Vertigo: Decoding Hitchcock’s Desires

In 2012, Sight and Sound polled once again for the fifty greatest films of all time. For the first time in fifty years, number one was not Citizen Kane. I don't believe Hitchcock's Vertigo is really the best film ever made, but I understand the lens through which it might be the most transformative. Of all the films that could be considered at their heart to be about the obsession of romantic ownership, Vertigo is either the most obsessive, or the obsession that the others all share in common. It’s where Blue Velvet gets the singer that appears to the men out of a Freudian mother fantasy. It’s where Under the Silver Lake got the idea to dissect a relationship using the conflict between people’s fantasies of each other, and how it affects their ability to share reality. Vertigo's obsession rings down through these other movies. It's been named the best of all time only after they were made, and we could see what made them. Even now, many of them lack something Vertigo relies on. In order to descend it, love should be reconsidered, not as the goal of a romance, but as the height from which it’s afraid to fall.

Jimmy Stewart gives a performance worthy of Hitchcock but Kim Novak gives two. Her transformation from a dreamy princess named Madeleine into a working-class girl named Judy, duped into playing a romantic ideal, redefined femininity in movies forever. Scottie (Stewart) chases her through the symbolic routines of her fake daydreaming and Hitchcock presents her as that Hollywood pin-up, that slender icon that he found in Grace Kelly and had to replace when she left him to become the real princess of Monaco (and thus, in a sense, prove him right about her all along).

And then Hitchcock kills Madeleine. In Hitchcock, death is always deconstruction (is he killing his dream of Kelly?). And then he brings her back as someone real, in pants and street makeup and knowing smiles and flashy eyes. And then he obsessively pieces the starlet back together so that her pageant beauty, her perfect bun and tall legs and cold eyes, becomes a role she has to reacquire. He turns her back into the fantasy of herself. This is the aspect that makes Vertigo so important, and the one that makes people forget it was made in the 1950s. Without the reveal of the second Novak in the form of the first, so that one could contain the other, we might still be making romances to the tune of The Broadway Melody instead of Blue Velvet.

If films were a scene long and this reveal scene was the whole movie called Vertigo, I might agree with Sight and Sound. Novak is exactly, compulsively the same as she was when Scottie saw her as the mysterious wanderer he was hired to follow, and became obsessed with in the process. When she's revealed, Vertigo becomes Scottie’s dream obsession come true, compulsively made by him into that vision. That moment that Scottie becomes a creator, when he puts his vision of beauty onto the screen as an act of fantasy, even necrophilia, that’s the moment that he becomes Hitchcock, who breaks down and remakes his women in almost every movie (undone by love in Notorious, killed as a McGuffin in Psycho, tested and reformed in Rear Window, and so on).

Scottie makes Vertigo a torturous story of a man's fetish, an idea of his sexual intent, in a way that Hitchcock hints at in nearly all his films. It turns into a battle between the ideal Hitchcock man (played by Stewart as flawed, crippled mentally, and obsessively vulnerable to women) and the frosty volcano of Hitchcock's perfect woman. Judy flushes blue and pink as she exits the bathroom, fully crystalized into Madeleine, roaming the dreamy green fog; Scottie's eyes flash in compulsive self-envy (he's jealous of the version of himself that knew the fantasy when she was alive). They embrace in sensual neon and Bernard Herrmann’s sweeping score accentuates the scenario as a tragedy through contrast. Scottie's lust becomes so grand that reality slips away. Despite achieving his perfect creation, the scene has an unmistakable sense of longing, rather than catharsis. Stewart is perfectly cast for standing around looking jealous of himself and Novak is perfect at walking into his world with a mix of innocence and power, a vampire and a child, like she’s responsible for but unaware of the part of his fantasies that she made herself. Hitchcock plays them both like the notes of a perfect chord; the audience, as always, play the part of his piano.

Maybe Hitchcock himself is the tune he's playing, for the first time in any of his movies. He’s usually more guarded with his own desires (consider Kelly in Rear Window, near to danger but safely rescued and mildly converted into a housewife without any of the pain of confrontation). Hitchcock destroys Novak as though, like Scottie, he fears her in direct proportion to how easily she could be made perfect; she’s destroyed in equal proportion to his desire for an ideal. Perhaps no movie has ever been more about a director dealing with the desires within himself.

There's a tragic moment when Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes) paints herself into a version of the image that Scottie begins to believe has been reincarnated as Madeleine. She hopes he'll be amused into thinking of her as part of the scheme of his love life, even by accident. It's another instance of perfect casting since Geddes has all the technical aspects of a Hitchcock woman, but none of the panache in combining them (she’s like the women who watched his movies and told their hairdressers they wanted to look like Grace Kelly). The result is disastrous and tragic; Scottie is offended that she would even consider pretending to mimic that ideal. She pulls at her housewife hair, from sheer unworthiness. The movie discards her, and it almost seems like our fault.

Vertigo uses a sheer technical perspective, as in Hitchcock’s famous dolly zooms, to create a feeling of unease equal to many horror films. Zooming in while physically pulling back the camera gives the impression of an expanding space that is also becoming more enclosing (it gives the movie its nightmare logic − the more space there is beneath you when you look down, the closer it seems). The lust that permeates Vertigo is evident in Scottie’s creator’s angst, the way he trains Judy to become someone else he desires, as a form of herself, and the way the whole film embraces his physical and mental limits as a specifically masculine failing. Hitchcock’s men are often crippled, in one way or another, and so they always have the particular quality of someone who not only wants what they can’t have, but who wants what they might have had if their lives had turned out differently, which increases the longing even more. Notice how Scottie’s work pruning a girl into his fetish doesn’t seem completely reproachable: he’s too pitiful to totally blame him for his desires. That’s all in the casting of Stewart, whose vulnerability has never been about seeming weak but seeming too helpless to act on the strength he "could" have. The feeling of being misunderstood, a staple of the Stewart character, is one of Hitchcock's most devious weapons in Vertigo.

At some point, all meaningful discussions of Vertigo have to address what it means for the film to treat women the way it does. The director's parallel treatment of actors and actresses speaks volumes to his techniques as a craftsman (he viewed performers as props, before considering them as fellow artists). However, the fate of the Madeleine/Judy character should not be read as a negative portrayal in Vertigo. The simulation of her mistreatment is what gives her character(s) the valuable sympathy that gives the film its meaning.

Hitchcock forces the viewer to understand what has allowed her to become an object, not only to the men who want her to be a certain way but to the desires she has for herself to want to be seen that way. She’s not blameless in the actions that lead her to con Scottie with his dreams, but sympathetic in our comprehension of where her position comes from. Eventually, the film has established the two of them having battled their images of each other, leading both to fall in love with a version of themselves. Her deception worked so well, it worked on herself too, and this gives Scottie more to lose because of his angst, his hunger for an ideal. His inability to accept reality costs him far more than the woman of his dreams. It even costs him the dreams.

Vertigo put something dangerous and essential in the movie gene pool. It made movie couples fall in love, not just with each other, not merely with their appearances and their attitudes, but with the way that someone too hungry for love thinks of those things, as many viewers do. The way we fantasize each other, changing ourselves to match the fantasy, and destroying the reality of our feelings in the process, is something many filmmakers have tried to represent, but none with so much self-assessment as this. Hitchcock undresses himself for the camera in Vertigo; in doing so, he undresses all of his movies. This is not my favorite of his but I use it to decode the rest. The Hitchcock woman is changed be him, ideated, broken down, and rebuilt. As what? An image of his dreams? A version of women he wished he could conquer? So many of his films are about what his idea of the human soul wants, but Vertigo is the transformation event. Cinema changed with it.

This article is a re-upload from Film Objective, August 13, 2019

Image is a screenshot from the film: ©Paramount Pictures/Alfred J. Hitchcock Productions

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