not in our stars, but in ourselves
Finally: the really big guns. Vertigo (1958) is a relative rarity, at least in my opinion, because it’s a great film that everyone says is great that is, actually, great from start to finish. You no doubt recall my fascinating post about how Alfred Hitchcock and Vladimir Nabokov should have been best friends. In Vertigo, as in Lolita, the story is steeped in Edgar Allan Poe. Both the film and the novel are uncanny detective stories, concerning doubles and loved ones seemingly returning from the dead. One is reminded of “Ligeia” – in which an opium dream transforms the corpse of the narrator’s new wife into the living body of his long-dead Ligeia – or, particularly in Vertigo, of this passage from “The Imp of the Perverse”:
We stand upon the brink of a precipice. We peer into the abyss – we grow sick and dizzy. Our first impulse is to shrink from the danger. Unaccountably we remain. By slow degrees our sickness and dizziness and horror become merged in a cloud of unnameable feeling.
But let’s get back to the film.
It’s about John “Scottie” Ferguson (James Stewart), a recently retired detective. During the course of chasing a criminal across the roofs of San Francisco, he witnesses his police officer colleague plummet to his death, while Scottie hangs precariously from a gutter. After that, he develops acrophobia with accompanying vertigo. An old college acquaintance, Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore), asks Scottie to trail his wife. Madeleine Elster (Kim Novak) has been falling into strange trances, it seems, acting as if she were her mad ancestor, Carlotta Valdes. Scottie agrees, and you probably would too.
They fall in love; he sees her plummet off a bell tower; he mourns for months; and then he meets Judy Barton (Novak again). Unlike the cool and refined Madeleine, Judy is a coarse shopgirl who wears too much makeup and bright Technicolor clothes.
From there, it all goes downhill; just in case you haven’t seen it and haven’t heard anything about it, I’ll quit synopsizing. But to sum it up, it’s yet another degradation-by-love stories. Lots of people agree on that. However, I don’t really think it’s about Scottie being degraded by love. I think it’s about Judy. Judy is, for my money, the most tragic figure in the whole film – followed by Scottie’s long-suffering best friend/ex-fiancee, Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes). She loves Scottie. God knows why, but she does. He won’t love her unless and until she lets him make her over into a perfect replica of his lost Madeleine. And she does.
She has one of the saddest lines in any Hitchcock movie, and one that shows his own awareness about the inherent cruelty of his demands on his leading ladies – so I think, anyway.
Judy: I know. I know because, ’cause I remind you of her and not even that very much.
Scottie: No, no Judy, Judy, it’s you, too. There’s something in you…
Judy: You don’t even want to touch me.
Scottie: Yes. Yes, I do.
Judy: Couldn’t you like me, just me the way I am? When we first started out, it was so good. We had fun. And then you started in on the clothes. Well, I’ll wear the darn clothes if you want me to – if – if you’ll just, just like me. …If, if I let you change it, will that do it? If I do what you tell me, will you love me?
It’s terribly sad. Knowing that the man you love won’t love you, or even want to look at you, unless you fit the role he has in mind for you. I don’t doubt that this is a pervasive problem in many relationships – perhaps even most. It surely goes both ways, and across all sorts of gender lines; here, it happens to be the traditional dynamic of a powerful man and a powerless woman. It’s still horrible, though. However omnipresent it is, it’s horrible.
I would be remiss in my reviewing duties (!) if I didn’t mention Bernard Herrmann’s lush, beautiful score. It’s Wagnerian in the best possible way, with shimmering harps and aching strings. If you can listen to the piece titled “Scene d’Amour,” from the “transformation” scene, and not feel your heart swell to bursting point, I don’t know what to tell you. The soundtrack is one of my top five albums of all time, and I’d heartily recommend that you do yourself a great service and get it for yourself. I’m not kidding – I listen to it almost daily. Maybe my fellow obsessive, Scottie, and I would get along.