Vertigo, written by Alec Coppel, Samuel Taylor, and possibly Maxwell Anderson, based on a French novel by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, directed by Alfred Hitchcock, starring Jimmy Stewart and Kim Novak
Released by Paramount in 1958
I love the theme of fakeness, irreality, that pervades this movie.
- Scottie falls in love with a woman who’s haunted by a ghost, and perhaps he’s as in love with her hauntedness as with her.
- She dies. Now we have two ghosts, two irreal presences.
- Behind Scottie’s back, we learn that the woman he knew as Madeleine was an impersonator, and was faking the haunting as well, and faked her death.
- When Scottie meets his “real” lover, the prosaic Judy, he tries to make her over into the twice-fake woman he loved before. He doesn’t know she’s genuinely haunted this time, haunted by her role in a murder and by their past love affair.
The scene of Judy’s transformation into “Madeleine” is lit by a ghostly underwatery light emanating from the neon sign of the cheap hotel where Judy lives: reality transfigured into dream. When they kiss, Scottie finds himself back in the mission stable with its fake horse and carriage.
And Scottie is deeply in love with this illusion. Even when Judy admits everything, he rejects the “real” love she offers him: “It’s too late. There’s no bringing her back.” Judy “really” loves him, but he never “really” loved her—or perhaps he’s only able to love her at the very end, when, having no illusions left, they kiss once more. If so, it’s too late.
Today I saw this on Twitter:
Here’s the thing about Junot Diaz, Louis CK, Woody Allen etc: their art OFTEN spells out for us how they think of women and people always give them the benefit of the doubt that it’s critical of male entitlement rather than confessional.
— Sophia Benoit (@1followernodad) May 4, 2018
The thing is, I think it can be both. Vertigo does seem to be confessional on Hitchcock’s part—he bullied, controlled, and costumed his lead actresses the way Scottie bullies, controls, and costumes Judy—and it also punishes Scottie for his masculine brutality.
Of course, Judy is punished too, and much more harshly; she dies for her (perhaps not even willing?) complicity in Gavin Elster’s plot. But note that starting with the scene where she writes a letter, she’s the star of the film, because she and the audience both know something Scottie doesn’t. We see Scottie’s monomaniacal cruelty through her eyes. Both, both, both.
I don’t mean to imply that Hitchcock attained any true self-awareness or felt remorse; a few years later he made Tippi Hedren submit to having live birds thrown at her, and (I just learned) sexually assaulted her to boot.
But he produced a magnificent critique of himself even without true self-awareness. I feel like this is the case with other artists too. Manhattan ends with the baby-voiced teenager calling the Woody Allen character on his bullshit and attempting to spread her wings. Brief Interviews with Hideous Men dwells obsessively on the ways misogyny makes men “hideous.” Maybe there’s no earnest attempt here at criticism of male entitlement—maybe what looks like criticism is merely self-loathing. But we can interpret them however we want. We can use them however we want. They can instruct us, despite their creators’ limitations.
Hitchcock, at least, is dead. His entitlement and cruelty are safely tucked away in characters like Gavin and Scottie.