This time I wasn’t in Hollywood…at a film festival…with like-minded classic film fans. This time I wasn’t at the magnificent Graumann’s Chinese…with the star of the film introducing the movie; ( btw, a star I had met. A-hem! ) Nope, this time I was here in New York City. The audience was attentive, and quiet as a church mouse at the Film Forum. I sat there knowing I liked the movie but going in this time with my thinking cap on; trying to think logically after my ‘knock down, dragged out, entertaining, movie argument, play-fight’ with a friend about this movie. I watched it again with that conversation in mind. “VERTIGO” still mesmerizes me. ( Some spoilers ahead. )
Put through their paces by ALFRED HITCHCOCK and caught between a rock and a hard place in “Vertigo” are its three stars: JAMES STEWART, KIM NOVAK and BARBARA BEL GEDDES. They each of them run into something bigger than they are; an emotion they cannot control.
The key to the movie is Kim Novak. If you don’t fall in love with her, if you’re not vested in her, “Vertigo” will not work for you. When Hitchcock first presents her to us at Ernie’s, if you do not give yourself over, you will not understand James Stewart’s character. ( And you’ve saved yourself a lot of heartache not falling head over heels in love, then. ) You’ve got to understand his feeling even if not fully identify WITH him. In fact, if you don’t give in to the emotion of the movie, if you don’t relinquish control, “Vertigo” will not work for you. Giving up control is the lynchpin for this film.
Barbara Bel Geddes ( MIDGE ) – There’s no reason in the world this attractive, sensible, good-natured, self-sufficient woman with a quick quip and a ready drink should not have had her love returned by Jimmy Stewart’s ‘Scottie.’ She’d be a good helpmate, a supportive companion. We’re not told why Midge breaks off their engagement in college. Perhaps she wanted a career before settling into marriage. Perhaps their life would be predictable, settled, routine.
What tears things apart for them now is the joke Midge plays on Scottie that goes too far. She paints herself into the portrait of Carlotta Valdes, the great-grandmother of the woman Scottie’s tailing. This mocking rib cuts too deep for Scottie. It’s a rough scene; a regretful turning point…a word said that you can not take back. I think she loses Scottie’s love, friendship…companionship right there on the spot.
A joke backfires The green mile
The next time she sees him he’s in a mental institution. Scottie’s in a bad way; pretty much catatonic. You can see Midge would be there for him through thick and thin; but she recognizes she’s competing with a ghost. Bel Geddes is good in that scene with Scottie…with that faint air of hope against hope. And then with the doctor ( Raymond Bailey, who played Mr. Drysdale on “The Beverly Hillbillies” ). She faces the loss with a sense of fair play, pragmatically…but it still hurts. Her walk down the hospital hallway and out of the movie is a sad one indeed. This walk down the corridor will strangely mirror Madeleine’s return later.
James Stewart (SCOTTIE) – Would it be fair to ask him ‘tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all?’ His answer would be a bitter one. James Stewart is very interesting to watch in “Vertigo.” He goes through three personality stages. First he’s a good guy in a comfortable but unexciting relation-ship with Midge. He’s easy-going. …with a healthy amount of skepticism. He reluctantly takes the assignment of tailing his college friend’s wife. His world changes when he sees Madeleine for the first time. He gets to take her all in at Ernie’s. He follows her, saves her from drowning and wants to protect her. ( “No one possesses you, you’re safe with me.” ) She’s a beautiful girl. She makes him chase her by throwing out breadcrumbs of fear and anxiety. He falls in love with her… and I mean head over heels. He wants to help her solve the mystery of her life. Men are natural born Mr. Fix-Its and after all, solving mysteries is a detective’s stock and trade.
Part 2 of the movie comes after the fall; Scottie’s broken. Adding salt to the wound is this man whose summation at the inquest is an indictment of Scottie’s actions and character. It feels like he strips away any romantic notion we might have had of what we’ve seen earlier. He delivers the cold hard facts of the case with the slow-talking funereal intonation of an undertaker, publicly shaming Scottie in the bargain.
Stewart has shifted from affable to passionate and wanting, to being a broken and hollow man; haunting old places he has wandered with Madeleine. Now his wandering is aimless…seeing her ghost at every turn. But he perks up when he sees a girl that reminds him of Madeleine. Her name is Judy and Stewart shifts gears again. He’s invigorated. Slowly he wants to change her. He starts with a slow boil but turns it up ( “It can’t mean that much to you.” ) His subtle insistence is now obvious to sales clerks, shoe salesmen and hairstylists alike.
“The gentleman does know what he wants.”
When Hitch pulls the big reveal, Stewart has Scottie go ballistic with anger at the betrayal. He is intense and totally convincing. I believe he could commit murder. But his anger is mixed with hurt. He is hurt to the core. Hitchcock puts Stewart through his paces. Stewart runs the gamut in “Vertigo” of desire, fear, love, anger, shame, passion, obsession.
Scottie’s emotional roller coaster is some of his own making.
Kim Novak ( MADELEINE/JUDY ) – She gives the performance of her career for Hitchcock. It’s not just the hair, make up and clothes but she creates two distinct personalities in Madeleine and Judy. When she merges the two, when she’s Judy dressed as Madeleine she’s like a third character. A hybrid – Madeleine’s look but Judy’s personality. For sure, Scottie’s all messed up. But Judy takes an emotional wallop too.
THE THREE FACES OF JUDY ( as Madeleine, Judy…and MadJudy? )
It wasn’t her intention to fall for Scottie. Sure Elster could give her a broad description for how to play Madeleine, but Judy had to fill in the particulars when coming face-to-face with Scottie. She definitely is lovely bait. And Judy is a good actress. When Scottie shows up at her hotel door, not a flinch of recognition from her.
We see every hurt Judy suffers as she tries to win Scottie’s heart by presenting herself as herself. Novak does hurt, very well. This may emanate from Novak herself having vul-nerability at her core. How masochistic is it for Judy to keep yourself in a position of hurt. But she’s in love with Scottie.
The die is cast:
“I made the mistake. I fell in love. That wasn’t part of the plan. I’m still in love with you and I want you so to love me. If I had the nerve I’d stay and lie, hoping that I could make you love me again as I am for myself.”
But the trippy thing is that the thing Scottie sees and feels inside Judy is what he responded to in Madeleine. Judy puts her self inside Madeleine. The outer shell was dif- ferent but the inner self remains the same. Isn’t that who we fall in love with…the person’s inner self? What a beautiful dance Scottie and Judy do.
Poor Scottie. Inch by inch he wants. Stewart is wonderful in this scene as he gently tries to coax her into giving herself over to him. And Novak is wonderful in this scene as well as she tries to fight what he wants, but gives in to it to have what she wants…his love. As Madeleine she is cool; as Judy she’s warm, poignant, wanting. Scottie has what he wants, but doesn’t know it. We see things in her that can play both ways because we know she’s one in the same person. Check out her little hesitation when he throws the pillow on the floor for her to sit by the fire; he gave “Madeleine” a pillow to sit on as well. I just noticed that after 5000 viewings. It’s not uncertainty, but her “remembering” what he did for her as Madeleine; how he treated her as Madeleine. And that little hesitation is for us to see since we know something Scottie doesn’t know.
Judy: “I wish you’d leave me alone. I want to go away.”
Scottie: “You can, you know.”
Judy: “No, you wouldn’t let me. I don’t want to go.”
Scottie: “Judy. Judy, I tell you this, these past few days have been the first happy days I’ve known in a year.
Judy: “I know. I know because, cause I remind you of her. And not even that
Scottie: “No. No Judy. Judy it’s you, too. There’s something in you that…”
Correct me if I’m wrong but “VERTIGO” might be one of a handful of movies made, MEANT to be viewed the second time. ( “The Sixth Sense” – “I see dead people.” Or “The Usual Suspects.” ) It’s the second time around where we can truly see how brilliant and subtle Kim Novak’s performance is. The second ( third, tenth, fiftieth ) time around we realize her actions and hesitations are at cross purposes to what Scottie is thinking about at the time.
Everything falls apart for Scottie and Judy. And boy, it gets ugly – messy, bitter, vio- lent…heartbreaking. Look at an Anthony Mann western to see James Stewart unleash his fury. “Why did you have to pick on me? Why me?!” But my heartache is his shift from anger to this: “I loved you so, Maddie.” Abject heartbreak. Isn’t that a question we’ve all wondered at one point or another. Judy’s fear is palpable. The girl is dragged, choked, scraped up and manhandled. Yes, she was an accomplice to murder. ( “…he chose you to be a witness to a suicide.” ) But she was also in love. She fights to plead her case. Of course you might say she’s merely a femme fatale who doesn’t want to get caught. I think she’s more than that; she’s begging, pleading to prove how much she loved him.
“Scottie, I was safe when you found me. There was nothing that you could prove. When I saw you again, I couldn’t run away. I loved you so. I walked into danger, let you change me because I loved you so.”
The ending? Sad. Perfect. Breathtaking. Heartbreaking. Hitchcock puts a period on it. “Vertigo” almost could not end any other way, not if Hitchcock has anything to do with it. And I wouldn’t have it any other way either.