A KISS BEFORE DYING: Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo

Throughout most of his life, Alfred Hitchcock was both appreciated and dismissed as a maker of entertaining mystery thrillers. After his first American film Rebecca won the Academy Award, Hitchcock’s critics got wise and considered him first and foremost a genre filmmaker; the best of his movies might get nominated for Sound Design or Art Direction and not much more. At least he got to experience before his death a growing movement, originated in France, that elevated his melodramas by critiquing them through the lens of the auteur. They saw him as an artist and an experimenter. And while we have already borne witness to the director’s love of experimentation – the single set of Lifeboat, the abstract dream sequence of Spellbound, the long single takes of Rope – it is in Vertigo that we find Hitchcock actually setting out to make a pure art film. 

True, he remained concerned even here with how his mystery plot could generate the greatest suspense possible, and it is one of the most singular aspects of Vertigo how Hitchcock gives the game away with an hour left to go. In fact, he actually balked at his own original plan and cut the offending scene, only to have the powers-that-be demand its return. The result, as we shall see, makes for a Hitchcock film like no other until Psycho. It is in the way Hitchcock delivers this story, the slow, dreamlike nearly speechless journey to emotional annihilation, that makes Vertigo, for better or worse, stand out from the rest. As all too often happened with the films he made where he excised the fluff or experimented with visual techniques, upon release Vertigo was seen as another of Hitchcock’s interesting “failures.” That it is now considered one of the greatest films ever made reminds us that the consideration of artistry is a complex, mercurial matter. 

There are multiple ways to connect this film to Rear Window, largely because of the way Hitchcock liked to portray Jimmy Stewart, and The Wrong Man, the film that preceded Vertigo (and happened to be our bonus film, receiving just as little initial love from scholars and critics). But there is also no film like Vertigo in Hitchcock’s canon, and I have to say “Thank God!” I have watched and studied the film many times, revere it for its artistry, have enjoyed teaching the film to classes – but I can’t say it’s an easy film for me to love. It lacks the entertainment factor of Rear Window, a film that I feel contains just as much “dark” Hitchcock as this one. Maybe because Vertigo gives us the deepest, darkest insight into the director that we will ever find, it’s more disturbing. Maybe it’s just . . . kinda slow. For all that, it’s still a brilliant piece of filmmaking and arguably Hitchcock’s most important film. 

The start of Vertigo brings up some surface similarities with Rear Window. John “Scottie” Ferguson (Stewart) is in some ways an extension of L. B. Jeffries: both men have been hurt on the job, and their enforced leisure leads them down a dangerous path, and both are essentially observers whose desire to control the narrative of what they see puts them in the grips of a dark obsession. Many of the early scenes in Vertigo take place in a small San Francisco studio that has the same picture windows and blinds as Jeff’s New York apartment. But this is the home of Midge Wood (Barbara Bel Geddes), a pretty enough blonde (if it wasn’t for the glasses, right? Oh, you Hitchcock!) and the “one that got away” (or the one Scottie ran from in college). For a living, Midge designs the underwear that a fashion model like Lisa Fremont would wear, and it’s striking that there is much discussion and viewing of brassieres in the first scene, and it lacks a single element of sexual tension. 

Vertigo is all about doubles: Scottie/Gavin, Madeleine/Judy, and this self-parody by Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes)

Midge is also an artist and still very much in love with Scottie, but she has taken on the role of friend and surrogate mom, which is the death knell to romance. (At one point, she even calls herself “Mother.”) In a way, she functions like Stella inWindow, bringing practicality to the situation, but she’s too far involved in Scottie’s personal life to stay totally objective. Scottie, meanwhile, is a more genial version of L. B. Jeffries, perhaps to his detriment. He has recently experienced a deeply traumatic event that caused the death of a colleague and the beginning of a paralyzing agoraphobia mixed with vertigo that has cost him his livelihood as a San Francisco police detective. 

Much has been made of Hitchcock’s cinematic relationship with the police. They are usually portrayed as menacing, obtuse, and easily misled, to the detriment of the film’s hero. Here, the hero is the policeman, and it’s interesting how much Scottie, who is, on the surface, more genial and sympathetic than Jeff in Window, actually conforms to Hitchcock’s view of policemen: as Scottie takes on the case of an old school friend, Gavin Elster, and tails Elster’s wife Madeleine to find out if she is, indeed, possessed by the spirit of an old San Francisco character named Carlotta Valdez, he is led down a garden path that is crookeder than Lombard Street and becomes transformed from a savior to a figure of menace. 

Madeleine with Carlotta at the Palace of the Legion of Honor

Scottie’s tailing of Madeleine through the streets and sights of San Francisco is one aspect of the film that divides audiences. Some reviewers criticized the film as slow and repetitive, while some scholars credit Hitchcock with emerging us physically into the slow descent into obsession Scottie develops over his client’s wife. Like Jeff, another man suffering from enforced leisure, Scottie needs something to focus his abilities on; unlike Jeff, who tries to reject the perfect girl for him by focusing on the unhappy relationships of everyone around him, Scottie conceives out of nowhere the idea that Madeleine is the perfect girl for him. And while Jeff’s clandestine snooping leads inexorably to . . . more clandestine snooping (along with some breaking and entering), Scottie’s voyeurism, although perfectly legal in terms of his having been hired to do it, leads him to adultery with a side of alcohol dependence. 

Hitchcock puts everyone in a state of semi-inebriation as we inhabit Scottie’s car and travel down, down, down (never up) the steep hills of the city, then wind around the coastline to Muir Woods and San Juan Batista. You will have to forgive us native San Franciscans, who view Vertigo as a different sort of dream that takes us back in time to memories of Ernie’s steakhouse, Ransohoff’s (where my grandmother would shop for dresses), and Podesta Baldocchi’s florist shop. In one sense, this movie is a valentine to one of Hitchcock’s favorite cities, even as the romance engendered here proves deadly false. 

There’s something about green dresses in Hitchcock

I had the good fortune to watch the film this time on Turner Classic Movies during a summer festival honoring actress Kim Novak. Novak is a star whose qualities have sometimes eluded me, but I haven’t seen many of her films. She’s certainly beautiful here and in Picnic, and she exudes just the right amount of camp in The Mirror Crack’d. She was famously not Hitchcock’s first choice to play Madeleine, but it’s important to note that Vera Miles, who had to back out due to pregnancy, became available before shooting started, and yet Hitchcock decided to go with Novak anyway. In an introduction to the film on TCM, Alicia Malone makes a strong point in Novak’s favor that I believe originated with Francois Truffaut (if I’m mistaken, someone tell me where): it is in Novak’s lack of experience and relative stiffness that much of the most powerful ambiguity regarding Madeleine/Judy originates, and an arguably stronger actress like Vera Miles might have disrupted this by creating two more distinctly different characters. 

Judy transformed: and no, the dress is gray

It’s a matter of opinion, but I believe that purely as an object of a Hitchcock hero’s desire, Novak works better, particularly since she is given next to no dialogue. For forty minutes we watch her through Scottie’s eyes, and as we have discussed, James Stewart specialized in showcasing powerful emotions through his eyes. Curiosity gives way to something more until, with a leap into the bay, Scottie makes his true feelings clear. Curiosity is replaced by tenderness and something more . . . intense. Lust? Love? Obsession? Even in the early scenes, the ambiguity of this question plagues us, causes us to worry about Scottie, and keeps us far from the typical romantic drama Hitchcock usually provides. 

Even someone who complains that the film is slow might be taken aback by how quickly Scottie and Madeleine declare their feelings for each other, first with looks and then with a powerful kiss set against the backdrop of the sea’s roaring spray. Sure, the image is romantic as hell – but there’s something hellish about it, too, mostly in the way Novak/Madeleine seems torn between responding and giving way to the power Carlotta holds over her. Their “relationship” develops quickly after that, and before you know it, they’re in the monastery at San Juan Batista, where after another passionate exchange in the old stable, Madeleine runs into the church, up the winding stairs to the bell tower, and plunges to her death. Scottie, attacked by a spell of vertigo, is powerless to save her, endures the open contempt of the coroner, and ends up in a mental hospital with a complete breakdown. End part one.

Part two constitutes a nightmare version of Pygmalion, as Scottie runs into Judy Barton (Novak) an almost identical physical replica of Madeleine, woos her and then goes all Dr. Frankenstein on her, transforming her bit by bit into Madeleine’s double. (Every time he robotically intones, “It can’t matter that much to you, Judy,” I shiver.) Soon after we meet Judy, however, the audience is let in on the truth: Judy is Madeleine, or at least she was the “Madeleine” whom Scottie followed and fell in love with, all part of Gavin Elster’s plan to murder his wife. Faced with the option of running away or trying to regain what she had lost with Scottie before Mrs. Elster’s death – for yes! Judy fell in love with Scottie, too!! – Judy makes, for her, the wrong choice. This is not a situation where love and marriage will solve everyone’s problems. Even though Judy was, as she puts it, a “tool” for the real murderer, she can’t be let off the hook. She makes a slip, Scottie realizes how he has been duped, and he manages to bring her to the scene of the crime, overcome his vertigo and face her down.  

What interests me watching the film this time around is the new (for me) discovery of two facts. First, Hitchcock decided before releasing the film that filling in the audience on the truth about Madeleine’s death so early in the film was a mistake. Imagine discovering that Judy was Madeleine and Elster was guilty along with Scottie at the moment that he fastens Carlotta’s necklace around her throat. It might have been a powerful shock and only necessitated a few extra lines of explication near the end. However, it would have made this a far simpler film told explicitly only from Scottie’s point of view. The way the movie now stands – for the studio refused to allow Hitchcock to make this cut – at the halfway point, this becomes, in many ways, Judy’s film, and it is fascinating to see the situation reversed here, with the woman dreaming of how life could be with Mr. Right only to discover that she has fastened herself onto just another version of Gavin Elster. (The motif of doubles is especially strong here: Scottie ends up repeating Elster’s process of refashioning Judy in his wife’s image for nefarious purposes.) 

It’s also easier to deal with the monster that Scottie becomes here by seeing it through Judy’s helpless experience. She wants the impossible, a happily-ever-after between a deranged PI and an accessory before-the-fact, but in an odd way we want that for her, too, because it’s Elster who should really suffer the consequences here, and he’s out of the picture for good. Instead, it is Judy who must bear the brunt of Madeleine’s murder. Even if one interprets their last kiss as a softening of Scottie’s feelings toward Judy, Hitchcock gives us a deus ex machina in the form of a nun, whose very presence shatters Judy’s hope for absolution and causes her to fall to her death. The vision at the end of Scottie standing on the sill, arms outstretched, as he looks down at his dead love – again!! – is the director’s most devastating final image. 

Which brings me to the second fact: evidently, the movie system balked at the idea of Gavin Elster getting away with murder, and the studio forced Hitchcock to film another final scene set in Midge’s apartment: Midge listens to a newscaster describing the manhunt for Elster and then greets a subdued Scottie with a drink. They drink together in silence. Film over.

Hitchcock filmed it, hated it and managed to excise it. (You can watch the alternate ending on YouTube). I hate to think that it might have made audiences of the time feel better and thus like the movie more because it is awful, especially since we have all lived with the brilliantly downbeat original ending for much of our lives. I guess most audience members don’t like to suffer, and evidently Hitchcock sympathized enough with their feelings to bring back the fluff (and Cary Grant) the following year, lulling them into a false sense of security given the horrors he would inflict on them in the 1960’s. 

*     *     *     *     *

The Wrong Man, the Hitchcock film released just before Vertigo, is another experiment. Hitchcock was no stranger to film noir, but he had never worked within the docudrama format or, for that matter, dramatized a true event. The return to black and white, the unusually large amount of location shooting, the muted, nearly washed-out performances, the attention to procedural detail, all work well in telling the story of Christopher Emmanuel Balestrero, “Manny” to his family and friends, who in 1953 was arrested for robbery and assault when four witnesses incorrectly identified him as the man who had twice robbed his own insurance company and several liquor stores. Balestrero was arrested, put on trial, endured a mistrial when one of the jurors stood up in court and said something that presumed his guilt, and was awaiting a re-trial when the real criminal was apprehended trying to rob a deli. 

Manny sued the city of New York for $500,000 but ended up accepting $7,000. The real tragedy here is that the case mentally broke his wife Rose who remained in a mental institution for two years. Although upon her release Manny moved his family to Florida, she never fully recovered from the ordeal. Hitchcock paid Manny $22,000 for the rights to his story, but all of it was eaten up by the costs of Rose’s medical care. 

You can see why Hitchcock would view Manny’s story as a perfect fit: the tale of an innocent man wrongly accused and persecuted by a stupid police force; the motif of doubles so prevalent in his films, literally rendered here by a look-alike villain; the support Manny gets from a matrimonially viable woman who, in this case, already is his wife – plus help from his mother and in-laws, showing the value Hitchcock places on family; the dangerously inaccurate way we humans tend to view each other; the power of religious faith. It’s a crash course on Hitchcock brought to (true) life.

The docudrama format provides Hitchcock with a chance to try something new. There’s no real director cameo here, just a vision at the opening of the director’s shadow informing us that what we are about to see is true. When Manny is arrested, it feels like we are watching an extended version of the story Hitchcock liked to tell about the time his father sent him to the police with a note instructing them to throw him in a cell in order to remind him what happens to bad little boys. This apocryphal tale is meant to explain Hitchcock’s lifelong discomfort and mistrust with police, and that is exercised to the hilt here. Manny’s arrest and booking take up a significant amount of screen time. This being Hitchcock, the camera is kept up close and personal to Manny, and Henry Fonda does a fine job portraying the numbness and loneliness of a man trapped in this situation. 

We still find plenty of Hitchcockian visual moments throughout, beginning with the opening scene where Manny is finishing a set as the bassist in the Stork Club combo. He says goodnight and walks out of the club, just as two patrolmen pass by. The camera captures Manny walking tightly between the cops, foreshadowing the nightmare to come. When he is left in jail overnight, Manny has a crisis of confidence that Hitchcock portrays with an interesting shot of Manny as the camera circles around and around. We will see this in spades the following year in Vertigo, where the image of spirals is used repeatedly to showcase Scottie’s mental and emotional deterioration. We get the requisite use of eyeglasses, as one of the two female witnesses from the insurance company – the smugly certain one – is wearing a pair of spectacles. (The other witness is played by Doreen Lang, who appeared in several Hitchcock movies, most notably as another frenzied false witness in The Birds.) And there’s a beautiful climactic moment that honors Hitchcock’s own strong Catholic faith, when Manny prays to God for strength rather than help (instructed by his mother in one of the only positive maternal relationships the director ever gave us) and the camera cross fades from Manny to the real criminal.

Vera Miles didn’t get much critical love as Rose when the film came out, but she is quite moving in her descent to madness. The ending, where Manny comes to the institution to tell her the charges have been dismissed and the nightmare is over, and she responds, “That’s fine for you,” is heartbreaking. I don’t see her as Madeleine in Vertigo or, indeed, as the proclaimed successor to Grace Kelly in the director’s mind, but that seems to have been the plan. 

There are moments of The Wrong Man that I truly love, like the climax where the false witnesses finally identify the right man and then have to walk past Manny at the police station. But I do get the criticism that the film is a little slow and understated. Still, it earns a certain poignancy when you realize that the Hitchcock Hero exists in real life – a scary prospect indeed for all of us. 

Next week, the Hitchcock movie to end all Hitchcock movies . . . which is exactly how the screenwriter intended it. See you then.