VERTIGO: ITS OWN SPELL-BINDING CONFERENCE

 

Alfred Hitchcock’s VERTIGO was the subject of a one day conference in Dublin, Ireland on September 14. The event was organized by Trinity college professor Donal “Dee” Martin and a dedicated team of assistants and held at the Central Hotel. Dee had spent many months planning and organizing this event and it was quite successful. A distinguished group of scholars spoke and gave visual presentations on Hitchcock and Vertigo, on a  fascinating range of subjects. I was fortunate to be among them, talking about the costume designs by Edith Head and the role costumes play in character and plot.

Organizer Dee Martin at right with speaker Christian Esquevin

After an opening by U.S Embassy Charge d’Affaires Reece Smyth, Sidney Gottlieb started the talks. Sidney is professor of Communications & Media Studies at Sacred Heart University in Connecticut. He co-edits the Hitchcock Annual. He opened with Why Vertigo?in terms of its cinematic distinction as a recent phenomenon. David Schroeder  followed with “Vertigo as Opera,”  David is Professor Emeritus of the Fountain School of the Performing Arts at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. His talk focused on the film score of Bernard Herrmann and its musical associations. Kevin Donnelly followed with a different angle on Vertigo’s music score, “Disagreeing with Hitchcock?: The Counterpoint in Vertigo’s Music.” His point here is that Herrmann actually encouraged different emotional responses in his music than what was going on in some of the scenes. Kevin is reader in Film at the University of Southhampton, and has written about Hitchcock and Herrmann. I followed with “Vertigo: Costuming a Masterpiece,” which I will provide the text for at the bottom of this post.  The music of Vertigo continued to be a topic of interest as Jack Sullivan gave his fascinating talk on “Relentless Destiny: The Score for Vertigo and its Background.” Jack is Professor of  English at Rider University and the author of “Hitchcock’s Music.”

From L to R Christian Esquevin, Sidney Gottlieb, Jack Sullivan, and Kevin Donnelly

 

Sidney Gottlieb addresses the audience on “Why Vertigo?”

 

I talk about the role of costumes in Vertigo – designed by Edith Head and the all-important gray suit that Kim Novak did not want to wear at the beginning.

After the lunch break William Rothman talked about Jimmy Stewart’s most complete performance in “I Look Up, I Look Down: James Stewart’s Performance in Vertigo.” Bill Rothman is currently Professor of Cinema and Interactive Media at the University of Miami. He is the author of “Must We Kill the Thing We Love: Emersonian Perfectionism and the Films of Alfred Hitchcock.” This talk was followed by Murray Pomerance who presented “A Cicerone’s Conjecture: Gallery 6 and Vertigo’s Foreshadows”  This was an interesting look at the art on exhibit (and installed especially for Hitchcock) at the gallery of the California Palace of the Legion of Honor. Sidney Gottlieb wrapped up the conference with his presentation on, “The Variety of Gazes in Vertigo,” addressing the issue of “the male gaze” in modern cinema and media.

This was a most fascinating conference held in  great city. It is hoped that next year the 2nd conference will be held on the occasion of Vertigo’s 60th anniversary in San Francisco, again to be planned by Dee Martin.

My piece on Vertigo is based on an earlier blog post I had submitted to Patricia Schneider’s blog Lady’s Eve’s Reel Life.   This had been for the occasion of a blogathon on Vertigo in 2012. My post, slightly modified, follows:

 

Edith Head at left with Alfred Hitchcock & Ingrid Bergman in Notorious

 

                        VERTIGO: COSTUMING A MASTERPIECE

 

Alfred Hitchcock had already worked with noted costume designer Edith Head on five films. Now he had chosen her again to costume Vertigo. Hitchcock had wanted Vera Miles to play the role of Madeleine, but she became pregnant. He thought about Lana Turner, another beautiful blond, but she was too expensive. So he secured Kim Novak from Columbia Pictures. As a loan-out, her studio was making a lot of money from her. She started off resentful, but she soon asked for and got a higher salary.  She was tough, but insecure.

Kim Novak made it crystal clear what she wanted in her first meeting with Edith Head. “I don’t wear suits, and I don’t wear gray. And another thing, I don’t wear black pumps,” Novak told Miss Head.

When Miss Head reported this to Hitchcock, he said, “I don’t care what she wears as long as it’s a gray suit.”

Thus began the creative tension over the costuming of Vertigo. But in a clash of opinion over the visual aspects of a Hitchcock film, Hitch always won. Indeed, he already had the colors and the costume types selected before pre-production for Vertigo began. Kim Novak wore the gray suit with the black pumps. And this became her iconic look in Vertigo.

 “I had never had a director who was particular about the costumes, the way they were designed, the specific colors,” Novak later said about Hitchcock.

Edith Head’s gray suit design for Kim Novak

The story theme within Vertigo is based on obsession, and the costume looks for the Madeleine/Judy character are a key symbol of that dysfunction. The “clash” that Kim Novak had with Hitch and Edith Head over her costumes was nothing new for an actress in Hollywood, but Alfred Hitchcock’s very specific clothing demands in type and color speaks volumes about Vertigo being for him a very personal film. Deeply embedded in Hitchcock’s psychology was this mix of the mysterious blond in a gray suit, the obsession with repossessing a lost past, and the madness caused by the futility of this effort. As far as the costume choices being good fashion, it didn’t matter that Kim Novak’s pumps were black. Yes, they would have looked better in gray or brown, or tan to match her nude-toned hose. This was a trick she had learned from Marlene Dietrich, a device to make one’s legs look longer.

The gray suit was in a neutral and sedate color. Hitchcock believed it revealed how the Madeleine character felt about herself. Edith Head also frequently designed gray suits for her film costumes, and wore them regularly herself, believing that it gave her a non-competitive look when working with the stars. But Marlene Dietrich had worn a gray suit for Hitch in Stage Fright, as had Doris Day in The Man Who Knew too Much, and as Tippi Hedren would wear in The Birds. So the gray suit touched something within Hitchcock, and along with the blonde hair of his leading actresses, denoted for Hitchcock the “woman of mystery,” the cool and subtle beauty with the blazing insides. And as for the black pumps, they can often be fetishistic objects, and Hitchcock’s insistence on them here gives them that significance.

The colors of the costumes and the sets had a symbolic meaning as well as a visual style for Hitchcock. Gray represented modesty when worn in a gray suit. Perhaps its dove gray color denoted a uniform to Hitchcock, perhaps even linking it to the color of a nun’s habit. And perhaps it was that modesty contradicted by the figure-hugging cut of the suit that added spice to the costume.  When Jimmy Stewart as Scottie first sees Kim Novak playing Madeleine, she wears a black gown but it is covered in a green-trimmed opera coat at Ernie’s Restaurant. The wallpaper of the restaurant forms a red background that vibrates with the green in these color opposites. Her face in profile against the red wallpaper fixes his gaze, and that  of the camera.

Green represented death for Hitchcock. This was a holdover from his youth going to the theater and seeing ghostly representations depicted in lime green. Madeleine’s car is also green. It’s in the following scene where Scottie begins tailing Madeleine that she first wears the gray suit.  His fascination with her was peaked at Ernie’s, but seeing her in the gray suit is when he becomes obsessed. Her connection to mystery and reincarnated lives is reinforced with scenes at the Dolores Mission and graveyard and the Palace of the Legion of Honor Art Gallery.

As for Scottie’s former love interest Midge, played by Barbara Bel Geddes, she is dressed in warm colors of yellow and beige and soft fabrics – symbols of her nurturing and loving proclivities towards Scottie.

After Scottie saves Madeleine from drowning and takes her to his apartment, she is dressed, albeit in his robe, in a vibrant red. Here the color evokes life and full-bloodedness. And indeed, a prior scene of intimacy is implied. Then in a later scene when Scottie and Madeleine drive to the shore, she is dressed in black and white – a black dress with black gloves and a white coat. The black and white in this costume denotes not the unambiguous nature of her character, but rather the duality of her persona. As an added twist, her black chiffon scarf blows freely with the ocean wind, perhaps a symbol of mystery, or one of doom.

 

As the character Judy, Kim Novak is costumed by Edith Head to appear dowdy. She wears the “deathly” green color – in a green sweater made bulky by being worn over a blouse. The blouse is green with white polka-dots and with a peter-pan collar turned over the sweater. The whole is accentuated by an unflattering hair style. The total look is purposefully unappealing. This look has several purposes: to define the common character of Judy in contrast to Madeleine’s higher class; to appear that she is “hiding” her identity; and to provide a stark difference with Madeleine in order to dramatize her coming make-over.

“Judy” in green, with braless top.

When they go on a date and later go shopping for her clothes, she is dressed better but still very simply. She wears lavender, a color of mystery and transition. But Scottie will not be satisfied until he makes her over in the very image and dress of Madeleine. The make-over itself is a key dramatic moment in the film – Judy’s reluctance, Scottie’s obsession in turning her visually into Madeleine, complete with gray suit and blonde hair in the characteristic twirled bun.

The nature of the costumes, and the make-over, reverberated not only with the character’s roles, but with the actor’s and the director’s deep psychology. Hitchcock exercised his darker side in molding an actress into his own obsession, while directing Jimmy Stewart to do the same. Kim Novak as Judy wondered why Scottie couldn’t love her as she was, just as Kim Novak really felt the same about Hollywood in general. The entire film reverberates not just from vertigo but due to mirroring techniques and doubling of the images of the main characters. We are challenged to keep our footing while viewing this Hitchcock masterwork. But the gray suit worn with the black pumps served their purpose, and they allowed Kim Novak to not only be in character, but by taking her out of her comfort zone in dress, Hitchcock enabled her to more effectively be an actress that plays a part of a character that is pretending to be someone else. The simplicity and neutrality of the gray suit belies the fact that when Kim Novak wears it as Judy she is a woman pretending to be another woman who was herself a fiction. This may create a blurred vision, But Scottie knows he has been tricked.

“Judy” finally transformed back into Madeleine

Hitchcock must have recognized his own dilemma in creating Vertigo. At the climactic end, Scottie demonstrated his tragic disappointment with Judy, and his own foolish endeavor. “He made you over just like I made you over,” he says accusingly to Judy. Only Elster had made her over first, and thus Scottie had been pursuing the hollow goal of recreating another man’s fantasy. And perhaps worse, he accused her of being “an apt pupil,” for Elster, which he repeats twice – something she hadn’t been for him. That demonstrated to Scottie, and served as the film’s underlying theme, that the pursuit of an empty ideal is futile. For Hitchcock, it was a deeply ingrained motif, one that would keep repeating itself as he tried to mold one Hitchcock blonde after another into his fantasy, only to have her leave him for one reason or another. With the character Scottie, this creation and possession fantasy was played out not as a means of domination, but rather one where we could believe that once his fantasy woman was created, he could surrender and succumb to her. She could have been his Madeleine/Midge.  But alas we know that that too would have been another fantasy – another beguiling but untrustworthy image, a reflection in a mirror, or another swirling and spiraling movement creating a feeling of vertigo.

Many viewers over the years have also been tricked by Vertigo. They came to view it as a Hitchcock mystery, but in reality it is cinema’s greatest tragedy.

Vertigo received several Oscar nominations, including Best Art Direction. Edith Head was not nominated for Best Costume Design, which was won by Cecil Beaton’s Gigi. And she had also just been snubbed for her outstanding costumes for Grace Kelly in Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief. It seems that a fabulous gray suit as character-delineating costume was just too subtle to pick up awards. No matter, she had already won five of her ultimate eight Oscar wins by then. Worse, Hitchcock wasn’t nominated either for this iconic classic.

It didn’t do well at the box-office and Hitchcock took it out of circulation for many years. It became a bit of a cult class and after his death it was finally seen more broadly. The 2012 Sight and Sound poll listed it as the best film ever made, displacing Citizen Kane. For a deeper review of its symbolic and historical background, see my post:  http://silverscreenmodes.com/vertigo-spiraling-into-myth-madness-movie-history/

 

 

5 thoughts on “VERTIGO: ITS OWN SPELL-BINDING CONFERENCE”

  1. Wow, that sounds like grand fun in addition to being highly informative! I can’t think of many movies that merit that level of attention, but VERTIGO certainly does.

  2. Would love to have attended and been there in person for your presentation, Christian, as well as all the others. Fascinating! Perhaps Coronado Island should host a Hitchcock conference one of these days.

    1. I’m sure you would have really enjoyed it Patty, and Dublin too. And you are responsible for my being there in the first place. Dee Martin said he wants to have it next year in San Franciso. If his plans solidify I’ll suggest he contact you.

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