I wonder if this is a movie that MUST be seen FROM the second time around?
I won two free movie tickets via a contest held at the CLASSIC MOVIE HUB website
( Yaaay! and THANK YOU Annmarie ). I grabbed dear old Dad and Sunday night off we went to the movies, for Fathom Events’ screening of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1958 classic, “VERTIGO.” The trailer:
Last Friday night when I mentioned to a bar~drinking, classic film~loving buddy of mine that I was going to see the movie, she said: “Noooo. It’s my least favorite Hitchcock. If you’re going to kill me, you’re going to have to do it on the ground. I am NOT going up those stairs!!” What am I missing? “VERTIGO” is my favorite movie. But could I be wrong? Have I been had…been took? Had I been hoodwinked? Bamboozled? Led astray? Run amok? Does this movie warrant my father’s “Thumbs Down” during the screening?
( WHAAAT? DADDY!!! ) I swore to myself I would watch the movie objectively, this time. I would see if the pieces logically and rationally fit together in a way that makes sense. I wasn’t going to give Hitch a pass. I would not get caught up in Bernard Hermann’s sublime romantic score. That was the plan. I had my popcorn and Raisinets as a buffer between me and my emotions. Now…show me, Hitch. SHOW ME, dammit!
There might be spoilers as I ramble on the Couch here, because this really is a motion picture all classic film fans should have seen already. Not that you may like the film, but you should have seen it. So as the story begins in earnest, this is a straight~up detective mystery thing; one last job for a friend before John ‘Scottie’ Ferguson truly throws in the towel. ( JAMES STEWART’s Scottie has developed vertigo, you see, and can no longer chase bad guys ). Gavin Elster gives him the back story on his wife; trances…reincarnation…portals of the past. He needs evidence before he can have her institutionalized. We see Scottie’s reluctance:
“I’m supposed to be retired. I don’t want to get mixed up in this thing.”
But Scottie agrees to go to Ernie’s ( the San Francisco restaurant ) to check out Elster’s wife before he decides if he’ll take the job or not.
Madeleine Elster glides into frame for her full~on, Bernard Hermann’d~underscored, breathtaking close~up.
Yep, I’m a goner. I go down the rabbit hole.
Gloriously, hopelessly, quietly deliriously and unapologetically I spiral down into the plot. I’m hooked. Now it’s NOT that I lost my resolve, mind you. But hell, I can’t fight my OWN theory…if you don’t fall for KIM NOVAK, the movie won’t work for you.
Here you go Wendy Merckel ~ your “Wizard of Oz” shot ~ SCOTTIE openS the door from the DARK alley INto wondERMENT JUST LIKE you told me
It is the following of her and vesting your emotion in her mystery that’s ~ ( at least to me ) ~ the initial lynch pin in this whole mesmerizing story. I s’pose you don’t have to fall for Novak. Be that way. There’s more twists in this tale to keep you on your toes.
Elster dangles the puzzle and mystery of Madeleine in front of Scottie and us. Scottie follows Madeleine thus we get the scenic drive through San Francisco. As we drive with Scottie watching Madeleine, it’s as though we are watching a movie. In fact, Madeleine IS a movie.
We follow her like we follow a movie, not knowing what’s going on, but we follow to find out. And like a good director, Elster manipulates this ‘Madeleine Movie.’
My friend Lynn says Madeleine’s wet gloves make her look like a ghost.
Garbo comes to mind with Madeleine for some reason. Bear with me while I stretch my movie metaphor a tad more. All those silent movies that fans watched of Garbo’s…not hearing her voice, silently move about on screen…and then in 1930…we hear her for the first time. That’s kind of what we do with Madeleine. We hear all about her. She doesn’t come into the movie until maybe about 40~minutes in for her close~up. We silently follow her around, as I said…she is her own movie. Twenty minutes after that…about a full hour into the film, she’s steps OUT of her movie, and INTO Scottie’s living room…in his robe. The anticipation has been built, and there she is. That sly dog Hitchcock gets around the censors by showing her wet clothes drying in Scottie’s kitchen. When Madeleine wakes from her near~drowning we finally hear her voice…that distinctive low, husky, whispery voice of Kim Novak’s:
“What am I doing here. What happened?”
( Uhhhhmmm, you DO know Madeleine was really aware she was being disrobed, right? She is a movie at first. And movies are a voyeuristic experience. And we watch movies. So tell me, what makes us any better than Scottie? ) We get to ‘know’ a little more about the mystery woman. She doesn’t know why she does what she does because she doesn’t know what she does. That’s the hook.
You see, Scottie’s never been in love before and when it hits him, it’s truly like a ton of bricks.
My father says to me:
“But he’s going to fall in love with another man’s wife? What mess is that? The guy’s supposed to be his friend and he wants his wife?”
ME: “Daddy, how many movies have you seen where people have affairs? We see it all the time. You say that like that’s an unusual thing in movies. But I give you this, Scottie didn’t think this all the way through. Is he going to tell Elster ‘I love your wife, so don’t put her in an institution?’ No, he didn’t think it all the way through, but an affair is not an unusual thing.”
Yes, there IS the warm, attractive Midge ( BARBARA BEL GEDDES ). She’s competent, confident, independent and maybe the death knell to romance: comfortable. She holds no mystery. But you do see what you’re getting with her, and that’s a GOOD thing. Scottie is acutely aware of the difference between the two women.
You’re a big boy now Baby won’t you drive my car
I get a little miffed at Scottie when he’s slightly prickly because Midge leaves a note for him under his door when she can’t reach him. But Madeleine does the same and he’s fine with that.
She protects him…he protects her.
And there’s that quite heart~wrenching scene ( for me ) when Midge teasing Scottie painfully backfires. No coming back from that. He’s already too far gone.
Scottie’s Mr. Fix-It. He’s solved the mystery of her dreams and shows her this very real place indeed, the mission down in San Juan Bautista. Now that Elster has hooked Scottie, he’s got to make Scottie climb those stairs of the bell tower. Curiosity alone won’t get him up. Madeleine has made Scottie fall in love with her. And that love will make him go up those stairs, in spite of his fear of heights. Elster and Madeleine have made Scottie go outside his fear to try and save this woman he’s fallen for. By this point in the movie, I (almost) forget Scottie even HAS vertigo. But up the stairs he goes; at least he tries. Elster has played dirty pool. That’s the dastardly thing about all this. Elster and Madeleine use Scottie’s fear and love against him. Perfect.
Madeleine’s gaze into the distant past masks what she really sees.
SCOTTIE: “I love you Madeleine.”
MADELEINE: “I love you, too. Too late.”
SCOTTIE: “No no, we’re together.”
MADELEINE: “There’s something I must do.”
SCOTTIE: “There’s nothing you must do. There’s nothing you must do. No one possesses you. You’re safe with me.”
MADELEINE: “No it’s too late…
It’s a great scene at San Juan Bautista BECAUSE Scottie and Madeleine talk past each other. We won’t understand that yet, but we will. And when we do, it will be a Wow! Hitchcock gives us two different movie experiences with “VERTIGO.” One is the “came~the~dawn” experience when things are revealed and we go“Ahhhhhhhh!” The second comes with us knowing all the pieces; the film becomes more suspenseful because we know things the characters don’t know yet.
MADELEINE: “You believe I love you.”
MADELEINE: “And if you lose me, then you’ll know I, I loved you and I wanted to go on loving you.”
SCOTTIE: “I won’t lose you.”
MADELEINE: “Let me go into the church. Alone.”
What the heck does THIS mean? We won’t understand that yet…either. The twist is Madeleine has fallen for Scottie. And THAT is not part of the Grand Elster Plan.
♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣
At this point you’re sad about the movie. Scottie loses Madeleine. He couldn’t save her. She jumps to her death. Scottie goes before an inquiry and you get the cold hard facts from the Inquisitor…
“He did nothing. The law has little to say on things left undone.”
…I mean the Coroner ( Henry Jones ). He breaks down the movie for you in the coldest, most dispassionate, judgmental, “just~the~facts~ma’am” kind of way imaginable. It is like cold water in the face; ice cube, tray and all. ( I know…I know: “SNAP OUT OF IT!” ) With that commercial break at the Inquest, and Scottie now off his rocker, Hitchcock brings us to the last third of the movie. This is the part you won’t like. Maybe you’ve obsessed over someone, or they over you and the memory embarasses you. This is the part you won’t like if think with your head instead of your heart. You’ll find it crazy and creepy and edgy and disturbing because you won’t allow for someone to lose control in his quest for love. You might be right. But you’re missing the heart of his movie.
♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣
Hitchcock does two things with “VERTIGO.”
( 1. ) He makes an UN~love story Love Story. He deconstructs Love. What is love? Who do we love? Why do we love? Why do we love who we love? What would you do for love? What does it take to get someone to love you? Who says the logical choice in love is the most fulfilling? But if you wanna know the truth about it, he’s not showing you Love. He’s showing you Obsession. Is that two sides of the same coin? No. But I don’t have to tell you how macabre Hitch is.
( 2. ) Hitchcock takes the myths of Osiris and Isis and Orpheus and Eurydice and puts his spin on it. In both these myths, people want to bring loved ones back from the dead…only Hitch has it all take place in beautiful San Francisco.
[ I’ve Been Waiting For A Girl Like You To Come Into My Life ]
“…Because I remind you of her?”
“If I let you change me, will that do it? Will you love me?”
♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣
We’re all pretzel’d up in the second half of the movie. I won’t go into all the details because you already know what happens ( don’cha )? And if you don’t, I want you to find out on your own. It gets crazy y’all. It gets wild. We can psychologically handle this now, but 1958…not so much. Scottie spirals out of control as this romance movie turns into a dark, film noir suspense thriller. ( Too many genres?? Ha!! ) Little things we didn’t understand, now come to light. No doubt it is disturbing. Scottie’s and Madeleine’s lives unravel.
MADELEINE: “I was safe when you found me. There was nothing that you could prove. When I saw you again I, I couldn’t run away I loved you so. I walked into danger, let you change me because I loved you.”
SCOTTIE: “It’s too late. There’s no bringing her back.”
And like Eurydice sucked back into Hell when her lover Orpheus turns to look at her, too soon, so does Hitchcock pull the rug out from under us. It feels like a punch in the stomach. The air is sucked out of the room. The movie ends as it began…abruptly. It’s over.
MGM’s youthful, good~natured, affable Jimmy Stewart does some interesting work in his middle~age playing complex men. In “VERTIGO” on the steps of that bell tower, he’s angrier and more insane and pitiable than I’ve ever seen him. But Stewart’s a proven and accepted legend.
It’s Kim Novak who is the revelation for me especially seeing the movie on the big screen. Yeah, I’m a fan, but putting that aside, she does do a phenomenal job playing these two disparate women in a performance I think is still under~rated. Click here to see the Academy Award~nominees and winners for 1958. Novak shows the skill, nuance and smarts to put this over. She gives an amazing performance, and is absolutely stunning to look at.
Thanks to Fathom Events for featuring the 60th anniversary of this complicated, disturbing and mesmerizing film. It’s a movie about emotion, illogic, abandon, losing control. I think “VERTIGO” is classic film’s Rubik’s Cube with all the pieces you have to maneuver. I love it’s ins and outs and twists and turning in on itself. But this isn’t everyone’s cuppa. And I’ll have to be okay with that. Sorta.
After all, some puzzles are not meant for everyone to solve.
[ H O M E ]
Really great article!
LikeLiked by 1 person
Hi Jacque…thanks sooo much for taking the time to read my gushing commentary. I appreciate it. 🙂
Okay, it took me a while to warm up to Vertigo. I saw it Sunday too. It is great.
I had seen a number of Hitchcock films on TV growing up on TV as a kid, Psycho, The Birds, and Lifeboat. Might have been others, but none come to mind. In college, I took a film class, and that exposed me to North by Northwest, still my favorite. About that time the Hitchcock vault picture were released, the first one was Rear Window. I was hooked and tried to find as many Hitchcock films as I could.
Then I saw Vertigo. I honestly don’t know if it was in the theater, I think so, but it might have been in another film class. The professor of the other class was now teaching a Hitchcock class. Anyway, I saw Vertigo the first time and wait, what? This isn’t like other Hitchcock films. It’s not funny. It’s not a roller coaster ride. It’s just dark. Dark in beautiful technicolor. I will say it’s probably Hitchcock’s best film but still not my favorite. I still like the fun roller coaster films, Rear Window, North by Northwest, Notorious, etc. better.
What helped a lot was when I realized that Vertigo was a film noir, but not a fun roller coaster-ish Hitchcock noir like Notorious or Strangers on a Train, but as dark a film noir as was ever made. Knowing that that’s what Hitchcock was going for, I can see that he did it darker more noir than anyone else. He also abandons the one visual tenet that all film noir is supposed to have, darkness and shadows. Instead, he uses color in the way that other film noir uses shadow. It’s brilliant. It just took me a long time to get there and realize how brilliant it is.
LikeLiked by 1 person
Hey Chris…your journey through Hitchcock’s oeuvre is very interesting and sounds somewhat similar to mine, watching Hitch on tv as a kid. I don’t remember really the first time I saw “Vertigo.” I have a vague memory of some time in the early 80’s when it was re~released for the very first time and I went to an Upper East Side movie theatre to see it…but my memory is cloudy.
I know what you mean about the fun roller coaster rides of Hitchcock films, and no…“Vertigo” is not that. Your description is great when you say it is “as dark a film noir as was ever made…” Now, my Classic Film Noir FaceBook Group officially puts the kaibosh on “Vertigo” or any Hitchcock film as film noir. And I go with that. But I’m no strict school master. Psychologically this film is so destructive, so dark how Noir could it NOT be.
It might have taken you a while to get there but I’m glad you arrived at the only logical conclusion: “Vertigo” IS brilliant. Thanks for reading and stopping by here.
I’m not buying the no Hitchcock film noir theory. I know that Hitchcock is something of a genre unto himself, but if you took, Shadow of a Doubt, Notorious, or Strangers on a Train, and pretended that they were directed by someone other Hitchcock, most people would consider them film noir. Vertigo, if it was shot in black and white with lots of shadow, no one would argue if it was noir. To me, it’s not just visuals but a focus in the story telling.
LikeLiked by 1 person
I’m with you! I don’t buy Hitch didn’t do Film Noir. He was more inventive about it. This is how you make film noir when you have a budget and ‘A’~list stars.
“…they were directed by someone other Hitchcock, most people would consider them film noir.”
Yeh. You know how people are.
P.S. I enjoyed your Chapter. Please, let me give it a test run with some movie friends…see if it generates conversation.
Great and very personal thoughts on this film. Thanks for sharing. I always have one problem which no one seems to highlight- Judy seems to work in a shop. Does she do some acting on the side.How on earth does she pull off the greatest acting job ever, becoming Madeleine.
Am I being too practical. I do love Kim Novak’s portrayal.
LikeLiked by 1 person
Hello there Vienna. THANK YOU again, for reading my work.
I know the problem you have, and it revealed itself to me when Madeleine and Scottie were out visiting the Sequoias. It hit me when she pointed to her life on the timeline of a tree.
“Here I was born, and there I died. It was only a moment for you; you took no notice.”
There’s some slight upper crusty accent she uses there. And her poise throughout as Madeleine is so pointed. So when we see her as Judy her whole mien is so very different, we wonder if she took Method Acting classes from Stella Adler. L0L! But you know what, I look past that as Judy and look at that through Kim Novak and the work she puts in as an actress. She’s under~rated.
Vienna, Interesting point. I never thought about Judy’s acting, but she’s playing two things as Madeleine. As Madeleine, Gavin Elster’s wife, she plays upperclass and confusion, why am I having these blackouts? But a large part of the time she is playing Carlotta, and as Carlotta, she is almost completely devoid of emotion. Playing nothing I would think would be easier that playing something. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying Kim Novak isn’t good. She’s very good. But I think within the confines of the story, it’s not that much of a stretch that she could be convincing as Madeleine/Carlotta.
I think women are naturally better actors than men, partly because they don’t have the power, so they have to use emotion to get what they want from men.
LikeLiked by 1 person
There’s that Rubik’s Cube factor here that you touch on when you say Judy played Carlotta more than playing Madeleine. A folding in on itself. We’ve got Judy playing Madeleine AND Carlotta, on top of being herself. Ha! Triple duty, even if the Madeleine/Carlotta line is slightly blurred.
Great analysis and quite enjoyable to read with your visual inserts ! I remember watching an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents on TV as a kid that had ghosts and blood running down the stairs that totally scared me witless (although the word I wanted to use rhymes with witless) 👻😧
LikeLiked by 1 person
Thank you for reading and commenting here Kevin. Ack! It took me two whole days to craft this free~wheeling commentary on my favorite films. I watched Hitchcock myself as a kid. Whew! It was not an easy watch. Witless? Ha!!! Sh–
LikeLiked by 1 person
First off, brava Theresa! You picked up a hammer like a Hitchcock player and hit all the nails on their wee heads. Vertigo is a film that I’ve had to grow to love with multiple viewings. I think when I was a teen I just didn’t like seeing my fave Stewart going bat-crap loopy. lol When in my late twenties, there were aspects or nuances of the plot that I got then. In my thirties I had lived enough in my own love life to get all the obsessive love plot points, because by then I had lived that kind of thing….from both ends of the obsession spectrum. Now that I’m in my fifties, I GET IT HITCH ! I love and am fascinated with the whole staging of this story and the cinematography of the film. It is voyeurism at it’s best in setting and beauty. I’m now amazed with Stewart’s ability to handle the darker role, and I don’t think he could have pre-WW2. He had lived life more, seen more, good and bad. On the Hitchcock slant of this discussion, I do wonder. Was he delving into his own obsessive personality traits through pschology or was he exploring through his film making…hey, or both. Could he have been unaware of how close it hit home. Let’s face it, every human has the ability to have obsessive traits, whether they’re aware of it or not. On Novak, I totally agree with you, that her performance here was ignored by the academy. However I don’t have any favorable enjoyment of how the whole Oscar thing happens anyway, so I’m not surprised they overlooked it. I think the academy lets political agenda and elitist viewpoints guide their votes. Nowadays I fear our beloved TCM is worrying more about politics than classics when they develop their viewing schedule now. Let’s face it, the great Robert Osborne obviously didn’t agree with every viewpoint of the classics that were played on TCM, but, he didn’t let his own personal perspectives override his love for classic films…and most importantly, he didn’t let it stop his sharing the wonder of classic films with the TCM viewers. This aspect of Osborne was what made him great in my viewpoint. Every classic film had merit in its own right. Keep riding that couch Theresa and sharing your wonderful words and keen observations with us. I really think TCM could benefit from having you as a host.
LikeLiked by 2 people
Well shut my mouth and call me Thor. Thank you very much, Donna.
Listen, as not a teen ( ME ) it’s rough to see James Stewart go off his rocker. On those bell tower steps, he had the demeanor of what I imagine of a serial killer…growing increasingly manic while taunting and roughing up his victim; THIS state is the LAST thing his victim would see. Stewart, himself, lived more life with his WWII experiences. This probably helps inform his role. I briefly talked to a nine~year old little girl at Wednesday’s ( 3/21 ) screening who said this was her favorite movie because she liked mystery movies. Ha! Outta the mouths of babes, huh? Maybe she broke the film down to its purest element. Mystery.
But us grown~ups know “Vertigo” is much more than that. I love you yelling, “I GET IT HITCH!” L0L!! ( Me too ). I don’t have much experience with obsession but I do get the twisty twisted story~telling of this movie, and I believe many directors work out their neurosis, if they can, with filmmaking. Here’s where they can be in control; more control than they are in their private lives. We know Hitch had a thing for blondes…but not looking like Cary Grant, here’s a chance for him to have what he might not really be able to have in real life. I think he was very self~aware to some extent.
When I get quietly up in arms about Novak not getting an Academy Award for this, I’m reminded of Susan Hayward in “I Want to Live” and then I siddown. ( Check this out. ) I agree, the Oscars are political AND self~aggrandizing AND a glorified popularity contest. Grrr! But just like in “Brokeback Mountain” ~ “I wish I could quit you.”
Tell me…you see politics in TCM’s programming? Oooh…we must talk. I do think that things changed when Robert Osborne was out sick. It all feels different to me over there. I’m flying by the seat of my pants on the couch over here. As for being host…thank you for your kind kind words.
Theresa, this is a fabulous analysis of Vertigo! I was able to see it on the big screen here in Canada a few months ago, and it was like seeing it again for the first time. I was kind of lukewarm about the film going in, but it turned me into a Big Fan by the time I left. I always think I’m not a Kim Novak fan, but then I see her in a film and I think she’s marvellous.
LikeLiked by 1 person
Hi there Ruth ~ Thanks for weighing in on one of my favorite Hitchcock films. I’m so glad it turned you into a big fan of it. Whaddya think ~ specifically ~ turned the tide for you…from “lukewarm…going in” ~ to ~ “a Big Fan by the time I left”???
And as always, thank you soooooo much for reading AND taking the time to comment here!!!
LikeLiked by 1 person
Watching “Vertigo” on the big screen did two things for me… (1) I could more clearly see how San Francisco & area added to the film’s atmosphere. (2) Barbara Bel Geddes’ performance seemed infinitely more poignant. That scene where she visits Jimmy Stewart in the hospital nearly broke my heart. I never felt that way seeing it on the small screen, for some reason.
Wow, that was quite the roller-coaster! I love Vertigo, and I love that there is still so much to say about it.
I thank you!!! ( Getting in some reading here, I see. Thanks! ) I love finding people who unabashedly LOVE “Vertigo.” )
LikeLiked by 1 person
Wow….just wow……..(standing ovation)
Pingback: 6 FILMS ~ 6 DECADES | CineMaven's ESSAYS from the COUCH