Wednesday, October 30, 2013

The Two Faces of Vertigo

This post for Backlot’s Hitchcock Halloween combines both new and previous material.  Happy Halloween to Fearless Leader Lara & Bloggers!

*** Caution!  You’re in The House Where Spoilers Dwell! ***

(No fooling — SPOILERS galore here!)

Face One:

For me, Vertigo keeps getting better over time!  It’s hard to believe now, but when I was younger, I used to have a love/hate relationship with Alfred Hitchcock’s classic romantic psychological thriller Vertigo. I loved its suspense; its moving performances; the dreamlike quality of its haunting love story; and most of all, Bernard Herrmann’s score.  So why did it take me years to embrace Vertigo as wholeheartedly as our beleaguered hero John “Scottie” Ferguson embraces his beloved Madeleine Elster? The ever-awesome James Stewart (from such classic Hitchcock thrillers as Rear Window; the 1956 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much; Rope; and the not-Hitchcockian but nevertheless delightful Stewart’s Oscar-winning performance in The Philadelphia Story (yes, sometimes even Team Bartilucci enjoys non-Hitchcock movies!).

Dames!  They always put a guy in a spin!
Stewart plays John Ferguson, “Scottie” to friends (more about that shortly).  Scottie is a former police detective who finds out the hard way that he has acrophobia (fear of heights, to us laypeople) when he can’t save a patrolman from falling to his death during a rooftop chase. Since Vertigo is a Hitchcock movie, what better place for our hero to live and wrestle with his phobia than San Francisco; oh, that Hitch, always adding a touch of sadism for his beleaguered protagonists to work through, that scamp!

Poor Scottie would rather be on The Spirit of St. Louis right now!
We meet Scottie as he’s visiting longtime friend Midge Wood, played by scene-stealer Barbara Bel Geddes from Panic in the Streets; I Remember Mama; TV’s Dallas as the beloved Miss Ellie.  Fun Fact: Bel Geddes was also the daughter of Norman Bel Geddes, the renowned theatrical and industrial designer.  But I digress!  Scottie and Midge had been engaged “for three whole weeks” before they opted to be just friends instead, though it sure looks to me like it’s clear Midge would like more.  Midge is working on a cantilever bra invented by an engineer; nice work if you can get it!  Ever loyal, Midge tries to help Scottie overcome his fear of heights gradually with stepladders: “I look up, I look down...” And it was all going so well!  Too bad the ladders happened to be next to Midge’s high-rise apartment window; poor guy, it's always something!

 Madeleine Elster:  It's magic...or maybe witchcraft...whatever it is,we're spellbound!
Scottie’s old college chum Gavin Elster (suave Tom Helmore from Designing Woman; Advise and Consent; and several episodes of Alfred Hitchcock  Presents, of course) offers Scottie a private investigator job tailing his lovely but troubled young wife, Madeleine (Kim Novak in her finest, most challenging, and moving performance, even more so than The Man with the Golden Arm and the 1964 version of Of Human Bondage). It seems that Madeleine—one of the coolest and most elegant of the director’s legendary “Hitchcock Blondes"—thinks she’s possessed by the spirit of her late great-grandmother Carlotta Valdes, and is behaving accordingly. Scottie, ever the “hard-headed Scot,” is a tough sell at first:

Gavin Elster: “Scottie, do you believe that someone out of the past, someone dead, can enter and take possession of a living being?”

Scottie:  “No.”

Gavin: “If I told you that I believe this has happened to my wife, what would you say?”

  “Well, I’d say take her to the nearest psychiatrist, or psychologist, or neurologist, or psycho—or maybe just the plain family doctor.  I’d have him check on you, too.”

But it soon becomes clear Gavin is serious about his troubled wife, so for old times’ sake, Scottie takes the job and discreetly tails Madeleine all over San Francisco to the places where the tragic Carlotta lived, loved, and went mad after her sugar daddy “threw her away” and kept their love child.  Midge has plenty of knowledge about the old days of San Francisco, like “…who shot who in the Embarcadero in August 1879.”  Midge and Scottie go to The Argosy Book Shop, where all the great San Francisco sleuths like Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon and Phillip Marlowe in The Big Sleep and Murder, My Sweet take care of no-goodniks, with the help of book seller/historian “Pop” Liebel (Konstantin Shayne from The Secret Life of Walter Mitty The Stranger; The Seventh Cross). It’s like the most elegant, discreet shadowing ever — that’s what I call class!  

Madeleine and Scottie:  so close and yet so far!
Our determined hawkshaw finally comes face to face with his quarry after saving her when she jumps into the bay in one of her fugue states.  That’s “meeting cute” on a whole other level!  Interestingly, Scottie introduces himself by his Christian name, John, and Madeleine says she likes that strong name — and yet they both end up calling him “Scottie,” a more playful, almost childlike name. Perhaps it’s because the two of them aren’t truly comfortable because Madeleine just might be hiding secrets from him?  To quote The Marvelettes, the hunter is captured by the game. Soon Scottie and Madeleine are mad for each other— but it seems poor troubled Madeleine is also mad in a less romantic way. When she confides in Scottie about her recurring morbid dreams about the Mission at San Juan Bautista, Scottie brings her there in hopes of curing her obsession. Bad move, Scottie — Madeleine bolts to the bell tower! Scottie gives chase, but his vertigo paralyzes him halfway up the stairs (great spatial F/X here). Poor Madeleine!  Where’s Dr. Constance Petersen from Spellbound when you need her?  And poor Scottie!  He hears a woman screaming, sees a body fall past the window...and his beloved Madeleine is no more. 

Carlotta Valdes' final resting place...unless she's subletting with Madeleine's soul!
Or is she? After he recovers from a grief-induced nervous breakdown, Scottie spies shopgirl Judy Barton (the versatile Novak again). Except for her red hair and somewhat tacky fashion sense, Judy’s a dead ringer for Madeleine! As their relationship grows, so does audience apprehension as Scottie obsessively tries to give Judy the ultimate makeover, recreating his lost love. Granted, the hosts of What Not to Wear have lately gone their separate ways while still being pals, but still: where are Stacy and Clinton when you need them?!

Yikes!  Not a lifeguard in sight!  Thank goodness for Scottie's
quick thinking and Madeleine's natural buoyancy!
Judy actually turns out to be a quick study — because she’s really Madeleine! You see, Judy was Gavin Elster’s mistress, and he coached her to look and act like the real Madeleine Elster as part of a murder plot. ’Twas the real Mrs. Elster who died at the mission that fateful day, and Elster’s real purpose for poor Scottie was to witness the “suicide.”  The hell of is that Judy truly loves Scottie.  On top of that, she also has all the self-esteem of a squashed grape, poor thing, and doesn’t want to spill the murder plot, what with those pesky laws and such. So Judy’s willing to play Eliza Doolittle to Scottie’s macabre Henry Higgins. But the jig is up when, post-makeover, Judy wears a necklace Scottie recognizes as part of Madeleine's Carlotta Valdes Collection! Furious at being played for a sucker, Scottie takes Judy to the mission tower and forces her to confess. With their emotions kicked up, Scottie and Judy embrace with yearning and regret, but a black shape looms. Guilt-ridden Judy is so spooked by what turns out to be a curious nun (Judy must’ve gone to one of those tough parochial schools) that she loses her balance and falls...and a shattered Scottie loses his Madeleine a second, final time, looking like he wants to join her.

I love Scottie and Madeleine's big romantic kiss;
it's like From Here to Eternity with clothes on!
When I first saw Vertigo in my college years during its 1980s re-release, I thought it was well worth seeing, but Scottie’s necrophilic mania to recreate Judy as Madeleine really upset me at the time. I found myself rooting for/angry at/sorry for Scottie and Judy all at once. Stewart’s portrayal of a man obsessed is tragic and unnerving; Hitchcock really knew how to tap into his leading man’s dark side. As if the ghoulishness of Scottie’s romantic obsession and the malleable Judy’s heartbreaking lack of self-esteem weren’t frustrating enough, even the department store salespeople and salon personnel in the film go along with Scottie’s demands.   As the salon stylists say, “The gentleman certainly seems to know what he wants,” and even they were giving Scottie odd looks, despite Judy’s anguished protests. Even Vinnie, my husband, aptly noted that everyone on screen acted as if Scottie was simply having a pedigreed dog groomed.  Kind of brings a new take on Hitchcock’s famous “Actors are like cattle” bon mot, doesn’t it?

Poor Scottie!  Even in his dreams, Carlotta gives him the Hairy Eyeball!
On my first time around, it seemed to me that Hitchcock gave away the mystery's solution too soon, making the rest of the film anticlimactic. But my appreciation for Vertigo grew over the years as I matured and learned more about life, people, and emotions. By the time Vinnie and I saw the beautifully restored version of Vertigo at NYC’s Ziegfeld Theatre in 1996, Judy’s revelatory letter touched my heart and added to the suspense of waiting for the other shoe to drop for Scottie. There’s no question that Vertigo has long since become one of my favorite Hitchcock films!   (Fun Fact:  Our longtime buddy Jason Simos of Focus Features happened to be waiting on line for the movie, so we all went together and had a great time, and I was surprised with a baby shower at my mother-in-law’s home!

Face Two:  The Lighter Side

Make no mistake, I’ve found Vertigo progressively more riveting and fascinating over time.  I wouldn’t change a frame of it now, from the powerful performances to Bernard Herrmann’s swooning, poignant score. That said, in my heart of hearts, I’m still a sucker for, if not a full-tilt happy ending, then at least a hopeful one.  Heck, I’ll even take an ending that isn’t entirely plausible, if only because I find myself feeling for the characters. That’s why I’ve sometimes toyed with alternate ways that Vertigo’s plot could have turned out, at least to satisfy my own private amusement and “what-if” thoughts about the characters' fates. It’s just that I’ve come to care so much about those obsessed but strangely lovable crazy kids John “Scottie” Ferguson and Madeleine Elster, a.k.a. Judy Barton, so the softie in me 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 & Thomas Narcejac when you really need them?

"Oh, Johnny-O, where's your wry sense of humor?  And you wonder
why we broke up our engagement in college!"
"Coffee, tea, or me?"
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.  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 that fiend 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?

Judy's gonna sit right down and write herself a letter confessing the murder plot—or will she?
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!

"Pop" Leibel" knows all the scuttlebutt from old San Francisco,
plus the first-ever draft of Fifty Shades of Gray, that slyboots!
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?

It's not easy to live a double life (oy, my head...)
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!

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? Maybe he’s got cold feet, or maybe Midge did.  Sometimes it’s easier to fall in love with someone he can never really have because of his own issues.  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!

...but there's some perks to the gig!
Stacy & Clinton would approve!
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.”

Oh, to be torn 'twixt love and Judy!
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!

Here's a clip of that magnificent 360 shot that shifts from the hotel room to the mission.

And here's a fan-made video of the song "Carlotta Valdez" by Harvey Danger!