Thursday, July 02, 2015

Vertigo 5: Music and more

Making Vertigo: Alfred Hitchcock and Bernard Herrmann. Reportedly this image is not posed.
Each time Vertigo is different. This time I identified with its profound sense of mortality. Its special personal charge may be due to the fact that both Alfred and Alma Hitchcock had become seriously ill for the first time in their lives during the pre-production. Watching Vertigo now I was of the same age as they were then, and a survivor of a recent near death experience. I could now appreciate more deeply James Stewart's compelling interpretation of Scottie's rehabilitation after his mortally dangerous accident.

One of my memorable Vertigo experiences has been at Cinema Orion when the film felt particularly music-driven. (Cinema Orion has good natural acoustics as it was designed as a silent cinema with a permanent live orchestra). We the audience were haunted by the music, and everybody stayed dumbfounded after the final crushing deep chord of Bernard Herrmann's compelling score. (Every film programmer can tell when an audience is gripped by a movie and by what elements: the audience seems the breathe in the rhythm of them. That time it was the music that moved us most).

The motifs of the haunting score are famous and have been performed and recorded independently as suites, although they work best in their original context. The "Madeleine", "Scène d'amour", "Liebestod" and "vertigo" motifs are among the strongest. This time I paid attention to the haunting prelude theme being repeated in the d'entre les morts scene where the metamorphosis of Judy back to Madeleine is completed. I also enjoyed the old-fashioned dramatic narrative passages: "The Letter" (peripeteia), "The Park" (passing by the loving couples at the Golden Gate Park / Conservatory of Flowers / Lloyd Lake / Portals of the Past), "The Necklace" (anagnorisis), and "The Return" (driving back to the scene of the crime). They evoke silent film scores, in turn inspired by narrative traditions in melodrama and opera. Herrmann had already a rich experience in narrative dramatic uses of music as the composer of the Mercury Theatre radioplays for CBS Radio in the 1930s.

The Spanish dimension of San Francisco and the Carlotta Valdes story is acknowledged also in Herrmann's music, in its vibrant, sensual habanera rhythms (the "Carlotta's Portrait" motif).

Of the performances I found James Stewart's part even greater than before. I also realized the importance of Barbara Bel Geddes's Midge in a new way as a foundation stone of the movie, a difficult part connecting the oneiric story with human reality. Barbara Bel Geddes, daughter of the great designer Norman Bel Geddes, was a big Broadway star, blacklisted in Hollywood since 1951. Hitchcock revived her Hollywood career in four episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents (including in Lamb for Slaughter), and in Vertigo.

Kim Novak got to play one of the most unforgettable dream women in the Dream Factory. She is so easy on the eye that it is easy to ignore the complexity of the role - or roles. We get to know her as Madeleine Elster, then we learn that she is actually Judy Barton, whom Scottie Ferguson starts to remake as Madeleine, but by now she is reluctant to play that part again. Dual roles are an actor's dream, and Kim Novak uses the opportunity well in her unique fashion. She displays the cool, ethereal, otherworldly Madeleine elegantly. There is the short sequence as Judy Barton where she is her natural, sensual, and temperamental self. All too soon starts the long tragic process of Scottie trying to make her over. He also brings her to tears, he causes her agony, he robs the smile from her face. The romantic obsession is one-sided, although the feeling of love is mutual.

The first story of Madeleine and Scottie is based on fraud, but the love affair is genuine even though both are committed to prevent it. The second story is based on Scottie's obsession which is so extreme that he fails to connect with the real woman although her feelings are true. Kim Novak rises to the occasion in all these complex situations. We feel her torment, yet realize the love underneath. Without it she would not have risked everything in starting the affair with Scottie again.

Women have a harder time in relating to Vertigo than men.* For a male viewer relating to Vertigo is a matter of simultaneous identification and distanciation, perhaps in a way similar to the famous Vertigo shot of simultaneous tracking and zooming. Scottie is an anti-hero, in the final movements of the story in the grip of an obsessive aggression towards a woman who loves him. Both are victims of the master criminal.

From a female viewpoint I would imagine that Vertigo would be important as a story relevant to feminism, as an essential thriller about male domination (the original Carlotta Valdes backstory, the Gavin Elster master plot, and Scottie Ferguson's imitation). There is a center of sanity, Midge, but she is perhaps too practical and mother-like for identification in a movie which is both romantic and anti-romantic, again perhaps like the Vertigo shot which moves simultaneously forward and backward. The figure of Madeleine / Judy may be too difficult for identification: we are introduced to her as an image, and when we learn that her act was a fraud all possible previous identification is demolished, and of the real woman we get to learn very little. Judy is an accessory to murder, after all, also hard for a lawman / retired policeman to relate to, either. Madeleine is an Idea, a ghost, and a personification of death, not even meant to be identified by us in any normal sense.

From a female viewpoint Scottie is not a strong love object. An important hint is the remark in the beginning that Midge and Scottie had been engaged, but after three weeks she had cancelled the engagement. Each viewer can speculate why. In the beginning Scottie is a sober and nice guy. But perhaps he is not a good lover, perhaps he is emotionally challenged, perhaps he is not the family kind of guy, perhaps he has little interest in sex, perhaps his mind is abstract. His entire Madeleine / Judy affair has an otherworldly character, dealing with a romantic ideal rather than a woman of flesh and blood. Judy, a red-blooded woman, complains that Scottie does not even want to touch her.

Postscript, 2 August 2015: I have been jotting down these remarks for a month now after the Bologna screening of Vertigo. I had not written about Vertigo since I contributed an essay called "Kohti pyörteen silmää" ["A Descent into the Maelström"] on the re-release of the "five missing" films for the special Hitchcock issue of Filmihullu magazine (5/1984). I then covered Hitchcock in general with a focus on Vertigo. I had read Peter von Bagh's thesis on Vertigo in the 1960s and been deeply influenced by Robin Wood's book from which I was learning English in 1969. In 1984 I had recently been impressed by the excellent special issue on Vertigo of the German Filmkritik magazine (Juni 1980) with illuminating passages of close reading.

About Vertigo interpretations I agree with Heikki Nyman's sober judgement about terms such as "voyeurism" and "necrophilia" in this context. They have been a little flippantly used, not least by Hitchcock himself, who could be amazingly shallow in his verbal statements about his most profound achievements. In their literal meaning those terms refer to clinical, pathological conditions, and as such they are not illuminating here. Vertigo is about love in death, but not in the sense of necrophilia. I agree with Robin Wood that Vertigo is about the lure of death in which Scottie feels not only an attraction but an identification with Madeleine as a personification of death.

* Postscript, 12 August 2015: In a profound sense, Vertigo might have been fertile material for George Cukor because of the Pygmalion theme: in the Cukor approch the protagonist is a woman whose hidden potential is awakened by an encounter with a man who becomes her mentor (What Price Hollywood?, Little Women, Born Yesterday, Pat and Mike, A Star Is Born, Wild Is the Wind, My Fair Lady). The horror reversal of the male protector's mental power is Gaslight. In Vertigo Cukor might have been able to solve the overwhelming challenge of female identification in the narrative but the result would have been more sober and lacking in tragic urgency and l'amour fou.

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