Who cares if it’s Friday the 13? I feel lucky you stopped by to comment on this month’s discussion of The Lucky 13 Film Club. Welcome, Eric, whose favorite film is Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo. Whether you’ve seen it once or ten times, there’s something new to notice. Have you visited Eric’s blog? He writes solid reviews. Check out Diary of A Movie Maniac HERE.
THE NAKED ARTIST
Fade in. There’s a lot going on in Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo. Keep in mind that this is Hitchcock’s most personal movie — an unremittingly introspective work. The more you know about the director, the more you understand the movie. The main character, Scottie Ferguson (James Stewart), is essentially a cipher that the director uses to channel his most personal feelings. Madeleine/Judy (Kim Novak) is primarily a cathartic tool.
SEX, LIES AND VERY HIGH PLACES
Hitchcock’s brutal critique of the shortcomings of idealization is at the center of the movie. Idealism tends to have positive connotations. It’s often used to describe a person’s high morals. In Vertigo, interestingly, Hitchcock suggests that the opposite is true. Scottie suffers a moral disintegration as he attempts to pursue his romantic ideal. In other words, Vertigo is to cinema what F. Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby is to literature. Jay Gatsby attempts to rekindle a long-ago romance with disastrous consequences. Fitzgerald hints at the possibility that Gatsby is trying to revive a memory corrupted by nostalgia. In Vertigo, Hitchcock goes one step further and clearly states that Scottie is trying to “resuscitate” (literally and figuratively) something that never existed. Both stories are cautionary tales about the destructive pursuit of idealized goals. Perfect idealization can’t be achieved because we are operating in an imperfect world. Like Fitzgerald, Hitchcock understood too well the very human struggle between desires and the need to deal with life’s inescapable truths.
Hitchcock was defined in great part by his strict Jesuit education, something that might or might not explain his theories and technique. Idealism is an essential part of (any) religion while pragmatism is mostly seen as a more secular philosophy. In Vertigo, Hitchcock seems to reject the notion that achieving an ideal life is more important than learning to deal with worldly realities. Was Hitchcock trying to voice his disillusionment with Catholicism, or any religion for that matter?
Hitchcock also turns romanticism on its head. It all plays like a perverted version of Pygmalion/My Fair Lady. Madeline/Judy is subjected to cruel and degrading treatment by her two lovers. There is nothing noble, rational, or healthy about Scottie’s obsessive love. His predatory behavior is every bit as bad as Gavin’s (Tom Helmore), the story’s main villain. Scottie & Gavin are made virtually interchangeable. In doing so, Hitchcock implies that you can’t separate objectification from desire. Here is some food for thought.
THE DARK ART OF FORGERY
Vertigo is a sensory experience. It’s deliberately stylized. The baroque music, the haunting cinematography, the artificial sets, the forceful palette of colors, etc., every aspect of the movie is designed to snare the audience. Hitchcock insisted that humans are easily tricked by what their senses tell them. Vertigo is as much about a man being fooled by his own desires as it is about cinema’s potential to manipulate visually and sonically.
GOOD NIGHT AND SWEET DREAMS
Although it is often described as downbeat and misanthropic, Vertigo has a satisfying ending, perhaps even optimistic, in an offbeat way. The film deals with very human emotions, feelings. Scottie finds the truth — “truth shall set you free” — and suddenly he is freed from his obsession and he is cured of his acrophobia. The tormented Madeleine/Judy finds peace too, not in a happy-go-lucky manner though. And the villain rides off into the sunset…fade out.
Everyone in the film suffers from distorted vision. That’s Vertigo. Perversion is a prominent theme shown by Midge Wood (Barbara Bel Geddes), my favorite character in the film. Once engaged, Midge broke it off. Was she uncomfortable with sex? She is devoted to their platonic relationship, but her control slips away, and she descends to perversion when Midge becomes Scottie’s mother. Over time, she transformed into the all-knowing, cool friend. The only way she could share her life with him is as care-taker. She is tolerant of his illness and obsessions, she is his adviser and protector. She is his moral compass, a nun without the habit. When he has a nervous breakdown, she croons, “There, there. Mother’s here.”
I love the scene involving the painting, the glasses, and her red sweater signifying jealousy. She wants Scottie to need her as much as she needs him. Foolishly, she paints herself in the dress of the beautiful Carlotta. One, to scold his foolishness for stalking Madeleine. Two, Midge attempts to alter how he sees her. She wants him to desire her. He sickens at the sight of her attempt to change her motherly role for the temptress, and he leaves Midge. Ashamed, she verbally flagellates, “Stupid, stupid, stupid.” Without Scottie, she has lost her identity. The prominent glasses she wears do not provide her with clear vision; she has been duped by her repressed feelings, and she loses hope for happiness.
Hitchcock struggled with virtue and sin aroused in him by women. To protect or possess? To pray to or lust after? Wife or the other woman? Externally, he needed his intelligent, plain wife, Alma Riddle, to keep him grounded, but internally, his lust for the beautiful blonde obsessed him. As director, he molded his key actresses to satisfy his inner desires. Like Judy, who allowed Scottie to turn her back into Madeleine, she is willing to abdicate her identity for the sake of his manipulation. “If I do it, will you love me, then?” The puppet master plucks the cords of patriarchy and misogyny.
Another variation of the Hitchcock coin that frequented his films included the cracked, older mother figure vs. the supple, ingenue. For Hitchcock, his concept of women took on extreme contradictions. The upside to his creepy obsessions was an ability to portray it/her on the screen in a classy way (Thanks, Edith Head) that touched the human psyche. We cringe and lust. We appreciate and denigrate along with him. We are manipulated and love it.
Extend the mother figure to the henpecked son who must deal with an overpowering mother. Through the mother/son relationship, Hitchcock’s sense of obligation take a perverted turn. I hate to presume Hitchcock thought of Alma Riddle as a Lydia Brenner (The Birds), Mme. Sebastian (Notorious), or the voice/mother in the chair (Psycho). Regardless, Hitchcock had issues. We were all his therapist.
Which motifs in Vertigo are your favorite? Is it the flowers? The churches reminding us of sin and salvation? The haunting score? The perfect costumes by Edith Head like the gray suited Madeleine, the ghost who seduces Scottie? The black and white ensemble to represent contradiction? I like the colored walls in the restaurant, the greens and reds and purples symbolizing jealousy and passion. Maybe you like the innovative use of the dolly to simulate the vertigo feeling of falling away from falling forward? How about Jimmy Stewart who gave a fantastic performance?