THE LIVING AND THE DEAD
The Movie Guys Rewrite: Vertigo
Rewrite by Steven Lewis
THIS ARTICLE OBVIOUSLY CONTAINS SPOILERS
A very propitious event happened the first time I watched “Vertigo”: my DVD player broke down halfway through. Now, normally this would not be a good thing, but in this instance the technical snafu was timed to perfection: it allowed me to enjoy all of what had already transpired in this sumptuous, intoxicating movie without having to suffer the dreadful thud of the inept plotting which curtails its effects in the final stretch.
Here’s what I got to savor: Jimmy Stewart (one of my all-time favorite actors) having his vertigo first revealed to him in an opening rooftop chase, wherein his affliction prevents him from saving a plainclothes cop from falling to his death. Quitting the force out of guilt and fear, Stewart’s character – John “Scottie” Ferguson – is contacted by an old college pal, Gavin Elster, who wishes to employ his services in a private capacity. Scottie is to follow Elster’s wife, Madeline (Kim Novak – totally stunning, in the way of all Hitchcock’s women) who Elster believes to be suicidal – not through conscious intent, but because he fears her soul is being possessed or controlled by the long-dead Carlotta Valdes, herself a suicide victim.
At this point, the film becomes largely silent, as we watch Scottie follow the mysterious heroine through the sites of San Francisco: a shop, a graveyard, an art gallery, an old hotel, the Golden Gate Bridge – places that have connections with the past and/or death. Hitchcock’s mastery in laying out this sequence increases our own obsession as audience members, our desire to know what is behind the mystery.
Eventually, Scottie saves Madeline’s life when she jumps into the San Francisco Bay. He moves then from follower to protector, and comes to feel that only HE can keep her safe. The two become close, and Madeline begins – through Scottie’s prompting – to reveal more and more of her secrets. This climaxes with a passionate kiss on a cliff overlooking the Monterey Bay. And it is at this point where my DVD player broke down.
But that was OK. I felt I could practically finish the story from there, anyhow. Hitchcock had laid the groundwork so well, that it was obvious where it was heading. Clearly, Elster planned all along for Scottie to become romantically attached to Madeline. He undoubtedly dispatched a photographer to follow them around, and the shots of them kissing would be used in Elster’s divorce proceeding against her as proof of infidelity. This would allow him to get out of his marriage to a madwoman without being involved in her medical care, while still entitled to a good deal of money from her family’s fortune. Meanwhile, Scottie would have Madeline – but her sanity would still be precarious, the moreso now that her husband had abandoned her, just as Carlotta Valdes had been abandoned by her lover.
And what of Scottie’s female “friend” Midge in all this, eh? It had been revealed that she and Scottie were engaged once upon a time, back in college, and she remains a fixture in his life. We have seen her counseling Scottie after his accident, helping him track down information on Carlotta, even following him around at a discreet distance to find out what he has been up to. Certainly, Hitchcock would never introduce such a character only to have her play no role whatsoever in the third act. Naturally, then, she will contribute somehow to Madeline’s downfall.
Turns out I was wrong on all counts. Here is an excerpt of a letter written to Scottie by Judy Barton – a character we meet in the final third of the movie, also played by Kim Novak:
I was the tool and you were the victim of Gavin Elster’s plan to murder his wife. He chose me to play the part because I look like her. He dressed me up like her. It was quite safe because she lived in the country and rarely came to town. He chose you to be the witness to a suicide. The Carlotta story was part real, part invented to make you testify that Madeline wanted to kill herself. He knew of your illness, he knew you’d never get up the stairs of the tower [that is, the Church tower of the Spanish mission where Madeline supposedly jumped to her death].
Really? REALLY?! This is the plot – the ingenious murder plot? My God, how contrived! And this is how we, the audience, find out about it – in a bald-faced voiceover narration? How utterly artless, and lacking in all the mystery and dreaminess the film had been at such pains to build up. I don’t like it. I don’t like it one bit.
Firstly, conjuring such a wildly improbable story as Madeline’s “possession” by Carlotta and then investing so heavily in it, only to reveal it in the end as a tossed off murder plot ruse – well, that’s not playing fair with an audience, or our attention. It would be like finding out at the end of “The Sixth Sense” that Haley Joel Osment didn’t REALLY see dead people – he only pretended to in order to get close to Bruce Willis, and kill him. There is such a thing as going too far afield in your plot construction.
And where’s the proof that this story would even work on a character like Jimmy Stewart plays? Elster even refers to him, in their first scene together, as “the hard-headed Scott” – in other words: a grounded man, a natural cynic, someone not prone to wild flights of romantic fantasy. In short, not someone likely to fall for this “possession by a dead woman” claptrap. Had the Scottie character been established as an idealist, a romantic, perhaps someone who’d even had a lover die on him in his past – or just someone who himself was only barely on the verge of sanity – he would make more sense as a mark. But not this guy.
Hitchcock has famously said (and others have said for him) that this is his film about romantic obsession, and how deadly it can be. In the final third we watch Scottie’s pursuit of Judy Barton, and his endeavors to “re-make” her into the image of his beloved Madeline. But how can we really view this as romantic madness when we, as an audience, know that Judy and Madeline are indeed the same person? Is Scottie truly mad, in the grip of deadly passion – or are his instincts as a detective just so finely honed that he sniffs out the truth regardless?
Wouldn’t it be more effective – more “maddening” – if there were no murder plot at all, that Madeline dies in just the way she appears to, and that Judy Barton really and truly is a separate individual? How chilling would it then be to watch Scottie impose Madeline’s look, dress and character upon the unsuspecting Judy, in order to bring the dead back to life. And then, for him to take her – unbidden and unprovoked – to that Spanish mission, and induce her to run up the flight of stairs to the top and bid her jump, in order that he might put right his initial failing, and “save” her this time? And then . . . and then to have her do it, and him to pull back in the end from saving her – and us not knowing whether it was because his vertigo got the better of him again, or because in some deep place in his psyche he wanted to either “kill” this impostor, this pretender to the throne of Madeline . . . or even to do away with this entire romantic attachment. In any case, watching this once decent man stand at the top of a church tower, looking down upon the lifeless figure of a woman he had deliberately driven to her death – with, perhaps, the nun coming up behind him to intone “Poor girl. But there was nothing you could have done.” Wouldn’t that ending be ten times more chilling than the one Hitchcock devised, and all in a way that plays totally fair with the audience?
It would in my world, anyway. Someone tell me how I can set my DVD player so that I get THAT result next time I put this movie in.
“Vertigo” is available on DVD.