Monday, April 4, 2011


Often listed as one of Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpieces, Vertigo was shunned by both critics and audiences on its release. I can relate, having just fallen for it after years of fascinated repulsion.

Its carefully plotted, deliberately revealed unease and bold visuals were always strong enough to pull me in when I stumbled across it on TV, and they left a trove of images in my mind’s eye. Aside from the usual icons (Jimmy Stewart and Kim Novak’s clinch against the Golden Gate Bridge is as much a part of my DNA as Deborah Kerr and Burt Lancaster’s roll in the surf in From Here to Eternity), what comes to mind when I think of the movie are endless variations on people surreptitiously studying each other, whether searching for some hidden truth or mesmerized by what's on the surface. One of my favorites is the shot that sums up the relationship between Scottie (James Stewart) and his sensible, taken-for-granted ex-girlfriend Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes) in the opening scene. The camera clings to Midge’s shoulder, catching the focus behind her feigned nonchalance as she looks up at Scottie, as obliquely intent as a cat on the prowl. Yet I never sought out the film on DVD or in a revival theater, finding its portrait of obsessive “love” too creepily convincing for comfort.

Scottie meets Madeleine (Kim Novak), the object of his obsessive lust, when her husband hires him to shadow her. She’s a familiar type – a damsel in distress whose voluptuous body, platinum-blond hair, and melancholic vulnerability bring to mind Marilyn Monroe, who was at the height of her stardom when Vertigo came out in 1958. Scottie falls for her like a whole wall of bricks, trying to save her from herself and failing.

Then Madeleine dies and things get weird.

After a near-catatonic period of mourning, Scottie stumbles across Judy Barton (Novak), a dead ringer for his lost love. Mesmerized by her looks but indifferent to her personality, he devotes himself to perfecting the resemblance, micromanaging every aspect of her appearance in a doomed attempt to turn a brash shop girl from Kansas into the reserved and mysterious woman he remains obsessed with. Meanwhile we learn (but Scottie is in the dark about) Judy’s own reasons for wanting to win his love. The plot is deliciously complicated, but in the end it all comes down to an age-old game: men making women over to mirror a sexual ideal, while women go along with the transformation in hopes of winning love.

Scottie and Judy’s game of chase doesn’t give either of them much pleasure, but now and then they grab an ephemeral moment of joy together. Hitchcock circles the two as they kiss with a swirling camera, in a much-mimicked movement that still retains its original power as it concretizes the instability and intensity of those encounters.

The director probably cast Stewart, his favorite “everyman” leading man, because he wanted us to identify with his prickly protagonist in spite of ourselves. It’s not easy to like this unhappy control freak – especially since Hitchcock and screenwriter Samuel Taylor are so sensitive to the pain felt by both Judy and Midge as he looks right through them, his gaze fixated on an unattainable ideal.

I think I used to be too threatened by that predatory male gaze to appreciate a film about it, but now that I’m old enough not to be on the receiving end, I can relax and appreciate other aspects of this elegantly layered story. This time around, I kept noticing the contrast between the placid faces each of the three main characters – Scottie, Judy, and Midge – show to the world and the roiling emotions they try to hide. And I was genuinely touched by Judy’s doomed attempt to win Scottie’s love by denying her true self.

Novak was usually a pretty wooden actress, but Vertigo makes you wonder if that tells us less about her capabilities than it does about the preconceptions her other directors may have had about her – or about leading ladies in general. In any case, Novak uses her usual drugged, trancelike demeanor and throaty speech early on as signs of Judy’s amateurish acting and fear of discovery, then draws on a previously unseen set of skills to play a woman who feels much more “real,” with none of her rough edges sanded down.

In the DVD commentary track, Novak talks about how strongly she related to her character, after going through a chillingly similar makeover as a Hollywood actress. “I really identified with the movie,” she says, “because to me it was saying, ‘Please, see who I am. Fall in love with me.’”

Written for TimeOFF

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