Thursday 14 January 2021

Hitchcock's VERTIGO: Its cinema sources - Scholar Ken Mogg tracks down the movies that may have influenced the 1958 masterpiece

Author’s Foreword. 
 These notes were basically written some years ago, in my most unselective film-buff days.  It is doubtless best seen as a tour de force.  Nonetheless, I believe that it throws light on a little-mentioned aspect of Hitchcock, his eclectic film tastes and his incredible readiness to research his films. Bill Krohn (Cahiers du Cinéma) told me that Hitch and Alma regularly attended a repertory cinema not far from where they lived in California.  Another friend, the late Richard Franklin (director of Psycho II), once remarked to me that, while a student at USC, he had visited Hitchcock’s bungalow during the making of The Birds.  On the desk in the outer office were stacked numerous books on aspects of ornithology, waiting to be returned to Universal’s research library.]

For convenience, the following films can be listed as German, British, French, or American - though the distinction isn’t clear-cut, as we’ll see.


1. THE INFLUENCE OF GERMAN Expressionism on Vertigo has often been remarked, and is anticipated in the Boileau & Narcejac novel when it refers to a German film seen in the ’twenties (although, as far as I know, ‘Jacob Boehme’ is purely an invented film-title). Similarly, Lotte Eisner’s book about such German films, L’Ecran Démoniaque/The Haunted Screen, first published in France in 1952, contains several entries on a kind of psychological vertigo. As for the actual ‘vertigo’ effect in Hitchcock’s film, it’s basically just a more elaborate subjective effect than the one used by E.A. Dupont in Variety(1925) and then re-worked by Hitchcock in the circus climax of Murder!(1930). And German Expressionism’s emphasis on mother-figures, remarked by Siegfried Kracauer in his book From Caligari to Hitler (1947), is echoed in Hitchcock’s film in some scenes with Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes). Specifically, Kracauer mentions the films The Street (1923) and New Year’s Eve (1923), in both of which a man breaks down and rests his head on a woman’s bosom, a gesture signifying ‘desire to return to the maternal womb’. An only slightly modified version of it (no doubt for censorship reasons) is seen in Vertigo (below) when Scottie (James Stewart) collapses off the kitchen-stool into Midge’s arms.

2. WHEN MADELEINE (Kim Novak) describes her dream of ‘walking down a long corridor that once was mirrored’, she is echoing imagery and indeed the title of a little-known British film, Corridor of Mirrors  (Terence Young, 1948). But it’s likely that Hitchcock had seen the film: for a start, it contains several Hitchcockian elements, among them a jealous housekeeper (like those of Rebecca and Under Capricorn) and a suitably macabre climax set in Madame Tussaud’s (like the one in Mrs Belloc Lowndes’s novel The Lodger, filmed by Hitchcock in the ‘twenties). The very plot shows more than a passing resemblance to Vertigo’s, being about an artist obsessed with a Venetian woman in a 400-years-old portrait, whose living double he encounters in present-day London and makes his mistress. In Under Capricorn, which Hitchcock filmed in England after Young’s film came out, Lady Henrietta (Ingrid Bergman) is described by Adare (Michael Wilding) as both a ‘work of art’ and a ‘reincarnation’.  [I’m also reminded of the bas-relief of Gradiva and the novella about it by Wilhelm Jensen, Gradiva, A Pompeian Fantasy(1903), which I’ve discussed in my essay "Vertigo Considerations." Gradiva will be mentioned again below.]    

Edana Romney, Corridor of Mirrors

Moreover, the corridor and mirror imagery of Young’s film has a distinctly Cocteau-esque look, which is literally underscored by Georges Auric’s music, and reminds you of Hitchcock’s admiration for Cocteau’s Le Sang d’un Poète/The Blood of a Poet(1932). Such imagery in Vertigo is ubiquitous - even the famous shot down the bell-tower is a corridor image. It’s evoked, too, in the smallest details, such as Madeleine’s memory of having once fallen into a river, ‘trying to leap from one stone to the next’. That image conflates Cocteau’s/Young’s idea of a fraught corridor with the memorable image of the stepping-stones in Gradiva. But underlying it is Madeleine’s fear, which she tells Scottie about, of the darkness beyond the corridor and her knowledge ‘that when I [finally] walk into the darkness that I’ll die’.

British director Noel Langley effectively helped ‘licence’ Hitchcock to make Vertigo when in 1956 he went to Hollywood and filmed a ‘true’ story of reincarnation, The Search for Bridey Murphy, starring Teresa Wright, which caught the public’s imagination. But of course Hitchcock’s own fascination with such material had begun long ago - as far back as 1920 - when he attended the original London stage production of James Barrie’s mystical Mary Rose whose title-character lives in and out of time and whose mother has cause to wonder, ‘where is my child?’ ...

Louis Hayward, Teresa Wright,
The Search for Bridey Murphy

3. IN AN ARTICLE ON THE BELGIAN director Jacques Feyder, author and critic Peter Cowie refers to an influential film made by Feyder for Films de France, Le Grand Jeu/The Great Game (1933). The Foreign Legion story is set mainly in Morocco, and the actress Marie Bell plays two different women. Here’s Cowie:

The film’s device of having a man haunted by the vision of a blonde woman he loved, and seeing her materialize in subtly changed guise as a brunette, would be used subsequently by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac for the novel that became the basis of Hitchcock’s Vertigo.


But Cowie doesn’t indicate how the alleged influence on the novel occurred. It may have been indirectly. In 1953, Le Grand Jeu was remade as a Franco-Italian co-production directed by Robert Siodmak (who had once shared a producer, namely, Joan Harrison, with Hitchcock). The new film starred Gina Lollobrigida (with first red hair, then black), and was in colour. More than likely, it was the remake that Boileau and Narcejac saw just before they wrote their novel. Another film they may have seen at that time was Henri Verneuil’s Le Fruit Défendu/Forbidden Fruit (1952), adapted from Simenon’s novel Lettre à mon juge (1946) and starring Fernandel in a non-comedy role.  [I’m unsure today why I have mentioned the Simenon work and its film adaptation.  It may simply be that the novel contains a near-identical line to Vertigo’s evocative ‘Sister Teresa would scold us’.]

In the 1933 Le Grand Jeu, actor Charles Vanel had a supporting role. Over 20 years later,  Vanel would later play Bertani in To Catch a Thief. In 1938 he was seen in the French film Carrefour, directed by Curtis Bernhardt. Like Siodmak (and Hitchcock), Bernhardt had earlier worked in Germany. He and Vanel now co-operated to make one of the touchstone ‘big lie’ films (Vertigo is surely a ‘big lie’ film) which may well have influenced Boileau & Narcejac’s D’Entre les Morts and Vertigo. Briefly, the plot of Carrefour concerns amnesia. The film’s evil mastermind (Vanel) learns of a diplomat who has lost part of his memory, and sees in this an opportunity for blackmail. He employs an elderly actress to impersonate the diplomat’s mother who will convince him that he has committed a crime. When Hollywood remade the film in 1942, as Crossroads, it had William Powell as victim, and Basil Rathbone as villain. Parallels with Vertigoinclude the mastermind figure (whose origins lie in melodrama and, according to Eric Bentley, its mutation, German Expressionism), and the attempt to take advantage of a man’s infirmity by means of an elaborate hoax, the ‘big lie’. In Vertigo, Judy imitates the real Madeleine, whose husband Gavin Elster has murdered her; and an elderly lady, presumably a paid actress, compounds the subterfuge by playing the ‘innocent’ landlady of the McKittrick Hotel.

Charles Vanel, Jules Berry, Carrefour

4. IF THERE IS ONE AMERICAN film that is the progenitor of Vertigo, that film is   Portrait of Jennie (1948) adapted from the Robert Nathan novella by German expatriate director William Dieterle. It was made at the Selznick studio at about the time Hitchcock was filming The Paradine Case there. Hitchcock already admired Dieterle’s work to the point of imitation (the umbrellas scene in Foreign Correspondent seems indebted to Dieterle’s 1937 The Life of Emile Zola). On seeing Portrait of Jennie, he would have noticed how Jennie resembles J.M. Barrie’s character Mary Rose, a girl who lives in and out of time: As already noted Hitchcock had long admired Barrie’s play. But Dieterle’s haunting 1948 film and Vertigo have other correspondences. For instance, both move towards a tragic climax involving a tower. And both are memorable for their sea-imagery. Further, the films’ similarity is underlined by the fact that composer Bernard Herrmann worked on both. (For Dieterle, though, Herrmann composed just ‘Jennie’s Song’ - while Dimitri Tiomkin, the film’s official composer, adapted various themes of Debussy, including passages from ‘La Mer’.)

Portrait of Jennie

Another fine American film of the ’40s, showing indebtedness to Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940), is Lewis Allen’s ghost tale, The Uninvited (1944). Set on the coast of Cornwall and Devon, it anticipates Vertigo by referring to a Spanish ancestor (Carmel, instead of Carlotta), to the Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde (a rather sardonic touch here), and to the sea as a place ‘of life and death and eternity, too’. But what is certainly the most direct link to Vertigo is seen when the haunted heroine, played by Gail Russell, breaks away from her would-be protector (Ray Milland) and runs toward the nearby cliff-edge, clearly intending to commit suicide at the very place where she had been told her mother threw herself over. The spot is marked by a single, gnarled tree - a tree identical to the one we see in Hitchcock’s film when Madeleine breaks away from Scottie and runs towards the cliff-edge ... 

There are many such ‘quotes’ in Vertigo, and here are some more. When Scottie throws down several cushions before his fire and invites Madeleine to make herself comfortable, the moment recalls a famous scene early in A Bill of Divorcement (1932), the first film of Katherine Hepburn. The film’s producer, David Selznick, afterwards described the scene as having given him ‘one of the greatest experiences I’ve ever had’. (The film was directed by George Cukor from the play by ‘Clemence Dane’/Winifred Ashton, who co-wrote the novel on which Hitchcock’s Murder!was based.)

In 1940 Hitchcock directed a few scenes in the San Francisco movie The House Across the Bay when regular director Archie Mayo fell ill. As one of its characters is an aircraft engineer, perhaps a memory of that film occurred to Hitchcock apropos the moment in Vertigo when Midge mentions a new type of brassière designed by ‘an aircraft engineer down the peninsula’. But there’s another possibility: as is well known, aircraft magnate and movie tycoon Howard Hughes once attempted to design a seamless bra for Jane Russell ...

Undoubtedly, Hitchcock and scriptwriter Samuel Taylor looked specifically at various San Francisco movies before making their own. One that certainly impressed them was George Stevens’s I Remember Mama (1948) in which Barbara Bel Geddes plays Katrin, the film’s narrator, who is first seen in the attic of her immigrant-family’s house, where she has just finished typing her first novel. Her window looks out upon the city. In other words, this artistically-inclined spinster is a prototype for Midge. Indeed, it looks as if Hitchcock and Taylor noted and deliberately re-used some of Bel Geddes’s mannerisms, such as when in the earlier film Katrin ventures to criticise a patrician doctor (a bearded Rudy Vallee) and then blushes in confusion at her temerity. The corresponding moment in Vertigo comes, of course, when Midge suggests to Scottie’s doctor in the sanatorium that the use of Mozart as therapy ‘isn’t going to help at all’.

Underlining the connection between the two films, actress Ellen Corby, the landlady of Vertigo’s McKittrick Hotel, appears in I Remember Mama as, even then, a wiry old maid - who aspires to marry an undertaker. Leslie Halliwell’s ‘Filmgoer’s Companion’ says that Corby specialised ‘in nosey neighbours and prim spinsters’.

Anatole Litvak’s vehicle for Bette Davis and Errol Flynn The Sisters  (1938), features the San Francisco earthquake at its climax and has an earlier scene in which actress Lee Patrick plays Davis’s empty-headed neighbour whom we hear incessantly chattering - until the soundtrack fades her voice and we see that Davis has just received a note from her husband (Flynn) saying he has left her. Similar use of the soundtrack occurs in Vertigo, and for an identical reason: to silence Lee Patrick, this time playing the woman at the Brocklebank Apartments whom Scottie asks about her car. Donald Spoto’s book The Art of Alfred Hitchcock describes Patrick as ‘the archetypal flibbertijibbet’.

Bette Davis, Errol Flynn, The Sisters

Director Vincent Sherman’s All Through the Night (1942) may have inspired the auction-gallery episode in North by Northwest.  Sherman’s Nora Prentiss (1947) is basically set in San Francisco though it’s said to be part-based on two British murder cases (presumably the Rouse and Crippen cases). Several moments anticipate Vertigo, including the one when the lovers (Ann Sheridan and Kent Smith) head out of town. Feeling suddenly happy, the Smith character announces their destination as ‘anywhere you like’ - the same fate-sealing line the Vertigoscript gives Scottie just before Judy dons her earrings and the couple drive away for the last time. (Jewellery serving as a giveaway is itself a detail taken from the Crippen case.)

Finally, I want to say something more about the work of directors Robert Siodmak and Curtis Bernhardt. In 1946 they both made films in Hollywood about twin sisters, i.e., look-alike women, respectively  The Dark Mirror (with Olivia de Havilland) and A Stolen Life (with Bette Davis). The latter film, especially, anticipates Vertigo by having a scene set in an apartment store where Glenn Ford asks the ‘good’ sister - who secretly loves him - to try on a dress which he is thinking of giving to his wife, the ‘bad’ sister. The audience is acutely aware of the woman’s discomfort and the man’s insensitivity, a situation that obviously prefigures the Vertigo scenes where Judy is made over by Scottie.

Given these two directors’ similarity of background (earlier work in Germany and France) and apparent shared predilection for certain themes and subjects (including crime dramas), their eventual co-operation on a project is hardly surprising: for a start, Bernhardt’s Conflict(1945)was based on a story co-written by Siodmak (with Alfred Neumann). This is the film where Bogart, who has murdered his wife, is tricked by psychiatrist Sydney Greenstreet into a confession. It’s a good example of the ‘big lie’ story, likeCarrefourwhich Bernhardt had made in France before the War. It, too, anticipates a scene in North by Northwest; let’s see how it anticipates a scene in Vertigo.

The basis of the psychiatrist’s scheme is that Bogart must be made to think that his wife has come back from the dead or, at any rate, never died. In the street one day, Bogart thinks he sees his wife walk by, wearing her customary green outfit, and he follows her into a building where she enters an upstairs flat. At this point a landlady blocks Bogart’s way, saying how that particular flat is vacant and is always kept locked. Bogart protests, so she leads him upstairs - where the flat indeed proves to be empty. Thus the scene anticipates the McKittrick Hotel episode in Vertigo, where Ellen Corby plays the seemingly guileless landlady, just as it harks back to Carrefour, where an elderly actress impersonates the amnesiac diplomat’s mother.

Humphrey Bogart, Peter Lorre,
All Through the Night

Presumably, in the case of the Vertigo episode, it represents a trick engineered by wily villain Gavin Elster to make Scottie become even more obsessed with the mysterious Madeleine. Such a playing on a character’s infirmity (amnesia, acrophobia) is itself a characteristic of these films. To end on, then, here’s a more general example of a film anticipating Vertigo. Robert Siodmak’s The Great Sinner (1949) is loosely based on an aspect of Dostoyevsky – read on - and stars Gregory Peck as a man effectively held captive in the Wiesbaden casino by his new-found mania for gambling. With beginner’s luck he wins a fortune, but, as the casino’s wily proprietor had foreseen, soon loses it again. Later he is visited in the casino grounds by the apparition of another victim who says, in effect, ‘I told you so’. In all of this I see not so much a set of direct parallels with Vertigoas a significant general ambience common to several such films. For instance, gambling or infatuation or vertigo itself are recurrent expressionist or noir motifs. When Peck finds out his weakness for gambling, it’s like the moment when Scottie, clinging to a San Francisco rooftop, suddenly finds out he suffers from acrophobia. And when Peck wins a fortune only to lose it, this isn’t very different from how Scottie ‘wins’ Madeleine from death and then loses her. As for the wily proprietor, he of course may be found in German films of the ’twenties (and Hitchcock’s Spellbound), as well as making common cause with all the other mastermind figures in such films. Above all, as the ghostly apparition in the casino grounds could testify, what these films most share is perhaps ‘entrapment’ - by an alluring deception or weakness.

Ken Mogg's email address is

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