I was going to do a major rewrite on this before running it again... but that didn't happen.
VERTIGO is an acquired taste. It’s a slow, brooding, character study with a couple of great suspense scenes and some cool plot twists. It's also darker than dark. Film noir, in living color. Because so many critics have called it “Hitchcock’s Masterpiece” many people either watch it as their first Hitchcock or have built up expectations for the film. It’s a flawed film. You may even hate it.
It’s not my favorite Hitchcock film, but I like it - warts and all. I think it’s one of the most entertaining character studies I’ve ever seen. I think if you look at it as the story of a man who is obsessed with a woman... who dies... and that doesn’t stop him from wanting to sleep with her... you’ll probably appreciate the film. Based on a novel by the guys who wrote DIABOLIQUE who know how to twist a plot.
Hitchcock had two actors he worked with frequently - Cary Grant from last week’s NORTH BY NORTHWEST and Jimmy Stewart. Grant took the suave romantic roles, Stewart took the every man roles. Usually he would play a normal guy like the news photographer in REAR WINDOW who worries that one of his neighbors may have killed his wife, or the college professor in ROPE who worries that two of his students may have killed their friend. Though he plays a San Francisco detective in VERTIGO, he’s not just a normal guy. He has issues.
Nutshell: Again, to all of you writers who long for the good old days when scripts didn’t have to start with a bang... VERTIGO opens with a rooftop chase. Bang - first image is a bar across the screen... as a criminal’s hands grab it, climbing up an access ladder to the roof... cops in hot pursuit. Detective Scotty Ferguson (Jimmy Stewart) and a uniform cop chase the criminal - jumping from roof to roof.. Almost falling a few times. The scene will be swiped later for THE MATRIX. Scotty loses his footing, slides down a roof and grabs the rain gutter - which begins to bend. We get the first of several amazing dolly-zoom shots that makes the street become farther away. The Uniform Cop comes to help him... but ends up falling to his death.
Scotty ends up with vertigo - fear of heights - and retires from the police force. A friend from college offers him a job - watching his wife. He’s not worried about infidelity, he’s worried his wife has been possessed by her long-dead great grandmother who offed herself at 26... and his wife has just turned 26 and is acting really really weird. Scotty takes the job, and like in OUT OF THE PAST the detective falls for the woman he’s following, Madeline (a blonde Kim Novak).
Now he’s fooling around with his college chum’s wife! And she *is* possessed by Mad Carlotta. She has dreams of some small village in Spain where she kills herself. As she describes the village in her dreams... Scotty realizes it isn’t in Spain, it’s a Spanish Mission just down the coast. He takes her there, hoping to release the hold Mad Carlotta has on Madeline... but Madeline climbs up to the top of the belltower, Scotty trying to follow, but his vertigo gets in the way, and she jumps to her death. Splat.
Nice story if it ends there... but Scotty just can’t get over Madeline’s death. Every time he spots a woman who resembles her, he begins to hope it *is* her and she’s still alive. Then he bumps into blue collar shop girl Judy (a brunette Kim Novak) who looks close enough to Madeline that he starts dating her... then doing a make over on her... having her dye her hair and dress and walk like Madeline. He’s recreating his lost love in another woman - so that he can sleep with Madeline again... necrophilia! And you know this isn’t going to end well.
Hitch Appearance: About ten minutes in, Hitch is waddling down the street with a horn case.
Great Scenes: Let’s start with that great rooftop chase. So cool they stole it for THE MATRIX. The film hits the ground running... which is good because the next scene is a talky scene with Scotty and his gal-pal Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes) that establishes she’s in love with him and he just wants to be friends. This relationship continues throughout the film in several scenes.
But the end of this scene has a great bit where Scotty pulls out a step stool to test his acrophobia. He steps on the first step - not a problem. Steps on the second step - not a problem. But we know there is going to be a problem eventually - which turns each step into *suspense*. The *steps* are a ticking clock. Building step-by-step until Scotty reaches the height where his vertigo kicks in... and we get that dolly-zoom thing again that makes the floor seem like it’s zooming away from you - without the camera changing position at all.
I used the dolly zoom thing on a couple of my silly little short films - and it’s much harder than it looks because the zoom has to be going at the same rate as the dolly. I’m sure when you have Hollywood equipment and crew people you can get one good take after a few hours... that was not the case with my wheel chair dolly.
NEXUS WORDS: One of the interesting things in this film is the use of the word “past” and elements from the past - I call this the “nexus word” because it connects story and theme and character through the choice of words in dialogue. In VERTIGO Scotty’s college buddy Gavin (Tom Helmore) talks about San Francisco’s past throughout his scene. And locations like Portals Of The Past and almost all of the small talk deals with the past... and Gavin’s wife is haunted by the past - Mad Carlotta. The word "past" and other words and phrases that have to do with the past are spread throughout the screenplay... kind of a subliminal element.
TAIL JOB: There’s a 14 minute segment with no dialogue where Scotty follows Madeline that shows that shows her slowly being possessed by a dead woman and finally attempting suicide. This isn't some EXORCIST style possession, this woman goes about her daily life acting perfectly normal. But she buys a flower corsage that a dead woman wears in a painting. She has her hair styled like the dead woman's. She visits the dead woman's grave. She rents a room in the dead woman's house (now broken into apartments). She performs *actions* that show us what's going on inside her mind.
This 14 minute segment also shows us the relationship between Scotty and Madeline... How he comes to care about her - just through what he does. And how he comes to realize that she is possessed by dead Carlotta. I often show this segment in my big 2 day class, but no matter how brilliant it is at visual story telling - it’s *14 minutes long*! Might as well just watch the whole movie!
BAY RESCUE: While Scotty is following Madeline, she drives out to Fort Point under the Golden Gate Bridge... and jumps into the bay! Scotty jumps in and saves her...
Cut to Madeline waking up in Scotty’s apartment, in his bed... naked. He gives her a robe... but all of her clothes, including her underwear, are hanging out to dry. This is a weird scenes, because he’s saved her life... and seen her naked. She’s not sure how to react, and their conversation has this strange sexual tension.
REDWOODS: After he’s seen her naked, they decide to take a day trip together, and end up in the redwoods (that’s a long day). Of course, there’s a redwood slice showing what rings represent what past historical events. And the more time Scotty spends with her, the more he falls in love with her... and the more he realizes she’s crazy.
PREMONITIONS: One of my favorite writing tricks in VERTIGO is the dream that comes true. Madeline tells Scotty about a dream she had - and gives him all of these details. She’s in Spain, in some village, and she describes everything... and then, at the end of the dream, she dies.
Scotty recognizes some of what she describes - it’s not Spain, it’s the old Spanish Mission down the coast. He thinks if he takes Madeline there, and she sees that it’s real, she may be “cured”. Nice plan, but it backfires.
The cool thing about the scene where he takes her to the Mission is that everything she described is *there* - it’s like her dream come true. And every time we see a detail from her dream - it sends chills down your spine because you know how the dream ends - she dies. So each detail is another step closer to her death... another type of ticking clock!
This scene is magical and tragical - every one of those details from her dream suddenly becomes reality! As a viewer you are amazed that she could so accurately predict what will happen in a scene that hasn't happened yet. She says there will be a white horse... and there's a white horse! How could she know that?
But here’s the thing - as a writer, you just write up the dream in one scene, and then a couple of scenes later have it come true. It’s a no cost “special effect” that works. But Madeline’s dream ends with her death... so the more we see from her dream, the closer the end of her dream is to becoming a reality. This builds suspense and dread.
You don't need an actual clock - or some silly big red LED bomb timer - to create a ticking clock. What you need is something that creates steps that take us closer and closer to that event we don't want to have happen - and we need to see each step. It might be a literal step - like on the step stool - or detail after detail that turns a nightmare into reality... with a character's death at the end.
BELL TOWER: When Madeline races to the Mission’s bell tower, Scotty chases after her. But inside the bell tower, climbing the endless stairways up... vertigo kicks in. We get some great extreme dolly-zooms... and then Madeline makes it to the roof while Scotty is still battling his agoraphobia... and she jumps. Falling all the way to the terra cotta roof below and breaking tiles. It’s deja vu all over again - Scotty has lived and the other person has fallen... to their death.
Next we get a protracted inquest scene where they really rub in Scotty’s failure to save her. Gavin says he can’t stay in San Francisco... too many memories.
BAD DREAM A GO GO: Scotty has a twisted nightmare - where Madeline becomes Mad Carlotta and he’s the one who is falling from the bell tower. The dream is filled with animation and animated effects that probably were mind blowing in 1958... but don’t really hold up today. Difficult to have animation and live action in the same sequence - in the same shots - and have that animation be supposedly “real”. After this nightmare, Scotty ends up in the looney bin.
IS THAT HER? Once Scotty is released from the asylum, every place he looks he thinks he sees Madeline. He goes to all of the places where she used to go - searching for her. It’s a reverse of the tail job sequence - all of the same locations.
In the 2 day class I show 3 scenes from VERTIGO That all take place at elegant Ernie's Restaurant - and chart the changes in Scotty by keeping the background the same (location) and changing the foreground.
1) First scene is when Scotty goes to Ernies to see what she looks like - she's beautiful. It's love at first sight (DVD chapter 5 - Elster's Wife).
2) After she’s dead, he hangs around outside Ernie's Restaurant... finally going inside and sitting at the bar in the same place he sat the night he first saw her. He looks through the restaurant for some sign of her... spotting a woman who looks similar (DVD chapter 24 - Ghosts).
3) Later in the film he meets a department store clerk who looks similar to Madeline and takes her to Ernie's Restaurant. They dance together, but she has none of the elegance of Novak's character. She's out of place in Ernie's. The date is a flop (DVD chapter 27 - Because I Remind You Of Her).
This is called an "Echo Scene" - I believe Michael Hauge came up with that term. I have a Script Tip in rotation about Echo Scenes that uses scenes from NOTORIOUS on a park bench as the example.
Three scenes in Ernie's Restaurant. The first scene sets up Scotty's love for Madeline. The second scene shows us Scotty missing Madeline. The third scene shows us Scotty trying to replace Madeline with another woman... and failing. By returning to the location and keeping the type of scene a constant, the audience focuses on the DIFFERENCES between the scenes - Scotty's emotional state. None of these three scenes have any dialogue, yet all are deeply emotional. They SHOW us what Scotty's character is feeling. When he hangs around outside Ernie's, we know he's heart broken. He doesn't have to say a word. That’s a technique you can use in your screenplays.
MEETING JUDY: At the end of Scotty’s reverse tail job, where he visits all of the places Madeline used to go, he spots a woman on the street who reminds him of Madeline... Judy Barton. Follows her to her apartment, then asks her out. Stalker!
Actually, it’s more sick than that. This is a really uncomfortable scene, because he’s not stable. Scotty says she reminds him of a girl... and Judy guesses that the girl is dead. And Scotty pesters her to go out to dinner with him, questions her about her identity, and is just creepy. She finally agrees to go out with him.... and we get Judy’s backstory. The next day, they go to Ernies... and then he keeps asking her out.
SPOILERS - I’ve decided to leave out a couple of interesting scenes. We can discuss them in the comments section if you’ve seen the movie.
JUDY TRANSFORMATION: Look for the color green - it ties the two women together. Eventually, Scotty wants to go all te way... and turn Judy into Madeline. He buys her Madeline’s clothes... a really uncomfortable scene. Judy knows he’s turning her into the dead girl... and objects. But he begs her - it’s just clothes, right? But it doesn’t end there. He wants her to talk different, act different... and dye her hair blonde. “Couldn’t you like me just the way I am?” She asks if he’ll love her, Judy, if she dyes her hair? He says yes... but you know it’s a lie... and you know Judy is messed up enough emotionally to agree to the dye job. He waits in her apartment while she’s at the hairdressers... then she comes home... or maybe Madeline does. Except for the hair style, she *is* Madeline. So he forces her to change her hairstyle...
Then - she is Madeline. Looks exactly like her. Scotty sweeps her into his arms and kisses her... but he’s really kissing Madeline... and we get a great visual - as they kiss, the camera rolls around them... and it’s Scotty kissing the real Madeline moments before she ran to the bell tower and killed herself... and as the camera keeps moving, we’re back in Judy’s apartment, and he’s kissing the fake Madeline - all one shot.
This technique will be used again in Brian DePalma's OBSESSION (written by Paul Schrader) - a VERTIGO homage (and one of DePalma's better films) and then in OLD BOY (which shares many story elements with OBSESSION). By using one shot that seemlessly takes us from present to past and then back to present, we can see that Scotty has succeeded in transforming Judy into Madeline - they are the same person in his mind. One shot - one woman is the other.
Then *wham* Judy puts on a necklace. Madeline’s necklace. Carlotta’s necklace.
BELL TOWER 2: Scotty decides to take Judy to the Mission... where Madeline died. He’s crazy. Out of his mind. He forces her to go up the stairs with him. And it does not end well. Two women he loves, Two bouts of vertigo. Two tragedies... It
And that’s the happy Hollywood ending for 1958... it's *Scotty* who ends up wandering the streets like Mad Carlotta after his heart has been torn out. The transformation of Madeline was fake... the transformation of Scotty was real.
VERTIGO is film noir, in color.
Sound Track: Seriously - one of Bernard Herrmann’s best scores - and he has hundreds of great scores for this to be on the Best Of compilation. Haunting, lyrical, and has that undercurrent of castanets. When I wrote my PAST LIVES script that’s pretty much all I listened to (and Herrmann’s SISTERS score).
WE LIKE TO WATCH: One thing that’s interesting about that 14 minute sequence and much of the rest of the film is that is has characters *watching* someone. In the space of time between watching VERTIGO and typing up this blog entry I saw a half dozen films or so, and noticed that in almost all of them there were scenes or sequences or just shots where the protagonist observed someone without them knowing. They spied on them.
Now, Hitchcock would tie that in to REAR WINDOW, one of my 3 favorite Hitchcock films and note that the audience is predisposed to identify with people who spy on others... as they are basically spying on the people on screen. And that may be the reason why so many protagonists in non-Hitchcock films - comedies, rom-coms, science fiction, westerns, horror, dramas - spy on other characters. Stories about those who spy on others may have an advantage over other kinds of stories when it comes to the cinema because the audience isn’t just listening... they’re spying. Watching other people’s lives.
We’ll look deeper into that in a few weeks when we look at REAR WINDOW. Next up should be THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH remake, but I think I’m going to save that for a double header (or back-to-back) entry that looks at both versions. So we’ll be looking at either the comedy TROUBLE WITH HARRY or the romantic thriller TO CATCH A THIEF next Friday.
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