Marjorie “Midge” Wood [played by Barbara Bel Geddes]: “That's Skid Row... isn't it?”
Scottie: “Could be.”
Midge: “He's probably on the bum and wants to set you for the price of a drink.”
Scottie: “Well, I'm on
the bum; I'll buy him a couple of drinks and tell him my troubles.”—Vertigo,
screenplay by Alec Coppel and Samuel Taylor, based on the French novel D'Entre
Les Morts (“From Among the Dead”) by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Sixty-five years ago today, Alfred Hitchcock’s thriller Vertigo premiered in San Francisco. The director blamed its failure at the time on the aging appearance of star James Stewart—and, indeed, it did mark the transition of this leading man from romantic figure to more of a character actor.
But even before Hitchcock died in 1980—even when, its rights having reverted to him, he had withdrawn it from circulation—Vertigo was increasingly recognized as among the director’s best. By 1999, it had been recognized by the Library of Congress as being worthy of preservation. In more recent years, it has been listed at or near the top of the greatest films ever made.
In retrospect, it’s easy to see that the movie’s disappointing reception by contemporary audiences and critics related less to Stewart’s supposed lack of credibility in the role than with its mysterious, unnerving, even perverse nature.
After all, how many moviegoers, even now, feel comfortable with a plot that hints unmistakably at necrophilia?
Scottie, as the plot proceeds, is fooled by appearances—most famously, by that of “Madeleine,” the chic, elegant beauty impersonated by the working-class Judy (played, in both cases, by Kim Novak).
But fundamentally, and fatally, he is fooled by the old college acquaintance whose reappearance in his life is indicated in the dialogue above, Gavin Elster.
Elster, when Scottie meets him at his office, appears to be a cultured shipping magnate, deeply concerned that his wife may harm herself because of her belief that she’s possessed by the spirit of her great-grandmother. In reality, Elster has concocted a plot in which his mistress will act as his wife, running to a tower that he knows that Scottie cannot ascend because of the trauma-induced acrophobia that forced him off the police force.
There are really only two true statements that Elster makes to Scottie at their initial meeting. First, the real Madeleine did have an ancestor Carlotta of some local lore.
Second, Elster says he is bored by his routine and he envies the power and freedom enjoyed by original settlers of San Francisco. It is for that power and freedom that Elster wants to murder his well-to-do wife and abscond with her money.
Since Notorious a dozen years ago, Hitchcock had sought to push against and test Hollywood’s censorship office, the Production Code Administration, notably in his treatment of sexuality. But in its way, Vertigo may have represented his most direct challenge to one of its ironclad rules: that villains be punished.
In contrast—and uniquely among all the villains in Hitchcock’s many film thrillers—Elster escapes unscathed and even unrepentant.
The evil he represents is signified by the collateral damage surrounding the murder of his wife:
*Judy, his accomplice in the crime, is dumped as his girlfriend, left with minimal money—and ends up ironically reenacting the fate of Madeleine in the tower, where an enraged Scottie has dragged her when he ferrets out the truth.
*Scottie, who still has a chance to establish a life after his disability-induced retirement from the police force, is driven to obsession, madness, and destruction of the woman he has come to love; and
*Midge, the bantering friend—and once-and-possibly-future fiancée of Scottie—loses him to illusion—and is herself driven to trailing Scottie himself as he trails Madeleine.
Present in less than a half-dozen scenes, Elster decisively tilts Scottie towards permanent loss of mental balance. His role is one of the less-remarked upon, but still fascinating, aspects of this masterpiece that offers something new with each new viewing.
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