A recent Facebook Note request asked me to pick my fifteen favorite films. The usual "Anytime movies" were there, and a few others that have crossed my path since starting LNTAM. But as with any list, what was most fascinating to me was...the ones that were missing. I've noticed this before when I did the "Anytime Movie" series; there were so many things not there—it's always the frustration I feel when making lists (and thus, why I refrain from doing them). This led me to considering the film-artists who did not make the cut, and highlighting those films that have had such an impact on me—that I've fallen in love with, that have stayed with me, burrowing into my brain, and eliciting thoughts and emotions unique to those films. The observations are purely personal (aren't they all?), and why I call this new series of neglected films "My Favorites."
Due to the nature of this particular movie, this article will contain SPOILERS that will actually destroy your enjoyment of the first-time viewing experience. If you haven't seen Vertigo (and, really... what is keeping you?), you should not proceed further. And to paraphrase Hitchcock's favorite tease: "No one will be seated after the article has begun." This is your last warning.
"What Is This Thing Called Love" asks the old song (a favorite of mine). And I especially love the inclusion of the word "thing" to describe it. What IS Love? Why is it so powerful? Why is it an obsession for film-makers, and their audiences, ...and for that matter, the scribes of centuries past...to the point where when we think about Love, it's the kind "like in the movies," (which should set off alarm bells to anyone doubting film's veracity—ever seen an accurate movie on a true story you love?). And Love in the movies is all-good, an all-consuming passion, "the bestest thing in the world," that makes us better people (better-looking, too), sweetens our coffee, shines our shoes, puts a spring in our step, and makes us orgasm simultaneously, while the metaphorical ocean-waves crash over us. Orchestral swell and fade to black (before the complications happen).
'Kay... But it's become SUCH a movie-cliché (and aren't cliché's supposed to be such because they're true?) that movie-makers now "cut to the chase"...almost literally. In the weaker efforts, people in movies fall in love willy-nilly, without doubt, without resistance, and without staring at the phone for hours at a time—wondering "why aren't they calling?" It is effortless love, like falling off a love-log, with no pain, no pangs, no problems.
As Randy Newman (or Joe Cocker) warbles "They don't know what love is."
I like movies that question love. I like movies that question anything, but questioning love makes me sit up and take notice...which happens rarely. I generally just slump in my movie-seat, ticking off the "meet-cute," the "song-montage," "the-rough-road," and the "happily-ever-after," so rare is the occurrence.
Alfred Hitchcock made movies in an era where cinematic love was that kind of easy, but he usually liked to sprinkle some salt in with the sugar. There was no easy path for love in his films, in fact he liked to set up complications for the lovers to overcome—be they heterosexual or homosexual—and his least "typical" film, Mr. & Mrs. Smith, is all about a married couple divorcing and trying to find the path back together, as much as they don't want to.So, here's Vertigo, which is as pure a love story as Hitchcock ever made despite its deceptively fantastical thriller plot, and it finds the director adapting a novel by the authors of Diabolique (which Hitchcock wanted to film), who might have been writing it precisely for this director, so emblematic of his work are their themes. Hitchcock took a story of a man hampered with weakness (in this case, acrophobia, fear of heights and thus, fear of falling), and combined it with his own penchant for re-shaping actresses in his own singular fetishistic way to make one of the most personal films. He'd hoped to lure his favorite actress, Grace Kelly back from Monaco to star in it, but she was dedicated to her fairy-tale marriage to a handsome prince, and declined. Hitchcock never liked fairy-tales, but this is as close as his sensibilities would go. But, it is more than that. It is a mystery. It is a thriller. It is a psychological study. It is a ghost story. But, most of all, it is a love story...with a bottomless void at its heart.
|The first shot of the story—a straight line bi-sects the screen...|
|A hand comes up in mid-frame and breaks that line—a man climbs a ladder.|
Vertigo-proper—aside from the hallucinogenic Title sequence—begins with an undefined image; a murky sky bisected horizontally by a line. In the first movement of the shot, a hand comes up and grabs it; it is the rung of a ladder, the hand belonging to a criminal making an escape from the police and the protagonist, police detective "Scottie" Ferguson (James Stewart). A straight-lined pursuit across roof-tops is only temporarily interrupted by the chase-participants' leap across a void—over an open alley-way between buildings. Everybody makes it with some difficulty, except Scottie.
He is caught suspended, on the brink of a bending gutter on a crumbling cornice, and we experience what he experiences—a change of perception. It is "the vertigo shot"—an ingenious combination of optics and camera movement, that bends the image creating a telescoping tunnel-image. Foreground and background separate and stretch, taking a rudimentary shot down, and making it collapse downward—a suspended fall that increases the distance between Scottie and his death. The shot represents fear and the character's frailty, vertigo, in which heights cause a disorienting dizziness. Scottie watches in horror as a police officer, who offers a helping hand, loses his footing and falls to his death.
The sequence ends with Scottie, still hanging, the situation unresolved. We never see how he gets out of it.
It is some time later, and Scottie's vertigo has forced his retirement from the San Francisco police force. Out of friendship, curiosity, and a detectives love of a mystery, he takes on a freelance job for an old school chum he's lost track of, Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore). Elster thinks his wife Madeleine (Kim Novak) is going insane; she's become obsessed, maybe even possessed, by an ancestor, Carlotta Valdez, who committed suicide. The job is simple: follow the wife, find out what he can and report back to Elster. One look at Madeleine is all Scottie needs. He follows her obsessive path seeking Carlotta, and follows her, and follows her...
...seemingly to the ends of the Earth, or, in this case, Golden Gate Park. he is horrified to find Elster's worst fears confirmed: Madeleine jumps into the bay.
Scottie plunges in to save her, and like so much of his path in Vertigo, it's a straight line right to his heart, as his occupational obsession turns into identification and romantic obsession—the curse of so many movie detectives. He falls in love with Madeleine. Falls...in love. And along the way, the straight lines and lateral paths that Scottie travels then become supplanted by something else throughout his investigation—a spiral.
We see that emblematic glyph within the very first moments of the movie (and Bernard Herrmann's cyclical music suggests it, as well), but it shows up throughout the movie in many forms. Here are some of them:
|Madeleine's hair ends in a spiral...|
|...inspired as it is by the dead Carlotta Valdez's portrait.|
|The embrace of Scottie and Madeleine suggests a spiral|
|And, of course, Hitchcock's "vertigo" shot in the steeple is a spiral.|
What is a spiral? A spinning form, its spinnakers flowing out from implied centrifugal force, but at its center...is nothing. A void...a negative space usually placed by Hitchcock near the center of the screen, unavoidable to the eye. And as the love between Scottie and Madeleine deepens, their embraces take on a spiral of their own, Hitchcock placing them in the center of the screen, linking the vertiginous "falling" and the lovers' dance.
(This is your last chance to leave before a major spoiler)
It all comes to naught, though. Madeleine breaks their embrace and, compelled, runs up a Mission tower, which Scottie, in his acrophobia cannot climb. He watches, horrified, as his love plunges to her death—a reflection of his own horror made real. He could not stop it, and his life consists of a void. He's walking down the avenues of grief and depression, at the corners of lust and need, and so much of his self-worth is wrapped up in it, the strong man he wants to be, the weakling he despairs over. As Carlotta haunted Madeleine, her death haunts him.
Scottie's nightmares after the death of Madeleine are of such voids...that he could fall into.
He is plunged into a crippling depression, institutionalized, broken. We can "gussy" it up with hearts and flowers, but Love is chemistry, not the the man/woman variety (and its variations), but specifically, brain chemistry. Anyone who's had depression or other mental schism, like impulse control or attention deficit disorder, knows that it boils down to chemicals—something's deficient in the attic, some missing ingredient that needs to be augmented. Our brains are sparking stews of meat and chemicals, serotonin, hormones, pheremones, endorphins, testosterones and oxytocins. Love lights them up, decreasing and increasing with attraction, pursuit and mating.
So, is Love a mental illness? Like Scottie's fear? His depression? His vertigo? Is his fear of falling tied to his fear of falling...in love?
Released from the sanitarium, Scottie sees a woman one day, Judy Barton (played, as with Madeleine, by Kim Novak). He is compelled to pursue her, seeking his lost love. But, what he does not know, what Judy never wants him to know, is that Judy was Madeleine, duped by Gavin Elster as an accomplice to murder his real wife. Her love for Scottie is real, so, against her better judgement, she allows Scottie to re-make her—once again—in the image of Madeleine, the clothes, the hair, the make-up (as Hitchcock cast his actresses and made them coiffed blondes in tight grey suits). Only when the transformation is complete, and Scottie and Judy embrace, does the camera begin to spin around them, creating its own spiral, this time the background changing between the hotel room and the site—a horse-barn—where the earlier love-scene happened. For Scottie the illusion is complete. He has found his lost love.
Or, has he? The fascinating thing about Vertigo to me, aside from the association of Love to mental illness—is that Scottie's love is very real, but attached to, essentially, nothing. Judy was Madeleine—a role she played for Gavin Elster. Madeleine, vulnerable, suicidal, in need of rescuing, never existed. Scottie is in love with an illusion, a figment, a zephyr. He can re-capture—cruelly to Judy—the love. But, Judy can never completely be Madeleine to him (despite that she actually is). He is in love with an idea, a dream of perfection, that actually never existed—a ghost.
This is why I love Vertigo—it is a love story that questions the very nature of what love is, rather than just accepts it. If you can love an illusion...what is this thing called love?
Whatever it is, Fate steps in. Scottie is forced, and forces Judy, to relive the fateful steps up the Mission steeple, a move that cures him of his vertigo. But does it cure his love, as well? Scottie becomes truly unhinged in this scene, cruelly forcing Judy up the stairs and it is the apex of Stewart's acting career, challenging the beloved image of the "aw shucks" mid-westerner that marked so much of his interesting work in the 1950's. At the end, we, and Scottie have come full-circle. He is left on the edge, vertigo cured, but the situation, like his hanging from the gutter at the beginning of the film, is editorially unresolved. He is left, his arms, like his image in the falling silhouette in his nightmare, slightly apart from his body, not reaching per se, but only slightly outstretched.
What is this "thing" called love? Is it part and parcel of the stew that makes up Scottie's mind, the confluent forces of worth and doubt, hope and despair, pleasure and pain, lust and heart-ache? Is it part of the depression he feels, or the cause? What is love, really?
We don't know. We cannot know. But the question is raised. And, like the character of Scottie, we are left—every one of us—on the brink.
Again. And again.