Hi, This isn't negative, but you might find it useful.
--With warm regards,
Hitchcock's *Vertigo*: One Viewer's Viewing
Norman N. Holland
I was reviewing movies for WGBH-TV in Boston, 1957-59, when *Vertigo* came
out. Most critics simply said, ho-hum, another Hitchcock thriller. I thought
it was a brilliant film, and said so. When we did our parody of the Academy
Awards, we gave it what we called our "Anatomy Reward" for Best Picture of
1958. Now, of course, everybody says it's a masterpiece. I was there first,
though. I feel I discovered this movie. It is oddly precious to me.
Among the regular critics' readings of *Vertigo*, I find Robin Wood's the
most telling. Wood talks about the film in terms of the mysterious, in every
sense, including the religious, breaking into an otherwise ordered and
lawful world. The film upsets the world of the 1950s: enlightened, rational,
progressive, surpassing, even discarding, the past. In *Vertigo*, this is
Midge's world, in which a brassiere is designed by an engineer like a
cantilever bridge. He, incidentally, works "down the peninsula" (Silicone
Valley?). The phrase is later used to describe the mysterious San Juan
The premise of the film, Wood writes, is a man who has faced death. At first
he tries to pick up his life again, logically, step by step, on the ladder
in Midge's apartment. Then he is offered something else: mystery, the
supernatural, a life beyond death. He is offered, in short, Madeleine, the
Magdalene, the woman who opens the mysteries of love.
The opening chase sounds one theme like a prelude: Scottie's fear of heights
leads to the death, not of the criminal, the guilty man, but of the
policeman trying to rescue Scottie, an innocent, even a hero. The theme is
guilt, irrational, undeserved guilt.
Then, throughout the first two parts of the film, Scottie's two women square
off around the question of what's rational. Midge is the rational human, who
doesn't for a minute believe a ghost from the past is taking over Madeleine
Elster. She laughs at the idea. Madeleine represents that irrational idea as
not only possible, but as actually happening. She embodies the mysterious.
Judy, in her turn, de-mystifies the mysterious. As I read the film, by their
last night together, Judy and Scottie might put their relationship together
again on an honest basis. In the last moments of the film, however, a nun
breaks into the film frame. The mysterious breaks into the rational
again--and Judy falls from the tower, for real this time.
Hitchcock's own cameo appearance seems to me to bear out Wood's reading. (I
think one can show that all of Hitchcock's signature appearances in his
films "fit" their themes--at least as I interpret them.) He walks across the
film frame, carrying a trumpet case, as Scottie is about to go upstairs to
Elster's office in the shipyard. I read Hitchcock as marking the move from
one world to another. He is a Pied Piper, leading Scottie away from the
realistic world, where, as "hard-headed Scot," he has just been trying
rationally to overcome his acrophobia. He enters the mysterious world that
Elster will build for him. Elster's office, Wood says (112), takes us from
enlightened modernity in Midge's apartment to a fantastic past in which men
had the freedom and power to use women and throw them away.
If I follow out Wood's reading, in the first third of the film, Scottie is
himself the rationalist. He tries to overcome his acrophobia rationally. He
tries to correct Elster's apparent delusion. He tries to persuade Madeleine
that "There's an answer for everything." In the second third, he is
overwhelmed by his guilt and mourning--irrational forces. In the last third,
he is lost in mystery, but *we* know what he doesn't know. He, not we,
submits to the irrational, the mysterious, only to find what we have known
since Judy Barton's soliloquy, namely, that it was not irrational at all.
Restored to rational understanding, however, he suffers the same loss again,
now in a truly mysterious way--because of the nun, who breaks into the
scene. "I heard voices."
My summary cannot capture Wood's complex and subtle treatment of many
details. What I carry away is his general idea. It gives me a way of reading
the film that makes intellectual sense of many details. What it does not do
is give me a way of coping with the flaws I see in this film.
I feel I discovered this film. Accordingly, I feel possessive. As if it were
my child, I want it to be perfect. I resent its flaws, and they are many and
obvious. For example, how did Scottie get down from the roof? A loose end.
Another is the visibly artificial color process, Technicolor distorted in
some way. In this, as in many of Hitchcock's movies, he uses process shots:
he photographs some action against a projected background, so that the
studio doesn't have to make an expensive set or shoot on location. These
scenes look fake when the projected background doesn't match the colors or
the contrast ratio of the rest of the scene. Hitchcock, I think, lets that
In *Vertigo*, I sense such a mismatched process shot when Scottie and
Madeleine kiss by the cedars of Monterey, itself a movie cliché. Scottie's
mute driving around San Francisco as he trails Madeleine Elster, seems
equally "off." Yet the off-ness fits. It adds to the strangeness and
unreality of mysterious Madeleine. Hitchcock keeps me in two different
states of mind. In one, I know I am watching a fake, a fiction, an untruth.
In the other, I *feel *as though it's real because I am involved and I want
to know what will happen next--I *care.*
The key process shot--and, of course, this one is deliberate--occurs when
Scottie has finally, utterly re-created Madeleine in Judy. He kisses her
passionately, totally. The camera circles the kissing couple, focused on
them, romantic music soaring. The background, however, changes from the pale
green of Judy's hotel room to the black wood and leather of the stable at
San Juan Bautista where Scottie last passionately kissed Madeleine.
Hitchcock is using the unreality. Intellectually I get the idea that the two
women are now one. Emotionally, at this moment of love triumphant, I feel
dizzy and confused.
The most important unreality is, of course, the whole murder plot itself.
It's preposterous. Who on earth would hatch this incredible scheme to murder
his wife? All this fakery so that people will believe Elster's wife fell off
the mission tower? What ever happened to blunt instruments or the taste-free
poison? Why not hire a killer instead of a detective?
How could Gavin Elster be sure that Scottie would fall for Madeleine or that
his vertigo would outweigh his love for her? How could he possibly be sure
that Ferguson would not look at the first Madeleine's body after it fell
from the tower and realize this was not his Madeleine? Ferguson is, after
all, a detective. He has fallen in love with Madeleine. And he won't look?
How could Elster be sure Judy playing Madeleine wouldn't slip up somewhere?
As she does in the last part of the movie.
I find myself thinking how absurd all this is. But I think that *after *the
movie is over, not during it. It is Hitchcock's art, his genius, to sucker
me into belief. He displaces my attention from Elster's plan, which we do
not learn about until two-thirds of the way through. He focuses me instead
on the possibility that a dead woman from the nineteenth century is taking
over a live one. He gets me to believe that.
I think what Hitchcock is encouraging is my projection. We have fifteen
minutes of dialogueless film as Scottie drives around after Madeleine's
Bentley, seeing her follow out the life of Carlotta Valdes. All that time, I
watch as Scottie watches. I wonder, as he wonders, What the hell is going
on? There is no critique, no "voice of reason." And I believe.
Hollywood these days tries to make us believe by elaborate make-up or
special effects or quadraphonic sound. This ultimate in realism puts a *
finis* to projection. The current Hollywood "product," the "McMovie," as
Harvey Greenberg calls it, leaves no room for our imagination. Today's
thriller or horror film acts out a fantasy literally. By doing so, though,
they limit us to that one fantasy.
Hitchcock, by his unrealities and improbabilities, gets me to judge them. In
doing so, I participate in the movie and, ultimately, project into it,
remedy its defects with my own imagination. Let's face it, most people
nowadays, brought up on a visual diet of commercial television, never
develop much sense of unreality or imagination. By contrast, Hitchcock
mobilizes my wish to believe, to *not* feel that the movie is fake. In doing
so he gets me to help create the movie, to project my wishes into it, my
wish that a Madeleine not die, but go on immortally. My denial of death.
I think Hitchcock gets me to project by his use of "the uncanny." Freud gave
a prescription for eerie or "horror" effects in films and stories in his
remarkable 1919 essay, "The Uncanny." Hitchcock elicits belief and
consequent fear by presenting some infantile or unconscious mode of mental
functioning as if it were actually happening. Wood's reading-- the
irrational breaking into the rational--sets the film precisely into Freud's
In *Vertigo*, the regression is the belief that one is being possessed by
the dead. That is, after all, a kind of version of the normal mourning
process, of (in psychoanalytic jargon) introjecting the lost object, less
formally, not "letting go." In effect, Madeleine is introjecting and
identifying with a lost object, Carlotta Valdes. Then in the second and last
thirds, Scottie cannot let go of the lost Madeleine and tries to re-create
That would be an object-relations reading. Back in 1958, however, I built my
review around Freud's ideas of the uncanny and the repetition compulsion.
Here is a transcript of that forty-year-old television program, a specimen
of New Criticism (please forgive my spoken English):
The much more subtle and complex way of making a frightening movie [than
by special effects] is by what Freud called "the uncanny." He meant: a work
of art which translates into reality something which is either an infantile
way of thinking, which you have since outgrown, or a repressed thought
buried in your unconscious. Both these, when they come back and seem to be
happening in reality, are terribly, terribly frightening.
This image of looking down past things repeated is the central image of
the picture, because this is a picture which is essentially about a variety
of different kinds of repetition. The picture itself, the plot, is built on
a twofold structure, where the first episode, which comes to an end in the
middle of the picture, is repeated in a sort of horrible way in the second
episode of the picture. The picture has this double repetition of plot. But
there are all kinds of repetitions in the picture. That spiral which was
bouncing around on your television screen not so long ago was an attempt to
duplicate what Mr. Hitchcock does during the screen creditsú.ú.ú. A whole
lot of spirals, which are, after all, repeated figures whirring around on
There are other kinds of repetition. At one point Jimmy Stewart and Kim
Novak go out to a redwood forest, and they look at a cross-section of a
redwood tree, seeing the various rings of the redwood tree, which again
suggest the succession of seasons, a repetition of things in time and space.
Through it all there is a structure of two-ness. There is the double plot
I have already mentioned. Two, if you have ever gone into medieval number
symbolism, or if you have ever looked up Freud's speaking of numbers in
dreams, two is a feminine number, for obvious anatomical reasons.
[Midge] is a sort of sweater-and-skirt type. Mrs. Holland pointed out,
all the sweaters are the same kind of sweater, the same monotonous design of
cardigan, just in different colors.
Another element repeated in the picture is water. The husband of Kim
Novak is a shipbuilder, as we have seen, and this associates him with the
water. A lot of the critical scenes of this movie take place in or around
water. Now water suggests repetition by the wave surface, which is another
form of repetition, but also water in a Freudian sense (we are just
bristling with Freud tonight) is one of the powerful symbols for mother. And
mother is a powerful repetitious force in our lives.
For a man, every woman he falls in love with after his mother will have
something to do with her. For a woman, all of her behavior patterns will be
determined in part by her mother. So when [Midge] says to Jimmy Stewart,
"Just call me mother," she is picking up this water image but also she is
reminding you of the repetitious quality of family.
Reality around us is cyclic. The human being himself tends to return to
death, to an earlier state of affairs when he was just dead matter. In the
cycle of the seasons, in all the cyclic processes of nature around us, we
see this tendency to return to an earlier state of affairs. *Vertigo* is
dealing with this compulsion to repeat, this idea of the death wish,
something that is deeply buried in our own psyches. That makes the film
frightening, but also developing a universal principle of reality, which in
a very real sense describes the human predicament. That is why this is so
much better a picture than any Hitchcock has done before.
Much in the manner of 1958, I looked for a centering essence to the picture,
an essence that would express some universal human principle. I found it in
psychoanalytic ideas like the uncanny and the repetition compulsion.
*Vertigo* is also a film about the triple goddess. This is an idea
popularized by Robert Graves, and it figures prominently in Jungian
criticism. I first encountered it in Freud's essay on *The Merchant of
Venice* and *King Lear*, "The Theme of the Three Caskets." Mythologists
point to the repeated occurrence in myth and legend of triads of women: the
Gorgons, the Graces, the *graiai*, the *moirai* (Fates), the Norns,
Macbeth's "weird sisters," and so on. Often, the triad follows the pattern
of the Fates, the first associated with birth, the second with the course of
life, the third with death--in T. S. Eliot's phrase, "birth and copulation
and death." Sometimes they follow the related pattern of a virgin or spring
goddess, a mother or harvest goddess, finally a crone or death-goddess.
Persephone in her six months on earth, Demeter the goddess of fertility and
harvest, Persephone-the- destroyer in her six months in Hades. Sometimes
they follow the pattern of virgin or unattainable love, the lush, sensual
woman, the old woman.
The pattern occurs over and over in fictions, and it occurs in *Vertigo*,
which is, most of us would say, a film much about women or Woman. Midge
identifies herself at least three times as "mother." "Mother's here," she
says to Scottie in the mental hospital. By contrast, Madeleine is an
idealized image of woman, like a goddess, a Venus. The deadly third woman is
the nun, dressed in black, who causes Judy/Madeleine's death. She echoes
Carlotta Valdes, the Mater Dolorosa, who also burst into Madeleine's life
Midge is altogether different, the woman to relate to, to talk to, to be
friends with. Madeleine is the woman to look at. Indeed, Scottie looks at
her naked after he fishes her out of San Francisco Bay. (Death and rebirth?
Botticelli's *Birth of Venus*?) The nun is the woman we don't see, the woman
in darkness and shadow. So is Carlotta Valdes, another destroyer
In the film, Scottie realizes that Judy and Madeleine are one, when Judy
puts on the red jeweled pendant that had supposedly been Carlotta Valdes'. I
see a contrast between that bloody red and the greens that Hitchcock
deliberately associated with Judy/Madeleine: Madeleine's and Judy's green
dresses; the green soft-focus effect associated first with Madeleine, then
with the remade Judy; the green neon sign flashing outside Judy's window;
the giant redwoods, *sempervirens*, always green.
Red and green. Stop and go. Green and go occur with looking, fantasizing,
with the unreal and ideal woman from the past. Red and stop occur with
sexuality or the genitals, the moment when the ideal woman is seen to be the
low, sluttish woman or vice versa. In other words, the recognition scene in
the movie acts out the same split in male sexuality that Madeleine and Judy
do: the ideal, unreal woman and the available, sexual tramp. The cliché: is
Madonna-whore. The mirror in that scene splits Kim Novak in two, as so many
mirrors in this film have done. Then the film undoes that split. The two
kinds of women are one, and that is a horror.
A red oval jewel with ornamentation around it, hanging down. As so often in
Hitchcock's work, the symbolism is "Freudian" and a bit obvious.
Interestingly, we never see Madeleine wear that jewel, although Elster tells
Scottie, "When she is alone, she takes them [Carlotta's jewels] out and
handles them gently." We see the pendant in Carlotta's portrait. We see it
in the mock portrait Midge paints of herself in the role of Carlotta. And,
of course, at the climactic moment of the film, we see Judy wearing it. It
is as though we can the red object on the other versions of Woman but not on
the idealized goddess.
Hitchcock, I think, is playing in this film with my emotions about my
mother. He uses the anxious combination of the ideal love one feels (or
felt) toward a mother and one's feelings toward a woman announcing her
sexuality. That is the love (or lust) Scottie feels for Madeleine, and
evidently he has never before experienced this kind of total love (or lust)
as an adult. It is total commitment. She is an ideal, cool, aloof,
mysterious, a goddess.
Madeleine is a woman located in past generations, but she is also now. There
is a hint of eternity about her. She is both all-powerful and helpless,
needing to be rescued from the spirit that is possessing her. She is the
woman-to-be-looked-at, the goddess on a pedestal, one of Hitchcock's blond
heroines like Madeleine Carroll.
I think we are seeing something about Hitchcock's idea of woman. The "royal
road" to Hitchcock's psyche, it seems to me, is the changes Hitchcock did
and did not make in his source. *Vertigo* is based on a novel, *D'entre les
morts* (From Among the Dead) by the two French writers, Pierre Boileau and
Thomas Narcejac. They had written the screenplay for *Diabolique*, one of
the scariest movies ever made. According to Fran;ccedil;ois Truffaut, in his
book of interviews with Hitchcock, they wrote this book precisely for
Hitchcock. They were not on contract. They just hoped he would option it and
make a movie of it, and he did.
Some things Hitchcock took over directly from the novel. He kept the basic
plot. A husband gets rid of a wife by involving a friend with a woman
playing the role of the wife, who then is killed. In the novel, the
villainous husband's name is Gévigne. This becomes Gavin in the film.
Hitchcock also kept the name Madeleine. She is the Magdalene, the woman
Christ transformed from a prostitute to a saint. Medieval paintings show
Mary Magdalene as a penitent with a box of ointment or reading alone before
a tomb or a skull. The film shows her that way when she sits before Carlotta
Valdes' portrait holding a bouquet.
Some changes Hitchcock made simply to suit American audiences, like changing
from Paris-Marseilles to San Francisco. Others are more ingenious, like
using the same church tower for the two deaths.
One major addition Hitchcock made was the Midge character and the whole plot
associated with her. Entirely Hitchcock's, she is the rational foil to the
fabulous, mysterious Madeleine. Midge is the non-ideal, an available woman,
the woman to relate to as an equal or even to patronize a bit, a pal, the
gal next door. "Mother's here." She is the woman Scottie has apparently
outgrown, a woman who would like to be seductive and sexual, but is cozy
Then, both Madeleine and Midge contrast with the sluttish Judy Barton who
lets us know that many men have tried to pick her up (and some succeeded).
Midge draws brassieres for a living, and both she and Madeleine are well
girded in the bra department. Kim Novak, however, Hitchcock told Truffaut
(248), took particular pride in not wearing a bra when she was playing Judy
Hitchcock, as I read him, is playing with a powerful tension I felt, perhaps
all men and women feel. He plays off the idealized goddess-mother of infancy
against the later, more realistic mother, necessarily less the total
possession of the infant. He gives us two versions of that later non-ideal,
one asexual (Midge) and one sexual (Judy). Judy is or was the
father-figure's (Elster's) woman. Hitchcock had originally planned to use
Vera Miles for Madeleine/Judy, he told Truffaut (247), but she "became
pregnant." "After that I lost interest." "I couldn't get the rhythm going
with her again."
If I read the film for what it did for Hitchcock, I find an image of his
wish fulfilled. As Donald Spoto points out (275), Hitchcock in making *
Vertigo* is like Pygmalion, an artist creating the perfect woman to show up
the deficiencies of ordinary women. Here,*The ideal woman is secretly the
sexual woman, and the sexual woman can be turned into an ideal.* Not the
merely "nice" woman. When nice, pure Midge shows him the picture of herself
as Carlotta Valdes, Scottie is disgusted, turned off, angry. The ideal has
to be the sexual, even sluttish, woman. From her, Scottie (and earlier Gavin
Elster) made the ideal.
Guilt is another Hitchcockian change from the source. Many critics have
pointed to the Catholic-raised Hitchcock's preoccupation with guilt,
particularly undeserved guilt. Here, he makes the Scottie character present
at the first death (not so in the novel). He makes the falls take place from
a church tower, with priests and nuns as witnesses. He adds a long, droning
monologue by the coroner, stressing Scottie's guilt (undeserved). He gives
Scottie a guilty nightmare and a nervous breakdown. In the second death in
the novel, the Scottie character himself kills his re-created love. In the
film, Scottie is innocent, but who is going to believe him? That coroner? A
man twice present when a woman he is involved with falls from the same
church tower? No way.
There are minor Hitchcockian themes as well: "the woman with glasses." Here,
it is Midge. In *Strangers on a Train* it is the repellent first wife (to be
killed) and the homely kid sister (and Hitchcock cast his own daughter
Patricia in that role). There is something wrong with people with glasses,
particularly women. They don't "look right." They are not pleasant to look
at, and they themselves can't look, and looking is terribly important to
Hitchcock. In this movie, like many of Hitchcock's, the core of the action
is looking (think of *Rear Window)*. Here it is looking at that goddess-like
Stairs are another Hitchcock preoccupation. Horrible things happen in
Hitchcock movies at the top or the bottom of stairs-- as in this film. Some
critics have spoken of a "Hitchcock image," a corridor, tunnel, or drain,
some receding hole, anyway. Something goes into it and disappears or
something scary comes out of it. Here we see it in Judy's coming down the
corridor or out of the bathroom when she is finally *toute Madeleine*, Midge
going down the corridor at the mental hospital, above all, the look down the
stairway in the church tower. As a psychoanalytic critic, I can't help
referring this to fantasies or memories of the primal scene (a child's
witnessing sexual intercourse). I would expect such preoccupations with a
There is a famous effect in this film. Some have dubbed it "the Hitchcock
shot," It could be called the *Vertigo* shot. Three times he achieves the
dizzying and disorienting effect of vertigo. We see it first when Scottie
looks down and freezes, causing the policeman's death. We see it the second
time when he runs up the tower after Madeleine the first time. We see it the
second and third times when he runs up the tower after Madeleine. In the
final shot, however, looking down from the tower, Scottie does not have
vertigo. He has been cured, but at what a cost!
Hitchcock had wanted to do such a shot for a long time. After fifteen years
(and some technological innovations), he realized he could do it by zooming
the lens in (increasing its focal length) and dollying the camera out at the
same time. Why did he obsess about it for fifteen years? Perhaps because one
goes in and out at the same time, both closer to the subject and more
Hitchcock carried over some of the larger elements of the novel unchanged,
like the trip to the cemetery or the old hotel. He also took unchanged some
of the smallest details from the novel such as the "gray suit, very tight at
the waist" (Boileau and Narcejac 1956, 25), "severely cut." (28). But the
Madeleine of the novel is "dark and slim" (20), with "dark hair discreetly
tinted with henna" (23), "abundant hair which seemed too heavy for her face"
(20). Hitchcock's transcendent Madeleine is one of the luscious blonde women
who step through his films in almost endless procession: Madeleine Carroll,
Joan Fontaine, Marlene Dietrich, Janet Leigh, Doris Day, Tippi Hedren, above
all, Grace Kelly.
Scottie re-creates the goddess Madeleine from the tarty Judy (as Christ, the
Hanging Man, transformed the Magdalene). But Scottie is only re-creating. At
the end we learn that Gavin Elster was the first to create the blond goddess
from the tramp. (Robin Wood cleverly points out that Elster is a
shipbuilder, ships are she's, Elster is a she-builder.) But even Elster was
not the first.
That was Hitchcock himself. As he said of Vera Miles, this was "the part
that was going to turn her into a star." It is Hitchcock who will create the
blond goddess. When he chose Novak, he annoyed her by making her set her
hair and wear clothes in ways *he*liked and she didn't.
Hitchcock's contempt for actors was legendary. "Actors are cattle," he is
said to have said. In later years, I've read, he would drive up in his Rolls
Royce, check the scene out, then drive off, leaving the actual shooting to
his assistant. To be sure, he had elaborately and meticulously sketched out
the whole scene on paper the night before. But even so! Actors for Hitchcock
were not supposed to act, they were just supposed to *be *there. "James
Stewart," commented Truffaut (111), "isn't required to emote; he simply *
looks*-- three or four hundred times--and then you show the viewer what he's
What gives Hitchcock's actors their emotion is the Kuleshov effect (Holland
1989) It's not their acting, but *the surrounding situation.* And that
Hitchcock controlled totally.
Consider Kim Novak's acting, about which critics (and Hitchcock himself)
have had their doubts. Take the scene after the supposed drowning, when she
comes out of the bedroom. Seeing the movie the first time, you think she's
embarrassed because Scottie has seen her naked. Seeing the movie the second
time, you realize that Novak's character was pretending to be unconscious
and is now pretending to be embarrassed. The actress is pretending to
pretend to be embarrassed. What a challenge! Wow! Terrific! And Novak
carries it off! Or does she? Isn't it the situation that clues us to read
her behavior as a double-level pretense? The meaning of her acting depends
on what we know of the circumstances around the event. It depends on what
Hitchcock has set up, not what Novak does.
I think Hitchock's practice is part of his world-view: people are at the
mercy of their surroundings, dwarfed, for example, by Mt. Rushmore or the
Statue of Liberty. I think that is why Hitchcock is drawn to psychiatric
explanations, which are invariably over-simple (as at the end of *Psycho* or
*Marnie*). In *Vertigo*, a psychiatrist describes Scottie's breakdown as
"acute melancholia together with a guilt complex," labels that say nothing.
I think Hitchcock uses such cookbook psychiatry to image people as
controlled by circumstances. Psychiatric explanations are worthless, because
the problem is deeper. If you are guilty, undeservedly guilty, the reason is
in the universe.
My point is, that is why Hitchcock insisted on as much control over his
films as he could get. He was the controlling circumstance. He was the god
in charge of creating the blond goddess. "Miss Novak arrived on the set with
all sorts of preconceived notions that I couldn't possibly go along with,"
he told Truffaut (247-8). "I went to Kim Novak's dressing room and told her
about the dresses and hair-dos that I had been planning for several months.
I also explained that the story was of less importance to me than the
over-all visual impact on the screen, once the picture is completed."
Exactly what Scottie does in the film itself.
Hitchcock wanted to look at that ideal blond woman. The operative word is *
look,* something he shared with most male moviegoers and probably many
women. (Nowadays critics talk about "the gaze.") For example, there is a
scene where, it is clear, Scottie has seen Madeleine naked. (I read his
expression when he ministers as a possessive smirk, even a leer.) This being
1958, we do not see her nude. We infer what happened. (Hitchcock is using,
as always, the audience's projection.) Conversely, according to Hitchcock,
Cinematically, all of Stewart's efforts to re-create the dead woman are
shown in such a way that he seems to be trying to undress her, instead of
the other way around. What I liked best is when the girl came back after
having had her hair dyed blond. James Stewart is disappointed because she
hasn't put her hair up on a bun. What this really means is that the girl has
almost stripped, but she still won't take her knickers off. When he insists,
she says, "All right!" and goes into the bathroom while he waits outside.
What Stewart is really waiting for is for the woman to emerge totally naked
this time, and ready for love (Truffaut, 244).
Truffaut comments simply, "That didn't occur to me." (And he a Frenchman!)
It didn't occur to me either, and I think Hitchcock's idea that he is
Judy has more to do with his fantasies than anything we are seeing on the
screen. (It has been suggested to me, though, that that final bun is another
symbol for the female genitals--golden this time.)
Re-creating Madeleine was evidently the fun of the film for Hitchcock. It is
for me, too, and so is looking at the cool elegant Madeleine during the
first third, as it probably was for Hitchock. Then there are two other
moments that trouble me, that make me feel distinctly uncomfortable.
In one, Midge cheerily shows Scottie the portrait she has painted of herself
in the role of Carlotta Valdes (complete with the fateful red jewel). She
expects him to laugh along with her and get past his obsessive belief that
Madeleine is being possessed by a dead woman. Instead, he is repelled. Mild
Johnny reacts strongly, rejecting the picture--and her. His harsh words are,
I believe, the last words he speaks to her in the film. She cries bitterly
over her foolish attempt at a joke after he leaves. Why was it so awful?
The other discomfort comes right after Scottie has seen Judy Barton on the
street. He comes up to her hotel room and begs her to have dinner with him.
She finally says yes. Right after that, Hitchcock lets us in on Judy's
secret. She starts to write Scottie a confession and farewell, but changes
her mind. It is at this point that we learn what Gavin Elster's plot was and
how Judy abetted him in it.
Telling us the answer to the mystery two-thirds of the way through is
Hitchcock's most brilliant stroke in *Vertigo*. In the novel, that *is *the
mystery, revealed only in the last pages. Hitchcock's team all told him not
to do this, but it is a genuine stroke of genius. From that moment, *we* know
what Scottie doesn't know and Judy does know. As Hitchcock put it--
The truth about Judy's identity is disclosed but *only* to the viewer . .
. that Judy isn't just a girl who looks like Madeleine, but that she *is*
Madeleine! Everyone around me was against this change; they all felt the
revelation should be saved for the end of the picture. I put myself in the
position of a child whose mother is telling him a story . . . . In my
formula, the little boy (sic), *knowing *that Madeleine and Judy are the
same person, would then ask, "And Stewart doesn't know it, does he? What
will he do when he finds out about it?" . . . . We give the public the
truth about the hoax so that our suspense will hinge around the question of
how Stewart is going to react when he discovers that Judy and Madeleine are
actually the same person (Truffaut, 243).
In other words, the focus changes from the mystery about Madeleine to *What
will happen when he finds out? *We will have shifted from staring at the
blond goddess to a much more human problem: what will happen to Judy when
Scottie finds out?
Both the episode of the fake portrait and the revelation that Judy is
Madeleine feel uncomfortable to me. I understand the portrait episode as
asking me to identify Midge with the fantasy woman. The confession shifts me
from re-creating the gorgeous Madeleine, too beautiful to be real, into the
real relationship between Judy and Scottie. I think it is because both
moments lead me away from the fantasy I enjoy, looking at this perfect
woman, too beautiful to be real. Both moments ask me to relate instead of
Frankly, I would rather look. I like following Madeleine in the first part.
I like the rescue from the Bay and seeing her nude, at least in my
imagination. I like the last third, when Scottie re-creates Madeleine.
One way I see this film is as this man's, Scottie's, two relationships to
women. Perhaps it is about all men's relationships to women--or Hitchcock's.
Perhaps it is only moviegoers' relations, entranced by these ideal figures
on screen who so contrast with our everyday lives. Perhaps it is "about" the
psyche of the typical moviegoer, at least the male moviegoer. Perhaps it
reaches women because both genders have the same early emotions toward a
mother. Once she was *the *ideal and she necessarily ceases to be. Or
perhaps I am linking the film to a man's wish for a lover who would submit
completely, give up all, even identity, and expect nothing in return.
Perhaps I see the film as about the way such a wish limits and subverts real
love, such as Scottie might have had with Midge. It is a wish that limits
Scottie, limits Elster, limits Hitchcock, limits me.
Why, then, do I feel this is such a "great" film? I *know* it is, because I
can show (to my own satisfaction, anyway) how beautifully articulated it is,
how every moment contributes to the unity and complexity of the whole. But
why do I *feel* it is?
I think I feel it is because the film deals with my own major defense,
denial. Scottie can deny the impossibility of a woman from the past taking
over a living person (something realistic Midge never for a moment
believes). He is freed of his responsibility for the "death" of the first
Madeleine and, by the appearance of the nun, for the second.
The snide coroner, in his nasty, nasal monologue (entirely Hitchcock's
addition), insists on Scottie's responsibility. He failed to acknowledge the
realities of the situation, Madeleine's apparent illness and his own
vertigo. He is guilty, guilty, guilty. Scottie has a nightmare and breaks
down. Somewhat recovered, he wanders the streets looking for his lost love,
until he meets Judy and, mournfully, re-creates the lost Madeleine.
My own feelings as he re-creates Madeleine are: Why not? He has managed the
impossible. He has managed to create or re-create this gorgeous movie star
woman. She loves him. Why not enjoy it? Why not love her, have an affair,
whatever? The fantasy woman is made real. Scottie begins this movie as a
failed detective. He is wearing a corset, thus feminized, leaning on a cane,
unable to climb three steps, unable to sustain a sexual relationship (his
failed engagement to Midge). This weak man is not only able to create the
ideal woman, he even possesses her (in the fadeout after Judy appears with
Then, in the final moments of the film, miraculously, Scottie is not guilty!
Sure, everybody will think he is, but he isn't really. He is not an
unrealistic, demanding, unfeeling lover whose deficiencies lead to the death
of the loved one. No! He was the victim!
The film feels "right" to me because I can intellectualize about it and
interpret it. It feels "profound" to me, though, because it has dealt with a
psychological issue near the center of my being: denials leading to
finalities, the failure of relationships, even to death. Denials of the
unreality of someone like Madeleine, a denial that limits and subverts real
*Vertigo* not only dramatizes such denials, but it also achieves them. The
film says (to me, anyway), there is another rational, simpler explanation
for the failure of relationships. It isn't Scottie's or my denial. There is
no cause deep in the mind's mysteries. It was*them*. It was the wicked man
associated with wealth, the past, with freedom and power, particularly the
freedom and power to use and throw away women, him and his sluttish
mistress. *They *are the guilty ones--just *them*, out there, on the screen,
in the movie.
Denial triumphs. I have canceled the guilt, changed the years, undone the
loss, turned back time, denied denial itself. I have achieved (in fantasy)
the goddess-woman-mother. I have achieved that power and freedom men speak
of three times in the film, the power and freedom to use women and toss them
away. Elster, Scottie, Hitchcock with his total control of star and
film--and now me, the critic attaining the power and freedom I envy in the
artist. And I pay just enough of a price, the death of Judy/Madeleine,
revealed now as the guilty party, so that I am truly freed. At least for the
120 minutes of *Vertigo*.
Boileau, Pierre, and Thomas Narcejac. Vertigo [orig. The Living and the
Dead]. Trans. from *D'entre les morts*. New York: Dell, 1956.
Freud, Sigmund. "The `Uncanny.'" Trans. Alix and James Strachey. *Standard
Edition* 17. 1955 (1919). 217-56.
Holland, Norman N. "Film Response from Eye to I: The Kuleshov
Atlantic Quarterly* 80.2 (1989): 416- 42.
Spoto, Donald. *The Art of Alfred Hitchcock: Fifty Years of His Motion
Pictures.* 2nd ed. New York: Doubleday, 1992.
Truffaut, Francois. *Hitchcock.* Rev. Edition. With Helen G. Scott. New
York: Simon & Schuster (Touchstone), 1984.
Wood, Robin. *Hitchcock's Films Revisited.* New York: Columbia University
Norman N. Holland
Department of English
University of Florida
P. O. Box 117310
Gainesville FL 32611-7310 U.S.A.
On Sat, Oct 30, 2010 at 10:23 PM, Peter Longworth
<[log in to unmask]>wrote:
> I'm an undergraduate student studying Cultural and Media Studies at the
> University of Newcastle, Australia. The reason I am writing is I have a
> major essay on Alfred Hitchcock as an auteur, and to make my essay more
> interesting I'd like to locate articles / books which criticise Hitchcock
> somewhat negatively. I've been directed to criticism from feminist scholars,
> but was wondering where else I should be looking, and if anyone could please
> recommend any articles where I may concentrate my study.
> Apart from the feminist angle, I know of a couple of articles written by
> Andrew Sarris who comments on Hitchcock's films not being taken seriously in
> the 1960s because they weren't considered serious films like what the
> European directors were making such as Antonioni and Bergmann.
> Other place I could go with my essay is for Hitchcock's use of violence in
> Frenzy - I actually find the strangle scenes today pretty disturbing, and I
> understand critical reception to the film's use of violence was mixed. I
> think Rope might have been criticised also from a moralistic point of view.
> There is also Hitchcock's attack on religion in his films, such as the
> Catholic church, in how he represents / shows nuns in Vertigo, which is the
> key film i'll be discussing in my paper.
> I hope someone might be able to recommend me to resources articles giving a
> negative criticism, or mixed criticism of Hitchcock, because mostly everyone
> says positive things about his films. I seek to make my essay a mixture of
> positive and negative criticisms.
> Learn to speak like a film/TV professor! Listen to the ScreenLex
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