart is going to react when he discovers that Judy and Madeleine are actually the same person (Truffaut, 243).
In other words, the focus changes from the mystery about Madeleine to What will happen when he finds out? We will have shifted from staring at the blond goddess to a much more human problem: what will happen to Judy when Scottie finds out?
Both the episode of the fake portrait and the revelation that Judy is Madeleine feel uncomfortable to me. I understand the portrait episode as asking me to identify Midge with the fantasy woman. The confession shifts me from re-creating the gorgeous Madeleine, too beautiful to be real, into the real relationship between Judy and Scottie. I think it is because both moments lead me away from the fantasy I enjoy, looking at this perfect woman, too beautiful to be real. Both moments ask me to relate instead of look.
Frankly, I would rather look. I like following Madeleine in the first part. I like the rescue from the Bay and seeing her nude, at least in my imagination. I like the last third, when Scottie re-creates Madeleine.
One way I see this film is as this man's, Scottie's, two relationships to women. Perhaps it is about all men's relationships to women--or Hitchcock's. Perhaps it is only moviegoers' relations, entranced by these ideal figures on screen who so contrast with our everyday lives. Perhaps it is "about" the psyche of the typical moviegoer, at least the male moviegoer. Perhaps it reaches women because both genders have the same early emotions toward a mother. Once she was the ideal and she necessarily ceases to be. Or perhaps I am linking the film to a man's wish for a lover who would submit completely, give up all, even identity, and expect nothing in return. Perhaps I see the film as about the way such a wish limits and subverts real love, such as Scottie might have had with Midge. It is a wish that limits Scottie, limits Elster, limits Hitchcock, limits me.
Why, then, do I feel this is such a "great" film? I know it is, because I can show (to my own satisfaction, anyway) how beautifully articulated it is, how every moment contributes to the unity and complexity of the whole. But why do I feel it is?
I think I feel it is because the film deals with my own major defense, denial. Scottie can deny the impossibility of a woman from the past taking over a living person (something realistic Midge never for a moment believes). He is freed of his responsibility for the "death" of the first Madeleine and, by the appearance of the nun, for the second.
The snide coroner, in his nasty, nasal monologue (entirely Hitchcock's addition), insists on Scottie's responsibility. He failed to acknowledge the realities of the situation, Madeleine's apparent illness and his own vertigo. He is guilty, guilty, guilty. Scottie has a nightmare and breaks down. Somewhat recovered, he wanders the streets looking for his lost love, until he meets Judy and, mournfully, re-creates the lost Madeleine.
My own feelings as he re-creates Madeleine are: Why not? He has managed the impossible. He has managed to create or re-create this gorgeous movie star woman. She loves him. Why not enjoy it? Why not love her, have an affair, whatever? The fantasy woman is made real. Scottie begins this movie as a failed detective. He is wearing a corset, thus feminized, leaning on a cane, unable to climb three steps, unable to sustain a sexual relationship (his failed engagement to Midge). This weak man is not only able to create the ideal woman, he even possesses her (in the fadeout after Judy appears with Madeleine's hairdo).
Then, in the final moments of the film, miraculously, Scottie is not guilty! Sure, everybody will think he is, but he isn't really. He is not an unrealistic, demanding, unfeeling lover whose deficiencies lead to the death of the loved one. No! He was the victim!
The film feels "right" to me because I can intellectualize about it and interpret it. It feels "profound" to me, though, because it has dealt with a psychological issue near the center of my being: denials leading to finalities, the failure of relationships, even to death. Denials of the unreality of someone like Madeleine, a denial that limits and subverts real love.
Vertigo not only dramatizes such denials, but it also achieves them. The film says (to me, anyway), there is another rational, simpler explanation for the failure of relationships. It isn't Scottie's or my denial. There is no cause deep in the mind's mysteries. It was them. It was the wicked man associated with wealth, the past, with freedom and power, particularly the freedom and power to use and throw away women, him and his sluttish mistress. They are the guilty ones--just them, out there, on the screen, in the movie.
Denial triumphs. I have canceled the guilt, changed the years, undone the loss, turned back time, denied denial itself. I have achieved (in fantasy) the goddess-woman-mother. I have achieved that power and freedom men speak of three times in the film, the power and freedom to use women and toss them away. Elster, Scottie, Hitchcock with his total control of star and film--and now me, the critic attaining the power and freedom I envy in the artist. And I pay just enough of a price, the death of Judy/Madeleine, revealed now as the guilty party, so that I am truly freed. At least for the 120 minutes of Vertigo.
Boileau, Pierre, and Thomas Narcejac. Vertigo [orig. The Living and the Dead]. Trans. from D'entre les morts. New York: Dell, 1956.
Freud, Sigmund. "The `Uncanny.'" Trans. Alix and James Strachey. Standard Edition 17. 1955 (1919). 217-56.
Holland, Norman N. "Film Response from Eye to I: The Kuleshov Experiment." South Atlantic Quarterly 80.2 (1989): 416- 42.
Spoto, Donald. The Art of Alfred Hitchcock: Fifty Years of His Motion Pictures. 2nd ed. New York: Doubleday, 1992.
Truffaut, Francois. Hitchcock. Rev. Edition. With Helen G. Scott. New York: Simon & Schuster (Touchstone), 1984.
Wood, Robin. Hitchcock's Films Revisited. New York: Columbia University Press, 1989.
Norman N. Holland
Department of English
University of Florida
P. O. Box 117310
Gainesville FL 32611-7310 U.S.A.