Posted in: Alfred Hitchcock, by Robert C. Cumbow, Contributors, Directors, Essays

Death and the Detective: Vertigo Revisited

Once upon a time an 11-year-old boy went to see the new Hitchcock movie.
He came home crying, and didn’t understand why.
Fifty-two years later, he thinks he knows.

Scotty Ferguson, recovering from the suicide of Madeline Elster, and from his guilt at having failed to prevent it, quite casually encounters on a San Francisco street Judy Barton, a young woman who, despite profound differences, reminds him eerily of Madeline.

Kim Novak as Judy

Scotty can have Judy. She as much as tells him so: “To tell you the truth, I’ve been picked up before.” (Of course, we soon learn—though Scotty doesn’t—that she isn’t simply “easy”; she is actually Madeline, or the woman Scotty thinks of as Madeline, and she is still in love with Scotty, even as he is with her.)

So why does Scotty so desperately need to turn her (back) into Madeline before he can love her?

It is precisely because he can have Judy that he doesn’t want her. Among the many things Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo is about is the fantasies of men (underwear fetishism; necrophilia and its more common image, the defenseless sleeping woman; the confusion of dream women with real women; the seduction of a younger woman; the seduction of a stranger; dressing-up games, and undressing ones; voyeurism; playing doctor-and-patient, which Hitchcock had earlier assayed in Spellbound). And what men want is what they cannot have.

Scotty can’t have Madeline for at least three reasons. First, she is another man’s wife. Second, she’s dead. Third, she never existed in the first place—at least not as Scotty thinks he knows her. In the second part of the film, Madeline is even less attainable than in the first part; and yet Scotty doggedly surmounts all of the challenges and manages to recreate her—for a moment.

The Key

What most attracts Scotty to Madeline, even in the first part of the film, is the fact that she is a woman of mystery—in fact, she is a mystery, she embodies mystery itself. Scotty, we must not forget, is a detective. And not just any detective. As Midge tells us in the film’s first conversation, he’s a law grad with ambitions of becoming chief of police. As we get to know him, we recognize that Scotty’s hope was to accomplish this aim by sheer dint of intellectual achievement. He’s not interested in fighting crime; he’s interested in solving mysteries. And to him, Madeline is the perfect mystery.

Judy, by contrast, is an ordinary person—a simple girl from Salina, Kansas who works at Magnin’s. Scotty can’t know when he meets her that Judy is that archetypal Hitchcock figure, the ordinary person caught up in extraordinary events. Like Richard Hannay and Pamela in The 39 Steps, Iris Henderson and Gilbert in The Lady Vanishes, Barry Kane in Saboteur, the Newton family in Shadow of a Doubt, Doctor and Mrs. MacKenna in the 1956 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much, Judy is an ordinary, even uninteresting person whose life is shaken out of complacency, transformed by events she could not have imagined. Unlike the characters named above, however, Judy has been overtaken by the extraordinary before the events of Vertigo begin. She already harbors secrets within secrets, not only when Scotty meets her in the second half of the film, but when he first encounters her as Madeline in the first part.

Scotty the detective is a man of reason, unprepared to acknowledge that someone from the past can possess a young woman and obsess her to the point of suicide. Yet he is sensitive enough to be stirred when the evidence of his own eyes suggests that is precisely the case. (He will also find out, during the second part of the film how true it is that someone from the past can obsess someone in the present.) But he persists in the belief that there is a rational solution to the mystery that is Madeline. “If I could just find the key,” he says to her. When she begins to tell him her dream, he says, with obvious pleasure, “You’ve given me something to work on now.” It is detective and client playing at doctor and patient (and “playing” to a degree that Scotty does not yet suspect). And when the details of that dream begin to map onto known geographic and historical reality, with Scotty’s recognition that Madeline’s dream-space is in fact the nearby mission town of San Juan Baptista, he exults: “You see? There’s an answer for everything.”

There is, of course—but Scotty at this point is nowhere near imagining what that answer is.

A Second Chance

We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.

—T. S. Eliot, “Little Gidding,” Four Quartets

Vertigo is without question the epitome of the “second chance” film. A plot-type rather than a genre, the “second chance” film spans all genres. The second half of the 1933 King Kong repeats on Manhattan Island, more or less in reverse, the events and imagery of its first half on Skull Island, giving Kong the opportunity to undo the ignominy of his capture, to recover the lost Ann Darrow and re-establish his kingship. The Wild Bunch concerns itself with, among other things, a second chance for a coterie of aging outlaws to even off past mistakes and finally “do it right.” In Chinatown, detective Jake Gittes (a cinematic son of Scotty Ferguson) confesses that when he used to work for the D.A. in Chinatown, he had a case in which he was supposed to keep someone from getting hurt and ended up making sure that she was hurt; and it’s clear that he regards the events of the film as his opportunity to redress that guilt and get it right this time. Thus, the “second chance” motif cuts across genres—horror, western, noir—and establishes itself as one of the fundamental story patterns. Other examples include Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life, Brian DePalma’s Vertigo pastiche Obsession, Femme Fatale, DePalma’s entry in the 1990s sub-sub-genre of “keep trying until you get right” films (Groundhog Day, Run Lola Run, Sliding Doors), and Ben Affleck’s Gone Baby Gone.

Vertigo’s dialogue makes this explicit when Scotty tells Judy at the climax of the film: “One doesn’t often get a second chance. I want to stop being haunted. You’re my second chance, Judy.” But even at that late moment he doesn’t know the half of what he’s saying.

Judy dons the telltale necklace

In the instant in which he recognizes Madeline’s necklace as he helps Judy put it on, and in the devastating minutes that follow, Scotty recognizes how utterly he failed as a detective in the first part of the film. Madeline’s apparent suicide forced him to recognize his acrophobic vertigo as emblematic of a fundamental weakness that precipitated the deaths of two people. But now Madeline’s/Judy’s necklace makes him realize that it wasn’t a physiological/neurological weakness that caused him to fail the test in the “Madeline Case.” It was that he wasn’t smart enough to figure it out. This hits him where he lives. He isn’t the great detective he thought he was. In fact, his very pride in his ability as a detective has been successfully used against him by Gavin Elster (and his accomplice, Judy Barton). All the time he thought he was figuring out the mystery that was Madeline, he was simply falling into line with what had already been carefully scripted by Gavin Elster: “He made you over like I made you over, only better, not only the clothes and the looks and the hair … but the words.”

Corinth to Thebes; San Francisco to San Juan Baptista—and Hollywood

Scotty Ferguson is one of a long line of detective protagonists who follow in the tragic footsteps of Oedipus. Gavin Elster’s plot is not so different from the Delphic Oracle’s prediction that Oedipus would murder his father and bed his mother. Oedipus fled from Corinth, putting as much distance as he could between himself and that fate. He fled to Thebes, and on the way there, he experienced an episode of mythic road rage. In a quarrel over the right of way, he killed an obstreperous traveler who refused to yield to him. Also in his wanderings, he met the Sphinx and solved her Riddle—thereby liberating the city of Thebes from her reign of terror. As reward, the Thebans made him their king, and gave him their widowed queen as bride. But a generation later, Thebes fell under a horrific and oppressive plague. Oedipus, who had done it right the first time, sought to repeat his success as the man with an intellectual solution to a physical problem, the man who had solved the riddle. Doggedly, he interviewed witness after witness, playing both lawyer and detective, until he had solved the mystery of why Thebes was being punished. And the result of his inquiry was nothing short of his own guilt: The man he had killed on the road to Thebes was his own father; the queen who had borne him four children was his mother; and in seeking to beat fate he had run directly into its arms.

Besides learning that you can’t beat fate, and that the solution to the whodunit was that hedunnit, Oedipus learned another important thing:

Oedipus is a kind of symbol of the human intelligence which cannot rest until it has solved all the riddles—even the last riddle, to which the answer is that human happiness is built on an illusion.

—E. R. Dodds, “On Misunderstanding the Oedipus Rex,” Greece and Rome 13.1 (1966).

There is this framework that consists of things we cannot control (some have called it fate), and within that framework, there are some things we can control. This is what we call freedom. But freedom exists only within the constraints of those things that we cannot control. One of the many oddities of being human is that we believe our freedom, our ability to exercise this limited control, is actually absolute. As Oedipus and Scotty learn, the pride of the detective, the absoluteness of freedom, and the happiness of the human being, are limited, built on illusion. The most you can hope for is the joy of limited success within those constraints that you are powerless to challenge.

Freedom and power—the pairing recalls the phrase used by the bookshop owner, Pop Leibel, when he tells Midge and Scotty the story of the sad, mad Carlotta Valdez, discarded by the rich man who had fathered her child: “He kept the child and threw her away. Men could do that in those days. They had the power and the freedom.” These are the same words Gavin Elster used in his initial talk with Scotty near the beginning of the film: “The things that spell San Francisco to me are disappearing fast,” he says: “I should have liked to have lived here then—color, excitement, power, freedom.” No accident, then, that Scotty chooses the same words when, atop the bell tower, he vents on Judy Barton his rage at having been duped: “Oh, Judy, with all of his wife’s money, all of that freedom and all of that power, and he ditched you—what a shame.” There’s more than a hint of irony here, gloating irony, Scotty expressing satisfaction that Judy was punished. But in Scotty’s tortured view, the transgression for which Judy deserves punishment is her complicity not in the murder of Elster’s wife but in the duping of the detective.

In his previous films for Hitchcock, Rope and Rear Window, James Stewart emerged as Hitchcock’s watcher—the observer of seemingly ordinary events who gradually cottons on but never quite figures it all out. In that, he becomes the perfect emblem for the Hitchcock movie-watcher, duped without knowing how (or even that) he is being duped, and—more importantly—with only the vaguest awareness of his own participation in the very authorship of his duping. (Curiously a couple years later James Stewart would play Ransom Stoddard in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance—another Oedipal dupe who marries the wife of his figurative father and finds that key events in his life have been based on lies.)

Of course, if Scotty is the Hitchcock audience, then Gavin Elster is the image of Hitchcock himself. He made Judy over like Scotty made her over, “only better.” The gates of his ship-building company are unmistakably those of a Hollywood movie production studio (and it is in front of those gates that Hitchcock makes his signature cameo appearance in the film). And Elster, like Hitchcock, disappears from the film, leaving us on our own: He slips out of the film at midpoint, a little after Madeline and a little before Midge, and his last moment is the one in which he coyly reassures Scotty, “You and I know who really killed Madeline.”

And that leaves Judy Barton—Kim Novak, playing the femme fatale to end all femmes fatales, and “fatale” in more ways than one—as the emblem of the Hitchcock actor: made and remade, never what she seems, saying lines carefully prepared for her, hitting her marks, and making it all seem spontaneous, unscripted, making us forget the presence of the offscreen master. Novak was an accidental but happy choice for the part. Her pre-Vertigo films so often had her playing the seemingly innocent, small-time (and often small-town), simple girl, seeming to be played by others but more frequently playing them, and able to slip easily from her natural brunette to the impossible platinum goddess of the perfect ’50s icon. Pushover, Picnic, and Pal Joey all reflect this to some extent, but until Judy Barton, her signature role was Jeanne Eagels, which epitomizes the model. After Judy Barton, however, her most interesting and important performances seem consciously informed by the presence she brought to Vertigo: a witch, charming but unexpectedly falling in love with James Stewart in Bell Book and Candle, a shopgirl enamored of her much-older boss in Middle of the Night, and, most unforgettably Vertigo-indebted, Robert Aldrich’s The Legend of Lylah Clare, in which she plays an actress remade by a fading film director into the image of his dead wife.

Transformed into Madeline

The Letter

The most controversial directorial decision Hitchcock made—and arguably the reason the last scenes of Vertigo carry such power—was the inclusion of the confessional letter that Judy Barton writes to Scotty… and then throws away. Collaborators who urged Hitchcock to excise the scene and save the revelation for the finale of the film made the same mistake as critics and audiences who have subsequently voiced similar complaints: they want the film to be a mystery, and to save its solution for the end, in classic whodunit form. Of course at this point in the film, neither we nor Scotty know that there was any it for some who to have dun. Madeline’s death still lingers in the memory as a suicide, albeit informed by psychological and possibly supernatural motives.

By including the letter scene, Hitchcock accomplishes several things. First, he gives meaning and motivation to the things Judy says and does for the remainder of the film, many of which would make no sense if we kept thinking of her as an ordinary girl unconnected with the first part of the film. Second, he switches us to Judy’s perspective. We’ve been seeing things from Scotty’s view (and a couple of times from Midge’s) for the entire film, and only now do we see things as Judy does. This is important, because it gives us, at last, something that Scotty doesn’t know, gives us a reason to worry (as Hitchcock explained to Francois Truffaut) what he will do when he finds out. Vertigo is not about “who really killed Madeline,” it’s about what Scotty the detective will do when he learns the truth. Thus, most importantly, in retaining the letter scene, Hitchcock reaffirms that he is not, never was, a director of mysteries. He is interested in suspense, not surprise.

So, with Judy’s letter, Hitchcock clues us in. But he leaves Scotty hanging.

Man on Ledge

Scotty interrupts his monologue of rage, righteous indignation, and moral opprobrium with a sudden look around: “I made it.” He’s at the top—someplace he could not have been at any previous point in the film.

The shot that Hitchcock devised to depict the subjective impact of Scotty’s disabling acrophobic vertigo is famously appropriate for embodying dizziness and a sense of unreality. Combining a zoom-in with a track-out tears cinematic space in a visually disorienting way, and creates a visual effect that is one of the most masterful tools in the film maker’s arsenal. The subjective viewpoint embodied in the shot is one of being drawn yearningly toward yet pulling physically away. In Scotty’s case, it is the familiar sense of disorientation many human beings get when looking down from a high place: self-preservation pulls us back, but curiosity beckons us forward—what would it be like to fall, or to fly?

But the shot is more versatile than that, and not only because it has been used for other purposes in other films, such as Claude Chabrol’s Une Femme infidèle and Steven Spielberg’s Jaws. Even in Vertigo, the shot suggests more than the dizziness that comes from acrophobia. It suggests the tension between our simultaneous fear of and attraction to danger, risk, love, truth—and, for Scotty, women. Indeed, in that context, it is a perfect stylistic representation of what psycho-jargon would call “approach-avoidance.”

Identity reflected

Even when all is revealed, all is known, all demons exorcized, Scotty resists Judy’s love: “It’s too late,” he says, echoing her words to him before the first fateful ascent of the tower. And he adds: “There’s no bringing her back now.” Even seconds before the end of the film, he has not grasped that there was never any “her” to bring “back.” It was Judy, only Judy, all along. But having made her into what he thought he wanted, Scotty can no longer accept her.

What Scotty knows as he stands on the very edge of the ledge in the final shot, after the film’s third fatal fall, the moment after which nothing can ever be the same again, is that his vertigo—for the entire film identified as the essential weakness that causes him to fail at key moments when he is most needed—was only the physical reflection of a more fundamental failing. In a way, it’s a screen for, or a distraction from, his real weakness: inability to relate to women. The loss of that moment is a loss of so many things: loss of possibilities, of things that might have been, of both the physical and the intellectual fulfillment Scotty has simultaneously sought; loss of innocence; loss of trust—in others, in himself, in the evidence of his own senses—loss, finally, of any sense of truth.

Vertigo is the definitive Hitchcock film not only because it confronts (consciously or not) the director’s own ambiguous relationships with women, especially his actresses, but also because it confronts the fundamental dilemma of film art—indeed of all art. The amazing ability of human beings to re-create life, make it over, make the imagined seem real, ends by causing us to lose faith in the real altogether.

In discussing the film, one of my students suggested that the second part of Vertigo is so dreamlike that it may be simply a hallucination of the traumatized Scotty, still struggling to recover after the fall of “Madeline.” But one could also argue that the entire film is sufficiently dreamlike to be an elaborate hallucination of Scotty hanging from the ledge of that rooftop after the policeman has fallen to his death. We never did see him get down, after all, nor did we get any hint as to how it was accomplished.

We leave Scotty—failed detective, failed man—stuck there on the edge, empty-armed, empty-eyed, gazing down on an emptiness that goes on forever.

For Sacha and Matthew

© 2010 Robert C. Cumbow