Thursday, 16 July 2009

Scottie, do you believe that someone out of the past - someone dead - can enter and take possession of a living being?

No 40 - Vertigo
Director - Alfred Hitchcock

This film made me feel stupid. I went in with very little knowledge of the plot, I only knew it had a dream sequence designed by Dali (another memory carefully stored from my wonderful times at MOMI). It DOESN'T have a dream sequence designed by Dali! Spellbound does.... and Spellbound isn't even on the ruddy list.

So, as I didn't know the plot of the film I was very surprised when it is unveiled that Gavin Elster would like retired detective John 'Scotty' Ferguson to follow his wife because he thinks she is possessed by a suicidal ghost.
That is a bit of a bonkers plot. It certainly isn't what I was expecting from a Hitchcock film.

Now yes, there is a twist that explains it all in a logical way. It also cancels out the main crux of my bugbear with this film.... However, as the twist isn't revealed till about 20 minutes before the end, I have lots and lots of notes which talk about one thing:

Jimmy Stewart is a bastard! I like Jimmy Stewart, how can you not... he is Elwood.... but, in this film he is just a horrible man.
I want to focus on his mission:

He follows Miss Madeleine Elster (played by the lovely Kim Novak - hooray for Hitchcock's obsession with glamorous blondes) and even saves her life. However an attraction forms and soon Scotty is courting her, kissing her, in love with her!
Now this is wrong for a number of reasons. Well, 2 big reasons which I have decided to focus on:

Firstly.... it is just wrong! Scotty was hired in a professional capacity by an old friend to watch someone. Someone who is clearly going through some form of mental trauma and is clearly vulnerable (she is suicidal... which I think makes it fair for me to jump to these conclusions).
So, what does he do? He courts her. Invites her out for dinner. Slowly the pair fall in love. That is not only terrible professional misconduct but what a shitty way to treat a friend.
Gavin must be sat at home worried about his poor wife who may be possessed with a ghost or just have a strange mental condition. Who could commit suicide at any point. All the while she is getting it off with old Jimmy Stewart.

As I have mentioned, there is a big reveal near the end that makes the above argument a bit of a moot point, however.... my second point still stands firm:

The age difference. There is one hell of an age difference there. Kim Novak was 26 when this film came out, and the film states that her character is 25. Now I'm not sure how old Scotty is meant to be but Jimmy Stewart was a nice neat 50 by the time the film came out.
He is looking good for his age, but he isn't looking so good that he can pass off as someone half his age... Regardless of how he looks - that is one big old age gap.

It is made worse when we know about Midge. Poor sweet lovely Midge. Firstly, Barbara Bel Geddes is 11 years closer to Jimmy Stewart's age than Kim Novak. So already, we're looking at a more reasonable age gap. But also... Midge is clearly so in love with Scotty. She drops hints all the time, she is constantly trying to organise a date. All to no avail.

Initially I hoped she would triumph and get her man. That Scotty would see the error of his ways and go back to Midge (it is implied that they dated... or at least were drunkenly engaged). However by about half way through the film I'd completely changed my mind. "Move on Midge" I thought "You're better than that cheating bastard, find yourself a nice man who'll treat you well and appreciate your skills in painting and bra design!".

You see... I got a bit distracted by the romance subplot and the mystery element went on the back burner as I obsessed over the way the women are badly treated.

However the film continues and the plot thickens and tragically Scotty is unable to stop Madeleine from committing suicide, just like Carlotta, the ghost that possessed her.

Now, we find out that all of this is a load of bollocks (and whilst I may be heavily implying everything I don't want to tell you exactly what happens. I'm not Lord Henry Spoiler after all.) and although Scotty is plunged into depression at losing his true Love (though she was Gavin's true love first) he soon meets the scarily identical Judy Barton (also played by Kim Novak).

The final third of the film is about Scotty trying to overcome losing Madeleine. He sees Judy as a big part of that. Dressing her in Madeleine's clothes... taking her to the same places he took Madeleine.
Judy realises and gets more and more distressed. She finally stands up to him when he asks her to dye her hair blonde. Here Scotty replies with no logic at all:
"I need this Judy, it can't matter to you". I'd argue that it very easily could matter. Firstly she has to dye her hair - that is a semi permanent change that she might not want. Secondly she has to dye her hair so that she looks like the dead ex girlfriend of the man she loves.

That is pretty fucked up.

And Jimmy Stewart shows no remorse or even thanks at the sacrifices Judy has gone through.
When Judy has finally been tweaked and adjusted and changed so that she looks like Madeleine, and the music swells and they kiss. It feels like the film is telling me "This is a Happy Ending" but it isn't. I felt heartbroken to see Judy's soul utterly destroyed. To see her broken down and rebuilt in the image of a man's obsession. It is tragic.

Despite (or maybe because of) the tragedy, the film is amazing and I specifically want to mention the Vertigo shots.
Scotty has Vertigo. That is why he retires from the police force and is hired as a free lance detective. That is why he can't save Madeleine (she throws herself off a church tower and Scotty freaks out half way up) - it is the perfect weakness for his character and the dolly zooms (I think that is the name of the effect) are beautiful.

It may be a bit of a cliche these days. But it is just a nice cool effect and Hitchcock shows how it can be done to masterly perfection!

And after watching this and Black Narcissus I feel that I have learnt a valid lesson. Never go anywhere high up with a nun.

You will plummet to your demise.


Anonymous said...

I was a little underwhelmed first time I saw Vertigo, but when you go in knowing the plot and the themes it can be an intoxicating experience. Now I think it's a great film (and I don't use the term "great" lightly).

Scottie is MEANT to be an obsessive jerk. Some of his flaws were actually shared by Hitchcock himself - he obsessively works on Judy's appearance and behaviour in much the same way Hitch treated his actresses. It's about as personal and confessional as Hitchcock ever got.

And it's also kind of a joke on the audience. There are so many things left unexplained - you don't know how Scottie got down from the roof at the start, you don't know how "Madeleine" does those ghostly disappearing acts, and you don't find out what happens to Gavin Elster when Scottie discovers the truth. The lack of closure makes it as elusive as Scottie's perfect woman.

Captain James Amazing said...

I didn't see the similarities between Scottie and Hitchcock, but of course - you're absolutely right....

That is a very interesting angle.

I can see how watching it again (as a thriller rather than with the ghost angle) will make it a completely different film.

You're quite a clever chap Mr Craig. I like your angles on these films (they're generally more intelligent than my hotch potch ramblings)

I don't want you to think I didn't like it - I did like Vertigo a lot. Just found the love story really annoying!

Also, check out my friend's blog. I'd like to see what you think about his views and stuff :)

Anonymous said...

It's just because I read up on all the films I watch, half the time I'm reiterating what I've learned from outside sources (obviously only things I agree with though).

I shall look forward to reading your friend's blog. I re-watched "A Hard Day's Night" very recently, and I heartily approve of his use of Roger Ebert's great films list.

theundergroundrestaurant said...

The 'Vertigo' theme continues throughout the film: the circling camerawork and swirling music, her hair in a spiral bun,