Printer Friendly

Hitchcock's Vertigo.


TIFF celebrated its 40th anniversary in 2015 and as part of the festivities held a free screening of Vertigo. The screening was accompanied with an on stage performance of the film's score by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra which served to highlight the experience. Making the event even more an occasion, Kim Novak, providing genuine movie star glamour, attended the screening, introducing the film and holding a Q & A session afterwards. The screening and the event prompted me to consider the contemporary approach taken towards the film by critics and the public. Vertigo is arguably Hitchcock's masterpiece and was named the greatest film of all time by a Sight and Sound 2012 polling. Since the early 60s, Hitchcock has been internationally recognized as an auteur. The film is an expression of his personal vision but it is also a collaborative effort which is essential to its realization and meaning.

Vertigo, which is Hitchcock's fourth and final film to star James Stewart, belongs to his working relationship with a number of classical cinema's most gifted and iconic star actors. As such, it can be considered as a collaboration of sorts between the director and Stewart. Hitchcock's other longstanding association with actors includes his work with Cary Grant, Ingrid Bergman and Grace Kelly. The films he made with these four performers are among his best and that of the participating actors. On each occasion, the pairing of director-actor significantly enhanced the star's screen image and persona, adding a maturity to their respective screen images. For instance, Grant, with Suspicion, while retaining his leading man charm and subversive playfulness, displayed a moral ambiguity that was alternatively seductive and sinister; with Notorious, his character expresses a sexual desire for Bergman's character, who reciprocates, but he also has a compulsive need to reject her, fearing to trust her and have his vulnerability exposed. James Stewart, in Rope, evolves from a Capra idealist to an urbanite, playing a cynical, egoistic philosopher who refuses to take responsibility for his implicit endorsement of murder. In these two examples, Hitchcock, working within the studio system, utilizes the established screen presence and persona of an actor. With a perceptive understanding of an actor's untapped potential, he explores aspects of his or her persona that suit his narrative's needs while adding complexity to the film.

Throughout his Hollywood career, Hitchcock's casting choices were often inspired. In addition to casting Novak in Vertigo, other notable choices include Joseph Cotton in Shadow of a Doubt, Robert Walker in Strangers on a Train, Doris Day in The Man Who Knew Too Much and Anthony Perkins and Janet Leigh in Psycho. While he may have regretted choosing Montgomery Clift for I Confess, once he began working with the actor and realized his studied performing methodology, Hitchcock's instincts were correct. Clift ideally suited the role both on a visual level and because of his innate sensibility.


By the late 40s, Hitchcock was confronted with the fact that the Hollywood cinema needed star images which reflected post WWII cultural changes. With Grace Kelly, he found an actress who was traditionally beautiful, glamorous and elegant but whose persona suited the popular image of the young modern American woman--cool, flirtatious and knowing. Kelly's status as a major star and best work is found in Rear Window and To Catch a Thief films that displayed her sophistication and skills as a light comedienne. In the latter half of the 50s, after casting Vera Miles in The Wrong Man, Hitchcock intended to make her into a star with Vertigo, exhibiting her range in the dual role of the Madeleine-Judy character. When Miles upset the director's plans for her by becoming pregnant, he was forced to quickly find a replacement. Hitchcock never gave his reasons for casting Novak nor did he make a public comment on her performance after the film's release. According to historian Dan Auiler, Hitchcock screened The Eddy Duchin Story in the fall of 1956 which was roughly six months before Miles quit the project. He suggests Hitchcock might have had second thoughts about Miles in the crucial role. Auiler also says no other actresses were considered and no screen test with Novak was done. (1)

Hitchcock asserted that an actor in his films need do no more than follow his technical instructions. The claim may be responsible for the fact that many academic critics and the pubic have tended to ignore or minimize the contribution of actors to his work. The director himself encouraged this idea with the notorious claim that "Actors should be treated like cattle." From another perspective, it is worth noting that Joan Fontaine is the only actor to win an Academy Award in a leading role in a Hitchcock film and no actors nominated in supporting roles have won an award. Arguably, with stars such as Grant, Bergman and Stewart, Hitchcock strongly relied on the actor's popular image, merging aspects of the screen image with the characterization. The result, in effect, would suggest that Cary Grant in, for example, Notorious, is playing a variant of 'Cary Grant'; similarly, Bergman's remarkably mature and intelligent characterization may be taken for granted given her reputation as a conscientious actor. The actual performance is slighted instead of it being considered as a character construction created for the narrative's diegetic world. The fact is Hitchcock's films aren't taken seriously as an actor's medium.

In interviews, Novak has said repeatedly that Hitchcock's concern with her performance was restricted to technical elements such as Madeleine's speech pattern. For example, she mentions that he had her work with a metronome to produce the speaking rhythm he wanted. In regard to character interpretation, she claims Hitchcock allowed her to play the Madeleine and Judy characters as she understood them. Novak initially found this difficult to deal with as did other first time actors working with the director. During the shooting of The Man Who Knew Too Much, Doris Day allegedly became very upset because he wasn't giving her any indication of what he thought of her acting. Similarly, Farley Granger, in an interview included in the DVD of Rope, says he was unnerved by Hitchcock's silence about his performance.

When Vertigo was released in 1958, the film wasn't the commercial success it was anticipated to be nor was it critically well-received. In North America, Vertigo was dismissed as one of Hitchcock's rare disappointments. In France, the Cahiers du cinema critics embraced the film but its full recognition didn't occur until the 1996 restored version was released. By that time, Novak was the sole survivor of the major actors involved in the project and she began promoting the new print at premieres in America and Europe. The revival of the film should have led seemingly to an appreciative response to Novak's indelible contribution to the film's emotional impact and it's devastating resolution; instead, Novak is recognized for her movie star status. Vertigo's greatness depends in part on the emotional depth she and Stewart bring to the film. Yet, if one attended a screening of the film with Novak present but without knowing the impact of her performance, it would be possible to think her role was a minor one. Vertigo is rightly being screened in Hitchcock's honor, but there should be room to acknowledge Novak's creative contribution..


In CineAction 50, I wrote an article entitled "Kim Novak: Vertigo, Performance and Image" discussing the significance of her performance to the film's effectiveness. I comment on Novak's characterizations of Madeleine and Judy, pointing to moments which I consider best illustrate her ability to embody each character convincingly. If Novak's performance had been less precise and deeply felt, Stewart's performance equally would have been diminished in its resonance. Although some of what I address below is present in the 1999 article, I am here commenting on aspects of the characterizations that hadn't been considered or fully acknowledged in the earlier piece.

Columbia's Harry Cohn was clear about his intention to make Novak a star, the notion being a conceit of a number of the studio system moguls. To that end, he groomed her, promoted her through a big publicity campaign and showcased her initially in small budget films. Cohn, in fact, went out of his way to emphasize that she was his creation. He gave the impression that talent wasn't an issue, nor did he acknowledge that Novak from the beginning had a distinctive screen presence and persona. With Picnic, The Man With the Golden Arm and The Eddy Duchin Story, released in quick succession, Novak gained instant star status. Undoubtedly, her performances were relevant to the films but tended to be looked at with skepticism by the mainstream media critics because of the way she had been handled by Cohn.


Novak's star image involves her beauty and an aura of glamour. As Madeleine, her star status suits the character and contributes to her characterization of a woman who is enticing but unobtainable. It reinforces the notion of the mysterious and the elusive. More importantly, Novak's on screen presence is marked by a degree of restraint and a withholding of her inner self from the camera (making Madeleine's reincarnation all the more powerful as she steps out of the bathroom and walks directly towards the camera offering herself to Scottie and the viewer.) Her Madeleine conveys 'otherness' which is an aspect of stardom, but it infers more than merely an aesthetically physical perfection. As Madeleine's first encounter with Scottie in his apartment illustrates, she humanizes the character while retaining an air of aloofness. Notably, the scene also establishes that Novak and Stewart have a strong on screen chemistry.

Her screen presence, in its reticence and unease with being objectified, suits Madeleine's character and her attraction. There is a degree of self-containment about Madeleine that is evident in most of Novak's performances. Later, in the scenes featuring Madeleine and Scottie together, Hitchcock interrupts the progression of the relationship by alternatively having Scottie shown with either Midge or Elster. The pacing of the Scottie-Madeleine relationship is slow and has an ebb and flow quality about it, culminating in the stable scene in which Scottie thinks he can rationally 'explain' to Madeleine her fears and delusions and, in doing so, possess her. In each of their encounters, Novak displays an aspect of Madeleine that generates a desire on Scottie's part to 'reach' her. Novak's performance is perfectly synchronized with the character to make it look effortless on her part. It is a performance that belies her skill and resources as an actor to inhabit the role--as we later discover, Madeleine is a construction, an illusion created by Elster to serve his purposes.


As Madeleine is about to go to the bell tower to commit suicide, Judy briefly appears. She tells Scottie, "It wasn't supposed to happen this way." Madeleine has a seductive voice which has been replaced with a voice which is harsher and of a higher register. After Madeleine's death, Scottie has an emotional breakdown but manages to recover although his obsession with her continues. It is Scottie's compulsive behavior that leads him to the floral shop associated with Madeleine. After spying Judy, he follows her to her hotel room. From the moment that Judy is approached by Scottie, Novak makes Judy a vivid and fully-rounded character. Their initial encounter leads to a flashback in which Judy remembers Madeleine's 'death' at the mission. From this point on, Judy is at the centre of the narrative until Scottie's discovers the truth that Madeleine and Judy are one. Following Judy's revelation with the letter she writes, we are given a few point of view shots from her perspective. Judy's subjectivity becomes more pronounced; I see Scottie's entire courtship of her as being experienced through her responses to Scottie's behavior. Not only is she trying to negotiate a relationship with Scottie as Judy, she is aware of Scottie's obsession with Madeleine and the risk she is taking by being with him. Novak, as Judy, is dramatizing both the character's 'objective' situation and her interior state of mind. Arguably, the viewer is positioned partially in the role of Judy's confidant. Hitchcock calls attention to Judy's conflict in the hotel room scene when Scottie bluntly admits what he wants from her. With the Judy-Scottie scenes, there is a conciseness and a rapid pacing. Scottie dominates Judy in his quest to regain Madeleine. As he does, Judy resists his efforts and yet agrees to them. Novak's guarded attempts to counter Scottie's request, conveys Judy increasing desperation to retain her identity.

The scene in which Scottie asks Judy to dye her hair is the culmination of her struggle. After agreeing to do so, she says "If I do what you tell me, will you love me?... All right. All right, then, I'll do it. I don't care about me anymore." The admission and the following image, that of Scottie silently leading Judy to the fireplace and having her kneel in front of it while he stands back intently watching her, is most disturbing. While Scottie's behavior suggests sinister implications, the overwhelming effect is one of a profound sadness due to Judy's acquiescence. The expression on Scottie's face suggests that he is awed by having Judy under his control.

In the aftermath of Judy's transformation into Madeleine, she destroys the fantasy she has created by unthinkingly putting on Carlotta's necklace. Scottie, in turn, responses with brutality. Returning to the mission, the site of the original trauma, he physically forces Judy, while exacting a confession from her, to the top of the tower. In the confrontation that follows, Scottie, clinging to his fantasy, slips from reality to momentarily thinking Madeleine is present as he whispers "I loved you so much Madeleine." Judy, trying to defend herself, replies "I walked into danger and let you change me because I loved you. Oh Scottie, oh, Scottie please, you loved me. Now, keep me safe. Please." The combination of Novak's on screen vulnerability, her poignant portrayal of Judy, and the character's inability to save herself and Scottie has an emotional nakedness that is painful to watch.

Without slighting Novak's performance as Madeleine which is totally compelling and perfectly executed, arguably, it is her interpretation of the working class Judy that is the most impressive. Judy lacks Madeleine's elegance, complexity and sophistication and the viewer like Scottie, is captivated by her. Yet it is Judy who allows us a much greater access to her interior existence which is essential to making Vertigo a tragedy. To be as emotionally open as Novak makes Judy compensate for Stewart's Scottie, who remains a broken person unable to resolve his conflicting needs.

Hitchcock's films express a personal vision. Still, without actors capable of communicating his intentions, the film will suffer. (2) Whether or not he fully realized it, Hitchcock found his Madeleine-Judy with Novak.

While Novak has appeared on a number of occasions in support of Vertigo, she has yet to receive full acknowledgment for what she accomplished as its leading actress. It is something that's long overdue.


(1) Auiler, Dan, Vertigo: The Making of a Hitchcock Classic (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1998) 23, 24

(2) For instance, Max Ophuls, another auteur director, compromised Lola Montes with the casting of Martine Carol, who gives a lackluster performance.
COPYRIGHT 2016 CineAction
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2016 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:Alfred Hitchcock
Author:Lippe, Richard
Article Type:Critical essay
Date:Mar 22, 2016
Previous Article:On the off-screen voice: sound & vision in Spike Jonze's Her.
Next Article:Reconfiguring conventions in three recent war films.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2019 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters