March 31, 2010
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.