Thursday 31 December 2020

Thoughts on Alfred Hitchcock's VERTIGO (USA, 1958) - Lifelong scholar of Hitchcock's work Ken Mogg presents some new thoughts on a masterpiece

Vertigo considerations


Thrasymachus To sum up, what shall I be after my death? Be clear and precise!

Philalethes Everything and nothing.

Thrasymachus As I expected! For the solution to a problem - a contradiction. That trick is very worn-out.

Philalethes To answer transcendent questions in language made for immanent knowledge is bound to lead to contradictions.


- Arthur Schopenhauer, "The Indestructibility of Being" 



'The metaphysical implications of the story … were more in Hitchcock's mind than in Coppel's treatment … So I rewrote the screenplay completely.'


- Samuel Taylor, quoted in Donald Spoto, The Art of Alfred Hitchcock



'Perhaps I need to be frightened … to teach me to despise my petty existence …'.


- Pierre Boileau & Thomas Narcejac, The Living and the Dead

I'LL START WITH AN asideAlfred Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958) has a tenuous Australian connection: after Maxwell Anderson and Angus MacPhail had submitted initial treatments, Hitchcock hired the Australian-born novelist and playwright Alec Coppel - he had attended Wesley College, Melbourne - to further shape a screen adaptation of Boileau and Narcejac's 1954 mystery-shocker D'Entre les Morts, destined to become Vertigo. Soon Coppel was given the go-ahead to write a full screenplay which, however, was not well-received by Hitchcock. Reports differ on just why. Whereas Donald Spoto in his Hitchcock biography is condemnatory of Coppel's efforts ('the results were soon perceived as woefully disappointing … unshootable …'), Patrick McGilligan is less harsh ('Coppel was improving on Maxwell Anderson's spadework, especially when it came to the love story … Hitchcock and Coppel parted friends'). McGilligan notes that in fact Coppel visualised one of the film's most famous scenes: Scottie (James Stewart) kissing Judy (Kim Novak) in her hotel room, 'a kiss that plunges him back in time to the moment when he [had kissed her] in the stables of San Juan Bautista' where she had been impersonating the mysterious Madeleine.


That elaborate shot, involving a revolving turntable combined with back-projection and a difficult track (giving the effect of a 360° circling movement) has been aptly called 'Pirandellian' - after the Italian playwright and poet Luigi Pirandello (1867-1936) whose recurrent subject was the fluid nature of identity. With its hurdy-gurdy accompaniment, the shot can be interpreted in both a 'vulgar' way (sexual consummation) and in a more profound way, apposite to Scottie's sense of having entered into Madeleine's secret (what used to be called the world-riddle, the secret of all space and time). This shot, at least as much as the equally famous (and again subjective) 'dizzying' shot inside the church tower (involving a simultaneous track-in and zoom-out), is the epitome of Vertigo's technical and metaphysical suggestiveness. For what it's worth, the Boileau/Narcejac novel goes out of its way to allude at one point to the mystic Jacob Boehme (1575-1624) who claimed to have rediscovered the dialectical principle that 'in Yes and No all things consist'. Boehme taught that God is 'the abyss, the nothing and the all'. Accordingly, by entering a state of total surrender, Man may know God.1


For a fleeting time, Scottie feels exultant, telling Judy, 'These are the first happy moments I've known in years.' The abyss, over which he had hung suspended at the start of the film, seems dispelled. Cinematography, musical score, and performances all combine to signal an upbeat, carefree mood. One sunny morning, the pair stroll beside a lake in Golden Gate Park and pause at the so-called 'Portals of the Past', a memorial to the earthquake that devastated San Francisco in 1906. How well Hitchcock employs that city's iconography in Vertigo! We cannot forget that San Francisco's 'gay old bohemian days' came to a sudden end, and that the city - which originally grew around the site of the Mission Dolores which Scottie visits early in the film - had to start over. The Mission Dolores itself was unscathed by the earthquake. For Scottie, that long-ago era represents an 'excitement' and a 'freedom' he thought he had lost, along with his virility, and which he now feels is returning to him. Love is very much the up-side of this film: Judy had fallen in love with Scottie even when, as Madeleine, she was deceiving him as part of the monstrous Gavin Elster's plan to make Scottie think he had seen Madeleine commit suicide. Not yet aware of the deception, Scottie believes Judy can offer him his 'second chance' of happiness.2For her part, such is her love, she allows herself to 'walk into danger'.




Scottie in (approximately) the second half of the film shows himself to be a man possessed, intent on re-creating in Judy his lost Madeleine, and therefore is far from exemplifying 'a state of total surrender'. At no point do we feel that Scottie has known God! On the contrary, in his pursuit of the secret that he senses in Madeleine, he visits missions and art galleries but seems not the slightest bit interested in their 'content'. (At the Mission Dolores he simply follows Madeleine in one door and out the other - no genuflecting at the alter for him, although he does take off his hat; similarly, at the Palace of the Legion of Honour art gallery, he shows little interest in studying the gallery's paintings - except one, 'Portrait of Carlotta', at which a rapt Madeleine gazes. Incidentally, there's a near-variant on these moments in the art gallery scene in Hitchcock's Torn Curtain, 1966.) Fortuitously or not, the metaphysical truths of Vertigo emerge seamlessly from the drama. There are several more. At every turn - and Vertigo has many of those! - there is ambivalence, as in a tension between worldly and spiritual. It might be described as a necessary coming to terms with the hollowness of most ambition, albeit ambition is often what motivates people in the first place. Perhaps the most likeable person in Vertigo is Scottie's friend Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes), but who exemplifies the film's 'failed artists'. (Scottie is another such.  In the novel, after Madeleine's apparent suicide, Scottie chastises himself for being someone too self-preoccupied: 'Gévigne had chosen the wrong man for the job …  He should have chosen someone very charming, brilliant - an artist perhaps …'.) Scottie reprimands Midge for 'wasting [her] time in the underwear department', for being content to expend her talent on commercial art. His own ambition, which she notes, had turned him from being simply 'the bright young lawyer' towards joining the police force, hoping one day to become chief-of-police. However, his guilt over a colleague's death has compelled him to quit. As for Judy, a country girl from Salina, Kansas, she had moved to the big city, presumably hoping for a lucky break, perhaps marriage to a wealthy husband. It hasn't happened. Only the film's villain, Gavin (Tom Helmore, who had appeared in two Hitchcock silent films), has 'made it', and that by means of a loveless marriage that has seen him 'marrying into the shipbuilding business'. Hoping to gain quick access to the proceeds of his ambition, he comes up with his ingenious plan to murder his wife, using Scottie as dupe. Altogether, the ambivalence of Vertigo might be said to indirectly invoke the 'ninth beatitude' coined by poet Alexander Pope (1688-1744), 'Blessed is he who expects nothing' - by showing the double-mindedness of the majority of people who, all their adult lives, are looking out for the main chance - or, figuratively, their second chance! In non-highfalutin terms, this is the stuff of very human drama.



Not only Gavin's plan is ingenious. So, too, is Hitchcock's film. Actually, the word I would apply to both is 'audacious'. Once you look past the - in every sense - sheer beauty of Vertigo, you see how much it relies on the outlandish Boileau/Narcejac plot and, in turn, on Elster's audaciously-conceived - and implausible - murder plan! Hitchcock saw Vertigo as his opportunity to make his own film of a Boileau & Narcejac novel, as French director Henri-Georges Clouzot had already done with Diabolique (1955). My dictionary defines audacious as 'daring' or 'bold' or 'impudent' - I would apply them all to Vertigo! My point is, the film needs to be appreciated for that quality, perhaps its most outstanding one. It clearly shows Hitchcock's confidence to lead the audience where the plot needs to go, without alienating them and maintaining their interest at every turn. Now ask yourself this. How long had the evil Gavin been planning his audacious murder scheme with its backstory about Madeleine's ancestor Carlotta Valdes, designed to fool Scottie into his unwitting participation? Presumably the answer is: ever since Scottie and those who knew him had learned that he suffered from acrophobia - fear of heights - when a police colleague had fallen to his death. Yet while Gavin may have had a 'eureka!' moment here, the broad idea could have been gestating from the time he married. Moreover, there would have been multiple details to be worked out. Like, getting the complicity of Judy, his mistress at the time. (Surely he didn't seduce her just so that he could use her in his plan?) Also, there would have been others whose co-operation he needed, notably the landlady (Ellen Corby) at the McKittrick Hotel, where the suicidal Carlotta Valdes had once lived. How had Gavin known that a room for Judy/Madeleine to 'sit' (the landlady's word, with its connotation of an artist's model) had become vacant, or would soon do so? And again, presumably the landlady's preparedness to lie to Scottie, an ex-detective, would have required a hefty bribe? Incidentally, it was doubtless fortuitous - and therefore not exactly audacious on Hitchcock's part - that a long-time favourite novel of his, namely, Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890), had provided him with an excellent rationale to make VertigoAt one point in Wilde's novel, someone says of San Francisco, 'It must be a delightful city and possess all the attractions of the next world … every one who disappears is said to be seen [there] …’!


Madeleine is forever appearing and disappearing, whether around corners or behind a tree trunk (in Muir Woods) or at doorways, such as that in Scottie's apartment when she emerges from his bedroom. These moments are also rhymed more specifically, as when Judy in her hotel emerges from herbedroom after disappearing inside to put on Madeleine's clothes that Scottie has bought for her. (Soon afterwards, she asks anxiously, 'Oh Scottie, I do have you now, don't I?') But this example may also draw attention to other splendid instances of Hitchcock's production design and direction. I'm thinking now of how people walkin Vertigo.  Gavin at his club tells Scottie that when Madeleine has one of her trances 'she even walks in a different way' - and it's true! Gait, vocal inflections, facial flicker, are all marvellously modulated in this film - congratulations must go to the actors, especially Kim Novak - and overseen brilliantly by Hitchcock who misses no nuance while at the same time ensuring that nothing is superfluous. In Robert J. Yanal's book Hitchcock as Philosopher (2005) a production still shows Hitchcock directing the group of actors who play the shopgirls seen by Scottie in the street when he first spots Judy and her resemblance to his lost Madeleine. The caption specifies that this is Hitchcock on location in San Francisco, demonstrating to Novak 'and several bit players the walk he wants'. Just that, nothing else!



Further, how people walk and talk in films can characterise them, often subtly. In a Jungian sense, Madeleine in Vertigo is an Eternal Feminine figure, i.e., an archetype created by men, no doubt wishfully. Accordingly, Scottie seems to load Madeleine with qualities that even he doesn't wholly grasp, and whose allure draws him on. Hitchcock once said that he dressed Madeleine in grey to suggest that she had just materialised from the San Francisco fog (and might be swallowed up by it again). Which figures! The content of Vertigo is over-determined. One of the forerunners of the Vertigo story has to be Wilhelm Jensen's Gradiva, A Pompeian Fantasy (1903) which was inspired by the ancient bas-relief showing three women walking (Gradiva's name means 'the woman who walks') and whose association with Pompeii in Jensen's novella seems highly apposite to earthquake-prone San Francisco in Hitchcock's film. The young archaeologist in Gradiva, one Norbert Hanold, becomes obsessed by the woman in the bas-relief. One day, visiting the ruins of Pompeii, the woman materialises before him, whereupon he follows her, unsure whether he is dreaming. No doubt Boileau and Narcejac were familiar with Gradiva, if only by reputation: Sigmund Freud had analysed the story in his "Delusion and Dream in Jensen's Gradiva" (1906). (For another antecedent of the Vertigo story, see the 1892 Symbolist novel Bruges-la-Morte by Georges Rodenbach, about a dead woman lost and found again in her double. Inter alia, it depicts the bridges and canals of Bruges in Belgium in an evocative manner akin to Hitchcock's deployment of the sights and streets of San Francisco.)


Aspects (multiple)

Kim Novak's great performance in Vertigo is up to the requirements of every twist and turn of the story. Vertigo is a film about performances, after all, with the wily Gavin as producer/director. Again it is audacious of the film to suppose that Judy could actually have played Madeleine - that is one of the film's Pirandellian conceits. Take it or leave it, Hitchcock seems to assert, almost loftily, while he unfolds the narrative in such a hypnotic way that his challenge may pass unnoticed. I haven't yet specifically praised the sheer vocal versatility of both main actors. But think of how Novak gives Madeleine a calm, measured and infinitely 'feminine' vocal tone; whereas, as Judy, her voice takes on a high, often clipped and even whiny note befitting a 'common' shopgirl who tells Scottie that she has been 'knowing' since she was 17. (It's worth fast-forwarding the film on Blu-ray or DVD between an early scene and a later one to readily appreciate the differences.) Similarly, in early scenes Stewart as Scottie is understandably subdued after losing his police colleague (though Midge tries to perk him up), then is rapidly taken out of himself by the enigma of Madeleine, then becomes near-catatonic after Madeleine's death; next, on meeting Judy, he briefly regains his accustomed self ('the first happy moments I've known in years'), then suddenly - when he realises that he was set-up (as a 'made-to-order witness') - his voice and manner become steely and/or peremptory and stay that way until he forces Judy to ascend the belltower for the last time. Here note the contrast between the grimly resolute Scottie and the increasingly fearful and resistant Judy. Incidentally, I would contest Robert Yanal's characterisation of Scottie in the first half of the film: 'Scottie's police instincts should have allowed him to see through the illusion of [Madeleine] … but he willingly suspends his disbelief …'.  In fact, his resistance is palpable, and he keeps telling Madeleine that she has simply forgotten places she had seen when she was a little girl. 'You see, there's an explanation for everything!' he says, trying desperately to perform his expected role of, in Gavin's phrase, 'the hard-headed Scot'. Still, admittedly it's not that simple! The audience, like Scottie, is torn between rationality and succumbing to the mysterioso of Madeleine, and part of us hopes that somehow Scottie has missed something! Again this is the stuff of very human drama, or anyway the power of film.


As Scottie tells Madeleine early in the novel, 'You frighten me, but I need you. Perhaps I need to be frightened …'. (Hitchcock once said of his films, 'They give the audience good healthy mental shake-ups!') Fascinatingly, Maurice Nadeau in his History of Surrealism (English edition 1965) reminds us that the woman named Gradiva was the muse of the Surrealists. And again it figures! Scottie, like most people, needs to be taken out of himself, and shown that his 'petty existence', which is bound in subjectivity, is not all there is! Yanal's chapter on Vertigo at times leaves me in two minds. For example, it claims that Vertigois 'a masterpiece of cinematic tragedy' - I've no quarrel with that - yet it spends inordinate space (several pages) on some rather forced comparisons likening Scottie and Judy's story to that of Tristan and Iseult (Isolt, Isolde). Equally, I think Yanal is right to say as follows: 'A musical resemblance between Vertigo and [Wagner's] Tristan… ought not to be pushed too far. … [Bernard] Herrmann's score sometimes sounds like Wagner, but it also sometimes sounds like Tchaikovsky, sometimes like Dukas, and so on.' Thus, after overly narrowing down the focus of our Vertigo appreciation, Yanal does open it up again! Unfortunately, he condescends to say that Hitchcock's masterpiece stems from 'a piece of French pulp fiction'. Well, I happen to agree with my friend Freda Freiberg that D'Entre les Morts is a fine piece of sustained writing: in their dry, passionless style, two co-masters of a particular genre - call it 'the mystery-grotesque' - Boileau and Narcejac, have given Hitchcock much of the raw material of his film. That in itself is no mean feat. For example, the film's Muir Woods scene, with its ancient Sequoias, is a conflation of the novel's passing reference to the Forêt de Fontainebleau and a scene in the Louvre ('Soon they were sauntering among Egyptian gods in the coolness of a cathedral'). And again, Yanal suggests that Scottie's vertigo (and thus presumably the film's title) 'is a bit of a MacGuffin'. Surely that's inadequate? For one thing, Scottie's acrophobia obviously relates to his glimpse of 'the abyss' at the film's outset which haunts him thereafter - and arguably gives him a privileged perspective on our 'petty existence'. For another thing, nobody ever said that solving the world-riddle is easy! Solving, or even grasping, the world-riddle has exercised the best minds for more than 100 years: the term was coined by Friedrich Nietzsche, and is indeed a head-spinner! Not incidentally, note that the figurative first shot of the film is the close-up of a hand grasping as if for dear life onto a horizontal bar - something to hold onto - which proves to be the rung of a metal ladder leading to a rooftop high above the city.  


Another friend of mine, the late Richard Franklin (director of Psycho II), once enthused to me about all the small but masterly details that contribute to the texture of Vertigo. I recall his even pointing out that the decorative pattern on cups and saucers in Scottie's apartment is one of concentric circles! Or think of the glass pendants on the table-lamps when Scottie is dining out with Judy, recalling other suspended objects throughout the film, notably the magnificent chandelier over the stairs of the McKittrick Hotel. On inspection, the chandelier is made up of numerous glass pendants. Of course, a key motif of Vertigo is its tunnel imagery. Again and again, we see characters push into darkness, beginning with Scottie's entry to Podesta's flower shop, full of colourful flowers and bouquets, via an unused storeroom behind it. Such imagery culminates with Scottie and Judy's final trip to the fateful tower of the Mission San Juan Bautista, during which a tunnel of overarching Eucalypts speeds past. Hitchcock films it all subjectively, through the car windscreen. Madeleine's dream of walking down a long corridor will soon prove premonitory: 'I know that when I walk into the darkness [for the last time] that I'll die.' As Robin Wood notes, the view looking down from inside the tower is itself like a dark tunnel-image.

Into the dark …

To conclude these brief notes on Vertigo I'll mention other ways in which the final scene is so fitting. When the nun says, 'I heard voices … God have mercy!', her words, like an epigraph, could in fact apply to any of the characters, even the undeserving Gavin! Those characters will soon enough become simply 'the small stuff of history', to use Scottie's evocative phrase just before Midge introduces him to Pop Liebel, proprietor of the Argosy Bookshop. Vertigo goes out of its way to serve us notice of the characters' mortality, as in the Muir Woods scene. (Note: even one of the 'ever-living' trees has been felled.) The hypnotic San Francisco street scenes are paradoxical: absolutely substantial in one way, moodily 'phantasmagorical' in another. Briefly, the various characters pass across the screen: they're effectively just voices heard in the city's fog, or analogous to the fleeing felon on the rooftop at the start whom we never see again. Even Pop Liebel of phenomenal memory is starting to forget details of the 'juicy' stories of old-time San Francisco that he once knew perfectly. (As Pop talks to Midge and Scottie, the shop imperceptibly darkens. Similarly, Midge is last seen walking slowly away down a corridor that darkens around her.) As for Scottie, after he loses Judy when she steps back into space, startled by the black-garbed nun - one more 'apparition' - you can't say that his future isn't dark, notwithstanding that he still has Midge with whom to share a beer and to converse.  


When you think about it, it's fitting that a stern old nun becomes the deus ex machina with which to resolve the film's story - given that the film's subject-matter, indeed its very title, may refer to 'everything and nothing', the world-riddle! Any other resolution might be inadequate, failing to acknowledge that the riddle can't be solved in everyday terms! (Recall that Scottie had his own 'solution' when first confronted with Madeleine's story and background. Brandishing his drink, he had exclaimed, 'Boy! I need this!') The nun is suitably other-worldly; at the same time, her demeanour suggests that she has encountered human folly before now. As she tolls the mission bell, it gives small comfort, on a worldly plane, to the defeated Scottie who stands bereft, looking down. Hitchcock has suggested that Scottie may possibly throw himself after Judy, bringing the film full-circle from his narrow escape on the rooftop at the start. 3




1.  This essay argues that the viewer of Vertigo is vouchsafed such knowledge!


2.  The potent theme of 'the second chance' informs other Hitchcock films such as Spellbound (1945). I recall that Donald Spoto has noted that the theme is widespread in literature. Hitchcock's admirers among the French critics (e.g., Jean Douchet) linked it to the notion of Original Sin.


3.  The most substantial general essays in English on Vertigo may be the chapter in Robin Wood's Hitchcock's Films Revisited (Revised Edition, 1989) and Donald Spoto's chapter in his The Art of Alfred Hitchcock (Second Edition, 1992). But there are countless articles and monographs out there.  The present essay has simply tried to add a few salient points to the mix, hopefully one or two of them original.


About the author

Ken Mogg has published widely on Hitchcock; his The Alfred Hitchcock Story(1999, revised 2008) covers every film 'in loving detail'  (Bill Krohn, Cahiers du Cinéma). His recent writing includes a chapter on Topaz and (the script of) The Short Night in Hitchcock and the Cold War ((Pace University Press, 2018), a chapter on Alfred Hitchcock Presents in Children, Youth, and American Television (Routledge, 2018), a chapter on "Hitchcock's Literary Influences" for A Companion to Alfred Hitchcock(Wiley Blackwell 2011, pb 2014), and an essay on "The Cutting Room" in 39 Steps to the Genius of Alfred Hitchcock (BFI, 2012). There's a companion piece to the present essay, "Psycho Considerations" (2020), on the hitchcockmaster website if you click here.    

Ken Mogg's email address is

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