Op-Ed: 100 Years…100 Passions- ‘Vertigo’ (#18)
I will be watching and reviewing all of the films included on AFI’s 100 Years…100 Passions list. The list contains the 100 greatest love stories in American cinema and I plan to consider how our views on romance and social issues have changed over the years as well as judge whether the romances in these films actually made me swoon. As a fan of the romance genre, I expect to love each and every one of the nominees but I also don’t know if I would consider all of them romantic.
Does a film need to be flawless in order to be considered a masterpiece? I don’t think so but I don’t like it when people feel the need to argue that something is perfect simply because they love it. I would admit that most of my favorite films have one or two significant flaws but there is one overriding factor that causes me to overlook all of those negligible shortcomings. I think I understand why people are so obsessed with Vertigo as it puts them in a unique headspace. The protagonist exists in a world where nothing makes sense and he has to cling to his obsession as he makes sense of what is going on around him. This does not mean that the plot isn’t rather silly. Alfred Hitchcock brings in most of his usual preoccupations and crafts some of the most beautiful shots of his career as he puts the Golden Gate Bridge to use in an unforgettable manner and is able to put the audience in the position of a creepy voyeur whilst making the audience relate to said, creepy voyeur. I can’t help but feel like Vertigo is more of the same from Hitchcock as it explores all of the themes and motifs that were present in Hitchcock’s previous works but it brings everything together. If you want a Hitchcock extravaganza then this is the film for you but if you are slightly more resistant to his style, as I am, then you might end up feeling a bit unsatisfied.
The aforementioned silly plot involves Detective Scottie Ferguson, James Stewart, who has a fear of heights and develops vertigo after he almost dies while chasing down a suspect and has his partner fall off the rooftop he is holding onto. He hangs out regularly with ex-fiancée Midge Wood, Barbara Bel Geddes, but finds himself drawn to the enigmatic Madeleine Elster, Kim Novak when he is asked to tail her by her husband Gavin, Tom Elmore. Gavin believes that she has blackouts in which she becomes her ancestor Carlotta Valdes, who had a tragic life and commit suicide. Ferguson and Elster fall in love but she commits suicide and he is not blamed for her death. He looks for her in other women after her death and when he finds a woman who resembles her in Judy Barton, Kim Novak, he forces her to change her physical appearance to appeal to him. His controlling behavior ruins their relationship and when he forces her to pretend to be Elster again, she ends up plunging to her death from the top of a bell tower.
When I describe that plot it does sound overly convoluted and I think it is as Alec Coppel and Samuel Taylor could have dropped some of the melodramatic twists and turns and allowed Hitchcock to return to capturing the woozy dream state that he is looking for. For me, the story is what stops me from fully embracing this film as we get caught up in intricately plotted moments that stop Hitchcock from getting to the good stuff. It feels like he is obsessed with staying faithful to the scripts that other people have written for him but he doesn’t add any flourishes when it comes to the delivery of bland exposition that character actors need to choke out at several points. He was famously unwilling to do much work when it came to directing actors and viewed them as cattle but this means that he often got wooden, unnatural performances from actors when he needed vibrant, fully realized characterizations in order to fully bring his characters to life. When we find out about the big plot twist here we have to sit through a long sequence in which everything is explained to us. I’m usually not for ostentatious twists that aim to dazzle the audience and to me, the twist in Vertigo interrupted a story that was just becoming exciting.
I would also say that I just wasn’t involved in Vertigo during the first act. Yes, I could appreciate the cinematography and the framing and I could sense that this was all building up to something but in a truly great film I would have been fully engaged in the first thirty minutes. In one of Hitchcock’s more successful efforts, like Shadow of a Doubt (1943), you find yourself oddly compelled by the scenes that lead up to the scene of shocking violence or psychological torture. You get to hear Joseph Cotten delivering chilling monologues about his hatred of little old ladies who happen to be wealthy but frugal because he is oddly compelling even though he plays a psychopath. I did not feel that way with Vertigo because I was forcibly distanced from Ferguson and Barton by Hitchcock. These are most of my major complaints and this is what stops me from adoring Vertigo in the way that most critics do but from here on out, I will outline all of the things that I loved and admired.
I have to talk about the visuals first as Hitchcock took the phrase “Every frame a painting” to heart. Nobody would deny that he was not a brilliant visual stylist and yet he outdoes himself with Vertigo as it is full of rich, striking colors and symbolism leaves any critic hurriedly writing notes as Hitchcock hits us with the third close up on the twist in Barton’s hair. I sound thick when I say that I was simply amazed by the use of color but I can’t deny the fact that I appreciated the prettiness of many shots, as glib and shallow as that statement sounds. At the same time, I was able to pick up on the fact that Hitchcock intended for the audience to be aware of the fact that they were watching a film that had been controlled by an auteur and he is as much of a character in this story as Barton and Ferguson. Yes, Ferguson is his self-insert character to some degree but Ferguson also becomes the subject of his voyeurism to some degree as he is allowed to be more vulnerable than some of Hitchcock’s male leads. He obsessed with a woman and ends up abusing her but Hitchcock is also looking upon Ferguson as one of the pieces of art that he has molded.
As Ferguson molds Barton into the woman he wants her to be, we can sense Hitchcock doing the same to everything else in the film. He can’t fully let go of her creations and this has the strange effect of making everything feel a little too controlled and sterile. It is incredible to see a piece of art that has been relentlessly shaped and prodded at by an individual and it ends up feeling like a cry for help from Hitchcock. We all know that the man was deeply flawed and I don’t think we should hold him up as some martyr who was deserving of all the sympathy in the world but he was a tortured human being and often his neuroses and insecurities bled over into the content of his art. He offers us a window into his soul and I did find myself trying to come to terms with this man and his confusion about the way that regular social functions. In some ways, the fake universe that he can construct in his films is a fantasy for him as he can have complete control over it and he can live through attractive male stars who get to romance beautiful women and confidently run away from threatening thugs. Some of these fantastical elements are present in Vertigo and you can feel Hitchcock salivating whenever we see a particularly well-composed shot but there is also a sadness to his direction. Perhaps the distance that I felt from the characters in the first half was intentional. Hitchcock has created a world that is perfect in his eyes but his own self-hatred prevents him from being a part of this world. If he were to insert an imperfect being like himself into this universe he would be ruining it, so he has to lurk in the shadows and pull the strings instead of getting to take center stage. His mad, frenzied anguish can be felt in the second act and his perspective overshadows anything else that is happening but the separation between Hitchcock and his art turns this into a real tragedy.
If we are going to argue that this is a love story then we might as well talk about the distinction between obsession and love. The central love story in the film is supposedly the one that exists between Barton and Ferguson but I don’t think they were necessarily in love. Ferguson is pleased by the idea of turning Barton into his ideal woman but he also turns her into somebody who is like himself. In pursuing her he is opening himself up and getting over the anxiety that has left him so debilitated after his accident but he is pushing all of his problems onto Barton. She is the human embodiment of all of the problems he faces as she becomes a nervous wreck who lives to please him and she loses her own identity as she gets closer and closer to being his ideal woman. We see them kissing and acting out the steps that people go through when they are courting but we always feel like Ferguson is driven by his desire to confer all of his issues onto her rather than his desire to kiss her or go out on a sweet date with her. This is why I don’t necessarily see it as a romance and I don’t think it should have qualified for this list. Like Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927), this is a piece of art that is worthy of admiration and yet it has been grossly miscategorized. If any of you readers have treated your partners the way that Ferguson treats Barton then feel free to tell me that I’m wrong.
We have to get into Hitchcock’s relationship with women if we are going to talk about this film as his views on women do impact the depiction of the relationship between Ferguson and Barton. He liked his icy blondes and when Barton is playing Elster she fits into that category but she becomes an earthier brunette when she returns to being Barton. Ferguson then tries to turn her back into the icy blonde that he admired. This is very simple analysis but I suppose one could theorize that Hitchcock loved this type of woman because she was inaccessible and unattainable and that only made it easier for him to justify his voyeurism. These women wouldn’t submit themselves to his self-insert characters willingly so his male leads would often force themselves into the lives of these women and take control of them by manipulating them and picking up on all of their insecurities. His male leads seem to take pleasure in picking apart these women who act superior to them and in bringing these women down to their level they have achieved a victory of sorts. This behavior often ends up having a negative outcome for them as they become less interested in the women when they turn into the female equivalent of themselves. Their self-hatred consumes them and they reject the product of their efforts because they hate the fact that the women in their life was ‘weak’ enough to submit to them even though they actively sought to destroy this woman.
When these women are taken down from their pedestal they are often humiliated as they are revealed to not be the classy, refined ladies that they pretend to be. The men bring out the sadomasochistic urges in them or discover their affair with another man who inevitably comes to a bad end. All of this has caused Hitchcock to be charged with misogyny and his behavior towards women in real life, such as Tippi Hedren, certainly doesn’t bolster his reputation as a feminist ally but there is something more than blatant hatred of women going on here. Barton is seen through the eyes of a man and we are invited to see her as his creation but the film also suggests that Ferguson is hurting himself by taking control of these women and bending them to his will. I think that this is a charitable interpretation as Hitchcock is still resistant to adopt the viewpoint of female characters and Barton does come across as a pretty object at many points. You could say that this is beside the point as we are seeing this story from Ferguson’s point of view and he is so disturbed that he can’t fully understand women. I keep going back and forth when it comes to the points that Vertigo tries to make and I find it endlessly fascinating. You can have long conversations about singular scenes and you don’t get sick of coming up with different theories as there is so much material to work through.
Another Hitchcockian trademark is the use of notable locations in big set pieces and because Vertigo is set in San Francisco it has to feature the Golden Gate Bridge. We have all seen the famous image of Stewart pulling a wet Novak out of the water and walking up the steps with her cradled in his arms while the bridge stands strong behind them. The shot is haunting as Novak’s body is limp in Stewart’s arms and there is something ‘romantic’ about the way she is positioned. When I say romantic I am talking about a romanticized vision as it was common for sickly, vulnerable women to be glamorized in this period. The idea of a saintly lady who endures a horrible illness, all the while becoming more gorgeous as she approaches death, has officially become a trope in the woman’s picture genre. This is a fairly troubling trope as it implies that weakness and suffering make women more attractive and it makes audience members believe that almost dying could be a positive thing. Hitchcock taps into the morbid fantasies that the women who loved Camille (1936) had but he puts his own spin on this trope. The nightmarish music tells us that this is not a heroic rescue that should be celebrated and the way that Stewart chucks Novak’s lifeless body into the back of a car just seconds later reminds us of the fact that he is using her. The visuals are lushly romantic as the green waters and Novak’s chic black coat fool you into thinking that this is a dream and not a nightmare but ultimately this scene makes us uncomfortable as we see two people acting out something that should be romantic and yet this is a story about obsession and abuse and it is saddening to see the two of them reaching for a love that is not there.
I know I promised that I wouldn’t include any more criticism but as a final note, I thought I would say that I wasn’t a big fan of Novak’s performance. I have already criticized a lot of the performances in Hitchcock’s films but I would like to note the fact that Henry Fonda is stupendous in The Wrong Man (1956) which proves that it was not impossible to give a full-bodied, layered performance in one of his films even when he wasn’t offering you much direction. Novak feels like she was left out to dry by Hitchcock as he spent far more time paying attention to the location of the brooch on her lapel than he spent instructing her on how to convey her character’s emotions. I suspect that these two never had a discussion in which they talked about Barton’s motivations and I doubt that Hitchcock politely offered her notes on her work after every take. I imagine that he would have been happy if she had mechanically delivered every line as long as everything around her was in the right position. My confidence in Novak as an actress is low as she has never impressed me in anything I have seen her in and I don’t even admire her as a great screen beauty. Even the dreaded Audrey Hepburn had an incredible face but Novak looks plain and doesn’t have any screen presence so it is difficult to forgive her for her uncompelling turn.