Vertigo ★★★★★

Part of Noir-November

“Only one is a wanderer. Two together are always going somewhere.”

“Not in history has a modern imperial city been so completely destroyed. San Francisco is gone.” So wrote Jack London after the 1906 earthquake and subsequent fire that demolished the Paris of the West. But San Francisco was not gone. It was rebuilt, and quickly, cementing its status as a financial and cultural center. From the ashes arose a beautiful city and a striking one, with stunning waterways and lovely architecture and steep hills and dense fog. A vibrant façade born of a tragic past.

Fitting that San Francisco should play host to Vertigo, Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece of romantic obsession. It is a swooningly romantic city, but its hilly terrain suggests instability. It is a sophisticated city, but that sophistication is an overlay distracting from its origins as a haven for fortune seekers sowing degeneracy on the Barbary Coast. It is a living postcard, but its picture-perfect image obscures a dark past.

As a child, I adored Vertigo. I watched it endlessly. I have written before about being an odd and sheltered child, but my adoration of Vertigo was self-imposed. My parents, mindful of content restrictions, limited viewing to old movies in which the Production Code did their due diligence for them. And my parents enjoyed Hitchcock films, with many a viewing of Rear Window and Dial M for Murder and The Man Who Knew Too Much begun at their decision. But Vertigo they didn’t much care for. It was too melancholy, too chilly, too stately. It lacked the droll wit and rip-roaring entertainment they sought from the Master of Suspense.

Not so for me. If given the opportunity to select a film for myself, I would cycle through a limited rotation of favorites. Some of these might be expected of a child—Mary Poppins, The Wizard of Oz, Lady and the Tramp. But Vertigo was always part of that rotation. I watched it countless times, always fully mesmerized by...well, by everything: James Stewart, Kim Novak, the score, the costumes, the famed Vertigo effect. A small child has no business being enthralled by a film as dark and tragic as Vertigo. Why was I?

I don’t rightly know. I would like to say that it was preternaturally good taste, that I was on the vanguard of Vertigo’s reappraisal, beating Sight & Sound by a good twenty-plus years. But that would be self-serving and at best only minimally accurate. The credit must go to Hitchcock, Stewart, Novak, et al., creators of a film so utterly beguiling it worked its magic on even a child’s short attention span. Everything I know about cinema, everything I love, everything that causes chills of breathless excitement to run down my spine, I learned from Vertigo. (At the risk of repeating myself, I was an odd child.) And for that, I am eternally grateful.

Everything about Vertigo is sublime, so carefully considered and constructed in service of its themes. But the film is never overbearing—it does not beat the viewer over the head. Rather, Hitchcock’s masterpiece has the quality of a dream, both recognizable and horrifying, both enticing and repulsive. The allure of manufacturing something perfect, of being in complete control, and the monstrous ways in which that drive can manifest, are easily seen as a personal confession or reflection of sorts by the notoriously meticulous and controlling director. But as with all deeply personal statements, Vertigo’s idiosyncrasy lends it a kind of universality—all of us struggle at times with the specter of the past, with an inability to move on, with obsession, with disregard for those around us. By holding up a mirror to his worst tendencies, Hitchcock held up a mirror to us all—it’s no wonder we cannot look away.

And look we do—apt for a film so very much about looking. From Saul Bass’ brilliant opening credits, beginning and ending with a close-up of a woman’s eye, the audience knows that it is in for a film about watching, about voyeurism—a favorite Hitchcock theme (it’s no coincidence that his name appears over the eye at the credits' end, a nod to his status as the ultimate voyeur). But as with most onlookers, John “Scottie” Ferguson’s (Stewart) sight is imperfect. He watches Madeleine Elster (Novak) as she drives around San Francisco, visiting flower shops and art museums and cemeteries and old hotels. He watches as she falls into San Francisco Bay out at Old Fort Point. He watches as she meanders through the redwoods. And by observing her he thinks he knows her, understands her, and can possess her. He is the male gaze sprung to life, with all of the deleterious side effects that implies.

Hitchcock puts his background in silent film to superb use, featuring long wordless sequences of Scottie trailing Madeleine, piecing together her activities and mental state, utilizing the visual aspect of a visual medium to full effect. This is seen perhaps most strikingly in the film’s many driving sequences—sequences in which the characters are almost always seen heading downhill, mirroring their precipitous mental states—not to mention the often-copied Vertigo effect (created by simultaneously zooming in and dollying out, a perfect visual representation of hyper-focused instability). Or consider the scene after Scottie fishes Madeleine from the water. The camera pans slowly from Scottie by his fireplace to his kitchen, where Madeleine’s garments hang drying, to his bedroom, where a naked Madeleine slumbers, the tight curl of her hair now replaced by dangling tresses. So much is imparted, about Scottie, about the aftermath of his rescue effort, about the sexual tension simmering between the characters, without a single word. One long look tells us all we need to know.

Of course, Vertigo is not a silent film, and its dialogue is as rich as its quiet spaces. Samuel Taylor’s script (co-credited to Alec Coppel) is beautifully structured, carefully setting up its characters so as to better tear them down. His words are ably abetted by Bernard Herrmann’s score, one of the most beautiful and haunting ever written, bearing the quality of a doomed fairy tale. “Scene d’Amour,” the famous love theme, is lushly romantic but in an overripe and overcast way; it is the romance of an obsessive, of one in love with an image, not of real flesh and blood, and its melancholy notes portend the tragedy haunting each of the film’s characters.

And what characters they are. Stewart delivers a career-best performance as Scottie, an acrophobic detective, now retired, talked by former classmate Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore) into trailing the man’s young, possibly possessed wife, Madeleine. Stewart endows Scottie with such tremendous depth and complexity that the audience cannot help but sympathize with him while finding his actions frightening and deplorable. Caught by an image of female perfection in Madeleine, Scottie is lost after her tragic suicide (which his acrophobia prevents him from stopping). His discovery of Judy (Novak), a seeming duplicate of the deceased Madeleine but trashy and brunette where Madeleine was refined and blonde, leads him down a path of engineering so fatally dysfunctional it is hard not to recoil in terror. And yet we also understand—he has suffered great loss and sees a chance to undo that loss, to recapture the past. Who hasn’t wanted to do that?

Stewart’s tour de force is matched by Novak in a tricky dual role. Her natural woodenness suits the cool, sleek Madeleine, the ne plus ultra of Hitchcock blondes. As Scottie first spies her in Ernie’s restaurant, black dress, pale skin, perfectly coiffed hair framed against a red wallpaper of unnatural vibrancy, she is walking snow-covered sex. His fascination is understandable even as Madeleine seems aloof and deathly, and Novak accomplishes the difficult task of selling both her allure and her ghostliness. (She is aided in no small part by the art direction, bathing the film in greens—the traditional Victorian color of ghosts—and reds—the traditional color of passion—as well as by Edith Head’s gorgeous costumes, which focus on whites, blacks, and greys, washing out her pale blonde complexion and lending her the pallor of an apparition.) Shifting from Madeleine’s eggshell façade to Judy’s brassy demeanor while maintaining continuity between the two is a remarkable feat, and one that Novak accomplishes quite well (a fact that truly shines on repeat viewings).

Finally, there is Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes), Scottie’s longtime friend and one-time fiancée. Midge inhabits a small but crucial role, humanizing Scottie in the early going; she lends him a past, a longstanding friendship, a romantic connection, a joshing joviality. (Her apartment, with its bright yellow walls and 1950s bohemian chic aesthetic, is notably devoid of the greens and reds and darkness dominating the rest of the film.) But Midge also permits shades of Scottie’s darker side to peak through before it comes to full flower. He chides her for being motherly, he teases her about their broken engagement. He can be casually cruel—a trait he will let loose with abandon on Judy—but he is also basically decent, enough so that Midge has stuck around. Equally important is Midge’s absence later on—the last time we see her is visiting Scottie is at a sanitarium following Madeleine’s death. Upon his release and re-entry into the world, she is nowhere to be found, which makes sense—his sole purpose now is to relentlessly, obsessively track down a substitute for his lost love. He has no time for Midge; she has lost him to a dead woman.

She is not the only one. Scottie has lost himself to Madeleine, as has Judy. Judy cannot preserve her identity in the face of Scottie’s unceasing pressure—the clothes, the hair, the makeup, all must give way to the delusion. As Scottie begs and insists that she abandon herself to him and Judy pleads for his love—for reasons of which the audience is all too aware—their dysfunctionality is heartbreakingly sad. It can’t matter to her, Scottie says, oblivious to the harm he is inflicting (and showing how little has changed since the era of Madeleine’s ancestor, Carlotta Valdes, who could be thrown away by a man no longer interested in her). But he is harming himself as well, perpetuating a destructive fantasy of downward mobility. And Judy is no innocent bystander, willingly acceding to Scottie’s demands. It is fraught with complexity and anguish, a trainwreck from which no one could look away.

Scottie cannot even touch Judy until she no longer exists, until under the green glow of the Empire Hotel’s neon sign Judy falls away and Madeleine enters in her place. Only then can they embrace and kiss, accompanied by memories of San Juan Bautista, where Madeleine and Scottie embraced and kissed before. Scottie told Madeleine then that by taking her there he would destroy the dream in which she was trapped and would snap her back to reality. Instead Scottie has fled reality for a dream, a strikingly lovely but ultimately necrotic image. One doesn’t often get a second chance, he tells Judy, while admonishing her for being too sentimental—advice he might have done well to heed himself. Not in history has a man so willingly and so completely destroyed everything he loved. Scottie, Madeleine, Judy—they’re gone.

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