With my viewing of Vertigo (1958), we once again have James (Jimmy) Stewart in a Hitchcock thriller, in what I consider to be, in some ways, a natural continuation of Hitchcock’s exploration of guilt in The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), with an added layer of the director dealing with the way the human mind processes its fears and desires — and the interesting implication that it actually spends most of its time fearing its desires.

However, right from the beginning, Vertigo proves that it is a strikingly different film from The Man Who Knew Too Much. The very first scene is of Scottie (Jimmy Stewart) dangling over the edge of a rooftop, struggling to save a police officer, who falls to his tragic, harrowing death. This sequence sets up right away what Scottie has to fear and feel guilty about, unlike The Man Who Knew Too Much, which actually begins seemingly as a fluffy married-couple romantic comedy, or some silliness like that. Then, of course, the elaborate plot to assassinate the dignitary slowly dawns upon the intrepid Mr. Stewart and Ms. Day as our heroes kind of blunder their way through the film.

Through both Bernard Herrmann's impeccable score and Hitchcock's innovative camera work, there is no doubt within this film that there is something to fear — and it's inside Jimmy's head.

Though I’m sure this is a didactic reading of Vertigo, I was still struck by the theme and motif of ambiguous or hard-to-pinpoint causality within the film. Sure, we know why Scottie has vertigo, but how can he get rid of it? And is it his fault in the first place? Did he kill that police officer by failing to keep a good grip on his wrist, or was it the criminal’s fault in the first place for leading the chase up to the rooftops, a la Batman? “There’s no losing it,” the intrepid Midge says to Scottie on the question of trying to overcome his vertigo in her apartment, and to a certain extent, she may be right — especially considering that Scottie lives and works in San Francisco, a city  known not for extremely tall skyscrapers, but seemingly endless topsy-turvy hills, with houses looking a lot like they’re ready to topple over on top of one another if the wind blows too hard.

The famous Nob Hill in San Francisco, which many tourists travel up on streetcars to visit Fisherman's Wharf — not an ideal place to experience vertigo.

How much can someone change themselves without changing their place? It seems to be a continuing question in psychoanalysis — and many consider Vertigo a monumental psychoanalytical film, from the apparent insanity and cross-centurial schizophrenia of Madeleine Elster/Carlotta Valdes. Is there truly “no losing it” for Scottie if he stays in San Francisco? But if he were to leave, the wider question of what that would mean for him as a person and how he relates to the world outside of him would become tantamount.

A place’s bearing on consciousness, memory, and identity seems stamped all over Vertigo, especially considering that Scottie continually returns to Ernie’s Restaurant throughout the course of the narrative, apparently trying to recapture the magic of the first time he saw the woman he believed to be Madeleine Elster — the woman he fell in love with.

The striking Kim Novak, in the unmistakable velvet decor of Ernie's Restaurant. Her haunting enigma gives me the willies at times, but drives the plot ever so gracefully.

Indeed, the reason this film works so well is probably due mostly to how interesting the whole Madeleine Elster/Carlotta Valdes/Judy Barton thing is. Think about it. A woman (Judy Barton) who wants to look like a woman (Madeleine Elster) who wants to look like she’s possessed by a woman from the past (Carlotta Valdes), in a plot that was cooked up by a man (Gavin Elster) to get what he wants — to get away with the murder of his (actual) wife.

Then, once his plan apparently works, you have another man (Scottie) that finds a woman (Judy) that looks a little bit like the (as he thought it) crazy woman (Madeleine) that he fell in love with, and decides that he wants to make her look like Madeleine, with little explanation as to why it’s so important to him to make her back into this woman that he (at least, we think he knows this) knows was just acting, just pretending.

Just as they made Midge look silly, so they did to Kim Novak in the latter half of the film.

Poor Judy Barton — Hitchcock and costume designer Edith Head had to really make her seem unattractive and awkward in order to become her "real" self, which actually brought up a lot of strange questions, such as: Did they think she was better off being "made beautiful again" by Scottie?

This, ladies and gentlemen, this is why Vertigo gets so much attention from those that love psychoanalysis, and why it (sort of) lends credibility to a field that has undergone quite a lot of criticism within the medical community. The only way to really explain why all of this is happening in the story is by a sort of voodoo interpretation of people wanting to be other people, wanting certain aspects of themselves to die or be erased, and a myriad of other nigh-impossible-to-prove theories about just why all of these things are going on.

In her interestingly green-tinged apartment, Judy reveals her tranformation into what Scottie wants to see, in a plot point that I'm sure has angered many, many people in the film's 50 years.

In a way, Jimmy Stewart’s tragedy here is that Madeleine Elster was the real person (to him) that Kim Novak was being in the story. Scottie had no way to know that she was acting, because she did such a good job. And in a world where we continually wonder if our sense of self is defined by how others see us, what does Judy Barton’s transformation back into Madeleine Elster (sort of, at least by looks) tell us?

It almost seems as if Scottie believes that Judy Barton is just pretending, that he has to get her to snap back to the real woman that he knew. Sure, one could read it as simply chauvinist — he bases most (if not all) of his love for Judy based on her ability to look like Madeleine — but I think it runs deeper than that. It seems to me that Scottie becomes obsessed with her partially because he wants to prove that Gavin Elster did indeed murder his wife, but also for a more interesting reason: to somehow prove to himself that he could control something. I can’t imagine what experiencing vertigo would be like, but I could imagine it wreaking havoc on one’s ability to feel in control of their own locomotion and their own life in general.

So the bottom line of Vertigo seems to be that it is indeed a complex film. Which is — along with Hitchcock’s incredible cinematography and Herrmann’s indubitable score — why, I think, people continually return to it. The question of how we shape our own identity through the context (and sometimes manipulation) of the identities of others is one that was alive and well in 1958, and continues to burn brightly 50 years later.

How could I not use a picture from Scottie's dream sequence, a dazzling array of colors and effects that marks a kind of intermission within the film, cutting the storyline into two distinct parts, which certainly correspond, but nonetheless tell two incredibly complex stories — like Phillip said in "Rope" — "Cat and mouse. Cat and mouse! But which is the cat and which is the mouse?"


With my viewing of The Man Who Knew Too Much, I began to think about the film in relation to the French New Wave. In my class on the French New Wave, we continually read excerpts, articles, and interviews from the Cahiers du Cinèma, and the New Wave directors revered and loved Hitchcock, declaring him inexorably an “auteur.”

In The Man Who Knew Too Much, a 1956 remake of his own film produced twenty years prior, Hitchcock certainly exhibits those qualities that Godard, Truffaut, Rivette, and other Cahiers contributors considered the marks of an auteur — an involvement in his own story, an assurance that he was telling it correctly, etc. What’s intriguing to me is the degree to which Hitchcock is stylistically different from these directors while maintaining that status within their minds of someone who is on a higher tier than a mere director.

One of the most striking parts about The Man Who Knew Too Much to me is its use of diagetic music, and long sequences in which there is very little (or no) dialogue, such as the Albert Hall scene.  With this scene, not only does Hitchcock abandon standard soundtrack music, but also the standard method of storytelling for moves after the advent of sound — having the characters speak to one another while allowing the audience to hear every word. Testing boundaries such as this one by this time have become commonplace for Hitchcock, as we saw in Rope when he decided to use the longest possible takes.

Indeed, music is integral to the story of "The Man Who Knew Too Much," with Doris Day not only saving the nice European dignitary's life using her voice, but also saving her son with those musical chops.

But what of the New Wave directors? Though they are known for testing the limits of cinema, one thing they seemed incapable of at this time was shutting up their characters.

In Breathless, Michel Poiccard steals cars, sleeps with Patricia, and walks around Paris – but he does all of these things while almost constantly talking. Likewise, in both Hiroshima mon amour and Last Year at Marienbad, the characters base the entire story (whether in the past or present) on words, sentences strung together to hold the fabric of the story together.

In Godard's "A Bout De Souffle," the two main characters do little besides talk, and while the film certainly has a soundtrack, it by no means carries the story at any point.

Another interesting thing about The Man Who Knew Too Much is that it is a remake of Hitchcock’s own film, released over twenty years earlier. Though I have not seen it, I’m sure it is no coincidence that this film seems to have gotten so much better — Hitchcock himself said that the 1934 version of his film was “the work of a talented amateur,” while the 1956 version was the “work of a seasoned professional.” It seems that with age, Hitchcock truly may have gotten better, but perhaps better at doing similar things. Filmmakers from the New Wave like Godard and Truffaut arguably got better with age, but also changed (sometimes drastically) the films that they made and the things they desired to say through those films.

The subtle nuance of the unsaid that Hitchcock employs is especially interesting — a secret told to only us, the viewers, and McKenna, but a secret that must remain so to ensure the future, the McKenna's son.

This is not to say that I don’t appreciate or like films like Breathless as much as films like The Man Who Knew Too Much. I just recognize that they’re fundamentally different, and I think that’s an important distinction to make when dealing with Hitchcock or the New Wave directors in the context of the rest of the film world. If one thinks, “Well, OK, Hitchcock is great and all, but was he more than a Hollywood director out to make the big bucks?” one can consider the New Wavers reverence for him and realize that they respected him not because he was just like them, but rather because he was Hitchcock.

Rope is one of Hitchcock’s most technically interesting films – desiring a literal reinterpretation of the original play of the same title by Patrick Hamilton, the director chose to shoot the film in about eight long takes of about eight to ten minutes each. The result is at times cumbersome, with the need to switch to another reel obvious whenever Hitchcock focuses on a character’s back or on a door – but at other times, this self-imposed constraint creates interesting textuality, as in the long shot in which Ms. Wilson slowly clears nearly everything off of the chest in which Brandon and Phillip have hidden the body of their former friend David, while the audio consists of the off-screen conversation of Rupert Cadell and several other characters as they ponder what may have happened to David.

richard loeb, circa 1924

Another reason that Rope is so interesting is the daring themes it tackled in the height of the Golden Age of Hollywood, and the height of the power of the MPAA code over the production of movies in Hollywood. The theme of murder – while prevalent in Hollywood films, especially those of Hitchcock – found new treatment in this film, because of the historical implications of the

Nathan Leopold, circa 1924

true story the original play was based on – the case of Leopold and Loeb, two wealthy University of Chicago students who decided to commit the “perfect murder” in 1924, a case which was fraught with fear and disgust from the public — and a case which implied homosexuality between the two perpetrators.

The Final Shot of the Film: Indeed, the visual trope of The Trinity is prevalent throughout the film, which makes an interesting companion to the idea of Communion, with the characters eating and drinking from what Brandon characterizes as "an altar," which contains, effectively, a sacrifice for Brandon and Phillip's sins.

One aspect of the film which leaves the question of murder and guilt up to ambiguity is in the lack of non-diagetic music throughout the film. There is no musical theme to announce the immorality of Brandon or Phillip – indeed, the viewer, even after viewing the film several times, may wonder where to place the blame. After all, Brandon and Phillip got the idea of a higher class of people having free reign to murder those deemed “inferior” from their old teacher, Rupert Cadell. Even as the sirens blare in the final shot, all three characters form a Trinity, sharing equal sides of blame for the murder of David, who seemed like a great guy from what all his friends said about him throughout the party.

But even barring the heightened ambiguity of the murder theme, Rope is full of what Hume Cronyn, who wrote the treatment of the play for the screen, called “it.” As some noticed when they saw Rope back when it was released, the relationship between Brandon and Phillip, as well as the relationship between the two men and their old teacher, Rupert Cadell, brings up a lot of questions.

The opening scene in which Brandon and Phillip murder their former friend David is often read as an allegory for homosexual desire.

Right from the beginning, Rope is full of homosexual undertones. “Until his body went limp, and I knew it was over,” Brandon says casually when asked what felt best about the murder. However, the viewer could also construe this statement sexually, and is probably meant to. Indeed, Cary Grant turned down the role of Rupert Cadell on the grounds that it is suggested (albeit quite obliquely, perhaps only with Rupert’s assertion that he has been to Brandon Shaw’s farm on more than one occasion) that Cadell had an affair with one or both of the boys when they were younger.

Additionally, Brandon and Phillip plan to go visit the farm together the day after the party takes place, and Phillip apparently lives in the Shaw apartment, with Brandon — as subtly revealed by his having his own key. In fact, many theaters refused to screen Rope on the basis of the homoeroticism hinted at in the story and script — an interesting fact considering that Nietzsche’s concept of the Superman is what truly corrupts Brandon and Phillip, not their sexuality.

"Thus Spoke Zarathustra," the seminal novel penned by German philosopher Fredreich Neitzsche in 1885, was the first appearance of the concept of the "Superman" — albeit, Neitzsche's Superman was not particularly congruous to the comic book character.

But what really fascinates me about Rope is not the murder or homoeroticism, but rather the idea of the inability to confront “it” — it being, in the case of this film, homosexuality, but if we widen our interpretation of “it,” we can explore infinite possibilities within the world of film, and the ways in which we watch movies.

In thinking about doing this private reading, I was very conscious that I have not seen Psycho yet. I cannot give an exact reason why I haven’t — perhaps I just haven’t gotten around to it, but that wouldn’t be fully truthful. It seems that, somehow, like the MPAA, I am (on some level) afraid of what cinema can say without being explicit – what watching a film can make me think about without that film explicitly exploring it. I have a knowledge that the mind creates things using language, and that what the mind creates using language can be startlingly different from what the mind accepts as real and possible. What am I afraid of? Becoming the main character, Norman Bates?

Certainly not, but I am afraid of my mind conjuring up the images of another — in this case, Sir Alfred Hitchcock. I am afraid of not having textual control.  The trouble with Psycho is not that it’s scary; it’s that it tells me something I don’t want to hear, and it tells me in its own way. Perhaps in that same way, the attraction of films like Vertigo is the main characters’ fear of and attraction to knowing the truth, and their paralyzing inability to stop searching for it, much in the same way that I know I will need to watch Psycho at some point, but am afraid of what that experience may bring.