Vertigo Essay, Research Paper
In one of the countless reviews of Vertigo the inevitable subject of obsession was stated in the following manner: that film is not a study of obsession, but the obsession itself. In other words, the phenomenon of obsession is present in it not as an outside object of “investigation”, but as the film’s own intrinsic characteristic. Therefore, it does not investigate this phenomenon but “produces” it, i.e. instigates obsession. Such inversion, perhaps unusual and open to a variety of readings, gives me an opportunity and excuse to unassumingly support this idea about the obsession associated with Vertigo. Of course, I have no doubt that my experience is in any way singular and original
“You were the copy” or Scottie the modernist
In the last third of the film, after he had seen in the mirror the Carlotta Valdez’s necklace around the neck of Judy Barton, Scottie Ferguson’s detective light bulb instantly lit: he reconstructed the core of the whole story and concluded that Madeleine was actually the copy. He himself uses this word in an emotional and dramatic monologue on the stairs of the San Juan Batista mission: You were the copy!
The copy, of course, presumes the original in relation to which it is a copy. There exists, therefore, another Madeleine, one should say the real one, the original – but the one we do not see. Except in a short sequence at the top of the bell tower (note that it is shown in a flashback as the fragment of Judy Barton’s recollection), the original is visually missing from the film, omitted. It is present in a verbal/conceptual form, as a significant part of the narrative, it is talked about, something is found out about it, for instance that it lives in the country and rarely comes to town, but that is all. Thus Madeleine is the copy of the absent, and therefore in a certain way non-existent original. Or one could say that there are actually two originals with the same name: one is the “real” Madeleine, Gavin Elster’s wife, whose appearance and personality remain unknown; the other is Madeleine who becomes Scottie’s obsession, a character, personage invented and created by Elster. However, she does not imitate the “real” Madeleine but just nominally plays her part. The only thing they have in common is the name, there is some physical resemblance of their visible features, but they completely differ in the essence, otherwise the whole project would not be necessary. That is why Madeleine is, simultaneously, an authentic creation, a kind of an artistic, artificial construct (albeit of flesh and blood), sophisticated project of deception and seduction, the copy who “acts” the nonexistent prototype and in an inexplicable way gains the aura of the original itself, becomes unique in the perverse game of simulation of the nonexistent model. The copy without the original – this contradictory (?) relation finds its “denouement” in the inversion whose outcome is that the copy becomes the original. Madeleine is a being of double nature; she is the one and the other, original and copy, reality and representation, reality and illusion, truth and lie. It is a being of multiple and fluid identity, visible and invisible at the same time. It is therefore difficult to say in what or in who had really Scottie fallen in love with, and what actually is that “obscure object” of his desire. In such dualism every answer is the right one.
If she had already existed as a representation/image/icon, if she actually never really lived, one should say that Madeleine also could not have died. She actually just vanishes, becomes invisible, and it happens twice (same as she was “born”/became two times), almost in the same way and at the same place. But the second vanishing was at the same time Judy Barton’s death, the death of the body in which Madeleine “lived”. Although fictitious, these two “deaths” are more than real for Scottie, they are the obstacles on the way of the materialization of the illusion, the realization of utopia. Yes, Madeleine is like a modernist utopia: precisely because it is not realized it retains the aura of a work of art, the singularity, authenticity, untouchability, unrepeatability of the original/copy which is the product of the creation/imitation project.
And really, if we do not view Scottie’s behavior after the discovery of the “deception” only from the psychological standpoint, one could then say that it displays the symptoms of the mental, intellectual and cultural structure of a modernist hurt by the knowledge that he held the copy for the original, that he was seduced by the enchanting, irresistible attraction and mystery of a false image. What is actually hurt is his axiological and ethical foundation of a modernist, and he now selfishly wants to restore and strengthen his modernist “health” although now the illusion, the very same one that was previously the utmost actual reality, is once again in front of him. Between empty “health” and full “illness” he chooses the first. Why did he need to release himself from the past and not accept the reappearance of the object of his obsession? Why did he reject pleasure of the enslavement to the illusion when the miracle had already happened? Why was he bothered by the deception when he did touch, as the result of that vile act, the complete fulfillment, the sublime experience of the perfection? Scottie is, unfortunately, the believer in the modernist myth of the original, and therefore unable to grasp that the copy can be much more than the original. You were the copy, you were the counterfeit… he yells on the wooden stairway at the bell tower of the San Juan Batista mission, annoyed and hurt by the knowledge that he was the object of a manipulation which had placed him, nevertheless, into the exclusive position of the chosen one. Not feeling that he was actually privileged by this choice, he wants back to the ground, into reality, he wants to be free and healthy. His victorious cry I made it is actually the defeat, the downfall, and the end of an authentic life in the unreal world of the perfection.
Really frightening is the thought that Madeleine is only, not by her appearance, but by her every gesture, movement, by every spoken word, gaze, embrace or kiss, just a part of the plan of the cunning and ruthless businessman to murder his wife. Her very personage, character, is actually the concept, the idea materialized in something that surpasses the demands of the realization of such banal, pragmatic project. However, Madeleine is quite often compared or equated with a work of art, although her creator, her author Gavin Elster, certainly did not conceptualize his creation in terms of creativity. However, the creative act had occurred at another place, it happened in a zone which is outside conscious intention and control of the “author”, in the mental, psychical and emotional investment or projection of the (inner) “observer”, actually the active participant in the event. Scottie’s perception of this character creates around it the aura of a work of art, imbues it with uniqueness and authenticity of an aesthetic object. Without Scottie, i.e. without reception and interpretation, Madeleine is just a common object, more or less successful product of a non-aesthetic and non-artistic operation. It turns out that the road to (perfect) crime goes through art, and that crime always involves both the author and the observer. Scottie is thus also an actor in the murder; he is not innocent, although the court did not find him guilty. He did nothing is heard from the mouth of the arrogant representative of justice, and one cannot be guilty for the deed not committed. Thus speaks the logic of the law. Nevertheless, Scottie did everything. He is the real murderer, but at the same time the suicide. The deliverance from the past he strived for persistently took him straight to death, together with Judy Barton. That is why in the last sequence of the film, on the edge of the bell tower opening actually stands an unusual corpse, the man who had conquered the fear of heights and vertigo, but lost his own identity which he had found in the image/icon named Madeleine. What he had not lost, the only thing that remains, is the wandering: Only one is a wanderer. Two together are always going somewhere.
But there is nothing worse for a modernist than the discovery that he had identified himself with the copy, an imitation, a forgery, that the fake had become the object of his obsessive desire, that he was exalted in front of a false image. Therefore the murder of this image is quite logical and expected outcome. The illogical and unexpected is the suicide. But does he really know at all that he had murdered himself?
“One and Three…” or Kim, Madeleine, Judy
It not inappropriate to ask how many personages/characters Kim Novak plays in this film. The construction of the story and the plot produces certain shifts in apparently simple position of an actress playing two parts. There appears an additional element, simultaneous presence and interpenetration of the visible and invisible parts/characters/identities. When playing Madeleine (in the first part of the film) Novak at the same time plays Judy, i.e. she is playing Madeleine as that character – within the film’s narrative – plays Judy. In the second part of the film Novak plays Judy, first in her authentic character and appearance, and afterwards “dressed” in the Madeleine’s appearance. However, Novak is then playing only Judy, not also simultaneously the (invisible) Judy who plays Madeleine, i.e. Judy then does not play Madeleine although she looks as Madeleine did. Moreover, one could say that Novak as Judy/Madeleine in a way also plays Carlotta Valdez, the character which haunts Madeleine and is reflected in her psychological and physical behavior. Although Madeleine knows nothing about Carlotta, this woman actually “lives” in her: absently gazing at the annual rings on the stump of the sequoia, pointing at the place/time where/when Carlotta was born and died, Madeleine says: Somewhere in here I was born. And there I died. Finally, to the woman at the reception desk of the McKittrick Hotel the person who occasionally uses one of the rooms is not called Madeleine (shadowed by Scottie), but Carlotta Valdez (regardless of the fact whether the receptionist really believes it, or was told to say so as a part of the plan).
The concept of a personage within a personage or a character within the character is when the spectator is facing the interpenetrations, overlapping and superimpositions of reality and representation, reality and illusion, truth and lie, i.e. Judy and Madeleine. If, for instance, watching the first part of the film you try to keep thinking that this Madeleine is a fake, a false image, a simulation of a personage behind which are Elster/Judy, it would not be easy to maintain this thought all the time and thus release yourself from the veracity and seductiveness of the illusion, truthfulness of the lie. The quality of the illusion, the common general quality of the media of painting and film in both these cases is not merely a means, but is transported into the dimension of the explicit representation and thematization, i.e. it becomes transparent, separately signified as the fundamental element of the visual and semantic plot which confuses and seduces the viewer.
On the other hand, such structure with elements Judy-Madeleine-Carlotta could be referring to the conceptualist relation “one and three” (object/reality – representation/illusion – concept/word), but Hitchcock, of course, does not take the road of analytical/tautological simplifications and reductions which end in a certain glorification of the idea, i.e. the notional/conceptual/verbal at the expense of the pictorial/visual. On the contrary, Hitchcock, together with his surrealist colleague, glorifies the image/representation using to the full its ambivalence, multiplicity of meanings, illusiveness and falsity. The representation is above the notion and the object the image precedes the word.
The realistic viewer will quickly notice in Vertigo a number of “mistakes” or “lapses”. For instance, it is more than unconvincing that Scottie could have been saved when he was on the edge of the abyss, completely helplessly holding onto the ripped drainpipe. Another example: while Scottie is trying to pull Madeleine out of the San Francisco Bay, she (although “unconscious” or “half-conscious”) in one moment, as if quite willingly, puts her arm around his neck; later, in her savior s apartment, when the ringing of the phone starts her from the “half-sleep” (wherein she repeats the words of Carlotta Valdez: Have you seen my child?), Madeleine appears properly made up. One more example: When Scottie follows Madeleine for the first time, she visits three places, the flower shop, cemetery and the museum. Although these visits are sequential, scrutinized by Scottie’s attentive detective eye, the observer will notice a detail which can hardly have a rational, realistic explanation: Madeleine does not have the same coiffure at all these places, i.e. in the museum there will suddenly appear in her hair the characteristic spiral which was not present at two previous places. Hitchcockian explanation of this detail, like the one about Scottie’s rescue from the roof gutter, might be that Madeleine had in the meantime dropped at the hairdresser or had changed her coiffure in the museum’s rest room, or something in that vein, but we were not shown this because it would be uninteresting. And what about the mole, so conspicuous on the left cheek of the girl from Kansas, which is absent on Madeleine’s white face? It might be real, it might be false, just a cosmetic device?
Whatever it is, whatever plot twist or explanation we might deduce from this conundrum, the conclusion will not correspond to Scottie’s well known rationalist-positivist sentence by which he tried to return Madeleine to reality: You see, there’s an answer to everything! The knowledge about that, about the absence of the answer, is disturbing, perhaps even painful. The balance of the answer and explanation is necessarily elusive, same as Scottie’s balancing of the cane game (the first shot after the policeman’s fall from the roof!) necessarily ends in failure, accompanied by the cry of pain caused by the uncomfortable therapeutic corset around his chest. Finally, should I even mention the illogical change of background during the famous 360-degree kiss?
“You can see her there” or images and words
The mystery in this film begins with the images, not with words, as does the seduction of the viewer. True, in the first shot of the film, in the fascinating opening credits sequence designed by Saul Bass, the shot is a close up of the mouth of an unknown woman, but camera at once moves to the eyes (they are looking left-right), and then closes on the right pupil out of whose depth and darkness emerges the fetishist spiral. We are thus immediately introduced into the world of the eye, gaze and seeing, the world where the film takes place and about which it narrates.
The whole Gavin Elster’s story, full of strange and inexplicable details about his wife’s behavior, certainly has an intriguing, but not quite convincing effect to initiate all by itself the energy of the mysterious. Scottie therefore reacts rather indifferently, appears sullen, he even cannot or does not want to suppress the gestures which evidently show that the story somewhat bores him. Elster also feels or knows this, and therefore proposes at the end of their conversation that Scottie comes to the restaurant Ernie’s in order to see Madeleine: You can see her there. Behind these words is the belief in the power of the image, Elster expects of the image to challenge the indifference of his college friend. And so it does, Scottie has felt that frightening, hypnotic power the moment Madeleine stopped behind his back, when from the corner of his eye he saw for the first time her profile (and sensed the rustle of her dress). Even this indirect gaze from periphery of the eye, which does not give a clear image, was sufficient to infect him with the virus of mystery and obsession. Next fifteen anthological minutes of the film, without words, only by image (and sound), intensify the mystery to the full. Scottie’s gaze (together with the viewer’s) now follows the movements of the mysterious figure in a gray suit, twice captured by her hypnotic and “deadly” profile. After the shopping for flowers, visits to the cemetery and the museum, where she sits motionless in front of the (another) mysterious image, the woman in gray enters the hotel and appears at the window of the room which will just a few moments later be empty. Inexplicable for the retired detective, same as for the viewer, she disappears like a specter. However, for the lady at the hotel reception desk nothing unusual happened because the mysterious person had never entered the hotel.
If after this first experience Scottie still retains certain detachment, Madeleine’s second appearance incarcerates him definitively in the jaws of obsession. In his own apartment, after he had managed to stop her suicide (during that incident he could first touch Madeleine and see her face so close to feel her breath), he is left at the mercy of the hypnotic energy of the image, of the discouraging radiation of a sublime aesthetic object, the unique masterpiece.
Everything mysterious, enigmatic, magic, hypnotic and obsessive in this film primarily generates out of its pictorial/visual (and musical) texture, out of the formal-linguistic structure. Besides, Hitchcock himself had emphasized that in Vertigo he cared less for the story and more for the integral visual impact and effect. What seduces, mesmerizes and anaesthetizes in this film is its visual design, construction and composition of the shots, montage of the pictorial fragments; rhythms of the movements and flux of the images in the ambience of the musical background; energy of the color and light as the basic, not just aesthetical but primarily symbolic units, striking domination of the curved and bent lines, cyclic, recurrent and spiral motion, etc., etc… Verbal and narrative levels only support (although quite efficiently) the magic of the image. Let’s be frank, if Madeleine did not look the way she does, if her face, gaze, walk, movements and clothes did not speak louder than her words (Hitchcockian assumption of the perfect “mystery woman”), she would be followed about the steep San Francisco streets by some other man, though with the same name. It would just be a retired detective only interested in the efficiently done and paid work he reluctantly accepted. It might be enough for the efficient realization of the Elster’s plan, but in that case some other, but not this film, would be made.
At the end, the mystery in this film disappears with the sobering intrusion of words at the moment of the last kiss, as if it foreshadowed that everything still might be as before: I hear voices, says the nun in the final sequence on the bell tower, appearing out of the darkness like the harbinger of death, and frightened Judy/Madeleine, backing a few steps, falls into the abyss of reality. These last – but not final – spoken words in the film definitely cut already quite thin thread of mystery, lift the veil of the fiction and illusion behind which emerges the transparent, prosaic, sinister and ugly face of reality.
“This is my second chance” or Recurrence
The manifestations of recurrence, desire, wish, compulsion or instinct for repetition are more that conspicuous in Vertigo. This motive, mentioned and discussed in several analytical texts, does represent the fundamental element in the formal and narrative construction of the film, main support of its semantic and symbolic exposition, primary component of the psychological constitution and function of the characters. The concept of recurrence is incorporated already into the main visual symbol of the film (spiral-spiraling/cyclic movement); the animations in the title sequence and in Scottie’s dream, Madeleine’s coiffure, rings on the cut sequoia, the bell tower staircase, the bouquet, the chair on which Scottie demonstrates his deliverance of vertigo “theory”, the chandelier in McKittrick Hotel which markedly captures Scottie’s gaze, Elster’s swivel chair, the large round decorative plate on the wall of Scottie’s apartment…), all enhanced by the Bernard Hermann’s spiraling musical themes.
Mozart’s music at the beginning of the film (while Scottie and Madge talk in her apartment) is repeated in the hospital sequence; Madeleine and Scottie, together or separately, several times visit the same places; Madge paraphrases the portrait of Carlotta Valdez replacing her face with her own; in the repeated symbolic appearance at the (hotel) window we first see Madeleine and then also Judy; the image reflected in the mirror appears several times: at the flower shop, at the fashion shop, at the Hotel Empire; Madeleine appears and disappears twice; Scottie repeats Madeleine by forcing Judy to change her hair color, coiffure, clothes, shoes; death of Madeleine is the result of her obsessive wish to repeat her great grandmother’s death, etc., etc…; finally, the very idea of the copy presumes the repetition as its fundamental constituent. Finally, the desire for repetition is itself repeated in the specific form, outside the film, in the desire to repeat its viewing.
It is a common phrase to say that Vertigo is a film that must be seen several times. Why? Superficially, there is nothing unusual about it; everyone would say that it is a thing to do with every above average film. But why is not the same demand repeated, at least not so conspicuously, for many other brilliant films? As if Vertigo possesses even something above extraordinary, something beyond masterpiece, actually something quite different – which has nothing in common with the rigid hierarchy on the axiological level. This film, therefore, requires several viewings not (only) because of its quality, but for something unique in itself, in its structure, its intrinsic pattern.
On the one hand, the film cannot be adequately perceived in one viewing due to its multi layered model of construction where all the levels (visual/pictorial, narrative/verbal, symbolic/semantic, auditory, etc…) are equal and equivalent, i.e. its constitutive elements are not organized by the hierarchic principle of subordination, there is no dominant and subordinate, no central and peripheral, primary, secondary and marginal. That is why in one viewing the simultaneous perception/s simply cannot “grasp” and absorb all levels of this unique and polysemic emission. Moreover, the additional difficulty is created by another, perhaps really unique quality of this film: the inevitability of more than intense, i.e. not just ordinary, emotional participation and investment of the viewer, impossibility of watching it “cold headedly”, exclusively rationally and intellectually. On a rational level I know that I am watching a fake, fiction, something false/untrue, unreal, but at the same time I feel (different level) as if everything was real/true because I am involved and want to know what will happen next, I care about it, I am concerned. The emotional and exalted state amortizes the efficiency of rational and intellectual perception, as if during the watching of the film it falls into some kind of anaesthetized stupor and awakes only later, when the fiction in front of our eyes had ended.
Perhaps all these are commonplace, perhaps this is the matter of solipsist, subjective projections and mystifications, but it is not the end: all this is repeated with every new viewing. The plot is known, there is no secret, no uncertainty and apprehension, and one knows what will happen, but still is involved, or, to be colloquial and more precise, one is “hooked”. When I watch this film I wonder about the numerous details of the story, why it had to happen the way it did, could it not have been different, and so on…
When he was making his films Hitchcock certainly had no intention to make masterpieces. But they did get made, it seems he “lapsed” several times, perhaps especially with Vertigo, although he almost obsessively tried to keep everything under control. There were some problems with this film, he (fortunately!) could not get Vera Miles, who he wanted first, for the role of Madeleine/Judy, and he was not very satisfied with some things Kim Novak did. At the end it appears that he did not think he made something special. Neither did the critics. First reviews, more than reserved, mostly concluded merely with the cataloguing of another typically Hitchcockian thriller, only this time with rather slow rhythm and too long exposition. It was only later that people recognized the fact that Vertigo was another work of genius by the esteemed director.
1) Auiler, Dan Vertigo: The Making Of a Hitchcock Classic (1986; Griffin Trade Paperback)
2) Auiler, Dan Hitchcock s Notebooks: An Authorized and Illustrated Look Into The Creative Mind Of Alfred Hitchcock (1983, Avon Books)
3) Spoto, Donald The Dark Side Of Genius: The Life Of Alfred Hitchcock (1980, Da Capo Press)
4) Hitchcock, Alfred Vertigo (1958, DVD edition)