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#16: vertigo (alfred hitchcock, 1958)

(This is the 35th of 50 pieces that originally appeared in a Facebook group devoted to three of us choosing our 50 favorite movies. I’ll present them un-edited except for typos or egregious errors. I’ll also add a post-script to each.)

I like Hitchcock, but his reputation demands that you love him, and there are bigger Hitchcock fans than me. But Vertigo … it’s a movie that is perfect for fans of the director, and also for those who think less highly of his work. I respect Hitchcock’s ability to create popular entertainments that are always something more than just entertaining, but there is something too mechanical about his films. You remember the set pieces because they are masterful, but you rarely remember the acting (he supposedly didn’t care for actors, which wasn’t true, but you sense he did see them as just more cogs in the machine), and the plots are only there to give context to the set pieces.

This is not to say that there are no consistent underlying themes in Hitchcock’s work. On the contrary, any halfway astute critic, or even an attentive film buff, will easily note, for example, Hitchcock’s obsession with cold, blonde women. What makes Vertigo stand out from the rest is that Hitchcock seems to have decided that, just this once, he’d be overt about all the stuff that worked as subtext in his films.

This, I think, is why Vertigo is creepy. You can’t escape the creepiness; it’s not just subtext, it’s the essence of the entire film. James Stewart’s Scottie falls in love with Madeleine. His love turns into an obsession when she dies. When he meets Judy, who bears a resemblance to Madeleine (she is, of course, the same woman, although Scottie doesn’t realize this), he remakes her in Madeleine’s image.

Judy is the key role, and Kim Novak makes it work in part because of a certain hesitancy in her performance that have led some to find her lacking. I think that hesitancy is the appropriate response to a world where one man after another wants to make her into something she is not. Gavin Elster turns Judy into Madeleine; Scottie turns Judy into Madeleine; and Hitchcock tries to turn Kim Novak into Vera Miles, or Grace Kelly, or whichever blonde he is obsessed with.

Scottie is so creepy in the film’s second half that he tries to remake Judy twice, first when he meets her and turns her into Madeleine, and then again at the end of the film, when he finally understands the two women are the same, and he turns Madeleine back into Judy.

When Scottie insists that Judy transform herself into Madeleine, he says, “It can’t matter to you.” It never occurs to Scottie that Judy is a real person; she is merely a symbol of his obsessions. And there is no mistaking Hitchcock’s hand in all of this, for he has always been a director willing to turn actresses into symbols of his obsessions. What is remarkable about Vertigo is that through Scottie, we empathize with Hitchcock’s obsessions, but through Hitchcock’s direction of James Stewart, we are also revolted by those obsessions.

 

There were several comments about this one. I liked Phil Dellio’s the best: “When it comes to obsessing over the perfect blonde, I’m not kidding when I say give me The Heartbreak Kid any day.”

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