by D. A. Miller
From Film Quarterly Winter 2008-09, Vol. 62, No. 2
The first time—in 1958, during the original release — was not happy. Though the vertigo shot made my head spin deliciously, it furnished my only thrill; the otherwise impenetrable yarn, by turns too slow-moving for my interest or too fast-paced for my understanding, had to be repeatedly explained to me by my mother afterward. I was disappointed at not finding the Hitchcock thriller I already knew, and incapable of appreciating the modernist art film that without warning had stolen its identity. (In this, apparently, I resembled the grown-ups around me; Film Quarterly, which, like Vertigo, first appeared in 1958, did not review it.) Since then, I have sat many times in movie theaters while Vertigo was being projected, have also purchased several versions of the film for my TV, PC, and iPod. Yet despite such various second chances (of which another has just been offered me with Universal’s new Legacy Series edition), I have little better idea of what Vertigo is about now than I did when I was ten years old; my ignorance has merely got stranger, because less explicable in an adult; it must seem, though it does not feel, like a phony trance. Was this first viewing—bored, restive, and uncomprehending—nonetheless so magnetic that it is drawing me still? Does it return, by some mundane memory trigger or mysterious unconscious agency, to repossess me?
There seems to be, in any event, no losing it. For though I now enter the temple called Vertigo with every intention of devotion, I soon start behaving like an ignorant and ill-behaved child made to sit through high mass. Irresistibly, my mind wanders, falls into daydreams or spins off into reminiscences related to the film by only the most finely customized tangents. And when, suddenly and for no good reason, something in the film — a line, a shot, a musical phrase — brings me back from these absent states, I hardly know what I regret more — losing the fiercely vivid pleasure that they afforded, or missing the master key to unlocking Vertigo, which I am convinced must have been proffered on screen just after I went off.
Naturally, I make frequent resolutions to watch Vertigo more responsibly, in a manner better suited to its status as perhaps the greatest film of them all. But even when I most doggedly concentrate on the images before me, I find myself sidetracked — staring at peripheral details, fixated on private, incommunicable nuances, or held in the grip of a camera movement much too long after it has passed. I am transfixed, for instance, by the pale iridescent steering wheel on Scottie’s De Soto Firedome, which looks made from mother-of-pearl rather than plastic, and whose regular stippling seems to prescribe a firm and exact grip, as though, without such clenching, this exquisite thing of beauty would whirl away, out of control. Or I get as excited as a child with a new plaything by Midge’s bright yellow Cosco stepstool, with retractable steps, just like the one we had in the kitchen at home, where it once furnished me both a staircase to climb up and a precipice to jump off. Or I marvel at how a clockwise pan of San Francisco yields to a counterclockwise pan of Madeleine’s apartment building, conveying the thrilling impression that these two “spinning” shots, though successive, are somehow colliding; and my amazement only increases to find the second pan settling on an image that literalizes just such an imagined smash-up, with Madeleine’s Jaguar screen-left (but pointing right) and a one-way street sign screen-right (but pointing left). In short, when I do succeed in focusing on Vertigo, all I see is just such a random series of little touches (never the same ones), and this fascination with “the small scenes, the fragments of the mirror” (as Scottie calls the disassembled details of Madeleine’s dream) blinds me to even their immediate context, let alone what might hold them together.
Thus do I gaze at the summit of cinema: one eye, aversively farsighted, looks past the screen image to remoter regions of the mind, while the other, intently myopic, sees in this image nothing but small, unintegrated details. But on my most recent attempt at viewing Vertigo, a hypothesis occurred to me that, while of no help in correcting my addled eyesight, at least shifted the responsibility for it onto the film itself. Suppose, as I did, that my two impairments were to combine, that the eye that pulled away and the eye that drew forward looked at the same time. Wouldn’t the resultant vision reproduce the famously disorienting shot used to present Scottie’s vertigo, the shot in which the camera tracks back while zooming forward? Perhaps I don’t see Vertigo because, in the effort to do so, I have contracted vertigo. Not the clinical inner-ear imbalance (from which, merciless in my medical ignorance, I used to tease my mother for suffering), but the formal ocular disturbance as defined—and practiced—by Hitchcock’s film. And to judge by the symptoms of planar yo-yoing in William Friedkin’s new commentary— where he identifies a through street as a cul-de-sac and confuses the tiles on the mission roof with the stones below it— I may not be alone.
After all, such distraction would be simply impossible with any other Hitchcock film. In them, we always know exactly where to direct our attention. Recall the signature dolly shot in Notorious, which sweeps down over the grand reception in progress to rest on a key in Alicia’s hand. The camera’s smooth, single-minded trajectory enjoins us to skim likewise over the staircase, the chandelier, the faces, the furniture—over everything but this key, which alone merits our scrutiny. Indeed, if some imp of the perverse led us to fix on any of these other things, our contrariness would be rewarded with nothing better than a generic swank-party background. For the most prominent object in a Hitchcock image is typically the most significant one as well. Alicia’s key is also “key” in the figurative sense, its visual centrality clearly aligned with its narrative importance. It gets Devlin into the mysterious wine cellar where he proceeds to discover bottles of a vintage plot-thickener called “uranium.”
But in Vertigo, what is it that we are being asked to look at? “Madeleine” is the general answer to that question, of course, but Madeleine is in fact highly elusive. Even at first sight, Scottie does not see her directly, and after that, he tends to follow her from behind, so that we are only looking at the back of her head—or rather at her hairdo’s black hole. Far from ever satisfying our gaze, Madeleine only entices us into trying to see something else, something in or beyond her, through the alluringly dark telescope embedded in her blonde chignon. We may call that something “Carlotta Valdez,” but Carlotta is also unstable and fleeting; her face in the portrait differs from that of the figure she becomes in Scottie’s nightmare, and in both, her hair is arranged in the same fascinating spiral style.
If the object of our attention is obscure and confused, moreover, so is the narrative logic it normally depends on. For all the garrulity of the exposition, it is never quite clear what following Madeleine is supposed to accomplish. Elster claims that he needs to know where his wife goes before committing her to medical care, but as he seems already well-informed of Madeleine’s unconscious identification with Carlotta, of what possible use to him is the banal list of San Francisco sights that is the only other thing Scottie’s labors turn up? And by the time that Madeleine has jumped into San Francisco Bay, there is surely sufficient evidence to get her to a doctor. Just as the object’s uncertainty implies its ultimate absence, so the plot’s implausibility indicates the motivelessness at its core.
Accordingly, Hitchcock’s suspense in Vertigo is deprived of its intelligibility. Either this suspense remains a vague haze, never condensing into its classically well-known forms, or else these same forms become formalities, emptied of any reason for their still rigorous observance. In the forest of giant redwoods, for instance, Madeleine suddenly runs away from Scottie and disappears, it seems, behind one of the tall trees. The scene then develops as a prolonged alternation between shots of Scottie looking for her and shots of the empty forest; astral music comes in to reinforce the ominous, otherworldly mood. But at the end of it all, there is Madeleine discovered standing against a tree just as we had common-sensically first supposed. The suspense, though obvious, is also gratuitous, giving us the impression that we have missed seeing something, or that what we have seen exceeds any possible point to it. No wonder my mind wanders as desultorily as Madeleine seems to do: I can’t be sure what proper attention to Vertigo comprises, nor how such attention is rewarded. Still, as with Madeleine, some questions remain: Where do I go on my wandering? What takes me away?
Watching Vertigo, I am seized with a longing to visit San Francisco—an absurd feeling on two counts. For one thing, Vertigo renders the touristic idea of San Francisco with a re-pleteness that should leave nothing to be desired; the Golden Gate Bridge, the Palace of Fine Arts, the Legion of Honor Museum, Coit Tower, Mission Dolores—all shimmer in glorious Constable weather that a tourist seldom sees; and what a tourist always does see—the ignoble mass of his fellow gawkers—has been removed from every view. For another thing, I live in San Francisco; indeed, here I was born, raised, and taken to see Vertigo for the first time. What, then, could I possibly hope to see in San Francisco that has not already been given to my view either spectacularly, by the film itself, or mundanely, during my many years of inhabiting the place? But of course, it is from the clash, the mutual interference, of these two reasons that the irrational longing arises. Each San Francisco, by eclipsing my view of the other, makes me yearn to see “again,” fully and distinctly, the prospect that it blocks.
Hitchcock’s San Francisco (to start there) is a majestic abstraction of resplendent bridges, towers, palaces, and gardens, all grandly isolated, and all sumptuously empty. It is a kind of eerie mirage that, as a character in Wilde once said of San Francisco, “possesses all the attractions of the next world.” Remarkably, however, the three main characters, dreamlike themselves, and gliding from wonder to wonder in cars fluent as gondolas, see no more of this unearthly city than their obsessive pursuits strictly require: precious little. No matter how spectacular the scenery at Fort Point or the Legion of Honor, Scottie has eyes for Madeleine only, while she, in making the full round of tourist sights, seems less to be seeing them than to be seeing through them to an ulterior world of which they are, at best, obscure intimations. Even Midge, would-be realist, ignores the classic view from her apartment window. The opposite of tourists, Vertigo‘s characters couldn’t care less about seeing the city that Hitchcock has made for them, but most fully depicts without them or behind their backs, in objective panoramas or rear projections.
That privileged class of tourist who is the film spectator should be perfectly positioned to enjoy what the characters miss. Yet despite the unsurpassed clarity of Robert Burks’s photography, my vision of it is as negligent, as diverted by obsession, as that of Scottie, secretly watching Madeleine in the car ahead of his, or of Madeleine, still more secretly watching Scottie from her rear-view mirror—or with that eye in the back of her head—so as to prevent him from losing track of her. Always superimposed on Vertigo’s San Francisco are extraneous reflections of my own, unbidden memories that, in contrast to sightseers, can no more be banished from Hitchcock’s images than Judy’s vulgar accent and clothing can be purged from the ideal of Madeleine.
Some such memories are indefinite or even conjectural, shadowy souvenirs of the downtown wandering that I was allowed to do as a boy. But others are quite precise. In the sanatorium where Scottie is treated for “acute melancholia with a guilt complex,” I recognize St. Joseph’s Hospital where, in 1950s fashion, I had my tonsils removed, and where, after its much later condo-conversion, I lived for a while among buffed gay men who drove jeeps. At I. Magnin’s, the high-end department store where Judy is employed, I too once worked, until the day when, whether dizzy from the scent, or just confused in the Christmas rush, I dropped a sample bottle of perfume, which shattered all over the floor. And at Ernie’s, about the same time, I did my best to keep my cool while an entire meal, from the Steak Diane to the Cherries Jubilee, was flamed tableside for my prom date and me. Yet whether vague or detailed, the memories inevitably spoil Hitchcock’s rigorously curated San Francisco by mock-heroically putting me into it. In the rarefied high-romantic ethos of Vertigo, this is not funny.
Recently, then, in an attempt to retrieve Hitchcock’s San Francisco in all its unimpinged-upon purity, I treated myself to a thing called the Vertigo Tour, a private guided excursion through the locales of the film. At first it seemed to supply just what I was wanting. My guide would drive me, say, to Mission Dolores, where we inspected the church and its garden, and then, as soon as we were back in the car, we would watch the correspondent scene from the film on a portable DVD player. At the pace we worked, the location never had the time to acquire much independent density; it capitulated easily to its instant virtualization. I was reminded of the series of shots at the Legion of Honor in which Scottie looks at Madeleine while she is looking at the portrait of Carlotta; he sees the posy at Madeleine’s side, then sees it held by Carlotta in the portrait; he sees Madeleine’s cyclopic coiffure, then sees it on Carlotta, too. These shots seal Scottie into the belief that Madeleine is, or thinks she is, possessed by Carlotta’s spirit; and as my guide, following a similar procedure, reduced local sights to their Hitchcockian essence, I felt sutured into Vertigo‘s San Francisco as never before. In one case, the location itself seemed to help the process along: the Hotel Empire, where Judy resides in the film, having long since become the York Hotel, was now being transformed once more, this time into the Hotel Vertigo.
But then, my guide offered to take me to a locale never seen in the film, but merely mentioned: the Portals of the Past in Golden Gate Park, a small portico by a lake where, as Elster tells Scottie, Madeleine likes to sit staring into space. I immediately recognized, though I hadn’t revisited it since childhood, the lake where my father used to take me to feed “the duckies,” who were still there, as Scottie would have said. And there I was — confused, distressed, and burdened with the added task of having to conceal these emotions from my guide—back in the raw mental state of being-distracted-from-Vertigo. With this difference: I now understood that my state of distraction was a way, albeit a tendentious one, of watching Vertigo nonetheless; and that all the while I thought my attention was wandering, it was scrutinizing, it was sifting the film for something that felt just on the verge of appearing on screen. I do not know what to call this thing exactly (me? my Carlotta?), but it must bear on the fact that, during the many years when Vertigo had been withdrawn from circulation and was being slowly prepared for its apotheosis, at the end of them, as a peerless cinematic masterpiece — during this Great Confinement, the film was also becoming a sort of filmic madeleine of San Francisco during my childhood. No wonder I can never find Hitchcock’s San Francisco in any fullness; I am too busy, in my reveries, looking for my own, as if Vertigo were, of all things, a documentary. This is no doubt why I am held spellbound by the rear projections, which, for all their artifice, attest to the most indulgent location-shooting Hitchcock ever allowed himself. It is also why these are never quite satisfying: they never show me that archaic object, whatever it is, which always appears to be just out of sight.
If my desire to find Vertigo in San Francisco led me on the Vertigo Tour, my desire to find San Francisco in Vertigo took me on another, more simply managed journey: to my parents’ house in the Outer Mission—a neighborhood on the wrong side of the tracking shots—in order to see my mother’s yellow kitchen stepstool that, still retained, had now been relegated to the basement, near my old bedroom. Belonging to both Hitchcock’s fiction and my reality, the chair would be the means of validating the one by the other, the link by which to identify the one as the other. (And the chair is not all that peripheral a detail, I reminded myself; when Scottie stands on it, he experiences his first posttraumatic attack of vertigo, and Midge buries her catalogue copy of the “Portrait of Carlotta” beneath a pillow on its seat, almost as if she were interring it there.) Yet this second adventure ended up being as futile as the first: for though I photographed the chair in various promising poses, even moving it back up to the kitchen, nothing made it look like the same chair. The resemblance was exact except for one element whose absence cancelled out all the others: fictionality. Only with this—as in a recent episode of Mad Men, where the yellow chair reappears in Peggy’s lower-middle-class apartment—would the likeness be persuasive. Without it, the chair looked ridiculous, as I did on top of it—or as Midge does when she paints herself, complete with glasses and wry looks, into the portrait of Carlotta.
Eventually I started to suspect that neither my wandering attention to Vertigo nor my search for the film off-screen was merely a personal failing; that, in the end, Vertigo not only permitted, but also compelled bad spectatorship. Or, at any rate, in one of the ends. For Vertigo has two endings: the one we know and the one Hitchcock cut from the film during post-production. The latter, called the “foreign censorship ending,” may be found among the extras on the Legacy release, where it is introduced with the following advisory: “Hitchcock was required to shoot this extended ending to satisfy the needs of the foreign censorship committee. Were it not for this, he would never have allowed it to be created. Seeing this footage, we can understand that he was absolutely correct.” So, with this lame explanation, the censorship ending is itself censored, judged external to Hitchcock’s authorship, and wrong for the film in any case; we may see it only on condition that we do not see it as a valid or authentic part of Vertigo. Similar thinking caused it to be passed over in the Robert Harris/James Katz 1996 restoration work, so that it even looks negligible. Yet, though little regarded in both senses of the word, it remains a precious material exhibit of what I should call “unseen Vertigo” or “the Vertigo just out of sight.”
The extended ending takes up where the familiar ending leaves off. From Scottie on his tower, it shifts to Midge in her apartment, where, on the night of the same day, she is anxiously listening to the radio: “Elster was last heard of living in Switzerland, but is now thought to be residing somewhere in the south of France. Captain Hansen states that he anticipates no trouble in having Elster extradited … once he is found.” This, we suppose, is the moral denouement that a censorship committee might have required; but so feeble a promise of the criminal’s punishment is persuasive only in its suggestion that, like Madeleine, his creation, and Scottie, his dupe, Elster too may have started to wander. The announcer himself then divagates to a very different item: “Other news on the local front: in Berkeley, three University of California sophomores found themselves in a rather embarrassing position tonight when they were discovered by Police Officer William Fogarty leading a cow up the steps of Legrand—.” Here, Midge turns off the radio, but we have heard enough. We know the mischief intended by this once-common college prank: cows are incapable of walking on steps, which cause them panic and confusion. These wanton boys were seeking to induce a case of what can only be called bovine vertigo, the stupid, depsychologized version of Scottie’s own predicament. And only now, against this literally unseen “comic relief,” does Scottie enter the room; he takes up the drink Midge has mixed for him, and, turning his back on her and us alike, goes over to the window where—for the first time—he looks out, straight ahead, at the view of San Francisco: the end.
In the classical aesthetics referenced by the film’s numerous neoclassical architectural forms, the comic relief provided by the woozy cow must seem so out of place as to be deservedly put out of sight as well. To my ill-aspected viewing, though, its value lies precisely in disturbing the tragic relief that the authorized ending clearly aims to provide. There, his hands forlornly held out, as if Judy had fallen through their fingers, Scottie looks like a piece of academic sculpture; indeed, his whole doleful attitude has been raised up like a monument and isolated in distinct outline from the rear-projected world around him. Such tragic standing implies a certain revelatory knowledge: Scottie can finally look down from on high and see clearly; he has been, in Friedkin’s final words as commentator, “cured of his acrophobia.” Corrected, Scottie’s vision would now approximate the transcendental gaze often assumed by the camera in classic cinema—indeed, his POV, were it given here, would be an overhead shot like those Hitchcock himself frequently used to play up his mastery. In his despair, Scottie at least enjoys one comfort: a tragic hero, he is no longer a dizzy one.
By contrast, the extended ending removes him from the ennobling tower platform and brings him home to Midge’s flat—and implicitly, to a drunk-and-depressed life with this altogether “wrong” version of Madeleine. But the important difference here is the return of San Francisco, which, for a change, we’re not allowed to see very well. The nocturnal opacity is apt, for in this spectacle of a city as latent with vertigo as the wood decors of Marnie are with red, Scottie is also gazing at the matrix of Madeleine’s vacant-eyed madness, which we may now recognize as his vertigo’s extreme form. As Elster in fact tells Scottie, Madeleine’s derangement began on the day when she saw San Francisco for the first time. “She was like a child come home. And when she came upon something unchanged, something that was as it had been, her delight was so strong, so fiercely possessive! These things were hers … Then one day a great sigh settled on her, and the cloud came into her eyes.” Or rather, these are his words from the screenplay in which, unseen, he was scripted to voice them while Scottie was trying, and failing, to see Madeleine full-on at Ernie’s. Hitchcock eliminated the speech along with the ending that so evocatively correlates to it. Otherwise, under the aegis of “San Francisco,” Vertigo would have ended by insisting on a certain cloudy quality that abides in Scottie’s looking, its unexhausted and even reawakened capacity for drifting into states of fascination, distraction, bewilderment, blindness—in short, for seeing badly.
“It’s not funny,” Scottie says of the portrait of Midgelotta, but of course, as no audience ever fails to prove, it is; Midge herself is a bit giddy with giggling as she finishes it up. And her first response to Scottie’s assignment from Elster—to the plot’s most basic assumption—has been to laugh out loud: “Oh, come on!” Similarly, the extended ending brings out the vertiginous farce, half Feydeau, half Punch-and-Judy, that underlies—and undermines—Vertigo’s towering tragedy. In doing so, this ending mounts a deadly unserious resistance to the desire for significance that marks not only Vertigo, but also, more wholeheartedly, its forbiddingly solemn critical celebration. Far from undertaking a cure, it reinstates the impairments of sight and sense that have been inextricable from Hitchcock’s strange narrative, and whose idiosyncratic equivalents in any given viewing may hold the key to our common embarrassment in following Vertigo’s drift.
The author gratefully acknowledges Mr. Jesse Warr, his guide on the Vertigo Tour.
D. A. MILLER is John F. Hotchkis Professor of English at the University of California, Berkeley, and lives in San Francisco, on the same street as Madeleine Elster.