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.
“Mr. Ferguson, being an ex-detective, would have seemed to be the proper choice for the role of watchdog and protector. As you have learned it was an unfortunate choice…”
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.
What can I say or add to this superb article? We each have our different perspective on this film but we both recognize its brilliance. My thanks to you for your wonderful words and insight!
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Hi Marvin – you’re a man of strong beliefs. It keeps things honest. I love the movie…and the CHAT we four had was spirited. Thanx for the comment and the conversation.
Brava, Theresa! Excellent!
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I appreciate that Bob. Thank you.
Good article on Vertigo Theresa! Very thorough and nice insights. Thanks!
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Thanxx for reading. My own crazy insights, but I think they make sense.
Totally agree with your description of the “perfect” and “heartbreaking” ending, Theresa. For me, this movie just has it all: that incredible score, the breathtaking use of color, the “twist” towards the end, the haunting performance by Kim and that unforgettable performance by Jimmy. This is one of those movies that stays with me LONG after I’ve seen it. I’m so glad that, after years of being neglected, it’s finally recognized as what it is: a masterpiece. Love your insight into, and passion for, this movie, Theresa!
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You hit on all the qualities that pull me deep into this film, Wendy. And it has just enough of Hitchcock’s sardonic humor. I’m in all the way. Novak’s and Stewart’s performances make me want to lean in closer to the screen. Some people have problems with the characters’ motivations and actions, but they all feel and sound quite logical to me. Call me a “cockeyed romantic.” I do love this film. Glad to find a kindred spirit for this film. Thanks for reading and commenting Wendy.
I agree. This is a film that I enjoyed on a basic, almost superficial level when I first saw it. I was simply following the plotline and twists and drawn in to the gorgeous fashion on Kim Novak. Then as I watched it each time again, I was more tuned in to the small details, like the subtle nuances in Novak’s performance. I grew to appreciate it more with time. Wonderful write-up, gal!
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Hey Kellee – I agree with you. I guess the first time with any Hitchcock film we have to watch just to follow what the heck is going on. If then you like the movie on that basis, one gets to watch the movie again, and really find all its treasure. ( Color me dumb for not picking up everything the first time around ). “Vertigo” is such a film. I think in a recent viewing…maybe last year at Grauman’s Chinese’s gigantic screen I noticed how Judy hesitates before sitting on the pillows that Scottie offered her, as he had offered Madeleine, after that almost-“drowning”. There was a little clue in plain sight even though WE now know Judy was Madeleine. What tickles me more and more in my “Vertigo” viewings is Henry Q. Jones’ scathingly dead pan performance where he not only thhhhhrows Jimmy under the bus ( with every tire going his heart ) but Jones kinda sorta throws US under the bus too, if we have an illusions about what just happened – a detective who didn’t do his job properly, causes a young woman to be killed, if we want the bloody TRUTH of the matter. ACK! Stewart IS heartbreaking when he realizes the deception and moreso when he still craves that illusion ( “Maddie, I loved you so ). And let me not leave out Barbara BelGeddes. I don’t know if you’ll get any time to watch the rip roaring MovieCHAT I did with my three friends about “Vertigo” but my friend Sheila made a good point: Bel Geddes’ character on the cusp of women really choosing to work in the workplace rather than settle down to immediately get married might’ve been a price to pay for that decision. Needless to say she was the most honest character in the film: honest to herself. ( Oooh, that long walk down the green hospital corridor… )
But it’s Novak for me…all the way. If we don’t fall for her, I think the movie won’t work. Or is that just ME trying to amp up Kim Novak b’cuz I’m a big fan of hers? I believe she gives the finest performance of her career in “Vertigo”…and she looks like a dream. ( Those outfits…that white coat!!! ) Folks can have Grace Kelly as Hitchcock’s ultimate blonde. I’m goin’ with Novak. She struggles and fights to keep her identity but wants his love ( again ) so badly. Call me crazy, call me silly but can NO one can relate to any of these aspects of the mating game albeit not in such a serious way? Hitch breaks down the element of what is “falling in love” and as with “I Confess” with Religion or “The Paradine Case” with The Law twists it, and us, into a pretzel. I think Hitchcock even makes us say “tighter please.” Whoa, I’m going on and on here, when I want to just say thank you Kellee for reading, writing and I’m glad to find another fan of “Vertigo.”
Great analysis Theresa! James Stewart really was an amazing actor. He wasn’t afraid to put anything and everything out there. The ending is so bleak. I don’t think there’s anything quite like it. Have you seen Viridiana? I watched it last night. A bit of it reminded me of Vertigo-a man trying to recreate a woman who is dead. All with Bunuel’s beautiful perversities, of course! See you soon!
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Hi Jeff. Thank you so much for checking out my whimsical musings and waxing on about a movie I have come to decide is ‘my favorite motion picture’. Yes, that ending IS bleak. I actually think it’s Hitchcock’s little wry cheeky joke on us, and on Scottie. ( “Dude, you had her in the palm of your hand and you threw her away!!!” ) Well-said what you say about Stewart – not “…afraid to put anything and everything out there.” So true though I never put those words in my head that way. He was so open…and raw. His killer line and emotion for me: “Maddie, I loved you so.” Gaaaaaaaaah! I saw “Viridiana” about thirty five years ago in film class, but I don’t remember it well. Bunuel…what a card HE was. Maybe now I’ll be able to understand his films. I think Truffaut paid homage to Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” with “The Mississippi Mermaid.” I look forward to seeing you and Ed in California in a few short days. Thanks again!
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I recommend the documentary Hitchcock/Truffaut if you haven’t seen it. i just saw both doc & Vertigo at Houston Museum of Fine Art. Fall into the Labyrinth of trying to dissect this brilliant film!
THANK YOU Ana for the suggestions. I love “VERTIGO.” Sounds like you had a great setting for both features. Kim on the big screen…is not to be missed.
This is a spot on analysis. Novak was great, and you hit the nail on the head when you said if the viewer doesn’t fall in love with her then no need to watch the movie. The scene where B.del Geddes paints the picture is one step too far, and it wasn’t done as innocently as she made it out to be, in a way i think it was her way of hurting him like he had done to her.
Hi there Robert…thanks for your comments. Kim Novak is the lynchpin of the movie. If your emotion is not vested in her…then I dunno. Yes on what you say of Barbara Bel Geddes. She certainly was trying to make fun of Scottie’s infatuation. I think it wasn’t until her “picture” scene that she nor he realized how much he was invested in Madeleine.
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