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Writings

Screwy


March 16, 2001

  I shall suffer nothing as great as dying with a lack of grace.  
                   Sophocles, Antigone

      The 1958 film, Vertigo, directed by Alfred Hitchcock, demonstrates the Freudian idea of the uncanny. The plot of the film centers on a woman's apparent return from the dead unmasked as a murder plot. Through the use of doubling and the return of the repressed, Vertigo demonstrates the "arousing gruesome fear" of the familiar becoming frightening (Freud 224). Yet the film and its production can also be seen as Hitchcock's attempt to double, and thus immortalize the act of directing his favorite actress, Grace Kelly.

      In Vertigo, Scottie Ferguson (played by James Stewart) is hired by his old friend, Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore), to watch over Elster's wife Madeleine (Kim Novak). Madeleine appears to be possessed by a suicidal ancestor's spirit, and kills herself by jumping from a tower. Scottie, having fallen in love with Madeleine, becomes severely depressed by her death until he meets another girl, Judy Barton (also Kim Novak), who bares a striking resemblance to Madeleine. After making over his new girl to look like his dead love, Scottie discovers that Judy was Elster's mistress and accomplice in the murder of the true Madeleine Elster, whom Judy had pretended to be so that Scottie could bear witness to Madeleine's apparent suicide. Upon being confronted with Scottie's revelation, Judy's guilt overcomes her. Judy falls to her death.

      Director Alfred Hitchcock is well known for his victimization of fair-haired female characters. The phrase "Hitchcock Blonde" has even been coined. Hitchcock's favorite of the many blonde actresses he directed was Grace Kelly. A screenwriter who often worked with Hitchcock believed that the director "would have used Grace in the next ten pictures he made" (Hayes qtd. in Englund 61). Yet, once Grace Kelly became Princess of Monaco in 1956, she could no longer pursue her acting career. In 1962, Hitchcock "acquired the rights [to Marnie] especially for Grace Kelly" (Truffaut 325). To Hitchcock's dismay, many in Monaco felt that Her Serene Highness Princess Grace "would be demeaning herself by appearing in a commercial film" (Bradford 207). Tippi Hedren was instead cast as the title thief of Marnie, as Hitchcock "entertained the notion of transforming her into another Grace Kelly" (Truffaut 327). According to "screenwriter John Michael Hayes, who worked closely with Hitchcock in [the late 1950s] . . . 'all the actresses he cast subsequently were attempts to retrieve the image and feeling that Hitch carried around so reverentially about Grace" (Englund 61-62).

      Before Marnie, in 1956, actress Vera Miles drew Hitchcock's notice. "[E]veryone was led to expect [Miles to become] Hitchcock's new Grace Kelly" (Spoto, Dark Side 373). Hitchcock began his transformation of Miles by hiring costume designer "Edith Head [to] design a complete [personal] wardrobe" for Miles. Hitchcock paid for the wardrobe "so she [Miles] wouldn't go around in slacks looking like a Van Nuys housewife" (Hitchcock qtd. in Spoto, Dark Side 373), instead of the tailored, Bryn Mawr, "immaculate scrubbed look" of Kelly (Head, Dress Doctor 143).

      By October of 1956, Hitchcock planned for Miles to co-star with James Stewart in his adaptation of D'Entre les Morts (From Amongst the Dead), the film that became Vertigo. Miles, however, become pregnant after the completion of her "wardrobe and the final tests" (Hitchcock qtd. in Truffaut 247). A substitute for Grace Kelly's alternate therefore became necessary. Kim Novak was agreed upon with Harry Cohn, who had her under contract at a different studio. Oddly enough, Novak was already Cohn's planned "replacement for Rita Hayworth" within his studio (Spoto Dark Side, 389).

      In Vertigo, Judy displays reluctance at Scottie's desire to make her over into Scottie's obsession, Madeleine. Similarly, Novak resisted the changes in her appearance that costume designer Edith Head instituted on Hitchcock's behalf. As Head recalls in The Dress Doctor, Kim Novak "told me [Head] at our first meeting, 'I'll wear anything - so long as it isn't a suit; any color - so long as it isn't gray'" (15). Since Madeleine's central costume is a gray suit, as specified in the script, Hitchcock's reply was that he did not "care what she [wore] . . . as long as it . . . [was] a gray suit" (Head Hollywood, 116). Upon meeting his leading lady, Hitchcock spoke down to Novak, and "succeeded in making her feel like a helpless child . . . by the end of the afternoon he had her right where he wanted her, docile and obedient" (Coleman qtd. in Spoto Dark Side, 390).

      When Scottie makes over Judy in Madeleine's image, he keeps his affections from Judy until she bends to his will. Even after buying a new wardrobe and changing her hair and make up, Judy tries to maintain a semblance of her own personality by keeping her hair down. Scottie wants Judy to wear her platinum blonde hair in a bun, as Madeleine had. Judy acquiesces, entering the bathroom to put her hair up. Scottie waits outside. According to Hitchcock, what Scottie "is really waiting for is for the woman to emerge totally naked this time, and ready for love" (Truffaut 244). In dressing Judy up, Scottie is actually undressing her; stripping Judy of her identity and power.

      Here we see not only the doubling of the Judy and Madeleine characters that Novak plays, but also a parallel between the relationship of Novak, Hitchcock and Kelly with that of Judy, Scottie and Madeleine. These doubles and parallels persist within Vertigo, continually turning in on themselves. Gavin Elster, the true Madeleine's murderous husband, transformed Judy into a vision of his wife for Scottie to admire. After Elster literally "elsed her" (Brill 208) as Judy's destroyed confession note explains, for her, falling in love with Scottie "wasn't part of the plan." The viewer is left to fill in the idea that Elster's plan did involve Scottie falling for Madeleine after she acted out falling into San Francisco Bay for him. This parallels Elster with Hitchcock, directing Novak for the viewers of Vertigo. The audience, like Scottie, is intended to believe "those beautiful phony trances" Madeleine enacts for Scottie.

      In his position as the hero with which the audience identifies, Scottie also has two separate roles within Vertigo. Once Scottie can no longer enjoy Judy's Madeleine performance, he becomes obsessed with trying to view the possessed, mysterious woman again. Therefore, when Scottie finds the naturally brunette Judy, he sees a chance to re-play his times with Madeleine. Judy first appears to Scottie in kelly green. She is wearing a loose shirt, and a sweater with white polka-dotted collar. Green, in Vertigo, is "the colour of death" (Krohn 194). In the first half of the film, green often accompanies Madeleine. At Elster's office, there is always a green plant in the shots wherein Elster explains his troubled wife to Scottie. Scottie first sees Madeleine at Ernie's Restaurant, when she is wearing a black and green evening gown. The incredibly red walls at Ernie's serve to accentuate this green costume.

      The next day, Scottie follows Madeleine's green car into her world of plants and flowers. The pair first visits the flower shop, in which the profuse abundance of floral arrangements gives the scene a funerary tone. Scottie shadows Madeleine to Carlotta's tombstone, standing amongst a mass of vegetation. After admiring the portrait of the long deceased Carlotta, Madeleine and Scottie come to the McKittrick Hotel and the rubber plant of the hotel manageress. Later, Scottie and Madeleine travel together to the Big Basin Redwoods State Park. The evergreen redwoods (another contrast of complimentary colors), "the oldest living things," encapsulate Freud's theory on why the familiarity of a double feels frightening.

      Freud claims that the idea of the double originated in a desire to survive beyond death. The theory derives from the notion that if another version of a person exists, that person cannot completely die. The frightful nature of a double enters when one realizes that doubling does not in fact secure immortality. Doubling's failure at immortality only highlights one's finite life span, thus transfiguring the double into "the uncanny harbinger of death." (Freud 235)

      Of the "always green, ever-living" trees, Madeleine states, "I don't like them . . . [k]nowing I have to die." The fact that the trees will outlive her only reminds Madeleine of her own mortality. Even in a lush, verdant forest, an air of death hangs over Madeleine.

      When Scottie meets once more with Elster, the two sit in a men's club that has just as much greenery as Elster's office. After Scottie pulls Madeleine from the bay, he takes her to his apartment, where she has nothing to wear but Scottie's robe; bright red with little white polka dots, the opposite of Judy's green polka-dotted collar. The red not only creates another sharp contrast to the previous greens, it also adds a distinct element of sexuality. We are led to believe that Scottie undressed Madeleine himself, as all of her clothing is drying in his kitchen when she awakens. Madeleine, Scottie and the audience are quite aware of Madeleine's near nudity. The shot of Madeleine entering Scottie's living room foreshadows Judy's later re-transformation into Madeleine while bathed in a green halo of light. The actress stands in the same pose in both shots, and is framed by an open doorway. In the latter, one cannot imagine Scottie being more aroused by Judy's appearance. Stark nudity is not nearly as important to him as seeing a living recreation of his dead lover.

      Fresh from the San Francisco Bay, wearing nothing but Scottie's red robe, Madeleine sits before the fire on a couple of yellow cushions. Scottie later recreates this same scene with Judy. In his apartment, Scottie tosses the two yellow cushions in front of the fire. Scottie's gaze remains fixated on Judy while she, also aware of the repetition being enacted, sits once more before the fire. This scene begins Scottie's change from the role of a spectator of Madeleine's possession act, to that of Judy's director.

      Just as Hitchcock carefully arranged every aspect of Novak's appearance in Vertigo, so too does Scottie set Judy into scenes he needs to see performed. Scottie begins by dressing Judy in Madeleine's clothes. Like an addict, Scottie needs just a bit more of Madeleine, and so forces Judy to undergo a complete make over. Echoing the frightened, cinematically disconnected face appearing in the opening credits, Judy is stripped further of her identity during the make over montage. Judy's trip to the beauty salon is the only other time that Bernard Herrmann's main title music returns, solidifying Judy's association with the red, severed face of the opening title sequence.

      Once Judy's make up and wardrobe are complete, Scottie positions her within the most emotionally charged settings available. The couple frequents Ernie's Restaurant, and Scottie ends the relationship at Mission San Juan Bautista, by forcing Judy to truly live out Madeleine's life. Scottie goes so far as to repeat for Judy the last words Madeleine said to him.

      In the church tower, Scottie even becomes upset in a Svengali fashion, when he realizes that another director has already had Judy. Climbing the tower stairs, Scottie attacks Judy with his revelation about Elster's manipulations:

He made you over, didn't he? He made you over just like I made you over. Only better! Not only the clothes and the hair, but the looks and the manner and the words! And those beautiful phony trances! And you jumped into the Bay, didn't you? I'll bet you're a wonderful swimmer, aren't you! Aren't you! Aren't you!

Scottie is disappointed in his own poor directorial abilities. It never occurred to Scottie to complete Madeleine's resurrection by scripting her dialogue or coaching her dramatic presentation. Scottie is so overcome by Madeleine's betrayal that he can only return to his single coping mechanism: repetition. While repeating their journey to the top of the bell tower, Scottie can often think of nothing new to say. Scottie echoes himself to Judy:

"Once more. Just once more . . . I need you . . . Too late . . . Go up the stairs . . . Aren't You! . . . You were a very apt pupil! . . . I was the set-up . . . What happened to you? . . . It's too late."


      Scottie's reiterations continue the earlier symptoms of his obsession. Upon Scottie's release from the sanitarium, many women he comes across remind Scottie of Madeleine. The fact that Scottie insists on revisiting the places where he spent time with Madeleine only heightens his memories. Cinematic techniques are also employed to strengthen the possibility of Madeleine's return from the dead. For this, Hitchcock uses body doubles. Just as he later did in the famous shower scene of Psycho, Hitchcock confuses the issue of identity, as well as leading the audience to question their perceptions, through the use of multiple bodies playing the same role. Most shots of Madeleine driving through San Francisco are not of Kim Novak, but of her double, Jean Corbett. The first shot of the woman who bought Madeleine's green car shows Corbett, then cuts to an older actress after Scottie's reaction. Similarly, the woman in Ernie's Restaurant whom Scottie mistakes for Madeleine is first Novak herself. Yet Hitchcock only allows Novak to be seen out of focus and from a distance before substituting yet another blonde actress for the vision of Madeleine. Corbett also played the true Madeleine Elster, whom the viewer only sees after her death. Finally, the nun who startles Judy into falling from the bell tower speaks with Novak's voice, further confusing the viewer. (Krohn 194)

Doubling Diagram

The doubling of Kim Novak's transformation into a substitute for Grace Kelly is paralleled by Judy Barton's transformation into a copy of Madeleine Elster.


      Doubling is not limited, however, to the many incarnations of Kim Novak. Carlotta Valdes (Joanne Genthon), Madeleine's great-grandmother, is imitated throughout Vertigo. The first appearance of Madeleine is accompanied by the "Andalusian fandango" of Herrmann's Carlotta musical theme (Wishart). This occurs before Madeleine is even seen acting as though Carlotta has possessed her. Madeleine also registers her hotel room under Carlotta's name. The other woman in Scottie's life, Midge Wood (Barbara Bel Geddes), does not allow herself to be left out of the doubling. Attempting to remind Scottie of the real woman who loves him, Midge paints herself into the portrait of Carlotta, substituting her own face in place of the image of Scottie's obsession. Correspondingly, Scottie dreams himself into the role of Carlotta. The story Madeleine told of being haunted by Carlotta is played out in the dream that sends Scottie to the sanitarium.

      The confusing, descending turns and plot twists of Vertigo appropriately exemplify the Freudian theory of the uncanny. Hitchcock's own Victorian ideas of proper feminine roles contribute to the overall confusion of transforming the comforts of home into the terrors of madness.


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