Saturday, April 17, 2004

On Seeing Vertigo for the umpteenth time; or "That damned nun!"

I will assume my readers have seen this film; but I say this even as I recall that a movie reviewer for got angry letters from people after he wrote in a column that "Rosebud" was the name of a sled.  One never knows.I have lost count of the number of times I have seen Vertigo (1958), though I know the count is, still, fewer than 20.  Each semester, I show it 2-3 times to different classes for different reasons.  The basic reasons, though, remain constants: 1) The vast majority of my students haven't seen it; 2) It's a safe film in terms of its content--no nudity or language or graphic violence to upset the more prudish among my students; 3) (most important) It's a film whose reputation is pretty much beyond dispute.
It's the "why" of that reputation that I was pondering as I watched it this time (two days ago).  Along with its unassailable status as a great film, Vertigo has that other label, "haunting," often attached to it: lots of people are fascinated by this film without quite knowing why that is.  For me, this time, it became clear that it works on me in much the same way that Hamlet does--it dares us, just as Hamlet dares Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, to pluck out the heart of its mystery, yet that heart keeps evading our grasp.  In the meantime, details in each emerge that extend the storyline well before the Now of the film (and play), giving the narrative depth (not to mention something for us to ponder during its long, silent stretches.
It's those silences that struck me this time.  Consider, for example, the sequence beginning with Scottie's first seeing Madeline at Ernie's and ending with his returning from the McKittrick Hotel to Madeline's hotel: I'll time it some time (I'm sure someone out there has done this; I've not reached THAT point yet), but I'm guessing that that sequence is well over 5 minutes long, maybe even 10.  Apart from Scottie's brief exchanges with the museum guard and the desk clerk at the McKittrick, no one says anything during that entire stretch.  In classic Hitchcock fashion (Rear Window is another good example of this), we first watch Madeline (or her car as it makes turns), then we see Scottie's reaction to what he (and we) have just seen.  Back and forth.  No one thinks for us--we have enough to do with our job of pondering Madeline's behavior AND wondering what Scottie makes of it.  His exasperation in the third driving sequence (when Madeline ends up at Scottie's apartment to drop off the thank-you note) is our exasperation as well.  But its work is done: both Scottie and the viewer are by now intensely curious about Madeline (and Scottie has the distinct and enviable advantage of having undressed Madeline after he rescued her from the bay).
So, the silences.  Something else that struck me this time was the use of mirrors in two crucial places.  The first is at the very end of the first scene at Ernie's, as Elster escorts Madeline through the lounge and out the door.  Madeline and Elster's reflection appears in the wall-to-ceiling mirror near the entrance, thus doubling them both.  Quite appropriate, though we don't know it at the time.  The other, crucial moment is when Scottie and Judy are getting ready to go, appropriately, to Ernie's, and Judy asks Scottie to help her open the clasp for her necklace.  Surely Scottie sees it as he approaches, but it's not until, as he stands behind her, he sees it in the mirror on Judy that he recognizes it as being the same necklace that he had seen in Carlotta's portrait; he thus realizes that Judy is/was Madeline.  The portrait Mige paints is another sort of mirror--indeed, it makes clear just what is going on, yet Scottie by this time is so enthralled by the illusion that he has come to accept it as real.
And finally the end--what one of my students on Thursday described as "That damned nun!"  Indeed.  We're left standing there with Scottie on the ledge of the bell-tower window in the film's final shot, wondering . . . well, I suppose much depends on the extent to which we have come to identify with Scottie's plight.  If we've come to fear him as we see him ruthlessly transform Judy into Madeline's likeness, then we might see the ending as punitive.  If we see, finally, the potential for a genuine romance between Scottie and Madeline/Judy, the ending must seem a cruel joke.  Perhaps his system has received the emotional shock he and Mige discuss in the first scene in her apartment and he will be cured of his acrophobia, but WE now have HIS case of vertigo.  Who or what will cure US as we leave the theatre or turn off the DVD player?
In other words, Vertigo holds up well to repeated viewings as few films do.  It never quite reveals the "whys" of its central mystery; it always holds something in reserve, causing us to go ever deeper into it.
Those who wish to read the comments for the original LiveJournal post can go here.

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