Vertigo (1958)

Dir. Alfred Hitchcock. Starring Jimmy Stewart, Kim Novak, Barbara Bel Geddes

Hitchcock does not want to show us Novak’s face straight on until he absolutely must. We see her from behind, with her hair done in the little twist in the back which of course mirrors the hurricane symbol which has come to stand in for Vertigo; we see her from behind, too, at a distance when she jumps into the bay. We see her in profile over and over again, whether she’s driving a car or being driven, or maybe lying asleep in Stewart’s bed, or maybe running into an old church. And we see her from distance as well, too far away to touch. She stands by the redwoods, under the pines, kneels with her arms under her chin in Stewart’s den, opens the windows in the McKittrick Inn, and every time we know it’s her from the outfit and the ‘do. In short, Hitchcock does a fairly good job of denying us the pleasure of the gaze in the first two-thirds of the movie; it’s in the last third that he dictates the predatory, sexual, longing gazes both through and with Stewart’s character. In that final third, Scottie’s scopophilia (to borrow from Laura Mulvey, who makes Vertigo in particular a linchpin of her arguments in “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”), which had been largely sublimated by duty and distance and decency, rears its head with fatal consequences. Mulvey argues that excepting a single flashback from Judy’s perspective, Vertigo functions from the subjective male gaze, associating the viewer with Scottie. I don’t know that I disagree, but I would add two caveats: first, that for much of the film Madeleine is shot in a way that would frustrate the male gaze, and second (and this is rather a broad perspective), that the placement of the camera does not dictate our interest, understanding, or sympathy.

Vertigo is a story of violence against women, perhaps even primarily a story of violence against women. Hitchcock’s best work, from Psycho to Rear Window to, of course, Vertigo foregrounds that some concept over and over again. In Psycho and Rear Window, the graphic or hidden murders of women are the province of villainous men. The most famous murder in the history of the silver screen features a man stabbing a naked woman in the shower, with more than one shot at the pelvic area foreshadowing the reason “Mrs. Bates” comes after Marion. It is the quintessential masculine ultraviolence. In Rear Window, the tensest moment of the film for me is watching Grace Kelly get caught in the apartment across the way; it’s the threat of violence to her that is especially scary. In Rebecca and Notorious, we are made to fear for Joan Fontaine and Ingrid Bergman’s safety; The Birds, of course, features Tippi Hedren getting the business from flying critters over and over again. (All of this must also be considered in the context of Hitchcock’s literal violence against women; Hedren has gone on the record as saying that Hitchcock sexually abused her off the set of The Birds and Marnie. Assuming Hedren’s claims are true, and one is inclined to give her the benefit of the doubt, that adds an especially dark tinge to this running theme of Hitchcock’s.)

What makes Vertigo immensely more complicated than Psycho or Notorious or Rear Window  is the fact that its fellows contain some hero to protect our fair lady: John Gavin, Cary Grant, Jimmy Stewart. Those handsome men – each one 6’2″ or better – uphold the heteronormative, patriarchal order in which straight men, especially ones who are romantically involved with their soon-to-be-victim straight women, risk life and limb to protect their ladies. But in Vertigo, Stewart is, in his own way, at least as dangerous as Anthony Perkins or Claude Rains or Raymond Burr. Whatever sympathy we might have held for him evaporates rapidly as he becomes possessive, creepy, domineering, hateful and, by the end, partly responsible for three deaths. Personally I find Rear Window to be a more impressive directorial effort (to say nothing of the fact that I love it just the way I loved that rag doll), but Vertigo is chilling in the way that Rear Window isn’t. Much of the difference is in Stewart himself. Six years older in Vertigo than Rear Window and looking every bit of it, he appears haggard for much of the movie. By the end, he is a sweating mess, gnashing his teeth, almost slavering, in a way that no one who saw The Philadelphia Story would have been able to predict he’d do. In the beginning, the old Stewart charm is on display as he sits around in Barbara Bel Geddes’ apartment, trying to balance his cane on his finger, bragging that he’s figured out how to fix his acrophobia and attacks of vertigo. It’s clear that even in middle age, with the (never fully explained) resources to live comfortably even in life beyond the police force, Scottie is breaking down. His back still aches from his incident which set off the vertigo; incidentally, he still very much has his acrophobia. He has never been married and, despite Midge’s attentions, seems unlikely to get there. His hair is completely gray, and his face beginning to line; it will take him longer to appear as suave as he used to. Scottie falls for Madeleine, and he looks old enough to be her father. (Stewart was, incidentally, almost twice Novak’s age.) One of the charitable interpretations of Scottie’s actions is that by controlling a much younger woman, he can control life itself, manage it in ways that are flattering to him and which elide the fact of his rapidly proceeding decrepitude. In that reading, he is fighting his age and not his psychoses.

I’ve said before that “Vertigo uses green like the icepick the doctor uses to give you a lobotomy,” which I’ll stand by, but Vertigo also uses red to immense effect. Characters appear in both colors. Madeleine wears a long, flowing green dress when we first meet her against the background of Ernie’s, which is upholstered in a Nykvistian red. In Scottie’s apartment, he wears a green sweater while Madeleine wears a short red robe; Scottie rejects Midge when she’s wearing a red sweater in a scene which doubly emphasizes his reddish dreams of Madeleine. The first time we see Judy, she is in a strikingly green outfit alongside a group of friends in much dimmer colors. If green is the color of growth and increase and red the color of passion and violence, then these are fitting. While wearing green, Madeleine/Judy is irresistible for Scottie; he cannot take his eyes off her and Mulvey’s critique more or less comes true. (It’s worth noting that green, so associated with springtime and thus with fertility, is an added turn-on for the lonely bachelor.) While wearing red, as she does in his apartment, Madeleine is like a witness during the Spanish Inquisiton. While wearing the color of increase himself – having followed her green car around half of northern California by now – Scottie questions and interrogates and practically browbeats his impromptu guest wearing the symbol of passion. All this happens, presumably, after he’s gotten her out of her wet clothes and put her in his bed. Even Midge is not immune to the color coordination; she berates herself mercilessly when Scottie, creeped out by the painting of her head on Carlotta Valdes’ body, leaves her alone in her red sweater. It is her most violent reaction to anything in the film.

The pivotal scene in the film occurs once Scottie’s lust for control (we hope) has met its apex; Judy, dressed as Madeleine, as what Mulvey rightly calls “the physical appearance of his fetish,” walks out of the bathroom in the gray suit, the blonde hair in a twist. The Bernard Herrmann score belts into the room, lit in all green (back to that in a sec); there she is, strangely hazy and unreal. Of course “Madeleine” is a ghost; “she” was thrown out of the belltower of the mission a year and more ago. Judy, who has begged for Scottie to pay her some physical attention, to give her some proof that he cares about her for her and not for Madeleine (proof that she knows will never come, and yet she still sticks around for), kisses her thoroughly. For the first time in the entire film, we get the standard close-up on Kim Novak’s face. It has been obscured some way or other for nearly two hours now: we see her from behind, from a distance, in close profiles, at angles, under gobs of makeup. And the effect isn’t what I thought it would be. It’s not relief, or pleasure, but immense pity. For ten full seconds she walks up to the camera. The edges of her mouth twitch so slightly and she fails to smile. Her mouth keep opening and closing, like gills on a fish; her front teeth keep bleeding into her faded pink lips. After about eight seconds of slow, slow motion to the camera – in what would be Stewart’s position – there is a look on her face of such sadness, such desperation. And for Scottie, this is a moment of explicit triumph. The score says so. Stewart’s awestruck face says so. The kiss says so. But I cannot help but see Judy’s face and feel that pain for her, and for the terrible vulnerability she has betrayed.

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