Forever falling: what makes Vertigo great

In our series on contenders for our 2012 Greatest Films of All Time poll, the renowned Spanish critic Miguel Marías finds himself falling once again for the fathomless mysteries of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo.

Miguel Marías

Poll countdown essay no. 9  |  from our May 2011 issue

For some, Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) has always been one of those ‘bedside’ films (as François Truffaut put it, before such a thing could be taken literally) – which means that we store it so well in our minds, and in our hearts, that we can think about it and ‘watch’ it again whenever the mood takes us. We do this to delve a little bit deeper into the film’s inexhaustible and fascinating enigmas, to relive our first impressions and to compare Hitchcock’s film to the rest of filmmaking – if only to reassure ourselves of its status as an unsurpassed peak, making films that hold more prestige for critics and historians seem lesser works by comparison. And yet the truth is that its status as a great work has only been admitted comparatively recently.

None of Hitchcock’s films, for instance, featured in Sight & Sound’s first top ten in 1952, and Vertigo didn’t feature in the 1962 critics’ poll, compiled four years after the film’s release. In fact Vertigo didn’t appear in the poll until 1982, when it came seventh. By 1992 it was up to fourth (and sixth in the newly instigated directors’ poll); then in 2002 it came second (remaining sixth for the directors).

Why did it take so long? Unlike, say, Bicycle Thieves, which was more or less instantly acclaimed as a masterpiece (coming top in the 1952 poll, only four years after its release), films such as Vertigo and John Ford’s The Searchers (1956) initially met with a mixed reception from critics – and with indifference from the public. Which means that, beyond the mere passing of time and the perseverance of their defenders, these works must have something very special about them to have been able to finally impose themselves as great works.

But why, in the case of Vertigo, do we come back again and again, even though the art of cinema and the film’s original audience have changed? The generation that first revered the film has got older and gained experience, but we have also lost illusions and enthusiasm. Why, after watching Vertigo more than, say, 30 times, are we confident that there are things to discover in it – that some aspects remain ambiguous and uncertain, unfathomably complex, even if we scrutinise every look, every cut, every movement of the camera? Why do we never get tired of Hitchcock telling us the story of Scottie Ferguson’s obsession with three people in one – Madeleine Elster, Carlotta Valdes and Judy Barton – even though we know it by heart?

Narrative discoveries

It is generally accepted that Hitchcock was one of the great film narrators. He has long been considered a skilful artisan at the service of his audience, willing to flatter us, and eager to make the biggest profit with his products – a direct concern for him, because he participated in the financing of his films, which meant that his future creative freedom depended on good commercial results. Hitchcock always wanted to keep his hands free so he could make something greater than he’d made before.

Vertigo (1958)

The tendency among earlier critics was to try to reduce him to the role of ‘master of suspense’, perhaps because his success sparked off a multitude of inferior imitators. Hitchcock’s narrative discoveries, the structural audacity with which he surprised us – the death of the love interest 70 minutes into Vertigo, or of protagonist Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) 40 minutes into Psycho – all those innovations were considered mistakes by critics then. These were possibilities no other producer would have tolerated; even with Hitchcock’s creative autonomy, few would have dared to attempt them.

Of course Hitchcock understood the importance of dramatic narrative and character conventions. He knew how to play with them and pretend he was complying with them – as when retired policeman Scottie (James Stewart) initiates his investigation of Madeleine Elster (Kim Novak) at the behest of her husband Gavin (Tom Helmore) – so that the spectator, trusting in orthodoxy, would anticipate the position where the director wanted them to be, allowing him to create and dilate that mixture of tension and uncertainty that is ‘suspense’.

Come the time, he also knew how to brutally undermine those conventional expectations (making us realise, for instance, that Scottie has been suckered into the Elster case because of his fatal flaw, the vertigo he has experienced ever since he was left dangling from the edge of a roof during a chase in the film’s opening sequence), leaving the spectator disoriented – and therefore ready to be taken wherever he wanted us to go.

Hitchcock knew that an excess of confusion can distance, that too many explanations can tire and make us lose the thread, that a prolonged vagueness can jeopardise the credibility of a story. Yet he also knew that if one wants to put aside (or forget for a while) the plausible and go deep into the terrain of the extraordinary and the improbable, ambiguity is necessary to preserve a fragile realism – in misè en scene, wardrobe, behaviour. Hitchcock was never spineless in this regard: when he was certain, he would jump in and violate any rule.

This allowed him to dive into the depths of the invisible, the ungraspable, the imperceptible, the unsafe, the weightless, the strange, the impossible (that which worryingly can happen). And this would provide him with the most adequate and efficient tools to lure us into that “momentary suspension of disbelief” of which Coleridge spoke, and elongate it in order for us to immerse ourselves in the inextricable depths of the human being. I won’t use the word ‘soul’, even though I’m sure Hitchcock believed in the existence of something like this.

There is no need to be a Christian to succumb to Hitchcock, just – ever so slightly – Freudian or Jungian. I suspect that Hitchcock, regardless of how sceptically or ironically he considered the jargon of psychoanalysis and its therapeutic virtues, didn’t ignore the theories and the institutions of the different psychoanalytic schools. Subjects that preoccupied and intrigued Sigmund Freud and his followers – such as sexuality and repression, dreams and the Oedipus complex, fear and the ‘lapsus’, lies and masks, sublimation and mythology, jokes, the subconscious and feelings of guilt, the illusion of grandeur and the persecution complex, paternal or authoritarian figures and possessive mothers, the family structure and hereditary features, child fixations and hysteria, hypnotism and schizophrenia, the uncanny and many others – seem like a repertoire of themes that recur in Hitchcock’s filmography.

That said, Catholicism provided Hitchcock with certain variations (or aggravating circumstances) on some of these themes: the notion of sin; the fear of knowledge and of woman as dangerous temptress; the expulsion from Paradise and the shame of the body; the mythologising of virginity and maternity; plagues and the way to the cross; mourning and the cult of the dead; faith in the afterlife and in the resurrection of the flesh; the Ten Commandments and the Seven Deadly Sins as opportunities for transgression and guilt; miracle healing; eternal punishment; the consecration of ‘the wrong man’ in the figure of Christ; confession and its inviolable confidentiality; the inquisition and torture; the devil as seductive and astute being, proudly defiant of the divine supremacy; the conflict between predestination and freedom; the Apocalypse and the Last Judgement…

It would be as ridiculous to deny the importance of Judaeo-Christian obsessions in Hitchcock as it would be to reduce everything to a succession of Catholic dogmas and rituals. These obsessions are the perfect complement, conflictual and partly antithetical – and therefore dialectical, to his psychoanalytic sources of inspiration.

Another even less explored cultural source for Hitchcock – which strengthens the Catholic (which came from his education by the Jesuits) and the Freudian (which he encountered during his film apprenticeship in Weimar-era Germany) – is surrealism. This may be obvious, but in order to highlight it we need to look at the composition and framing, the texture and the combination of his images – above all in the silent part of his British period, chronologically the closest to those encounters.

Like the surrealists, Hitchcock thought that the interior (what happens ‘inside’) and the imaginary (dreamed, remembered or hallucinated) are as real as the external and tangible to which ‘reality’ is normally restricted. The influence here is not primarily literary but rather pictorial, and can be sensed in paintings by Richard Oelze, Max Ernst, Emil Nolde, Dorothea Tanning, Hans Bellmer, and in some of their predecessors, such as Friedrich, Böcklin, Munch and Fuseli.

Vertigo (1958)

Lastly, there remains a vision of the world to which this last clue drives us: romanticism. From many spheres – musical, literary, pictorial – and from various places – British, German, Italian, American, Russian – the footprints of romanticism can be detected in Hitchcock’s films. One feels the spectres of Poe, Stevenson, Hawthorne, Melville, George Du Maurier, Emily and Charlotte Brontë, Mary Shelley, Wilkie Collins, Georg Trakl, E.T.A. Hoffmann, Achim von Arnim and Gérard de Nerval.

In the same way, one can hear – under the curiously related melodies composed for his films by such different musicians as Franz Waxman, Hugo Friedhofer, Roy Webb, Maurice Jarre, Miklós Rózsa, Dimitri Tiomkin and above all Bernard Herrmann – measures and harmonies by Wagner, Brahms, Schubert, Schumann, Richard Strauss, Fauré, Franck, Rachmaninov, Debussy, Britten, early Stravinsky, the Schoenberg of ‘Verklärte Nacht’ (‘Transfigured Night’) – all of them centred in the recreation and transmission of emotions.

For me romanticism – often concealed under a layer of cynicism and humour, as in Lubitsch, Sternberg, Wilder, Ophuls, Stroheim or Mankiewicz – is the key to Hitchcock’s unequalled capacity to unsettle and move the spectator with a degree of implication and intensity that goes beyond a supposed ‘identification’ with the protagonist – an identification that Hitchcock tended to rupture violently and traumatically, and which in general was projected not on to a single (male) person, but on to the couple, at least.

Notorious (1946), for instance, is not the story of Devlin (Cary Grant) – even if its first part is told from his narrative (but not visual) point of view – nor is it that of Alicia (Ingrid Bergman), as the title may make us think; it is the story of that couple – or more so, of the triangle composed by Sebastian (Claude Rains), and the quadrilateral that would include his ominous mother (Leopoldine Konstantin).

More than the drama of the neurotic woman personified by Tippi Hedren, Marnie (1964) narrates her complex relationship with Mark Rutland (Sean Connery), and the no less ambiguous relationship with her mother. Vertigo, of course, is not just the story of Scottie, but also – even more so – of Judy in her different simulations or incarnations, manipulated, feigned, spontaneous or forced.

Seduction manoeuvres

Another reason why Vertigo turns out to be so intriguing, complex and suggestive stems from the fact that it gathers together a strange synthesis of various myths of Western culture, connected to the mystery of artistic creation, which is perhaps the film’s ultimate subject.

The most obvious myth is Pygmalion, combined with the Frankenstein variant of Prometheus; others would include Orpheus and Eurydice, although in a very sombre version, and almost inverted; the double or Döppelganger of the romantics and German expressionists, filtered through the schizoid sieve of Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde; the love in death and beyond this world of ‘Tristan and Isolde’ (and it is no coincidence that the ‘Liebestod’ of Wagner’s opera is the audible origin of Herrmann’s score, mainly of the ‘Love Theme’); some vampire tales and the novel Peter Ibbetson by George Du Maurier (not the pale and miscast film version by Henry Hathaway).

Some others could also be mentioned, such as Faust, but what’s interesting here is that it is not a case of showing off cultural references, but of a melancholic and tragic story of love (much more than a detective story), full of multiple resonances that are admirably integrated, and which converge in what Robin Wood, Jean Douchet and Eugenio Trías have considered a parable of creation, and of the mise en scène.

Let’s not forget that Vertigo is a succession of mises en scène and seduction manoeuvres. The first shows us how Gavin Elster, an old friend from student days, requests Scottie’s services as a detective in order to use him in an improbable criminal conspiracy. First he tempts him, like Mephistopheles, with a return to action, restoring Scottie’s lost confidence. Once this route fails, Elster intrigues him with the implausible story of Carlotta Valdes and the power it exerts over his wife Madeleine – a story told in encircling movements, going up and down the different ‘levels’ of his huge office, like the scriptwriter and director who first seduce the producer, then the actors and finally the audience. Elster banks on the fact that – in a third phase, admirably staged in Ernie’s restaurant – Scottie is going to be captivated by the ethereal, ghostly, hieratic and gliding beauty of Madeleine, which will finally convince him to believe such a fantastic tale and accept the mission of following and protecting her.

From the moment he positions himself inside his car at the door of Elster’s mansion and furtively follows Madeleine, Scottie thinks he is directing the second mise en scène. The mix of contemplation and distance and growing curiosity is intoxicating as Scottie, without realising it, starts falling in love with an imaginary person whom he dreams of saving, without ever suspecting that ‘Madeleine’ has been forced to interpret a role. He follows her, bewitched, through different places, each more or less funereal: a flower shop, which she enters through the back door; the cemetery of the Mission Dolores; the museum where she contemplates the portrait of the unfortunate Carlotta; the lonely room in the sinister and desolate McKittrick Hotel (a herald of the house in which Norman Bates coexists with the memory of his mother), in which Madeleine vanishes like a ghost, as if she were a hallucination of Scottie’s.

His unconscious desires start to become a reality when Madeleine throws herself into San Francisco Bay by the Golden Gate, giving him the opportunity to save her like some knight errant – and to feel, as in the Chinese tradition he cites, responsible for her; to take her to his flat, undress her, watch her sleeping and talk to her for the first time. In this phase, a relationship of affinity binds these prowling idlers. They visit different places on the outskirts of San Francisco, exchange confidences, fears and dreams. This phase is consummated – once Scottie is in love with Madeleine – with the unseen murder of Elster’s real wife, presented traumatically to Scottie (and the viewer) as a suicide that he couldn’t prevent.

The third mise en scène takes to the limit the condition of the powerless spectator, which we share with Scottie; it’s a painful repetition, under the effects of the loss or abandonment syndrome of the previous ‘movement’. Like an inconsolable widower, Scottie revisits the places where he first followed and spied on Madeleine from a distance, and those where they were together: the giant sequoias, the solitary coast beaten by the swell and the wind, the Mission San Juan Bautista.

The fourth mise en scène – after a few false alarms that leave us breathless, making our heart skip in rhythm with the wounded and depressed Scottie – starts when the ex-detective bumps into Judy Barton. A shop assistant, she seems carnal, even vulgar – very far from the formal elegance and distinction of Madeleine, who was so pale and whispering, so shy and fragile, so ethereal and disturbed; but in Judy he discovers an echo of the loved and lost image. Now Scottie becomes scriptwriter and producer, director and wardrobe designer, make-up artist and decorator, as he obsessively tries to transform Judy into his Madeleine, taking that resemblance as a starting point, polishing and fine-tuning her into the yearned-for image of his unacceptably lost love.

But Judy is scared, because she knows what Scottie and we still don’t. The key moment of the film – truly revolutionary from the dramatic and narrative point of view – is the revelation (for us the spectators, when we hear Judy writing her confession; Scottie’s realisation will still take a bit longer) of what really happened on the top of the bell tower of the Mission. This is a moment that gives a different sense to everything we think we know, and changes our point of view: we shift from Scottie’s viewpoint – from the sadness and desperation we’ve shared – to Judy’s, which allows us to consider her as a victim.

Vertigo (1958)

The fifth mise en scène begins when Judy, trapped by the love she had to feign for Scottie when she was experiencing his so intensely, gives herself away – almost abandons herself to love – with an indirect confession. (It’s difficult to know to what extent it’s conscious on Judy’s part; is she even jealous of the fictitious Madeleine, who was herself?)

When Scottie tries to regain control of the drama – which will now be that of vengeance, as he is determined to force a confession out of Judy – he will drag her to her death. And this is the definitive disappearance of Madeleine that will drive Scottie to the absolute void. In the end, Scottie is left ‘suspended’ over the abyss, just as he was when a compassionate fade-out closed the film’s prologue of the police chase over the roofs of San Francisco.

During this gradual process of spiral ascents and falls, punctuated by ominous low and high angles, we the viewers are successively – or simultaneously – busybodies and onlookers, meddlers and dupes, accomplices and sceptics, co-scriptwriters and extras, witnesses and victims of three machinations: Elster’s, Scottie’s and – above both of them, permanent and masterly – Hitchcock’s.

Translated by Mar Diestro-Dópido.

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