A Fretful Obsession
To say that Vertigo is the greatest film ever made seems as useless an appraisal as it proved to be a useful one when for many years Citizen Kane was given that status in Sight and Sound's internationally recognised poll. Citizen Kane holds up to repeated viewings as a work of coherence and integrity. One goes to Orson Welles's film less to interpret than to comprehend. Vertigo appears closer to T. S. Elliot's take on Hamlet: "So far from being Shakespeare's masterpiece, the play is most certainly an artistic failure. In several ways the play is puzzling, and disquieting as is none of the others." ('Hamlet and his Problems') Perhaps Vertigo too isn't Hitchcock's 'masterpiece', yet it's the one that for many years now critics have puzzled over, seeing in the film a far greater enigma than in any other Hitchcock film, and a lot more hermeneutic possibilities than in Welles's great work.
While there are numerous theoretical categories into which Vertigo could fit spectatorship, authorship, semiotics and formalism amongst them perhaps most appropriate happens to be psychoanalysis. If Freud viewed Hamlet as an important work for understanding modern neurosis, Vertigo could serve a similar role cinematically. As Freud says, "it appears as a necessary precondition of this form of art that the impulse that is struggling into consciousness, however clearly it is recognizable, it is never given a definite name, so that in the spectator too the process is carried through with his attention averted and he is in the grip of his emotions instead of taking stock of what is happening." 'Psychopathic Characters on the Stage') Like the prince, Scottie is a neurotic but that is not what the film tells us he happens to be: the opening sequence shows Scottie hanging off a roof and thereafter suffering from the vertigo of the title. But it isn't achrophobia that explains entirely Scottie's behaviour, unless we add falling in love to the fear of falling from a great height. Scottie isn't just a fallible character but a susceptible one too: he doesn't only have a fear of heights; he also has a desire, intermingled with fear, to fall in love. When Gavin Elster hires him to keep a check on his wife, he fully expects Scottie to become besotted. It is all part of a murder plan as Madeline will enchant Scottie, and, in time, Scottie will be unable to save Madeline from her death after she appears to fall from a church bell tower. Scottie can't save her because he is unable to go up the stairs in a plot that Elster knew would work as he replaces the false Madeleine, who has been seducing Scottie, with the real one, who is thrown off the building.
Scottie's inability to climb the stairs is evidence of his fallibility. But what of his susceptibility? The plot only works because Scottie has fallen in love with Madeline in the first place. Though it is never made clear, does Elster know that there is a deeper problem in Scottie than his fear of heights? When Elster suggests that his wife is possessed by a long-dead person called Carlotta, Scottie rejects such nonsense and says that he should send his wife to a therapist, a psychiatrist or a good family doctor and Elster should go as well. Seeing such scepticism in Scottie, Elster says "then you are of no use to me" as he nevertheless goes on to persuade Scottie to go to Ernie's restaurant where Elster and Madeline will be dining. Scottie may believe that possession is nonsense but as soon as Scottie sees Madeline he is himself possessed, susceptible indeed to falling in love and thus perfect for Elster's murder plan. A mere achrophobic would never have become so deeply involved in the case; someone whose vertigo is as much emotional as psychological is an ideal candidate.
The film can be seen from both a Freudian and a Lacanian perspective. A key feature in Lacanian psychoanalysis is what Jacques Lacan calls the 'objet petit a', an unattainable object that Malcom Bowie describes as something that "can be anything at all, but is none the less governed by rules of exclusion. It is anything and everything that desire touches." (Lacan) Or as Lacan himself more arcanely put it, but potentially also more interestingly from the perspective of Vertigo, "what analytic experience shows us is that, in any case, it is castration that governs desire, whether in the normal or in the abnormal." (Ecrits) Scottie is by any reckoning a castrated figure if the normal standards of fifties America apply: an unmarried man without children and already a retired cop by the age of fifty (assuming he is the same age as Stewart), who can hardly get on a chair and look down without fainting. Lacan may see such a notion as the objet peit a as vital to all desire but what Hitchcock does in Vertigo is channel this desire through our acceptance of Scottie as a neurotic, and the story narrated in a manner that emphasises the character's compulsions. One that focused on a first half in which Scottie has been played by Elster and the woman pretending to be Madeline, Judy, and led to a second, where Scottie works out what happened and solved the case, would have been consistent with a healthy detective, showing Scottie capable of overcoming his vertigo. It could have shown us Scottie forced to return to the scene of the original tragedy but this time able to climb the tower. Instead in the second half he becomes obsessed with turning Judy into Madeline, especially evident in the scene where she must be clothed exactly as he wishes while the shop assistant looks on in dismay, then at the conclusion drags Judy to the top of the tower as he insists she tell him the full story. From there she will fall to her death as Scottie overcomes his acrophobia at a price: with another corpse on his hands as Judy falls to her death when she is startled by the shrouded figure of a nun. Instead of getting the girl and solving the plot, Scottie ends up losing the girl and causing once again someone's demise. The yawning gap of the objet petit a, between desire and its fulfilment, has never been more pronounced in classic Hollywood cinema.
Tania Modleski, quoting Freud's 'Mourning and Melancholia', says: "According to Freud, melancholia, the state of inconsolability for the loss of a loved person, differs from mourning in part because the former involves 'an extraordinary diminution in the [sufferer's self-regard, an impoverishment of his ego on a grand scale.' In mourning, says Freud, 'it is the world which has become poor and empty; in melancholia, it is the ego itself.'" (Post-War Cinema and Modernity) After Madeline's death, Scottie can't really be in mourning since he hardly knew the woman at all no matter how strong his feelings. Indeed they weren't about Madeline but about a shop assistant, Judy, playing a Madeline that Scottie fell in love with. If Freud recognises a distinction between mourning that is about the world and a melancholy that is about the self, then Scottie is a very clear example of the melancholic partly because Madeline was only ever part of his personal world, his ego. Judy was playing the role of Madeline for him, all the better so that Gavin could have Madeline killed. If many take the death of a loved one personally, feeling guilty and responsible, in Vertigo it really happens to be the case. If many might wish that things could have been done differently, Scottie realises he has this opportunity when he finds Judy, notices how much she resembles Madeline, and determines to turn her into the woman he loves, unaware until near the end of the film that it was Judy who originally shaped herself to appear as Madeline. When Freud talks of an extraordinary diminution of the sufferer's self-regard, most can at the same time acknowledge that in common parlance it isn't all about them. But Madeline's death was all about Scottie and, in a different way, so will Judy's. As he pushes her up the tower reenacting the earlier scene so too will she fall to her death as Scottie will once again no doubt suffer indeed an extraordinary diminution of the ego.
The philosopher Robert B. Pippin sees that even early in the film "... Scottie can said to be suspended, as our dramatic first experience of him reveals, between both attachment to and a melancholic detachment from his own life." (The Philosophical Hitchcock) Where that melancholic detachment originates we cannot say, but within the course of the story Scottie will be responsible for three deaths from falling: not only Madeline and Judy but also the cop who tries to save Scottie's life at the beginning of the film. There Scottie is hanging from the guttering and the cop who tries to help him careens over the edge to his death. Hitchcock was often fascinated by such scenes: think of Jeffries hanging out of the window in Rear Window, the character falling to his death in Saboteur at the Statue of Liberty, and Ms Kendall dangling before Thornhill pulls her up in North by Northwest. There is an element here of Freud's idea of fort/da: the child's compulsion to repeat as there is the threat of loss and its removal, where the child throws a toy out of the cot only for the parent to retrieve it; then throws it out again and where the parent will once again put it back into the cot. The yoyo can be seen as a wonderful example of this in commercialised form but Hitchcock more than most offers a cinematic version of it and in Vertigo its most horrific manifestation.
Pippin suggests that we might wish to see in this dynamic "the desire to fall in love, and the fear of falling in love." Scottie isn't only an unmarried fifty-year-old man, he makes a point of talking about it too when he says to Gavin that he never married. In today's terms one might assume he has commitment issues, a point confirmed in a discussion with his good friend Midge when he asks if she will ever get married and she says that there was only one man for her and Scottie was that man. He recalls they were engaged once and Midge says, "three whole weeks." Pippin notes that as in Rear Window, "the Stewart character is unmarried again, and in both cases not just by chance but because of some reluctance, because of some failure to connect with others." In Rear Window his phobia towards marriage is cured when his full scopophilia is revealed: seeing his lover Lisa across the way at risk in another's man apartment seems to be the jolt he needs. In Vertigo there are numerous jolts with Scottie accumulating psychic conditions rather than alleviating them as we might wonder what psychiatric help could possibly cure Scottie at the end of the film. Hitchcock doesn't even try. While a couple of years later in Psycho he will offer a postscript detailing Norman Bates' mental health problems, here the film offers a final shot of Scottie looking down, seeing once again a body far beneath his feet, as if he might be inclined to follow Judy.
While many, many writers and thinkers have written, discussed or thought about Vertigo, few have done so with the fretful frequency of the filmmaker Chris Marker, someone who can say at the end of an article on the film, "obviously this text is addressed to those who know Vertigo by heart" as he earlier reckons: "Scottie experiences the greatest joy a man can imagine, a second life, in exchange for the greater tragedy, a second death." (Projections 4 1/2) Here we have a compulsion to repeat indeed, with Scottie so keen to relive the past he ends up killing the person who might just have helped him recover from his various neuroses. Yet Marker reads into the film the sort of narrative possibilities David Lynch would later utilise. What, he thinks, if the first half of Vertigo isn't a ruse played on Scottie by Elster but that the second half is the mad imaginings of Scottie? (Others, like James M. Maxfield in 'A Dreamer and his Dream' have viewed the whole film as the last imaginings of a man falling to his death.) "What if the first part really were the truth and the second the product of a sick mind?" (Projections 4 1/2) Perhaps then we are closer to Psycho, made two years later, than we might have thought. In such a reading, Scottie isn't only a little neurotic; he is fully insane a man lost in an endless reverie. Just before this second section of the film, Midge speaks to a psychiatrist and says that Scottie was in love with the dead Madeline. The doctor says this complicates things and Midge adds "I can give you another complication. He still is." In such a reading the compulsion to repeat becomes also a compulsion to retreat: to disappear into one's thoughts and create a reality that has nothing to do with the outside world at all. At the end of Psycho, the film moves in on Norman and makes clear here is a man who is disappearing into his head, but what if the same is true eighty-three minutes into Vertigo, when we see that Scottie looks no less lost in his thoughts than Norman does?
Marker's interpretation is provocative and mischievous, a reading the film doesn't suggest but that repeated viewings may provoke as if too the viewer might just get a little carried away with themselves and turn Vertigo into an obsession of their own. Part of the film's present reputation as the greatest film ever made rests on the notion that its greatness resides as readily in the viewer's mind as on the screen, an apt work that leaves the viewer as much on the psychoanalytic couch as in the cinema seat. Citizen Kane is a film that asks to interpret the meaning of Rosebud with a healthy disinterest. Vertigo asks us instead to enter a hermeneutic mise-en-abyme, going over and over again in our minds what the film means, how it can be different the more we muse over it.
To conclude, we might think of the plot holes critics often remark upon as hermeneutic holes the viewer is inclined to fall into. Both Pippin and Marshall make much of these errors, with Marshall noting the unlikelihood of Scottie surviving that opening sequence where he dangles from a roof with no help available, the improbability of anybody trying to murder their wife in such a serpentine way that relies on so many coincidences for the deed to be done, and that Judy would be very unlikely to put on the necklace Carlotta wears in the painting as she puts the finishing touches to her recreation of Madeline. This doesn't make a lot of sense from Judy's perspective as she has worked hard to pretend that she doesn't know Scottie, but it is necessary for the plot: for Scottie to deduce what happened as he knows now that Judy was Madeline. Is this a clumsy plot device or part of a dream logic that has little interest in well-constructed narratives and instead is part of Scottie's feverish anxiety, one that must find answers no matter the cost to both his mental health and the film's narrative plausibility? Instead of accepting the hole in the plot as a failure of Hitchcock's craft, one instead sees it instead as the fulfilment of it from a surrealistic perspective. Hitchcock had after all worked with Salvador Dali on the dream sequence in Spellbound and he utilises a fog filter in the sequence where Scottie follows Madeline earlier in the film, a device that gives to the pursuit a milky, dream-like quality, suggesting we shouldn't be overly focused on detective deductions and instead ought to pay attention to romantic projections. Hitchcock may have admitted he had problems with the film's logic, saying to Francois Truffaut "one of the things that bother me is the flaw in the story. The husband was planning to throw his wife down from the top of the tower. But how could he know that James Stewart wouldn't make it up those stairs...how could he be sure of that?" (Hitchcock) Yet it seems to bother viewers less and less as the perforations in the film become speculative opportunities available to the viewer to interpret it. If Scottie is a man who either dreams up the story or neurotically tries to resolve it, Hitchcock puts the viewer into a similar sense of vertigo, an endless replaying of the meaning of a film that resists easy hermeneutic completion.
© Tony McKibbin