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1958. Paramount. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. With James Stewart, Kim Novak, Barbara Bel Geddes, Tom Helmore

The restored Vertigo has every self-appointed movie critic in town weighing in with a "reconsideration." And who has more right to a revisionist look at this film than us self-refentiality fans?

Of all the implausibilities of the plot, the most stunning, it seems to me, is how remarkable an actress Judy is. Imagine: this young woman, picked off the street because she resembles Gavin Elster's wife, turns out to be an intuitive, resourceful and fearless performer. She essentially creates the unforgettable Madeleine all by herself. Scottie accuses her of having been "carefully coached" by Elster, but you could have Lee Strasberg at your elbow and not be able to pull off Madeleine's flawlessly calibrated distress.The Madeleine character is not the extent of her skill either;: what about Judy's composure when Scottie, the man she has fallen in love with but expected never to see again, shows up at her hotel room door? Caught by surprise she betrays nothing, but launches into another great performance as an annoyed, puzzled young woman.

Consequently, the "rational explanation" that's supposed to dispel the Madeleine mystery actually clears up almost nothing, since it hinges on a superhuman feat of acting, along with a number of coincidences and some fantastic good luck. If the revelation of Vertigo is "This was all faked," then it was faked by someone a lot more powerful than Gavin Elster.

Don't we have here an allegory of film illusion in general? When a movie arranges to have a character within its own fictitious universe gives a performance so deep and elaborate that it fools not only her colleagues in the story but also those of us on the other side of the screen, then I think we are truly watching a movie within a movie. Madeleine-Judy hints at the mysterious, slippery, and in some sense malevolent trick that Kim Novak and the rest of the cast are perpetrating on us. And it's not just the actors, since a movie "performance" also involves lighting, editing, costuming, camera placement, etc., all aimed at making us believe that an elaborate pretense is "really happening" and is something we should involve ourselves in and care about.

Vertigo keeps packing a wallop because it leaves viewers feeling as dizzy and wrung out as its characters. Watching the movie and readjusting to its many revelations has given us our own vertiginous glimpse into an unstable universe where the human capacity for deception on one hand and credulity on the other give rise to obsession, fraud, and art.

Whether you've seen the recent re-release or not, what do the rest of you think about Vertigo as a self-referential film? I have a feeling I'm only skimming the surface here.


Follow-up Posting After Much List Discussion:

Can you stand another round with Vertigo? The comments here have really helped me focus my sense of "something else going on" beneath the surface that's beneath the surface of a movie that I--like the rest of you--have thought about for years.

Steve Grumbacher's suggestion that the whole last third of Vertigo might be the institutionalized Scotty's dream is interesting. Most viewers would say that, if anything, it's Madeleine who is the dream and Judy who is the reality. But there's a case to be made that the "Judy" sequence does indeed reprocess the "Madeleine" material the way a dream reworks the materials of waking life. I don't think this is happening in Scotty's mind, however; or maybe I should say, not only in Scotty's mind.

The first two-thirds of Vertigo is a fantasy-romance in the Portrait of Jenny mold. It involves amnesia, the spirits of the dead, haunted hotels, melodramatic Gold Rush legends, tormented ladies hanging out in graveyards and intoning creepy forebodings ("...and here I died..."). This is, as Sam Bernstein pointed out, unusually Gothic material for Hitchcock. Yet , this is the plot that we become engaged with and when it ends, tidily if tragically, we wonder what comes next.

Post-modernism, that's what. At this point Vertigo starts deconstructing itself. We're invited backstage, as it were, and given the opportunity to contemplate what we've just seen as a construction. We're actually shown the key moment again, this time in a "behind-the-scenes" view that shows what really happened. We're encouraged by the slow pace of the next 10 minutes to reflect further on the mechanics behind the hoax. (As Scotty cooled his heels in Judy's hotel room, my daughter leaned over and whispered, "So did they bribe that hotel clerk or what?") Some events are actually repeated--a second dinner at Ernie's, a second drive to San Juan Bautista--providing more opportunities for reconsideration. And most affecting, we see "Madeleine" re-constructed before our eyes: for a second time, a malleable young woman is transformed into someone else by means of a a grey suit, hair dye, a certain amount of bullying from an older man, and--Judy's contribution--a piece of costume jewelry. (It just occurs to me: the sightings of the numerous "false" Madeleines in the post-suicide/pre-Judy interval are a tip-off that "Madeleine" is a kind of reproduceable illusion.) It's a little like those "The Making of Star Wars" TV programs that show how special effects were put together step by step.

But it soon becomes clear that the Judy sequence is only superficially demystifying. What seems like the conventional unmasking of the human villainy behind all the supernatural goings-on turns out to be quite supernatural itself. As in a Borges story, we've awakened from one dream into still another dream. All those uncanny feats of acting, nerve, concentration and physical courage that I wrote about in my first posting; and all the insane improbabilities that Sam discussed, make it impossible to believe for long that what's revealed in Judy's flashback constitutes any sort of "rational explanation." It's just too looney! There's nothing rational about Elster's plot, or Judy's remarkable role-playing, or Scotty's own unerring peformance of his own part in the ensemble. Do we feel on any more solid ground once we've learned that the Carlotta Valdes mystery was all just human plotting? For about 2 minutes! Then we realize that we're still wading through a marsh, maybe in even deeper than before.

Thus Vertigo spirals on. To all that's been written about its concerns with love, obsession and death, I would say that a self-referential reading also shows that it's about deception, creativity, the artifice that both sustains and confounds us, and the difficulties of finding our footing in a dark and unstable universe.



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copyright ©2005 Barbara Bernstein