The Hitchcock Conversations is an ongoing project between me and James W. Powell, in which we study Alfred Hitchcock’s filmography in chronological order. I’ll be publishing one conversation per week.
(By necessity, spoilers ahead!)
Synopsis: Scottie Ferguson is a retired San Francisco police detective who suffers from vertigo and clinical depression. A wealthy shipbuilder who is an acquaintance from his college days approaches Scottie and asks him to follow his beautiful wife, Madeleine. He fears she is going insane, maybe even contemplating suicide, because she believes she is possessed by a dead ancestor. Scottie is skeptical, but agrees after he sees the beautiful Madeleine.
James: So I’m watching Vertigo and I’m finding myself increasingly impressed. Truly impressed. I can’t quite put my finger on it yet, but after this viewing, the film seems richer, fuller, more professional than anything we’ve seen so far from Hitchcock.
Jason: Holy crap. I mean, damn! I’ve seen Vertigo probably five times, and although I’ve appreciated it in the past, this is the first time it’s completely overwhelmed me. The film starts off as a fairly standard detective story, evolves into a haunting, almost supernatural tale of obsession, and then becomes something absolutely transcendent. During the last third of this film, I was enthralled, captivated, thrilled—not only because of what was happening outwardly in the story but because of what was boiling within the twisted psychology of the main character. Brilliant!
James: I really had fun with Vertigo, even though I’ve seen it plenty of times. The pacing is spectacular (although I do think it’s just a tad too long), and I was even a little surprised by how the story evolves. I don’t remember James Stewart giving such a solid performance, from the deep love his character, John “Scottie” Ferguson, feels for Madeleine Elster (Kim Novak), to his absolute loss when she “dies,” to his madness while trying to transform Judy Barton (also Novak) into the image of his lost Madeleine. Very, very good stuff.
Jason: I would call the “fun” more of a sheer appreciation. Almost a sense of awe. Hitch has us so firmly in his grip, particularly in the second act (which plays out almost wordlessly and yet is completely captivating), as we—through Scottie’s eyes—follow the mysterious Madeleine, who is seemingly possessed by the spirit of her dead great-grandmother, the mad Carlotta Valdes. I love the way the mystery deepens solely through imagery—the ethereal, glowing introduction of Madeleine in the restaurant, the haunting sequence in the graveyard when Madeleine stands silently before the grave of Carlotta, the weirdly poignant scene in the museum, in which Madeleine fixates on the Portrait of Carlotta painting, and the many scenes of Scottie following her through the twisting streets of San Francisco. You’re right, it’s all perfectly paced, and it all has the undercurrent of dream imagery. So, by the time Scottie is fully obsessed with this woman, and we find out the truth about her, the obsession becomes this twisted nightmare that we can feel deep down. The last act of this film, as I said, is enthralling and tragic and heartbreaking in all the right ways.
James: Yeah, I think Vertigo will prove to be the pinnacle of both Hitchcock’s career and our little project. This is the film that we’ve been waiting for, the one Hitchcock was destined to make. Shall we take the film act by act?
James: My first thought is how exciting Vertigo’s opening scene is. It’s completely riveting. Who’s this guy that Scottie and the other detectives are chasing? What did he do? In the first instant of this film, I’m already into it. And when Scottie is hanging on for his life from that roof ledge, watching the other policeman fall to his death—that’s extremely well done.
Jason: I love movies that start in the middle of an action scene, so this one had me in its grip immediately. And the rooftop chase has a sense of realism that I’m not sure we’ve seen yet from Hitch. Maybe it’s the camera work, maybe it’s the sound design, but it feels wide open and tense from the get-go. And, like you, I love the introduction to Scottie’s fear of heights (acrophobia), which will haunt him throughout the movie and become a key plot point. And by the way, this opening sequence—the pursuit of an unknown person that we never see again—echoes the main Vertigo plot, and it’s also a motif of Hitch’s next two movies, North by Northwest and Psycho, which also feature nonexistent people at their centers.
James: Great catch! Even the “vertigo” camera trick works here far better than in most films I’ve seen it used in. Do you know how that’s done? I find it totally interesting.
Jason: The visual effect you mention was pioneered for this movie and involved pulling the camera physically backward while zooming in optically. It’s a perfect effect that captures the sense of vertigo resulting from Scottie’s fear.
James: From there, we flash forward and see that Scottie has retired because of that moment. Now, he’s chatting it up with his friend and former flame, Marjorie “Midge” Wood (Barbara Bel Geddes), who happens to be drawing brassiere designs (that’s so Hitchcock). The thing that interested me most about this scene is that it’s long and, in retrospect, could be considered almost boring, but it’s not. Like the entire movie, every line, every word, every look is absolutely crucial to the story. I was totally drawn into the characters’ world.
Jason: Yes, this scene not only sets up Scottie’s relationship and past with Midge, it also firmly sets up the acrophobia, showing us just how much it can cripple Scottie. Speaking of “cripple,” did this scene remind you of Rear Window, with its hobbled man sitting in a New York apartment, talking to a woman obsessed with women’s clothes? Oh, and yes, the inclusion of underwear design as a component of Midge’s character is pure Hitch.
James: I do see similarities between Stewart’s character in Rear Window. (Also, it’s interesting that three of the four characters Stewart has played for Hitch have been single guys.) Anyway, it’s at this point that I’m already in love with Midge. Not in a romantic way, but she’s like this perfect girl you could call a friend and hang out with. She’s so open. A delightful character, that Midge.
Jason: The introduction of Midge is bittersweet. Did you know Barbara Bel Geddes died recently? (Interesting that a few people involved with Hitchcock films have died during the course of our project.) But I like Midge quite a lot, not only because of her crush on Scottie but mostly because of what she brings to the film. Whereas Scottie and Madeleine are wrapped up in their strange obsession, Midge is firmly rooted in the real world. She grounds the film. (Did you catch the bit about the cantilevered bra? Her mention that an aircraft designer developed it in his spare time is a nod to Howard Hughes.) But yeah, Midge is extremely likable.
James: The relationship these two share is so well developed, it’s amazing. From the start, we see that Midge loves Scottie. It’s so obvious. And maybe he is or at least was curious about her, too. Her unrequited love is sad right from the beginning. And this sadness grows in every scene with Midge. I didn’t know Geddes died recently, and I also didn’t catch the nod to Howard Hughes. Anyway, all of this is just setting up the story. We’re 15 minutes in, and we’re still getting the back story and getting set up for the action, yet I’m so absorbed it’s crazy.
Jason: I like that we have this dose of reality before everything turns bizarre.
James: From that scene, we head into the sequence with Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore). What I liked about this scene are the supernatural elements. It’s a straight detective/mystery introduction, as you’d expect. But there’s also a touch of looniness and a touch of the supernatural, depending on how you watch it. Is this woman nuts, or is she possessed? Worse, maybe Gavin isn’t who he claims to be. Since I’ve seen the movie before, I watched him as a killer—a man setting up Scottie. And boy, he must be one calculating bastard. His delivery is flawless. The scene is just a bunch of talk, yet it’s riveting.
Jason: Ah, Gavin Elster, Scottie’s good ol’ evil college buddy. I, too, watched with the knowledge that Gavin is the film’s ultimate villain, setting Scottie up for what will become an unbelievable nightmare. But yes, the scene starts in a pretty mundane way, adhering to the plot developments of film noir. Gavin simply wants Scottie to follow his wife, Madeleine. And then suddenly Gavin throws the curveball: He suspects that Madeleine is possessed by a dead woman. Scottie’s pause at that moment is spot-on. It’s at that second that Vertigo begins its detour into the strange. You can see that even though he initially resists the job, he’s hooked. Consider Gavin’s quote: “Do you believe that someone out of the past, someone dead, can enter and take possession of a living being?” We know that quote refers mainly to Carlotta’s possession of Madeleine, but it refers equally to Madeleine’s possession of Scottie. The line, in fact, wraps up the theme of the whole movie, and even prefigures Psycho.
James: Right on.
Jason: In the following scene, we meet Madeleine for the first time, and she’s a vision in green. She’s an object of obsession from this moment forward. I was fascinated by the subtle lighting effects Hitch used to accentuate the emotions of Scottie’s first encounter. She’s this strange, mysterious woman that he really knows nothing about, and she’s got a dreamlike aura around her that will remain throughout the film, even after she meets her destiny at the bell tower.
James: I noticed that lighting, as well. It’s hard not to. There’s even the same feel later in the film, when Judy becomes Madeleine again, and the glow from the neon light outside throws a green light on her entrance from the bathroom.
Jason: What do you think the color green symbolizes in this film? Hitch is obviously going for something very specific, considering that he bathes Madeleine in green light at every opportunity, whether it’s the gown she’s wearing in her introduction, or the green filter he uses at the start of Scottie’s obsession, or her green car, or the green of the forest scene (in which they share their first kiss), or the green of Judy’s dress when Scottie first spots her on the street, or the flood of green light when Judy becomes Madeleine once again. Is it just the surreal mystery of her, the otherworldly, intangible aura of her? Is he trying to accentuate her ultimate unattainability?
James: I noticed the many instances of green, but I didn’t really try to attach a specific meaning to them. What does the color green usually symbolize? Envy? I don’t know, but it certainly works. Heck, if nothing else, it simply helps tie Madeleine and Judy together in a way that’s more subtle than just our knowledge that it’s the same actress.
Jason: Ah, I just read in my bio that the color green is an old symbol from the stage, meaning “ghost.”
James: Of course! Moving on, I love how the next stretch of film is almost completely silent. It’s just Scottie following the beautiful Madeleine as she drives around town. The silence adds to the film’s dreamlike quality, as well as the mystery. It’s impossible not to ask yourself just what the hell is going on. And when Madeleine walks into the McKittrick Hotel, opens up a second-floor window (a moment that immediately brings Psycho to mind), only to disappear moments later, we just don’t know what to expect. I love that. It’s mysterious and surreal.
Jason: The first-act prowling sequences are riveting, considering their silent, methodical nature. You’re right, they deepen Madeleine’s mystery and feed Scottie’s obsession, and we feel both intimately. Words would have broken the spell that Hitch is casting over us. Things get progressively stranger, as we see her pick out the floral arrangement at the florist (which will mimic the arrangement in the Portrait of Carlotta painting in the museum), stop at the cemetery to observe Carlotta’s grave, visit the museum to sit hauntingly before the painting, and finally drive to the McKittrick Hotel, which we later find is the old Valdes home where Carlotta took her own life. I also thought immediately of Psycho when Madeleine opens that window. In fact, the interior of the hotel, with its dark stairwell and landing, brings Psycho even more to mind. Both films feature dead women casting mysterious glances out the second-story window of a “haunted house.” In retrospect, do you wonder if the landlady was in on the plot to trick Scottie?
James: I’m not sure if that landlady was in on the scheme or not. I initially assumed that the woman who walked into the hotel was Madeleine to us, but another tenant to the landlady. But that wouldn’t make sense unless she had a spare key, or something. Either way, that scene, once again, adds more mystery and supernatural dreamery to the movie. Loved it. Man, this movie just builds and builds.
Jason: Indeed, it does.
James: It’s so easy to understand why Scottie falls for this woman. Sure, we don’t really get any outward sense of that until she’s on his apartment floor in front of the fire, but watching him watch her, you can see his lust consume him. That’s one of the things that I appreciated most about this film. We get to see the progression of Scottie’s love with this married woman (furthering Hitch’s age-old theme of infidelity). He’s obsessed with finding out more about Madeleine, as we are, and I can relate to his desire to know more and to have her.
Jason: The entire carefully planned ruse to fool Scottie, which we later learn is for the purpose of having him witness Madeleine’s eventual suicide, is also perfectly orchestrated to fuel the obsession you mention. And even though I recognized the theme of infidelity here, it was secondary to the weird, supernatural elements. Scottie’s obsession is so divorced from reality that I didn’t put much thought into the fact that he was betraying his “friend.” Even more interesting, once you know that Madeleine is being “played” by an actress (Judy), you can see that Scottie’s obsession is based on something even more ethereal, even more mysterious. He’s falling for the idea of a woman rather than an actual living being. That’s the captivating part, for me.
James: I agree. I didn’t really see Scottie as betraying a friend until I thought about some of Hitch’s favorite themes and realized that, in a way, Madeleine would be cheating on her husband. And I also loved the fact that Scottie was in love with a “ghost.” That plays out perfectly later when Judy desperately wants Scottie’s love because she’s actually fallen in love with him, whereas he has fallen in love with an idea. That whole theme works beautifully in such a tragic, tragic way.
Jason: What did you think of the Argosy Bookshop sequence? In it, the proprietor, Pop Liebl (Konstantin Shayne), tells the story of “mad Carlotta,” saying that a man with “freedom and power” used and discarded Carlotta after she gave him a child. She ended up committing suicide at 26. Earlier, Gavin says that he dreams of having “freedom and power.” And at the end, Scottie says to Judy, “Oh, Judy, with all his wife’s money, and all that freedom and power, he ditched you.” There’s a lot of men (who could be described as free and powerful) using and discarding women in this movie.
James: I think that’s a very interesting point. For one thing, Scottie isn’t powerful yet he’s the one that would offer the most support and love of anyone in the film. Maybe there’s a hidden element behind it. Maybe Hitch is saying that rich and powerful men only want more power and wealth, and that women (and love) aren’t important? I don’t know.
Jason: One interesting way to look at the “freedom and power” theme is to think of it as simply the controlling influence some men have over women. All of the men in this story are controlling, using and discarding women quite cruelly.
James: I can see that.
Jason: Did you find it strange how closely Scottie follows Madeleine in his car? I mean, sometimes, he’s no more than a couple of car lengths behind her, and when he finally follows her to Fort Point, at the base of the Golden Gate Bridge—probably the most memorable sequence from this film—they’re the only cars out there, and it really strains believability that she wouldn’t notice him there. But, in retrospect, she knows very well that he’s following her, and in fact is banking on it, so the point becomes moot. But I found that kinda funny.
James: My reasoning for that? Madeleine is in a dream state and wouldn’t notice anything. Also, as you said, Judy knows she’s being followed. My only problem with these scenes is when Scottie would have a car right behind him in one clip, and in the next there would be just an empty street behind him in the rear-projection.
Jason: Yeah, that rear-projection. Sigh. So, anyway, all the scenes of tailing Madeleine through San Francisco lead to Fort Point. Of course, the scene reminds us that Hitch loves to film popular landmarks in his chosen settings, but there’s something extra mysterious about this spot. Maybe it’s the knowledge that San Francisco is frequently blanketed by fog—much like this plot. But watching Madeleine toss her flowers into the water and then leap in—what a great climax to the careful, silent detective scenes!
James: Was Fort Point just a favorite spot of Hitch’s? That water sure looked cold, I’ll tell you that.
Jason: I think it was just a picturesque shot for the film. No real meaning. Quite an impact, though, when she jumps in.
James: It’s a brilliant way to get these two characters together. Until that point, he’s just been following and trying to remain undetected. Now, he’s forced into meeting her and thus the plot moves forward. Well done.
Jason: And after Scottie dives in to rescue her, we cut to his apartment, where he has obviously taken off all her clothes and placed her in his bed. He’s got this glazed look of happiness, and who can blame him?
James: Yeah, he’s like a new man. (And Stewart sure looked thin and lanky in this scene.) He has this dazed quality about him, yet he’s just calm and actually rather focused. I like how it’s insinuated that he’s completely undressed her, and with Midge drawing bras just 20 minutes prior, it all works together nicely, making you wonder how he managed to do that.
Jason: Nice connection between Midge’s lingerie drawing and Madeleine’s visit to Scottie’s bed.
James: Did you notice the differences between Midge’s place and Scottie’s? Midge’s is a mess, with art all over the place. It feels like a studio. Meanwhile, Scottie’s is pristine, with nice furniture and a fireplace. It actually makes him a little more refined than I had imagined him to be, until that moment.
James: The places where they live speak to their personalities. Perhaps it’s one reason why they could never be together.
Jason: Oooh, I like it. Subtle. Nice catch. Okay, so what did you think of the next sequence, their drive into the Sequoia forest, where Madeleine finally opens up and tells Scottie about everything “haunting her”? Of course, it’s all an act, but these scenes held a lot of power for me. There’s the strange, illicit romance that’s developing between them, as well as the increasing mystery of her—the way she fades off behind that Sequoia and seemingly disappears, just as she did at the hotel. More evidence that she’s not entirely real. (Madeleine “vanishes” quite a few times in this film, constantly disappearing around corners, into rooms, and so on.) But she lays out her whole back story—the dream of the bell tower over the Spanish garden, as well as the nightmare in which she’s walking down a mirrored corridor toward a darker tunnel that will lead to her ultimate destiny: death by her own hand. I liked her line, “There’s someone within me, and she says I must die.” This is a pretty goddamn elaborate setup for this ruse.
James: You know, at one point or another, I wanted to think that the ruse was a bit too elaborate. I mean, if she’s that good of an actress, she should be in Hollywood. But in reality, it didn’t really matter. I wanted to get caught up in it with Scottie. Plus, we get so many good shots of him watching and thinking that I was essentially him and felt everything he did.
Jason: Yep, Stewart is playing yet another Everyman, and this time, Mr. Everyman is seriously screwed up.
James: By the way, nice thought about Madeleine not being real and fading away behind that tree. I loved that scene. It’s so cool that she just disappears. And how she slowly reels him in closer and closer, until she runs off as if she might jump into the ocean again, knowing that he’ll grab her and save her, thus tying them more closely together. At that moment, he’s fully trapped with no way to escape his destiny.
Jason: Next up, we get the fantastic little bit in which Scottie finds that Midge has painted a picture of herself mimicking the Portrait of Carlotta painting that’s at the center of the whole mystery. To say that Scottie takes it badly would be an understatement.
Jason: There’s something sad and a little pathetic about Midge. You love her and you feel for her. She can’t quite get it right between her and the man she loves. She knows they’re probably not the best match, and yet he’s her only chance. You wonder, at the end, after this horrible mess plays out, whether they’ll finally see eye to eye.
James: Well said, my man. I think Scottie takes that painting the wrong way. If he understood Midge at all, he could’ve at least just laughed it off and set her straight. Or admitted to loving this other woman. Sure, it was a mistake for her to paint that. I interpreted it as Midge being a little frisky and trying to get on his radar again, but it was a little low for her.
Jason: This scene says so much about both characters—her awkward desire to be an object of his affection, and his growing confusion/obsession in the midst of the Madeleine story. We also gather that, from this point on, Scottie is alone in his ordeal. Midge’s firm footing in the real world is no longer something he’ll turn to. At least until this thing plays out.
James: Yeah, this scene says a lot. And I actually liked the moment when Midge watches Madeleine leaving Scottie’s apartment. I thought that was a bit more telling of how she feels about Scottie. It isn’t as explosive, which is another reason why I liked that moment on the street.
Jason: After the Midge sequence, Scottie takes Madeleine down to the Spanish mission, San Juan Bautista, which he recognized earlier from her dream imagery. He thinks by taking her there to confront her nightmare, he can end the mystery. (And did you notice that, in the car, she’s wearing a mockingbird pin? It’s the first of the film’s bird images, and “mockingbird” in German is “Elster.”) So here’s the culmination of the entire ruse. Gavin has banked on the fact that Scottie won’t follow Madeleine up the stairwell of the bell tower, because of his fear of heights. The sequence in which Scottie reluctantly chases Madeleine up the stairs, and glances down repeatedly at the receding ground, is truly suspenseful. Not only do you have the power of his fear of heights, you’ve also got the (false) knowledge that Madeleine is climbing those stairs for the urgent purpose of killing herself. It all feels inevitable and horrible.
James: Absolutely riveting scene. Watching Scottie force himself farther up those steps, watching him break down . . . that’s powerful stuff. Because of Hitch’s great buildup, we know who Scottie is, and we understand his obsession with this woman. And to see him break down because of his problem with heights—brilliant. Granted, I knew it was coming. But in a way, that made it more unbearable for me. My senses were heightened this time around, and I truly felt bad for Scottie. And of course we get that age-old Hitch symbol: stairs.
Jason: A fantastic use of the symbol. Now, we find later that Gavin is up there, waiting for Judy (playing Madeleine) to arrive, at which point he’ll toss off the already-dead body of his real wife. Scottie, devastated, will have no choice but to be an eyewitness to the suicide of Madeleine Elster.
James: Did you watch the buildup to that moment as Judy wanting to go up there alone to stop the murder? I’d make a case that it was only her scream that proved she didn’t want the thing to happen. I just didn’t see her really wanting to go up there alone. Or rather, she could’ve done it much better or simply left without going to the top.
Jason: Hmmm, I can see that, but I didn’t think Judy wanted to stop the murder, no. At least, not until she got to the top. If she’d really wanted to stop it, she’d have stayed as far from there as possible. I just think she got to the top and maybe at the last minute couldn’t believe what she’d gotten herself into. Or maybe Gavin never actually told her what he planned to do up there?
James: I’m not entirely sold. I’ll have to watch it again. Part of me believes that Judy has second thoughts and plans to go up alone to tell Gavin not to go through with it. Then again, maybe she only has second thoughts at the very top. I’ll have to watch the scene again.
Jason: I just watched that scene again, and it is clear that she wanted to rush up there to stop Gavin from throwing his wife. It just seems to me that the best thing for her to do would have been to stay as far away from the tower as possible. Then, he wouldn’t have had an alibi. But of course she wasn’t thinking clearly. Hey, do we even learn Gavin’s real reasoning for wanting to murder his wife?
James: I don’t care why Gavin wanted to kill his wife. Actually, had we known, I think it would take a little something away from the story.
Jason: It just occurred to me, the reason Gavin kills his wife is that Judy is his mistress. At the last minute, at the top of the tower, Judy (as Madeleine) screams, realizing what she’s helped him do. And perhaps she suddenly realizes that Gavin is actually a murderer. And they’re finished.
James: Where did you get that? I don’t see any evidence whatsoever that they’re lovers. Sure, it makes sense and most likely is true, but I don’t see any evidence in the film that this is the case.
Jason: Yes, Judy was definitely Gavin’s girl. She verifies it in the final scene, when Scottie is grilling her about how they tricked him.
James: I didn’t catch that at all.
Jason: What about the inquest? The coroner is played by Henry Jones, a character actor with a really familiar face. He played in some Twilight Zone episodes, some Alfred Hitchcock Presents, others.
James: I love the inquest scene, especially the way the coroner keeps ripping on Scottie, then urges the jury not to judge his “cowardly” actions. But by simply bringing up all Scottie’s faults, that’s exactly what the coroner is doing. Judging. I tried to imagine myself in Scottie’s shoes during this grilling session, and boy, that was rough.
Jason: Yeah, the inquest is a tough scene. So, after this stuff comes Scottie’s fever dream. I’ll let you lead.
Jason: Really? I think it’s outstanding. I was a little wary at first, when the screen bursts with that weird animation, but then the imagery and Bernard Herrmann’s amazing score just come together beautifully. There are moments in the dream that are downright scary. I mean, I felt my pulse pounding a bit. Great psychedelic imagery, and the live-action is filled with this strange urgency. But it’s really the music that gives this sequence unbelievable power. At this point, Scottie has gone around the bend. Interestingly, the images of the dream mirror the dream that Madeleine described to him earlier.
James: At first, I didn’t like the dream. The burst of animated color didn’t work for me. The art, the colors—it all felt a little too different from the rest of the movie. Yet at the same time, it was a dream sequence and so it was acceptable that it didn’t match the style of the rest of the film. I don’t really mean to say that I didn’t like the dream sequence. It’s very powerful and, you’re right, the score totally amps up the dream.
Jason: Okay, I agree with you about the animation. It wasn’t the best way to start this thing. It’s too fanciful. It looks like we’re suddenly shifting into a Disney cartoon at first, and Scottie’s devastation and confusion drain away for a second. But after that short piece, it comes raging back.
James: I really like the image of Scottie falling. We’ll see that dream posture again…
Jason: After the dream sequence, and the shot of Scottie waking up terrified, he goes catatonic for a while, and Midge tries to wake him from it. This is a sad scene, because it’s the last we see of Midge, and her unsuccessful attempt to reach him says that he’s gone to her. He’s experienced tragedy, and the horrible thing is that he ain’t seen nothin’ yet, as far as tragedy goes.
James: I love this scene. It’s so sad. Touching. Midge so desperately wants her man to come back. For me, it’s much more effective than a very similar scene in The Wrong Man.
Jason: Now comes what I think is the most heart-wrenching part of the film. After a period in which Scottie imagines that he’s seeing Madeleine everywhere he goes, he comes across Judy (again, dressed in green), a young redhead with a remarkably familiar face. He fixates on her and confronts her, saying, “You remind me of someone.” I have two things to say about this whole section: First, this is when I realize that Kim Novak’s double performance is possibly the greatest we’ve seen in this entire project, and second (this might be an area of great disagreement between us), I think Judy’s flashback to the murder, which basically gives away what could later be a neat surprise ending, is absolutely brilliant and is one of the primary reasons this film is so unforgettable.
James: I see that we have another disagreement. I didn’t like that letter to Scottie at all. That’s the one other thing about this movie I didn’t like. This movie is Scottie’s movie. Only three times are we taken away from his point of view. The first two times involve Midge and her disappointment that she can’t have Scottie. The last is the letter. While I don’t actually mind it too much, I was disappointed that we got this important information in a cheap flashback—and without Scottie involved. It’s Hitchcock elevating the tension, sacrificing surprise for suspense, letting the audience know something the main character doesn’t. I see that, but in this instance, I didn’t want to know. I wanted to learn along with Scottie. I’d rather be surprised. I just didn’t want to discover the plot this way. It was handled about as well as could be expected, with lots of emotion from Judy, and it’s that emotion that makes the scene acceptable for me. But still, I didn’t like it.
Jason: Okay, bear with me now, because I’m going to try to explain why I think this works. And let me start by saying that, at first, I was taken aback. I thought, “Dude, why would you ruin the surprise now?!” Then, I realized that saving the surprise till the end would be routine. Laying out the truth at this point—at the beginning of the final act—is pretty outrageous, and admittedly, it’s difficult to take. But look beyond the shock of it, and see what it accomplishes. First of all, you mention that the letter-writing scene takes us away from Scottie’s point of view. Yes, indeed, it does. But here’s what I’ve come to realize: Vertigo is just as much Judy’s story as it is Scottie’s. They’re experiencing twin, devastating tragedies. (She’s a lost and exploited woman who comes to a tragic end.) By showing us the truth early in the third act, Hitch is letting us see her turmoil as well as Scottie’s. Second, without the early reveal, we don’t see the scope of the deception until the very end. We would experience everything in retrospect, rather than understand it as Scottie is going through it. After Judy writes her letter, we watch with a much more horrible feeling of empathy for Scottie. As he’s shaping her in the image of the lost Madeleine, we know the awful truth: Everything about his obsession is false. He’s living out a fantasy based on a ghost, in the center of a lie. We wouldn’t know that if we didn’t know Judy’s truth. We also understand Judy’s anguish. As Scottie’s making her over, we know that this is the second time she’s doing this. Is there any more painful line than when she says, in response to his more and more fervent desire to change her into Madeleine, “I don’t care about me”? That line wouldn’t have the same impact if we didn’t know the truth. I have this written down in my notes, in response to the letter-writing scene: “What does this say about Scottie’s obsession? He’s in love with the ghost of a fraud!” I wouldn’t have had that knowledge, and the resulting feelings of dread, if Judy hadn’t told me her truth.
James: Okay, I totally agree with you. It works, and it works for all the reasons you’ve explained. However, in the instant of the letter-writing scene, while it’s being written, it feels like a cheat. That’s what I was trying to get at. I agree completely that the film would have a lack of emotion the rest of the way if we weren’t privy to this information. And that’s fine. In retrospect, knowing what we know, it bothers me very little. But during the film, while it’s unfolding in front of my eyes, I find it very hard to accept. Does that make sense? It has to happen the way it does, but that doesn’t make it okay. Hahaha. It’s just one of those things that works because of what comes after, but doesn’t work because of what comes before. In a way, it goes back to an endless debate I have with myself concerning how we rate films. The gut instinct and immediate reaction you have exiting a theater are one thing, but after some reflection, everything changes.
Jason: I see your point about the letter-writing sequence. It was my first reaction, like I said. And I agree that writing a letter and hearing it narrated isn’t the best way to handle this kind of plot development. But I’m so glad Hitch went for the reveal at this point, rather than wait for some kind of end-of-movie surprise. It’s just one of the many things about Vertigo that elevates it almost beyond cinema. There’s so much going on in our own minds as we watch it. This movie, above all others, has really showed me what a master Hitch was at manipulating his audience.
Jason: Let’s talk about the whole payoff scene, when Scottie finally transforms Judy into Madeleine . . . just as Gavin transformed her…
James: Okay, so it’s during these sequences that I really start to dislike Scottie. I feel for him, sure, but man, he’s such an ass. I mean, what a complete cad. If he really doesn’t realize Judy is Madeleine, then he’s just being mean and callous to her, forcing her to change her clothes and hair, all for the sake of this dream that isn’t real. It’s agonizing to watch him do these things to her (“It can’t matter to you!”), knowing that she still loves him and will do anything for him (sort of like Midge, in a way). I really feel for both characters.
Jason: And to feel this way, we have to know the secret up front. We have to know that she’s a fraud.
James: You’re right, if she hadn’t read her letter to us, we couldn’t feel this way, but that doesn’t make it right. Anyway, watching Scottie force this woman to become someone she isn’t, knowing that he doesn’t know what we know. Boy!
Jason: Yes, and you can feel Scottie’s frustration when each little piece isn’t quite working out. You know he cares nothing for Judy, just for that spark of Madeleine he sees inside her.
James: Did you notice the moment when he asks Judy to sit by the fire, just as he told Madeline earlier in the film? Except this time, he’s distracted and almost indifferent. He gives Judy only one pillow, practically throwing it at her, whereas Madeleine got two pillows. That’s such a telling moment.
Jason: Interesting, I didn’t even catch the pillow moments. But, as Scottie and Judy begin their awkward courtship, walking through a city park, I did catch a whole flock of birds (Hitch’s symbol for chaos, as always). I also noticed the use of mirrors throughout this section, in her apartment as well as at the department store where Scottie almost maliciously tries to change Judy into Madeleine. The mirrors clearly represent the twin aspects of Judy’s character.
James: Nice! This whole sequence is so packed with emotion, it’s just about unbearable. When she finally walks into the bedroom, with her hair colored and that gray suit on, only to have Scottie make one last request—oh man, I felt so bad for her. This is her last attempt to keep her identity and to maybe have this man love her for who she is and not for some dream. Painful.
Jason: Yeah, and the great thing about it is that you can feel the separate pain of both characters. Scottie is at the edge of madness, trying to grasp something intangible totally beyond his reach, and Judy is falling in love with someone who she has helped destroy. She’s receiving her comeuppance, in a way. Her punishment for her part in Madeleine Elster’s murder and Scottie’s disillusionment.
Jason: Amazing use of green, suggesting the re-emergence of the “ghost” of Madeleine. The whole apartment is bathed in an unearthly green glow, from the neon hotel sign just outside the window. And when Scottie finally has Madeleine back, you can feel his relief, but you also have the sense that this wish fulfillment will be short-lived. Tragedy is still hanging over these two, because everything has happened for the wrong reasons. The camera swirls around them, and Scottie is transported back to the San Juan Bautista mission, the place where he last kissed and held Madeleine but also the place where his mind splintered. You can’t help but feel that the tragedy of this story is going to continue to spiral downward.
James: I like how Scottie goes back to the mission in his mind before going back to reality.
Jason: I really liked the practical effect of that swirling camera, as the setting changes from Judy’s apartment to the mission stable.
James: And to think that Judy’s one mistake was keeping that damn piece of jewelry. Dumb, dumb woman.
Jason: Poor Judy. She has annihilated herself in the name of self-sacrifice. She’s a double of a double, an imitation twice removed from reality!
James: It really is as much her story as Scottie’s.
James: I love the scene in which Scottie forces Judy up the tower stairs. It’s sinister and dark, and you can just feel that something bad is about to happen. It’s as if he’s snapped, but in a way opposite of his comatose state. Now, he’s got blood in his eyes. But at the same time, I was rooting for him. I wanted to see him overcome his problem with heights and at the same time, I wanted him to hurt this woman who destroyed him. So watching the two of them ascend those stairs, all in shadows and looking so perfect, was really tense, and the tension just kept climbing with each stair they put behind them. (By the way, this scene is nicely foreshadowed early on when Midge and Scottie talk about fixing his problem in that opening scene.)
Jason: This scene provides such a perfect climax. Everything comes to a head. You’re right, he’s conquering his fear, coming to the end of his mystery, solving it, and one part of you thinks the film is going to end with a standard film noir wrap-up, but then Vertigo takes a giant leap into brilliance. In the tower, a nun rears up like some kind of ghost (the ghost of Carlotta, or Madeleine herself?), and Madeleine/Judy falls backward to her death—again! Oh my god, what an ending. What an ending! Scottie can only stare down at the corpse of his false fantasy. You can practically feel his soul tearing apart. Slumped and defeated, he just stands there, his hands turned palm up, making a subtle Jesus figure and recalling his pose in his dream sequence, in which he himself fell into swirling oblivion. The end. Jesus, man, does it get any better than that?
James: I completely agree with you about the quality of that ending, but I must admit that I don’t think it worked perfectly. I didn’t quite love the way Judy steps back and falls. If you watch moments later, you realize that the ledge is rather wide, meaning she’d have to take a number of steps before falling. I think that one instant could have been filmed a bit better. With that said, it’s definitely the most powerful climax we’ve seen yet. A perfect ending to what, for me, is the most powerful Hitchcock film of all time.
Jason: I think the fall works fine. Maybe there’s even a part of Judy that wanted to fall.
Jason: Now that we’ve walked through the film, scene by scene, I want to mention a couple of key motifs. Primary among them is the image of the spiral. I caught some of this on my second viewing, but it was while reading the Spoto book that it became vivid. The spiral is the basic image of the film’s entire structure and design and theme, from the opening Saul Bass credit sequence (in which a spiral design comes out of a woman’s eye) to the winding staircase of the mission tower, to the twists and turns of the cemetery walk, to the whorl of hair on the back of Madeleine and Carlotta’s heads, to the downward spiral of the cars through the streets of San Francisco, to the rings of the Sequoias, to the camera circling Judy as she writes her letter. These swirling effects are almost omnipresent, and they create and sustain the hallucinatory dreamlike effect of the entire movie. (For me, these effects also recall one of the few cinematic effects in The Wrong Man—the swirling effect of the camera when Manny is at the nadir of his own tragedy.) Not only do we have all these cinematic effects, we also have a scene structure that has a twisty-turny feel, as we go from the apartment to the streets to the apartment to the streets, in ever-increasing intrigue. Spoto even maintains that the movement of the camera in the first half of the film (before Madeleine’s death) is largely right to left, and in the second half of the film, we get a reversal of that pattern. So the structure of Vertigo might be called, itself, a sort of vertiginous circularity, a downward spiral into tragedy.
James: Wow, I noticed many of the spirals, but I didn’t put all that together. Interesting. That’s an extremely important point. Can this film get any better? Good grief.
Jason: Another repeated theme throughout Vertigo is the idea of “wandering.” I lost count of how many times Scottie says he’s a wanderer. When Midge asks him what he’s been doing, he says, casually, “Wandering.” Gavin says about his wife, “She wanders—God knows where she wanders.” When Madeleine talks to Scottie later, he says the same thing, and she says she’s also wandering. So he suggests they “wander together.” And the weirdness begins. Judy might also be considered a wanderer. What do you make of all that wandering?
James: Jesus Christ, dude, did you really come up with these? You must have a great memory and a pretty damn analytical mind. Why aren’t you a historian or something?
Jason: These are things I definitely noticed on second viewing, and Spoto also mentions them in his book, although he doesn’t really come up with many real conclusions. But it’s all there in the dialog, and quite noticeable, especially the second or third time you watch it.
James: I need to watch this film again. But I simply see the wandering notion as Scottie searching for something. He’s not sure what, but love is what he’s really looking for. Same with Judy. Perhaps they wander because they don’t fully understand what they want or need, until they meet each other, and once that happens, they’re no longer wandering but going somewhere.
Jason: Spoto says that all the talk of wandering suggests a physical and spiritual restlessness and rootlessness among the characters. They’re adrift in their lives and are therefore primed for tragedy. I think there’s something to that. Neither Scottie nor Judy has any kind of family or real friends or a structured life . . . they’re in a kind of limbo . . . and because of that, they both seem easily drawn into obsession and heartbreak and tragedy. Does that make sense?
James: That makes total sense, my good man. Total and complete.
Jason: One more thematic aspect I wanted to bring up is the color red, in conjunction with the color green. Spoto says that those two colors are the two primary recurring colors of the film, and that they suggest a “stoplight,” a cyclic bipolarity to the imagery. I thought that was stretching it at first, but then I noticed an obvious shot of stoplight early in the film, where we see the light changing from red to green very purposefully. There’s also the brilliant red of the club where Scottie sees Madeleine for the first time (along with her green dress), and the way the light seems to dim and brighten in there. There’s the bright red door to Scottie’s apartment. There’s the fact that Judy, when we meet her, has red hair along with her green dress. A lot of little moments like this. Any thoughts?
James: Sounds like an interesting idea, but I’d need to watch it again to really agree.
Jason: Can you imagine Vera Miles in the role of Madeleine/Judy? That’s who Hitch originally wanted, and he even cast her in the part, but she got pregnant and had to bow out. He never really liked Novak’s performance, but I think it’s riveting, and I can’t imagine anyone else nailing it like she did. Madeleine and Judy really feel like different characters, and Judy’s even got this scared naïveté thing going on. What do you think?
James: I can’t imagine anyone else in this role. I’ll admit that I didn’t like Novak at first. It takes a moment or two to warm up to her. But the more I watched her, the more I loved her in this role. You’re right, when she was Judy, she felt perfect. She seemed timid and scared while showing a strong personality at the same time. Great stuff. But she really hammered the dreaming aspects of the Madeleine role. She seemed scared and lost in thought all the time. Amazing. And her voice . . . when she was drying off in Scottie’s apartment, her voice was flawless. But those eyebrows…damn!
Jason: Were her eyebrows totally manufactured? I mean, did Novak shave her brows and create new ones with makeup? Sometimes it looked weird and other times gorgeous.
James: Those eyebrows were terrible most of the time. Good grief. They looked so painted. Maybe that was in fashion back then?
Jason: I guess so. What do you think of the notion that Hitch himself molded Kim Novak (and other actresses in his films) into the ultimate blond ideal—just as Gavin and Scottie mold Judy into Madeleine? This whole Pygmalion concept, fashioning the perfect woman and falling in love with the ideal, is interesting because is relates to both the characters and the director . . .
James: I like that idea of Hitch molding Novak. That’s a perfect parallel to the film.
Jason: What did you think of the Hitch cameo?
James: Eh, the Hitch cameo was no big deal. He just walked by, right? I don’t know, I’m a bit spoiled now anyway, as far as that goes.
Jason: Yeah, pretty standard.
James: On a side note, it should be pointed out that Vertigo is the only Hitchcock I’ve seen on the big screen (with you, no less) and it might actually be the first Hitchcock I saw in its entirety.
Jason: It’s funny, I have fond memories of seeing it with you down in Denver, but watching it this time was like a revelation. What an asset our project has proven to be! I felt like I was prepared for every obsessive moment and plot point. As if I was inside Hitch’s head as he was imagining the awful fate of poor Scottie.
James: Although I did have some minor problems with Vertigo, I’d say this is the culmination of everything Hitchcock was working toward. This one just felt . . . right. The on-location San Francisco shooting gives the film a broad, symbolic scope, and I really felt that these characters lived in the real world. Plus, the mystery felt more complete and solid and important. Hell, even the tiniest details seemed to add to a greater whole.
Jason: It’s hypnotic.