Posted by Susan Doll on December 5, 2011
On a cold, blustery Chicago afternoon, I was safely tucked in the back row of a theater watching Vertigo as it was intended to be seen—on the big screen in 35mm with a theater full of movie buffs, cinephiles, and Hitchcock fans. The rich, saturated colors of the new print were a treat after seeing so many contemporary films shot in the drab, flat, burnished colors of digital cinematography. The film was followed by a commentary and discussion led by mystery writer Sara Paretsky and psychologist James W. Anderson, a professor at Northwestern University. Watching Vertigo on the big screen helped me notice details that had eluded me on previous viewings, while comments by Paretsky and Anderson offered a different point of view on the film. I also learned a great deal from the insightful observations of the audience members.
Part detective story and part psychological thriller, Vertigo is about a man who cannot come to grips with his obsession for a woman. And, it is also the story of what it means for the woman to be the object of that obsession, though that part of the tale is often overlooked. Hitchcock was fond using a doppelganger theme in his films, in which one of the main characters has a double who is exactly like them and yet the opposite of them. A doppelganger theme often employs a doubling structure in the narrative; in other words, patterns or events are repeated twice. With this viewing of Vertigo, I noticed that the doubling structure for this film consists of the real version of a character or event juxtaposed with a phony version. Kim Novak is introduced as Madeleine Elster, but she is really Judy Barton who is masquerading as Madeleine as part of an elaborate murder plot. The phony Madeleine pretends to be obsessed with her great grandmother, Carlotta Valdes. Jimmy Stewart is John “Scottie” Ferguson, who is hired by Gavin Elster to follow his “wife” to learn more about her obsession. Scottie is the dupe in the plot who will ensure that Elster’s plan is successful. In pretending to be obsessed, Madeleine visits places associated with her ancestor, including the graveyard where Carlotta is buried and the museum where her portrait hangs. Scottie’s desire for the phony Madeleine, especially after her death, turns into a real obsession, which is manifested through his haunting of the same places—her gravesite, the museum, etc. We see Scottie follow Madeleine to these places in the first half of the film as part of her pretense; then we see him haunt these places in the second half of the movie as part of his real obsession. While recovering from his breakdown, Scottie runs into the real Judy, whom he tries to recreate into the Madeleine who never existed, which duplicates Gavin Elster’s deeds though for different reasons. Truth and illusion follow the same patterns in this story, and, like Scottie, we can’t always tell the difference.
Other examples of doubling involve comparing Madeleine to Scottie’s friend, Midge, who is in love with him. Midge paints a duplicate portrait of Carlotta Valdes, except with her face superimposed over the mysterious Carlotta’s. Midge is shot in profile, just as Madeleine had been in the beginning of the film, suggesting that the real, live Midge is trying to replace the faux Madeleine as the girl of Scottie’s dreams. Madeleine describes her nightmares as a vision of walking down a long, dark hallway, which dissolves into total darkness. If she steps into that darkness, she knows she will disappear. The last image of Midge finds her walking down the long hallway of the mental hospital where Scottie ends up after Madeleine’s death. She realizes that he still loves Madeleine, even in death, and she stands no chance with him. As Midge, the real woman in Scottie’s life, walks down the hallway, she moves farther and farther into darkness. Later, when Scottie has succeeded in convincing Judy into changing her hair and makeup to look like Madeleine, he anxiously awaits in her hotel room for her return as his dream girl. He looks down the hallway of the hotel and sees Judy in the murky lighting at the end of hall. She walks toward the camera into the light—the opposite of Midge’s last scene. Some audience members wondered what became of Midge in the storyline; Hitchcock tells us visually that she has disappeared from Scottie’s life, replaced by Judy who has been “jerry-rigged” to be Madeleine.
Sara Paretsky and James Anderson moderated the discussion and tried to steer it in certain directions. Paretksy suggested we think about whether the film is a detective tale or a psychological thriller, and how that affects our response to the story. From the standpoint of a detective novelist, she admired Hitchcock’s decision to reveal the murder plot and Judy’s role in it before the end of the film. In the original novel, D’Entre les Morts, that information is left as a surprise for the conclusion. Anderson described how there were two levels of psychology in the film—a pop psychology that is part of the plot and a deeper psychology that illustrates the impact of obsession on a man and the effect of wanting to be loved for herself on a woman. The pop psychology generated a few laughs from the audience while watching the film, as when the psychiatrist explains to Midge that Scottie, who seems nearly catatonic, is suffering from “acute melancholia” with a “guilt complex.” But, according to Anderson, the emotional devastation of Scottie’s obsession, as depicted by Hitchcock via Stewart, and the longing to be loved for herself, as depicted by Hitchcock via Novak, are profound and genuine.
Given the storyline, Vertigo is rife with observations, criticisms, and commentary on the nature of romantic relationships and gender issues, which provoked many thoughts and perspectives from members of the audience. I agreed with some of the comments and disagreed with others. But, all of the ideas represented how much this 50-year-old film provokes and inspires debate and discussion.
For me the most interesting comments were in regard to the depiction of Judy/Madeleine and the way both Gavin and Scottie turned her into a person she was not. Hitchcock has long been accused of misogyny in his films, with events in his private life used as proof of his shortcomings. First revealed by Donald Spoto in his biography, The Dark Side of Genius: The Life of Alfred Hitchcock, Hitchcock’s dealings with his actresses revealed a man deeply scarred and troubled. While I wouldn’t say this is untrue, I do find accusations of misogyny in his films to be exaggerated and simplistic. A couple of audience members did call Hitchcock misogynist, throwing out references to his personal life as proof, and pointing out that Judy is so manipulated and controlled by men that it is uncomfortable to watch. Interestingly, these audience members were men. As might be expected, women had a different and less cut-and-dry interpretation of Judy.
The women who commented acknowledged that it is incredibly difficult to watch Scottie—who is played by everyone’s favorite everyman, Jimmy Stewart—to coerce Judy into changing her makeup, clothing, and hairstyle so he can have his dream girl once again. He seems to have little regard for her feelings about changing her look, even telling her, “It can’t matter to you.” But, as Anderson pointed out, we are made to see Judy’s position and the torment she experiences in knowing that Scottie loves the unreal Madeleine, not her. Women in the audience sympathized and identified with Judy: Any woman who has ever acquiesced to her husband or boyfriend’s wishes regarding an article of clothing, a style of makeup, or a hairstyle can relate to Judy, though the character represents an extreme example. And, as one woman noted, Scottie has his choice of two real women—Midge and Judy—but instead he prefers an idealized dream girl who doesn’t really exist. Madeleine is a version of everything men desire; she’s a beautiful, sensual, passionate cipher who needs rescued. She is the archetype of womanhood found in most Hollywood films. Rejection of real women in favor of an ideal results in the destruction of both women, and Scottie is devastated once again at the end of the film This audience member suggested that Vertigo served as a critique of onscreen misogyny, or at least a criticism of men’s idealized expectations of what women should be.
The screening was well attended by audiences of all ages; and, there was an energy in the air as those members who participated in the discussion eagerly offered their interpretations and observations. I asked the people around me what attracted them to the screening. Peter remarked that he had seen the film before, but he was looking forward to the insights that Paretsky and Anderson might have. Mary came not only because Vertigo is one of her favorite films but also because she is a fan of Paretsky’s V.I Warshawski novels. Al was also interested in Paretsky’s take, because Vertigo inverts the standard detective story; he also commented on the way Hitchcock’s personal obsessions related to universal human fears, which were expressed in this film. Al’s comment reminded me that all classic films are a popular art form that serves as part of our modern mythology, which traffics in universal emotions and issues. Films tie us together as a culture, and, whatever the conveniences offered by the home-viewing industry, there is no substitute for watching a classic film on 35mm in a theater with an audience. That should always be the standard to measure that film and its importance as art and as culture.
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