Sunday, August 8, 2010
Fabled in legend, story and song, Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo is the squarest peg ever to be forced into a round hole in the history of Hollywood.
The film's name is apt, because it induced vertigo in any audience members who first saw it in 1958 and tried to follow its unconventional plot and pacing. The movie won't stop shifting around, wiggling, roiling, warping; it starts out as one kind of movie but then literally keeps morphing into another kind, then another.
A third of the way into the film, we realize that its hero is not such a sane and nice guy after all, as we realize he's a manipulative sexual obsessive. He sees a woman jump into the bay and almost drown, and after he pulls her unconscious body out of the water, does he call for help? Does he rush her to the hospital? No, he takes her to his house and takes all her clothes off.
The big secret to the whole story is revealed smack dab in the middle of the movie, rather than the end. Midge, who is practically the co-star of the film at first, abruptly vanishes halfway through it and is never seen or even mentioned again.
The plot contains deliberate holes and leaps of logic that challenge one's ability to suspend disbelief, but they also help to give the film a surreal, dreamlike quality. The film just didn't make sense in 1958, and it still doesn't always make sense now.
(The story can't even be summed up in a simple short paragraph: Scottie, a private detective suffering vertigo/anxiety attacks, gets called upon to work a case involving his old school chum Gavin Elster's wife. Gavin says Madeleine is obsessed by her dead relative Carlotta Valdes and wants her followed because of her increasingly bizarre behavior. Scottie trails her movements and begins to fall in love with her, especially after he has to rescue her from drowning. Madeleine's trance-channelling possessions by Carlotta start coming faster and stronger, and finally she commits suicide by jumping off a church tower. But in truth, a switch was pulled in the tower between the real and the fake Madeleine, and Elster actually threw the unconscious real Madeleine to her death. Scottie falls into a near-catatonic depression until he meets Judy, a woman who looks a lot like Madeleine - because she is the woman who impersonated Madeleine. Eventually Scottie figures out the ruse, but before he can take Judy to the police, she leaps from the same church tower, frightened by the abrupt appearance of a nun. See?)
Stanley Kubrick was no doubt influenced by this film, and his best work utilizes the same motifs. Most notably, the use of "twinning" - the pairing of Judy and her alter ego as Madeleine, the pairing of Madeleine with her alter ego Carlotta; even down to details like the double-torch wall sconce by Judy's mirror and the double-torch lingam/yoni motif on the front doors of Ernie's Restaurant. We see Madeleine/Judy in mirror images repeatedly - at Ernie's as she leaves with Elster; in the mirror as Scottie stalks her at the flower shop; and as she stands in front of her mirror at her hotel. And then there's the shot where Midge sits beside her own portrait of herself as Madeleine. And the fact that our protagonist goes by two names - his real name Johnny and his nickname Scottie.
As with Kubrick's The Shining, there's a subtle sense that there's a lot more going on here that we don't process even though it's right in front of our eyes. Although it's revealed that Elster and Judy (disguised as Madeleine) have been conspiring all along to set Scottie up to be the fall guy (a pun Hitchcock surely intended) for the real Madeleine's murder, and we're told that the whole "possession by Carlotta's ghost" routine was fake, I have to wonder: was it really fake?
We know the real Madeleine really did have an ancestor named Carlotta Valdez who was, in the world of the film, famous for being a tragic San Francisco madwoman. We see more artifacts of the real Carlotta than we do the real Madeleine, in fact: we see her gravestone, her necklace, and her portrait in a museum wearing said necklace. Judy, in her letter never sent to Scottie, says the backstory about Carlotta was "part real, part invented", but what part was invented? We hear her life story told by a historian in a bookstore, and it all coheres.
Other critics who have reappraised Vertigo from a more philosophical perspective have noted that the movie has a palpable feeling of inevitability; that everything that happens to everyone in it is fated to happen and we're just watching events play out that have already been decreed. Both Judy and Scottie think they have free will, but in actuality their lives seem controlled by an external third party. Elster? No, he's just a pawn too. I propose that it was not Elster himself pulling the strings in this film, but that the actual spirit of Carlotta Valdes really did supernaturally influence each of the characters.
Just as The Shining's Jack being let out of the hotel pantry ruins the theory that he's just hallucinating, Vertigo's scene at the McKendrick Hotel proves that something genuinely paranormal is taking place. Scottie watches Madeleine enter the front doors of the Hotel, then sees her in a window facing the street. But when he goes in after her, there's no trace of her having been there. The desk lady swears she never walked in those doors even though Scottie just saw her. The desk lady proves that the only key to the room is with her, and even opens the room up for Scottie's inspection. And then Madeleine's car vanishes.
To explain it away, one might feebly try to suggest that perhaps Elster went to great trouble to hoax the entire hotel incident, and that the desk lady was paid off to lie about it, but why? It doesn't further Elster's plan at all, and in fact, Elster's plan was to convince Scottie that Madeleine really was self-destructively insane and obsessed with Carlotta, not to convince him that Madeleine was herself a ghost who could be invisible, vanish, walk through walls, etc.
Once you accept that the spirit of Carlotta really is manipulating these events, a lot of odd things in the film make a new kind of sense, like Scottie's apparent remote viewing of other times and places during his triumphant embrace with Judy after he's remade her into a even faker Madeleine than she was before. Without the paranormal angle, the scene becomes an oddly un-Hitchcock-like exercise in symbolic obviousness.
For Madeleine to drag Scottie all the way out to the giant redwood forest just to have a Carlotta-channeling attack seems unnecessarily Rube Goldberg if it was just another part of Elster's cover story, but it makes more sense if we suppose Carlotta herself wanted them to come here, where the oldest living things on the planet can be found. Pointing to an enormous cross-section of a felled giant redwood with important historical dates marked, Carlotta (speaking through Madeleine's mouth) wants Scottie to see how her birth date and death date are so close together on the time-map of outwardly spiralling concentric rings, that it's just a momentary blip in the big picture of the track of time. That's precisely the sort of message a real spirit would want to give.
Elster, if being possessed by Carlotta, could be driven against his will to do the things that he does; this would explain why he seems genuinely sad and sympathetic as Scottie is raked over the figurative coals in a grueling court hearing. Elster, in fact, comes off as the gentlest, nicest guy in the film, despite the fact that he's supposed to be our scheming murderous villain.
Even the nun at the end could be supposed to be under Carlotta's influence to silently show up at just the right time. "I heard voices," indeed.
The movie ends with the "hero" morally and mentally destroyed not once but twice. As Scottie looks off the precipice, it fades to black and I've always wondered if Hitch meant for us to infer that he also jumped seconds later. One thing's for sure - with Judy dead, no one's going to believe Scottie if he tries to explain what really happened (and just what did really happen, anyway?). And after the abuse heaped on him in court previously, you know they'll never believe his story when he's suddenly found at the scene of another woman's death in that same church tower.
The movie ends with the "villain" getting away with his convoluted crime and leaving the country. Strange as it may seem, the British government at the time forbade movies with such endings, and Hitch was forced to film an alternate ending. Despite this, he took great measures to let the world know in no uncertain terms that he considered the ending non-canonical. If you listen carefully to what the radio announcer says, Hitch still manages to sneakily leave it not 100% certain that Elster will be apprehended.