Suspense is time that bleeds, wrote Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, co-authors of the book D’Entre les Morts, upon which Vertigo is based. The movie’s story neither starts nor ends with its status as a thriller, but rather spirals ever onwards and downwards through myth and mystery, sucking in suggestive viewers like a cyclone.
The late filmmaker Chris Marker was fixated with Vertigo. In his documentary film Sans Soleil (ranked the 3rd best documentary of all-time) he takes the persona of the fictitious Sandor Krasna, whose letter is read by the narrator, “In San Francisco I made the pilgrimage for a film I had seen 19 times.” In the documentary the narrator explains how Sandor (Chris Marker) had retraced the steps and the route of Jimmy Stewart in his pursuit of Madeleine. He continues, “Only one film had been capable of portraying impossible memory – insane memory – Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo….It seems to be a question of trailing of enigma, of murder, but in truth it’s a question of power and freedom, of melancholy and dazzlement, so confidently coded within the spiral that you could miss it, and not discover immediately that this vertigo of space in reality stands for the vertigo of time.” Marker makes much of “power and freedom,” in his writings, a phrase used three times in the film. Yet the phrase may be used mainly to contrast with and entice Stewart’s character Scottie, suffering from vertigo, racked with guilt, and weakened in the early scene where he wears a corset and walks with a cane. His meagre attempt to overcome vertigo has him fainting in his friend Midge’s arms. Marker’s concept of the vertigo of time is a brilliant symbol for the film – a thread that runs throughout. But the film’s dominating and haunting theme is its transcendent message of the impossibility of attaining the ideal, this in a story of love and death amidst a landscape of illusion and reality.
The plot is well known. A retired detective falls hopelessly in love with a friend’s wife who he was supposed to protect from her own psychological and mysterious self-destructive urges.. These erupt through the reincarnation and possession of her by an equally mysterious ancestor. Scottie had saved her once from drowning, but subsequently her plunging death leads him to severe depression and hospitalization. He meets and forms an obsession with her double, Judy, who he remakes into Madeleine’s image. His bliss in having brought back Madeleine “from the dead” is short-lived. He discovers from a piece of her jewelry that Judy really was Madeleine, duping him with his friend on the murder of the man’s real wife. Scottie had been a stooge, his ideal was a mirage, created by another man. But now he only let’s Judy know he has caught on as they drive to the site of Madeleine’s first “death,” where, arguing and climbing the bell tower, Judy is spooked and falls to her death.
In the movie and the novel it is based on, much lies below the surface, or even on the other side of the mirror. Boileau and Narcejac wrote the French novel D’Entre les Morts with Hithcock in mind. Author Dan Auiler stated in his book, Vertigo: The Making of a Hitchcock Classic that this was not the case, based on his interview with Thomas Narcejac . But several modern French sources maintain the Hitchcock connection, including in the authors’ own website and in the English book translation. And of course Francois Truffaut had stated this version of the story in his famous interview with Hitchcock in 1962 (published in 1967 in the U.S.). Boileau and Narcejac had previously written a book that had been turned into the very successful French film, Diaboliques, directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot. and Hitchcock had been the underbidder for the rights. This time Paramount secured the rights for the novel for Hitchcock, and a succession of screenwriters began on the story, including Maxwell Anderson and Alec Coppel, before Samuel Taylor finished it. The original novel, however, has much that remains in the movie. There, in spite of its setting during and after World War II in Paris and Marseille, we have a Mr. Gevigne, a shipbuilder, with a wife Madeleine wandering to a cemetary to visit her great-grand-mother who she is obsessed with. She spends time in an old hotel, then jumps in the river after throwing in her bouquet, only to be saved by a former detective with vertigo, who lost his police partner who fell from a roof. The detective was charged to follow her by his old school friend the husband. The tracker now is hopelessly in love with her, and one day she leads him to an old church, where she leaps to her death from the tower. Years later he sees her likeness in another city, tracks her, courts her, but becomes insane with jealousy and doubt. He attempts to turn her into Madeleine in a cheap hotel room with flashing green lights from the electric trolley. He finally gets her to confess she was playing the role to dupe him so the wife could be murdered, but then he strangles her, and they take him away to the mad house. But in the novel there is also an interesting element, not fully-realized in the film, that those bizarre things in Madeleine: the fascination with the past; the belief in the possession by her great-grand-mother; the mental wanderings and the need of understanding and protection, were those very things that made the protagonist fall in love with her.
But ever deeper the spiral swirls. This original French novel that Vertigo is based on is itself based on an older symbolist novel, Bruges-la-Morte, by Georges Rodenbach. Here a widower overcome by grief eeks out his life amidst relics of his dead wife. One day he sees a double of her, Jane Scott, who he discovers is playing a dancer in an opera. He courts her, this courser version of his wife, making her over in the wife’s very image. But now the perfect symbol has become imperfect reality, and he strangles her. It is quite possible that Hitchcock knew of this novel in England, or at least its story, since In 1920 the composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold used the novel as the basis for his opera Die tote Stadt. In 1935, Korngold became the composer for Warner Brothers.
Turning deeper inevitably leads to the fundamental myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, the cradle of works of literature, film, drama, music, ballet, and opera. Orpheus is the son of the god Apollo, and plays the lyre so beautifully that all are drawn to him. He falls in love with the beautiful Eurydice, and they marry. But Eurydice is bitten by a snake and dies. Orpheus is stricken and can only play his lyre in sorrow, and all pity him and Apollo sends him to the underworld to see Hades. Even the god Hades is softened by his music, and agrees to let Eurydice follow Orpheus out of the underworld, but only if doesn’t look at her until they reach daylight. After they trek along and he hears nothing, he doubts that she is behind him, believing he has been tricked. After he looks back, Eurydice again becomes a shadow as she disappears among the dead. All of these tales, recent or primordial, seem to lead to the inevitable theme of love’s connection to death.
Among the numerous films made using the Orpheus and Eurydice myth was Jean Cocteau’s brilliant Orpheus (1950). Here, Orpheus, played by Jean Marais, enters the underworld through a mirror. Mirrors play vital roles in Hitchcok’s Vertigo. From Scottie’s first view of Madeleine at Ernie’s restaurant, and then when she and Gavin are leaving, their duplicity is emphasized by their double images in the mirror. And At Podesta Baldocchi’s flower shop, Scottie sees Madeline best by her image in a mirror. And later, with Judy, we see her often in the mirror, “putting on her face.”
For that first penetration of “insane memory” and perhaps even that archetypal memory of a lost world of idyllic bliss, we have this scene of Scottie and Judy strolling across a landscape momentarily devoid of any markers of modern life (except a street curb). In the near distance, the classic buildings of the Palace of Fine Arts, reverberating that fabled lost world Arcadia. It is only a bit further that we see other people, but here too, they are couples lying on the grass and others enjoying an idyllic day. For Scottie and Judy, however, they are not yet at a point of lying on the grass together.
Vertigo is full of symbols. In the scene where Judy emerges as Madeleine, we see the bed as she approaches Scottie, which is barely seen before. Scottie’s own apartment window has a clear view of the phallic Coit Tower. Even the seemingly innocuous “cantilever bra” in Midge’s loft is a design for an off-balance bra as sexual enticement. The Mission Dolores, as it was commonly known, plays an important role, an old and historic building, named after the nearby Creek of Sorrows. Then there is the double itself, always a bad sign in mythology, and the basis of so much of Vertigo. The movie is structured as two halves, or a doubling of Scottie obtaining and then losing his love by “death.” And should we even bring up the spiral, that swirling vortex that sucks in our main characters and serves as the graphic symbol of the movie’s opening title sequence? Then there is the symbol of re-birth. That miraculous final transformation takes place when Judy emerges, seemingly from the haze of time, as the very image of Madeleine, gray suit, blond hair in spiral bun. Scottie is transfixed, his eyes dazzling, and as they embrace and kiss the camera captures a rotating scene of them at San Juan Bautista Mission. Seemingly spinning through time and memory, a “vertigo of time” as Chris Marker stated.
We know we are in for a chilling, haunting, romantic, and twisting experience in that first minute of the opening title sequence. This because of its unforgettable musical composition by Bernard Herrmann. And then throughout the movie he sets the mood in such an elevated and perfect way you soon realize that this is the apotheosis of film music. The opening title sequence has deep brass undertones with high string staccato and piercing brass warning notes.. You find yourself careening in the police pursuit through the high wind instruments and crashing low brass and drums. Subsequently each of the rhythmic patterns is composed for a motif: the Feeling of vertigo; Madeleine; Carlotta (based on Bizet’s Habanera); and Obsession. The Madeleine theme is used when Madeleine appears in her scenes, but then sparingly as Madeleine begins to re-emerge out of Judy in the second half of the movie. The music from the “Scene d’Amour” where Judy fully transforms into Madeleine helps make this scene unforgettable. It must be said, however, that the music was influenced by Wagner’s Liebestod from Tristan and Isolde. Herrmann was well aware of his own vital contributions to Vertigo and other Hitchcock films. “Hitchcock only finishes a picture 60%,” he stated years later. “I have to finish it for him.”
In spite of all the symbols and deep undercurrents in Vertigo, it also had its earthy qualities. In Hitchcock’s famous interview with Francois Truffaut, he gave an explanation for what was going on in the “Scene d’Amour” scene between Scottie and “Madeleine.” Judy was wearing the gray suit that Scottie had bought for her at Ransohoff’s in the embarassing scene with the vendeuse. Then she had her hair dyed blond as he had begged her to. She came out of her bathroom with this appearance, but Scottie was still not satisfied. As Hitchcock described it, “She had stripped but she still had on her knickers.” Only when she made up her hair with the bun and the spiral could Scottie get the full Madeleine transcendent image. Now he could fully enter a state of carnal as well as spiritual bliss.
But Vertigo is no more about getting into a woman’s knickers than it is about solving a murder mystery. That’s why in 2012 the once-a-decade Sight & Sound poll of 846 film critics, academics, and film distributors ranked Veritgo as the best film of all time. It had displaced Citizen Kane, which had held that position for 50 years. To many film aficionados that was a shock. And for Hitchcock fans, some thought other films of his superior. For some film critics and fans, its plot seemed implausible. Then there was the manipulation of the character of Judy that seemed thoroughly objectifying. Even in its day, it’s surprising that the twice repeated, “It can’t matter to you,” got past Alma Hitchcock and Hitch’s assistant Peggy Robertson. This was the explanation to Judy when Scottie was insisting on her changing her look? Even if Judy knew the real reason, that bit of dialogue was weak. Kim Novak later stated about her role that she identified so much with it because Hollywood had always tried to change her look. “Can’t you just love me for who I am?” Judy asks Scottie. And for Kim Novak, that’s how she felt too in giving this riveting performance.
The part that didn’t ring true about Vertigo is its ending scene. Scottie was responsible for taking Judy up the tower, and just like in the original story, he was responsible for her death. But in the original this was explicit, and it should have been shown more dynamically in Vertigo, rather than the spooked accidental fall of Judy. Scottie’s life thereafter was going to be one of sorrow and madness no matter. Perhaps Jimmy Stewart didn’t want his character to be more responsible for her death.
Vertigo is nonetheless like life, a beautiful if at times scary landscape that contains pockets of barren ground. It shows that chasing an ideal in the form of bringing the past back to life can destroy the present. Hitchcock, who started making films during the days of silent film, used in Vertigo long wordless scenes with Herrmann’s haunting music burning themselves into our psyche, along with those unforgettable images of the haunted, craving eyes of Jimmy Stewart and the beguiling, hungry look of Kim Novak. That’s why Vertigo was ranked #1.