VERTIGO Part Two: Themes and Technique

In this entry we will continue our chronological look at Vertigo.  Please read Part One first if you haven’t done so (major spoilers ahead).

Scottie’s first sighting of Madeleine takes place at Ernie’s restaurant.  It is one of the greatest character entrances in movie history.   Kim Novak as Madeleine is strikingly beautiful.

Scottie is too intrigued to resist, as is the viewer.   And so the next day Scottie follows Madeleine around San Francisco, in one of the most powerful and memorable sequences in the film.  Jimmy Stewart follows  in his car;  the journey is shown in considerable detail, with many POV shots.  The first stop is a florist, where Kim Novak buys a bouquet of flowers.  Next, he follows her to the old Spanish Mission Dolores in San Francisco, where he watches her visit a grave site.  Hitchcock shot the cemetery with a filter, giving the scene a hazy, almost dreamlike quality.   Next he follows her to the Palace of the Legion of Honor, where she sits in front a painting, gazing trance-like at it.  This sequence is allowed to play out with meticulous detail, lasting over six minutes without a word of dialogue.   This was a deliberate choice by Hitchcock, allowing the viewer to silently spy on Madeleine just as Scottie is spying.  Hitchcock’s wardrobe choices for Madeleine (designed by Edith Head) are very deliberate, and very effective.  Hitchcock wanted her in gray, so she would appear ghostlike, as if she stepped out of the San Francisco fog.

The silence is finally broken when Scottie asks a question of a man at the gallery.   We learn that the painting is called “Portrait of Carlotta”, and clearly Madeleine has borrowed her hairstyle and bouquet from Carlotta.  From here, Scottie follows her to the McKittrick Hotel.  After an amusing conversation with the elderly hotel keeper, Madeleine seemingly vanishes, ghost like.  Just how did she get in and out of the hotel room without being seen?  Did she pay the hotel keeper to play along?  Another unanswered question.

Thus ends Madeleine’s day.  Knowing that “Madeleine” is really Judy playing Madeleine makes the performance even more amazing.  Her movements in this sequence are so precise and deliberate;  she is slowly reeling Scottie in.  One wonders, did Judy do a couple of dry runs to get her “performance” down so perfectly?

Next Scottie gets Midge to take him to a bookstore, whose owner Pop Liebel is an authority on old San Francisco.  Liebel tells the story of “the sad Carlotta” who later became “the mad Carlotta”, ultimately killing herself.  As Liebel tells his story, the bookstore darkens inside, as if a cloud has just obscured the sun.  This was a deliberate choice by Hitchcock, and makes the scene even more visually arresting.

There is no way that Judy, or certainly Gavin Elster, could ever have known that Scottie would end up talking to Pop Liebel.  Rather than just digging up Carlotta’s background in some old hall of records, Scottie found probably the one man in all of San Francisco who could have narrated Carlotta’s tale with such pathos.  So Liebel (and Midge) end up giving an unintended assist to the scheming Elster.

The evening ends with Midge trying to pry more information out of Scottie, who won’t tell her why he is interested in Carlotta.

Next we see Scottie reporting to Elster of his findings.  Scottie has already taken the bait, now Elster slowly begins to reel him in, with a tall tale about Madeleine having no idea that Carlotta is her great-grandmother.

Next we see Scottie following Madeleine again, only this time she ends up at Old Fort Point, under the Golden Gate Bridge.  Madeleine jumps in the water, and Scottie rescues her.  We cut next to Scottie’s apartment.

Hitchcock begins with one of his trademark shots, panning through the apartment, telling a story through visuals.  We see Madeleine’s clothing (including undergarments) hanging to dry in the kitchen.  We then see Madeleine in bed, wearing what must be Scottie’s robe.  So clearly he undressed her.   Did he avert his eyes, or did he take a peek or two?  What makes it even stranger is to remember that Madeleine is really Judy, who not only willingly jumped in San Francisco Bay but now allows herself to be stripped naked by a man she hardly knows.   Just how much does she love Elster?

This is one (of many) of the pivotal scenes in the film.  Kim Novak’s look here is so precise.  She has to look not only vulnerable, but incredibly attractive.  By the end of this scene, Scottie clearly has feelings for her.  Hitchcock needs the audience to feel the same way, so the coming plot twist will have a strong effect on us too.

The image above is so perfect in color and composition that it could be a painting.  Virtually every image in this film was crafted with the same precision.

The next day, when Scottie begins following Madeleine, he follows her right back to his own door, in a seemingly circuitous route.  Was Judy deliberately toying with Scottie here?   Now she is dressed in an exquisite black and white ensemble, that highlights her beautiful blonde hair.

They wander through the Redwood trees, Madeleine in a trancelike state gives a ghostly narrative of Carlotta’s past.  All the more impressive when one considers again that it is Judy, pretending to be Madeleine, pretending to be haunted by Carlotta.

Finally comes the ocean side kiss that we have all been expecting.  Is this still just Judy as Madeleine playing her part, or does she have feelings for Scottie by now as well?

Next comes Barbara Bel Geddes’  best scene, as Midge’s attempt to lighten Scottie’s mood with a painting of herself as Carlotta backfires miserably.  It is clear that Midge still loves Scottie.  What a cruel irony that Scottie in the end has the love of not one woman, but two.  And yet he is still chasing an illusion.

Finally comes the moment that the whole ploy has been building up to.  Scotty takes Madeleine to San Juan Bautista, where Madeleine will plummet to her death from the top of the bell tower.  Scottie could not make it to the top, due to his vertigo.

The vertigo effect:  The visual effect used to simulate the effects of vertigo was created especially for this film. It is known as a dolly zoom.  In other words, the lens zooms in, as the camera dollies back at the same time.  The invention of the effect is credited to Irmin Roberts, the second unit cameraman.  It has subsequently been used in many films.

The image above is a fascinating shot.  The church tower is a matte painting, while the rest of the image is real.   You can see a man about to ascend on to the roof to the left of the tower, and you can see Jimmy Stewart standing just outside the archway in front of the church.

Next comes the very long monologue of Henry Jones as the coroner.   The primary purpose of this seems to be to further emasculate Scottie, and compound his guilt, which it clearly does.

Nightmare, Hitchcock style:   Scottie has a vivid nightmare.  This is not the first Hitchcock movie to feature a nightmare sequence;  Hitch had hired Salvador Dali to design the nightmare sequence in Spellbound in 1945.  The Vertigo nightmare combines animation, matte painting, and a lurid color scheme, and is an effective sequence.

Next we find Scottie in a sanitarium, in a catatonic state.  But Midge is by his side, trying to nurse him to health.  She loves him, but he is blind to it.

Finally we get to the crux of the film.   Scottie is out of the sanitarium, and has been seeing reminders of Madeleine all over town.  But finally he sees a girl who looks eerily like her, although with different hair color and makeup.  He impulsively follows her to her hotel, and up to her room.  This is borderline criminal behavior, certainly by today’s standards.  Nonetheless, she agrees to go out with him.

To tell or not to tell:  Next comes the scene wherein Judy spills the beans to Scottie in a letter.  So the audience learns the truth;  that she was playing Madeleine for Elster, who ditched her and left.  That she had true feelings for Scottie, and both hoped and dreaded that he would find her.  There was much debate about whether to clue the audience in on this now, or save it until the end.  Hitchcock was always a believer in suspense over surprise;  he liked the audience having more information than his characters, so it seems only natural that it made the cut.

After their date, we get this haunting image.

She still has Judy’s brown hair, but bathed in the green light, she looks like Madeleine reborn.

Then begins Scottie’s obsession in earnest, as he slowly recreates Judy into Madeleine.  Imagine the psychology on the part of both people:  Scottie is in love with a woman who never even existed, and instead of accepting the love of the beautiful woman who stands before him, he will bend and shape her into the image of the woman he loved.  Scottie actually has the love of two women, counting Midge, but all he cares about is the one that didn’t exist.  And how about Judy’s mindset?  All she wants is to be loved for who she is, yet she will allow herself to be molded into the image of a woman that can only remind her of the most sordid details of her past.  To please Scottie she will become the accomplice of murder that she once was.

The transformation completed:   It is hard to imagine how the “transformation” scenes played in the late 1950’s, as Scottie obsessively changes every single detail of Judy, recreating her as Madeleine.  When he says “It can’t matter to you” in regards to changing her clothes or hairstyle, it is so dated as to be laughable.  Scottie’s obsession has caused him to lose a firm grip on reality at this point.

Finally the transformation is complete.  When Judy emerges from the bathroom as Madeleine, bathed in green light, it is one of the most emotionally resonant and visually striking scenes ever captured on film.

When Judy goes to Scottie, we get a 360 degree kiss, which cleverly shows the inside of the mission stable as the camera turns, showing Scotties’ complete obsession.

When the camera fades in, Judy is dressing for dinner.  The implication is clear here;  they just had sex.  The double bed on the right of the above image is not framed in the camera by accident.   And now, just after they have consummated their relationship, just as Judy looks truly happy, she loses everything.   It seems like a pretty clumsy slip up, putting on the necklace of Carlotta.  Would she really be that careless?  At any rate, Scottie certainly recognizes it, and forces her to return to the scene of the crime.

Here, Scottie regains his power, as he learns the truth, and finally beats his vertigo by making it to the top of the tower.  But he loses his illusions, as he now knows the woman he loved never really existed.  How much is Judy to blame for her death, and how much is Scottie to blame?

The last image of the film:  Jimmy Stewart as Scottie staring over the edge at the death of Judy, and the death of his illusions.

A personal film:  Vertigo is often described as Hitchcock’s most personal film.  Jimmy Stewart said “I could tell it was a very personal film even while he was making it.”   What makes it so personal?  Is it because Hitchcock saw himself as Scottie, a man who obsessively tried to recreate women into the image he wanted, telling them how to dress, how to style their hair?  That has to be part of it.  Kim Novak certainly saw it that way, although interestingly she cast Hitchcock into the darker role of the antagonist:  “It was almost as if Hitchcock was Elster, the man who was telling me to play a role…here’s what I had to do, and wear, and it was so much of me playing Madeleine…but I really appreciated it.”

A visual film:  Hitchcock, who came of age making silent films, was never afraid to let his characters keep quiet while he told the tale visually.  Vertigo has little dialogue for a two hour and nine minute film, and very few characters with speaking roles.  Four actors (Jimmy Stewart, Kim Novak, Barbara Bel Geddes, Tom Helmore) speak 90% of the film’s dialogue.  Other than that, there are a handful of characters that have one small but significant scene:  (Henry Jones as the coroner, Konstantin Shayne as Pop Leibel, Ellen Corby as the McKittrick Hotel manager).   There are only 7 other speaking roles, most of them one line.   It is not only the amazing visuals that captivate the viewer when the dialogue is scarce, it is the haunting film score.

The perfect score for the perfect film:  The music is such an important element in this film, and it could only have come from Bernard Herrmann ( by way of Wagner.)  Many have noticed some similarities between the theme from Vertigo and the Prelude from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde.  His reference may be deliberate, based on the subject matter.  But the score he created is not only unforgettable, it is perfectly married to the material.

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VERTIGO (1958): “I need you to be Madeleine for awhile.”

VERTIGO – 1958 – Paramount Pictures – ★★★★★

Color – 128 minutes – 1.85:1 aspect ratio

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

Principal cast:  Kim Novak (Judy Barton/Madeleine Elster), James Stewart (John “Scottie” Ferguson), Barbara Bel Geddes (Marjorie “Midge” Wood), Tom Helmore (Gavin Elster), Henry Jones (Coroner).

Screenplay by Alec Coppel and Samuel Taylor, based on the novel D’entre les morts by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac

Cinematography by Robert Burks

Edited by George Tomasini

Music by Bernard Herrmann

Costumes by Edith Head

Title sequence designed by Saul Bass

(My analysis of Vertigo will be divided into two parts.)

In 1956 Paramount purchased  two books as potential Alfred Hitchcock projects:  Flamingo Feather, and D’entre Les Morts (From Among the Dead).  He was planning to make Flamingo Feather first;  it was announced in the trade papers as his next movie, and he went so far as to take a trip to South Africa, scouting locations for the movie.  What he saw there discouraged him.  He felt the movie would be costly, and the political subject matter touchy.  So after returning to Hollywood, he scrapped this movie for From Among the Dead, the movie that would become Vertigo.  

Alfred Hitchcock sometimes chose his projects based on one particular scene or concept in the source material that intrigued him.  He wanted to make Psycho because of the shower murder; he wanted to make Marnie because of the honeymoon rape scene; and he wanted to make Vertigo because of the idea of a man remaking a woman into the image of another woman, now dead.   This idea of lost love and obsession was very intriguing to Hitchcock.

Vera Miles as Madeline?  Initially, Vera Miles was cast in the role of Madeline.  Hitchcock had signed Vera to an exclusive 5-year contract.  He had starred her in the pilot episode of the Alfred Hitchcock Presents TV show, an episode that Hitchcock directed himself.  He then gave her the leading role in his film The Wrong Man, in which Miles gives one of the great performances in the Hitchcock canon, as a woman who loses her grip on reality when her husband is wrongfully accused of a crime.  Next on the agenda for her was Vertigo.  Hitchcock was convinced that this film would make her a star.  Below you can see a photo of an early costume test of Vera Miles as Madeline.

 

Shortly after this photo was taken, Vera announced to Hitchcock that she was pregnant.   He would now have to recast the role.   He ultimately settled on Kim Novak, borrowing her from Columbia Pictures.  Hitchcock was extremely unhappy with Vera Miles, although he did direct her two more times before her contract expired;  once more for television, and finally as Lila Crane in Psycho.

Titles by Saul Bass:  Alfred Hitchcock hired famous graphic designer Saul Bass to design the title sequence for Vertigo.  Saul Bass was one of the most influential designers of the 20th century.  Familiar logos designed by Bass are still used by many major corporations, and his movie posters are works of art.  Bass believed that a movie’s title sequence should not just be a dull scroll of names;  he thought the titles could serve as a sort of prologue to the film.  Bass said “I saw the title as a way of conditioning the audience, so that when the film actually began, viewers would already have an emotional resonance with it.”  His work on Vertigo is arguably his best.

The sequence begins with a close up of the lower portion of a woman’s face.  The camera focuses on her lips, then moves up to her eyes, finally zooming in on her right eye.  The film title actually comes out of her eye.  This is followed by several spiral designs.  These spirals were created for Bass by a man named John Whitney.  Whitney had to use an early computer which would plot the graphs of 19th century parametric equations and draw them perfectly on paper.  What the audience is seeing here is one of the earliest uses of computer graphics in a movie.

Of course it is impossible to talk about the title sequence without mentioning the great score of Bernard Herrmann, which is perfectly married to Bass’ titles, creating an unforgettable opening to the film.

The film opens with a rooftop chase, the city of San Francisco acting as a backdrop.  Jimmy Stewart is police detective John “Scottie” Ferguson, and he and a policeman are chasing a third man.  Who is this man and what is his crime?  We never learn.

An errant jump leaves Scottie hanging on for dear life.   The policeman attempts to pull Scottie up, but loses his balance and falls, presumably to his death.   Scottie discovers that he has vertigo, and if ever there was a bad time to learn that, it’s while you’re hanging from the side of a tall building.

The movie then cuts to an apartment interior, with San Francisco visible out the window.  Here sit Scottie and his friend (and former fiancee) Midge.  Scottie is holding a cane, and mentions a corset that is going to be removed soon.  How did he get injured?  Is the implication that he fell from the roof, and survived?  We never do learn just how he got down from there.

The expository dialogue here informs us that Scottie is now retired, because of his vertigo.  We can also plainly see from Midge’s looks that she still has feelings for Scottie.  He mentions that he is going to pay a call on an old college acquaintance that got in touch with him.

I could point how how perfect this scene is;  how the set design, costumes, dialogue and acting all paint such a perfect picture of these two characters, their current position in life and with each other, but I could say the same of any scene in this movie.  The technical construction of this film is near perfect.

Next (after Hitch’s cameo) we go to the interior of Gavin Elster’s office.  Elster is the old college chum who called up Scotty.  Once again, the set is exquisite.

Elster wants Scottie to follow his wife.  She is acting strange, leaving for long periods of time, and he wants to know why.  Scottie is reluctant, but Elster convinces him to go to a restaurant that night where the Elsters will be dining, so he can see her.

(For a continuing look at the film’s sequences, and the introduction of Madeleine, see Vertigo Part Two.)

Performance:   This film is very well cast, and every performance is great.  First notice has to go to Kim Novak, who I believe pulls off the greatest performance by a female lead in any Hitchcock film.   She is essentially playing two roles, both of them multi-layered.   There are rumors that Hitchcock partially blamed Jimmy Stewart for this film’s initial box office failings;  that perhaps he was too old to play the part.  I don’t know if Hitchcock truly felt this way, but I disagree completely.  Scottie Ferguson had to be older;  the fact that he is a seasoned detective makes the film all the more powerful.   Stewart shows us a darker, obsessive side seldom if ever seen on the screen outside of this performance.  Barbara Bel Geddes also shows her range in the part of Midge, Scottie’s friend who clearly still has feelings for him.

Source material:  The screenplay is based on the novel D’entre les Morts by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, a French duo who co-wrote over a dozen novels together.  The film retains the basic plot of the novel, with some minor changes.  The book begins in France, during the Second World War.   A prosperous shipbuilder named Gevigne asks an old schoolmate named Flavieres to follow his wife.  There is a similar set-up as in the novel, with Gevigne telling Flavieres that his wife Madeleine (the one name retained for the movie) appears to be haunted by the spirit of her great-grandmother.   Just as in the film, the protagonist has vertigo;  he falls in love with “Madeleine”; and he watches in horror as she falls from a church tower.  At this point in the novel comes the German occupation, which makes a nice point to divide the story.  Years later, after the war, Flavieres sees a woman that reminds him of Madeleine.   Just as in the film, he courts her, dates her, and ultimately gets her to confess to the plot, which is the same as in the movie.   Although in the novel, Flavieres, consumed with rage, begins choking the woman (named Renee in the book), and without realizing what he is doing, strangles her to death.  An even darker ending than the movie.

Recurring players:  Jimmy Stewart had earlier appeared in Rope, Rear Windowand The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956).  Tom Helmore had appeared in a couple of very early Hitchcock films, The Ring and Secret Agent.  Paul Bryar (Captain Hansen) had uncredited roles in Notorious and The Wrong Man.  Bess Flowers (the Queen of the Hollywood extras) appeared as an extra in seven other Hitchcock films.  Fred Graham (the policeman who falls at the beginning) earlier played a policeman in Rear Window.  Forbes Murray (one of the diners at Ernies) had earlier played the judge in Dial M For Murder.  Jeffrey Sayre (another diner at Ernie’s) also had small uncredited appearences in Saboteur, Notoriousand North by Northwest.

Academy Awards:  It seems shocking today to learn that Vertigo was only nominated for two Oscars (Best Art Direction – Set Decoration, Best Sound) winning neither.

Where’s Hitch?  Hitchcock’s cameo comes at about the 11:40 mark.  He crosses left to right in front of Gavin Elster’s shipyard.   He carries a strange-shaped case in his hands.  People have speculated for years that it must be a musical instrument; a trumpet, perhaps?  Others posit that it is a case for a manual foghorn.  Very appropriate, considering the movie’s locale.

What Hitch said:   In summing up the plot, Hitchcock says to Truffaut:  “To put it plainly, the man wants to go to bed with a woman who’s dead; he is indulging in a form of necrophilia.”

He also says:

Cinematically, all of Stewart’s efforts to recreate the dead woman are shown in such a way that he seems to be trying to undress her, instead of the other way around.  What I liked best is when the girl came back after having had her hair dyed blond.  James Steward is disappointed because she hasn’t put her hair up in a bun.  What this really means is that the girl has almost stripped, but she still won’t take her knickers off.  When he insists, she says, “All right!” and goes into the bathroom while he waits outside.  What Stewart is really waiting for is for the woman to emerge totally naked this time, and ready for love.

Definitive edition:  The 2014 Universal blu ray release (which is also available as part of the Masterpiece Collection box set) is the best version available.   Picture and sound are absolutely sublime.  The disc includes many extras, including a commentary track by filmmaker William Friedkin, a half hour documentary on the making and restoration of Vertigoan hour’s worth of material on four of Hitchcock’s key collaborators, an extended ending shot to appease foreign censors, 14 minutes of excerpts from the Truffaut interviews, a nine-minute mini doc on Lew Wasserman, a multitude of production designs drawings and photos, and two trailers.   Left off unfortunately is the commentary track from the earlier DVD release which featured the film’s associate producer Herbert Coleman, along with the two men responsible for the amazing 1996 restoration, Robert Harris and James Katz.  Coleman was a long-time friend and collaborator of Hitchcock, and his memories are worth hearing.