The 50s was a powerful decade in terms of cinema. There was an profound and obvious influence of WWII in the decade’s filmmaking, as audiences also still got to experience both film noir and the proliferation of colour palettes onscreen. The French decided to spice things up with their New Wave, overlooking it was a time of European neorealism, and Asia’s top guns were taking shape in the form of Akira Kurosawa and Satayajit Ray. Film literally flew everywhere, as people were introduced to other people’s vivid imaginations, creating all kinds of genres. Shakespeare adaptations, catchy musicals, and psychological thrillers paved the way to titan films such as The Seventh Seal, 12 Angry Men and Seven Samurai took the world by storm. Truly, this was also the decade dedicated to Alfred Hitchcock, who released arguably the most powerful testament of the 50s, Vertigo.
Supervising the flow of production is the director, the brains of the operation, the person responsible for pleasing the audience. Alfred Hitchcock was a revelation during his time at the director’s chair and his dominion over every detail pertaining to the film was wonderfully crafted. As film critics remember his contributions, such as the dolly-zoom or the infamous blocking sequences, few directors come close to the might of his intense pre-visualization. Hitchcock was almost the anti-Orson, the infamous Orson Welles of course; a clash of philosophies whereby the former fanatically engraves his dogged carte blanche onto every aspect of production, whereas the latter just leaves his characters to upheave chaos.
The director’s greatest works are always a reflection of who they are on a personal level. In Vertigo, wildly chasing the nightmares of obsession, it is obvious that Hitchcock has spilled his soul into this project. It is a silhouette of his own thematic and personal sexual fantasies embedded inside the plot itself. A man with such an incredible resume of paragons has made Vertigo the shining blueprint that Hitchcock utterly dominates. It is reminiscent of a younger version of him, and his bewildered efforts at governing women and what they symbolize, make the director look like an older parallel of Lars von Trier. The film embraces Hitchcock’s fetish, although many in the field of psychology would postulate that these unconscious peeping-Tom activities were beneficial to filmmaking, revealing the gnawing condition in connotation to align itself with the audience themselves.
The film takes inspiration from the novel D’entre les morts by French authors Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, and Hitchcock wonderfully adapts story to film. In his 1958 reenactment, Detective John Ferguson (prefers to go by Scottie) is parkouring across the rooftops, hot in pursuit of a bad guy. One misstep and he is left clinging frantically to the gutter, sagging dangerously above the promise of a messy red splat. Luckily, a fellow law enforcement colleague comes to his aid, which Scottie inadvertently pushes down the same immediate danger. This event catalyzes an irrational fear of heights, hence the namesake of Vertigo. He retires, a better man for not confronting his acrophobia, and spends his time with friend (and former lover) Midge; she is not the best solution but whatever floats Scottie’s boat. Gavin Elster makes an entrance to ask Scottie of a favour; Madeleine, Gavin’s wife, seems to have gone whacko under the misapprehension that she is somehow the samsara of Carlotta Valdes, a suicide. Scottie is to stalk Madeleine, hopefully uncover something. While trailing her, Scottie finds himself irrevocably enamoured, albeit the weird itinerary that she has got for the day. She aimlessly drives around San Francisco’s slopes, then visits an art museum to admire the Portrait of Carlotta, before settling down shortly at Carlotta’s home. Scottie continues following until they reach San Francisco Bay, where Madeleine unexpectedly drops into the water. Like the shining knight he is, Scottie dives in to rescue her. Even though Madeleine is unaware of Scottie’s true motives, she begins to fall in love with him, and he her. Love does not conquer everything, as Madeleine is unable to shake off her Carlotta tail and she jumps off the peak of Mission San Juan Bautista. Scottie, still buried by acrophobia, is paralyzed in his attempts to save her once again. Thus concludes the first half of Vertigo.
What was once his ennui has now become a clinical culpability, a true vodka on the rocks, rendering him an emotionally crippled man. Scottie once again returns to Midge for support, inevitably regaining his composure, then bumps into Judy Barton. The resemblance between Judy and Madeleine is uncanny, but this young lady does not seem to know anything. In fact, Scottie does not know anything either. When he ignites his passion for Judy, it is unbeknownst to him that the two women are the same person. As they begin to rekindle their romance, so too does the massive lie begin to settle down. Turns out, away from romantic persuasion of man and woman, Madeleine is actually a pawn in Gavin Elster’s complex homicide game. She was meant to be a body double, a faux suicide for Scottie to witness. When she returns to her genuine identity, Judy, once Elster’s side thing, is now committed to Scottie. She is, after all, Madeleine. Despite the visceral attraction, the romance is not as innocent as it should be, since Scottie is only interested in her former appearance. They continue to play each other. Scottie molds her back into the grey-suit-blonde-hair figment in an attempt to recapture the spark in its entirety. Judy, fully-aware that this is valetudinarian, but still yearning for Scottie’s undivided love, allows him to smother her. Everything about Judy is transformed à la Madeleine.
The gentleman seems to know what he wants.
Scottie may not be the titular character of Hitchcock’s obsessive film, but this haunting figure is in itself a temerarious example of obsession. He does not just dwell in it, he embraces it. Vertigo signifies more than just one man’s irrational fear of heights; on a metaphorical level, this means his rational fear of nosediving into love, since he witnesses at least three people fall to their deaths throughout the film. Between the choice of Midge and Madeleine, the detective casts aside the realistic and bland, in favour of the impossible intrigue. It is impossible because no one can attain a woman that is illusory. Fashioning a woman to suit a fetishist’s eye would be catastrophic in today’s climate, and Madeleine has to brave a downright misogynistic protagonist, played ironically by American sweetheart James Stewart. This is a traumatizing event to go through, something we label today as a “toxic relationship”. Scottie transitions from illogical to logical, hysterically altering destiny, then piecing together the clues to realize that Judy is indeed Madeleine.
It is the way in which Judy puts on Carlotta’s necklace that spoils the ruse. In order to force an answer out of her, Scottie brings her back to where it all began at the mission. While they stumble up the stairs, and the acrophobia is slowly replaced by fury, everything is revealed. The deed is done, yet once again, love does not conquer everything. The view from the window is the same. The expression on Scottie’s face is the same. Judy trips and falls off the top, a tribute to Gavin Elster’s wife, leaving Scottie alone gaping off the edge.
There is plenty of stuff to discuss when one (re)watches Vertigo. The film is powerful because it encompasses so much information, readily available upon analysis. What’s interesting includes the relationship dynamic between Midge and Scottie, since she is the only normal woman in Scottie’s adventure. Why not be content with what you have, and disregard what is fantasy? In Midge, though she is a close friend, she also represents a banal reality, the antithesis of man’s conquest for love. Man seeks the new and exciting. Man wants the exotic and impossible. Hitchcock’s interpretation of such is not that man conforms to the Freudian theory of mother attraction, but rather the covetousness of the mother’s sexual opposite. There are times when Midge appears like a mother figure, being the person Scottie falls back onto whenever he is down.
You’re not lost, mother’s here.
After all, who would want to date a girl named Midge, when the alternative, Madeleine, sounds that much more enticing? Once Scottie is all plastered back together, he goes back out there to get hurt. It is very much likely that Midge’s workshop is his first destination after Judy’s death. She has arguably the most boring job in the world. Compared to Madeleine, how could anything come close to a woman seeking the reincarnation of her ghostly history?
The capture of his dream woman is equivalent to riding a rollercoaster, risqué and all the more enthralling, whichever the version of Madeleine it may be. We are often the subjects of our own abuse, our desires triumphing over our needs. In students, this phenomenon is called “procrastination”. In adults, naïveté. In the peculiar case of Scottie, the inadequacy to comprehend results to an obsessive need for control. This journey with the audience has been insightful, as everyone learns of their own definition of romantic fantasy, going further to discovering who they are. A very wise person (my mom) says this:
A healthy relationship comes from the mathematical equation, 0.5+0.5=1.0
When we put ourselves up for auction on the romantic market, we are allowing the world to judge us for who we are. Rarely do people find exactly what they want in a significant other, so the more we learn about each other, the more we end up giving away. Scottie does not heed the warnings of pursuing such an impossible ideal, which causes him to lose Judy, and most likely Midge too.
Choosing Hitchcock to be the director of Vertigo proved to be a wise decision. Being the master of suspense that he is, manoeuvring emotions with just the orchestral conductor’s baton, disorganizing our thoughts and disarraying our senses. Only at the finale do we stop to catch our breaths, so awesomely disturbed by his onscreen prowess that we realize that Judy has just leaped to her death. Vertigo, as mentioned multiple times already, is a product of Hitchcock’s alleged impulse to control women. Outside of this specific film, Hitchcock does have a history of embedding symptomatic curiosities of the female species in his works. Rear Window, The Birds and who could forget, Psycho, feature blonde women with their respective personality flaws. They are the subjects of humiliation, peril, and ultimately, death. Whatever goes on through the director’s mind, no one will ever know, but his fondness of the unknown is a lonely mission shared only by Scottie.
Does all this make Alfred Hitchcock a complete misogynist? The answer would lean more towards “yes”. With the actress Kim Novak, he is bent on pulling the strings of her every movement, details such as her behavioural mannerisms had to fit the criteria for Madeleine and Judy. He has, objectified her. The character Kim plays onscreen is vulnerable and foggy, alluring yet sensitive. Hitchcock has given the actress the “Hitchcock-special”, a feeling of unease and schism offscreen, a treatment many of the other actresses with whom the director’s worked with can agree on.
However, there are times when the man himself is willing to account for the feminine perspective, literally. The POV does switch from Scottie’s to Judy’s, in the form of her letter. Vertigo is an escape for those pent-up feelings, a way for Hitchcock to spill them under the guise of filmmaking. We are taken for a ride around his psyche, the good and the bad. The letter shows his apology to women for his cruelty. Even though his methods are downright painful, at least he has the heart to acknowledge it.
Out of all the incredible films that have been graced by Hitchcock’s presence, he claims Vertigo, a film of exquisite nature, breathtaking dramatic element and soporific sequences, to be his personal triumph. This is, his autobiography after all. The characters are human, complex creatures that function under their own motivations, their stories told on two sides to transcend the film past the genre of mystery. We are mysterious creations of a higher being, and the psychology of our innate desires and fears can make wild fantasies come to fruition. Story for story’s sake. Art for art’s sake. Nothing and everything will teach us the directorial brilliance of the great Brit, only that his exhaustive sincerity for women makes the forefront of vividity, and therefore, achieve our acknowledgement of cinematic brilliance.