Monday, August 23, 2010

"If I Let You Change Me, Will That Do It?" New Spins on Alfred Hitchcock's VERTIGO

(CAUTION! Big-Time Vertigo Spoilers Ahead!)

Make no mistake, I adore Alfred Hitchcock’s 1958 classic Vertigo just the way it is; I wouldn’t change a frame of it, from the powerful performances to Bernard Herrmann’s swooning, poignant score. That said, since I’m a sucker for a happy or at least hopeful (if not necessarily plausible) ending, I’ve sometimes toyed with alternate ways that Vertigo’s plot could have gone, purely for my own private amusement. It’s just that I’ve come to care so much about protagonists John “Scottie” Ferguson and Madeleine Elster, a.k.a. Judy Barton, that I can’t help wondering how Vertigo’s plot would have unfolded with just a few little behavioral tweaks in these characters. Goshdarnit, where are screenwriters Alec Coppel & Samuel Taylor and source authors Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac when you really need them?

Cool, tantalizing Madeleine
The most obvious change, of course, would have been for Judy not to go along with Gavin Elster’s wife-killing scheme in the first place, but then we’d have no movie. So let’s say Judy goes along with the San Juan Bautista murder plot up until the fateful moment when, in Madeleine mode, she skedaddles up to the mission tower—where poor acrophobic Scottie can’t follow her—and screams when Scottie can no longer see her, cuing Elster to give his real wife’s body the big sendoff, making it look like poor possessed Madeleine leapt to her death.

Tawdry yet tender Judy
Remember how, before Judy/Madeleine breaks free from Scottie’s embrace to dash for the tower, he gives her that heartfelt speech about how the past should be forgotten, they’re together now, and hugging and kissing ensue? What if Judy took a moment to think it over (by now it’s obvious that she loves Scottie more than Elster anyway) and said, “You’re right, Scottie my love, we were meant for each other. Let’s blow this clambake and start a new life together,” or some Madeleine-appropriate equivalent? I can see it now: Scottie and his beloved drive away while that murdering bastard Elster is left holding the bag, no pun intended. If nuns or tourists should happen upon Elster getting ready to toss the real Madeleine’s corpse over the side, he might try to squirm out of it by claiming she slipped and hit her head, breaking her neck. Elster might even try to sue the mission for damages—unless, of course, an autopsy proved foul play. How sophisticated were autopsies in 1958, anyway?

What a love scene! It's like From Here to Eternity
without the bathing suits!

Considering Scottie is still calling our heroine “Madeleine” at this point, I’m imagining her snuggling up to him as they drive away, cooing, “You can call me Judy. All my friends do.” Hey, if Scottie can go by his nickname, so can Judy!

Oh, to be torn 'twixt love and Judy!
Of course, presuming our lovebirds don’t head off at once for someplace where a suspicious San Francisco death might not be news, Judy would probably have some explaining to do when Scottie got wind of Mrs. Elster’s untimely demise. Would Judy tell Scottie the truth, taking a chance on him becoming disillusioned with her and leaving? Would she try to make it look like Elster had backed her into a corner, leaving her no choice but to go along with his plan until the last minute?

"C'mon, Johnny-O, where's your sense of humor? And you wonder why we broke off our engagement!"
Poor Judy; her guilty self is behind that chair,
and she has no power to stop the smooching
and 'fess up about Madeleine!
(Apologies to Forbidden Planet)
Then again, if Elster were arrested for murder, Judy would surely either be arrested as an accomplice or be required to testify in court. (In 1958, would Raymond Burr have been cast as Judy’s attorney?) Would Scottie decide that, regardless, he loves Judy so much (especially in her Madeleine garb) he’d lie for her, or run off with her to Rio or some other place where extradition is more trouble than it’s worth? And what about his faithful, long-suffering gal pal, Midge Wood? What if she gets tired of being Scottie’s soft place to fall, finds out about Scottie trading her in for Judy/Madeleine, and decides to make trouble for the lovebirds? Sounds like a heck of a film noir to me!

With Scottie's eye for fashion, loving the new, improved Judy
is even more fun than What Not to Wear!
On the other hand, Midge might decide her “Johnny-O” isn’t “the only man for (her)” after all. Come to think of it, we never did find out why Scottie and Midge broke off their college engagement. What was the real story behind that, I wonder? Anyway, I want to see Midge find a nice fella on her wavelength who’d give her his undivided attention. She could stop worrying about Scottie and concentrate on her career. She could join forces with that engineer who came up with the cantilevered bra Midge was working on when we first met her. They could design the lingerie and the factory!

Let’s say love conquers all plot devices, and Scottie and Judy make a life together. What about his obsession with “Madeleine”? Would Judy decide blondes really do have more fun, and stick with the Madeleine look on her own terms and not just because Scottie’s dotty about it? I can hear the lovebirds now:

“Scottie, sweetie, I’ll wear my hair Madeleine style Monday through Friday and wear it loose on weekends, okay?”

“Aw, Judy, honey, if the style’s too much work, I’ll learn how to make that little chignon ’do for ya.”

There was a little girl who had a little curl...
Would Judy gradually bring in more Judyish attire? V-e-r-y gradually, since Scottie has apparently become more of an expert on feminine fashions and grooming than most “red-blooded” men of that era would dare admit. Scottie Ferguson, World’s Earliest Metrosexual! So would Judy sport a tacky bracelet here, a schmear of fire-engine-red lipstick there, until she’s more like her old pleasantly trashy self? She could even come home from the beauty salon one evening with more of a strawberry blonde tinge to her tresses. If Scottie ever complained that “You’re not the girl I fell in love with,” he’d be right!

Feel free to check out my IMDb review of Vertigo:

"Dames! They always put a guy in a spin!"


  1. Thought you'd enjoy these comments from fellow Hitchcock aficionado Steven DeRosa: "Excellent! Needed something fun to read...I'm in the middle of rebuilding my system on a new hard drive. You saved me from staring at progress bars!... You're definitely onto something with Scottie as the Metrosexual prototype... Not just the Ransahoff's or salon scenes. It's quite possible he's a frustrated designer. Think of him all day chasing criminals across rooftops for wearing white out of season... Complaining that those police department doctors have no sense of style. And in the evenings, he finds solace watching his former fiancé design women's undergarments in a way he never could."

  2. Ho, yes! So many possibilities. I personally believe that Hitch, who knew his audiences so well, KNEW that they would leave the theater re-imagining the end of the movie. The abrupt, tragic ending begs for armchair revisionism! Of course, even Hitch's peers wanted to rethink things: there's the alternate tag ending (never shown, I believe) that was filmed for European audiences, depicting a reconciliation of sorts between Scottie and Midge.

    I'm imagining that if Judy were to be brought in as accomplice to a murder, Scottie would definitely stand by her throughout the trial, ala the constant Constance (Ingrid Bergman) in SPELLBOUND!

    If Scottie and Judy were to end up together, they would have to go into individual and couples' counseling to sort out their issues. I can see the marriage counselor: "So, Judy, how does it make you feel when Scottie tells you your hair color can't possibly matter to you?"

  3. I like your alternate storyline and observation about Scottie's flair and eye for fashion (though in a way Gavin Elster was his fashion mentor).

    I would go for a simpler solution--if only Judy had tossed away all of her clothes and jewelry after Gavin dumped her then there would have been no chance she would have been busted. Also, I think Judy had Scottie whipped at the end when that nun showed up and scared her. Obviously some nun in Salina Kansas must have traumatized Judy Barton as a girl to provoke such a reaction.

  4. Joel, csquared, I totally enjoyed your comments and theories. I'm glad to hear I'm not the only VERTIGO fan who would have liked to see Scottie and Judy's story end less tragically. Joel, I love the ideas of Scottie standing by Judy a la SPELLBOUND, and your marriage counseling scenario cracked me up! csquared, good point that Judy should have ditched the clothes and jewelry Gavin Elster gave her before she and Scottie became an item; even Scottie himself had said you shouldn't keep souvenirs of a murder! :-) Thanks for your feedback, folks!

  5. I think you're onto something. Scottie and "Madeliene" embrace right before she runs up the bell tower, to finish off the Gavin Elster master plan. She says "To heck with it, let's jump in the car and blow this popstand!" Scottie, of course, agrees and they leave. Gavin is left holding the bag (no pun from me either), when he hears approaching footsteps, possibly the "always showing up at the wrong time" nun. He throws the real Madeliene out the window to save himself and hides in the corner. From there I think Alfred would be able to have a lot of fun after Scottie found out about the death of the real Madeliene and tried to figure out the entire web of lies he'd been fed.

    Thanks for your comments on my reivew and actually I can see this one growing on me in time. I agree with you that this movie is almost like a dream and trying to describe the plot is like retelling a dream you just had - "There was a woman and then she died...But then she was back and then there was a nun and then the woman died again" - Yeah that's a dream.

    And finally, I still think the Midge character should've been pursued more, like you mention. I really would've loved to see her be in the place of the nun and startle Judy so badly, that she fell off the bell tower and to her death. Midge's last "stupid, stupid, stupid" act...killing Scottie's lover.

  6. Hey, 1001Movieman, I like the fiendishly clever touches you suggested about throwing the real Madeleine out the window after Judy-masquerading-as-Madeleine drives off with Scottie, as well as your idea about Midge causing Judy's death with that one last "stupid, stupid, stupid" act. Glad to be able to discuss VERTIGO with you further here as well as on your excellent "1001 Films I (Apparently) Must See Before I Die. For those of you who haven't seen the "1001movieman" site yet, here's the link: