VERTIGO part 2 (1958, Hitchcock)
As promised, we’re back for one more shot from one of my favorite Hitchcock films, Vertigo. This shot really knocked my socks off when I saw it in the theater last year at the Egyptian in Hollywood. (I really should go back there and find those socks.)
It’s another really assured moment. This one, for some reason, reminds me of Sergio Leone in its boldness. I guess because it’s just so out there, while still so emotionally effective. For the sake of revealing minimal spoilers, let me set it up this way: [Minor Spoiler alert] Stewart is in love with a woman, Madeline, who’s now dead at this point in the film. When he comes across her doppelganger (also played by Kim Novak), he begs her to dress up as his former love and then kisses her. Sounds healthy enough. I mean, if I had a nickel.
The shot is here at 1:10, but as usual, you got to watch the whole thing! Once again Hitchcock plays the suspense, building it as we await her grand reveal, now dressed like (dead) Madeline. We’re right there with Scottie in anticipation. (Hitchcock described this moment to Truffaut as Scottie metaphorically waiting for the woman to undress and come out naked, that Scottie is getting an erection in this waiting. True story.) Then there she is, at first revealed as a ghost as Bernard Hermann’s crazy gorgeous score hits us now full-blown with the same theme we first heard – only timidly – in that restaurant when they’d first met. (For that scene, see this post here.) Hope you’ll watch this video before reading on:
Hitchcock sends us back in time
In this one shot, Hitch throws us into the emotions of an obsessed man, shooting us back in time & space from the neon-sign-lit hotel room to the livery stable at Mission San Juan Bautista where he’d kissed Madeline for the last time and declared his love.
For me, this moment resonates so well because it’s a surprising and wholly unexpected peek into our heroes psyche and, technically — ie camera work and staging — it’s just so damn cool. I had two different reactions to this shot upon first and then second viewing.
Sitting in the Egyptian, I found it so heart-rending that Scottie would be obsessed and hung up on that last intimate moment with her – but nothing’s ever been said about this before in the film. It’s like a surprise and truthful glimpse into his head that makes total, heartbreaking sense. We’re able to deduce all this on our own. We go back to this moment because Scottie is trapped in the past (the main theme of the whole film), and as an added-bonus detail, an antiquated buggy is just the symbol for that. I love that Hitch conveys all this with a bold, unexpected use of silent staging and (even then) old school in-camera special effects.
But then sitting at home watching the blu-ray, I had a different response. Maybe it’s because I knew it was coming. Suddenly the moment in this shot when Stewart seems to realize his surroundings jumped out at me (1:36 in video above). Has this kiss been her undoing, is it in this moment that he realizes exactly who she is, that it’s the exact same kiss from the stable? Is he connecting the dots, realizing that perhaps it’s no mere coincidence this woman is the spitting image of Madeline? (I love that he soon doesn’t care – back to the kiss!) Again, all conveyed in one “silent” shot.
How about the whole scene being bathed in green light? (Green often associated with the supernatural, brings to mind the ghost in David Lean’s Blithe Spirit.) Green is Novak’s characters’ color and the room in this scene is drenched in it, the color of the iconic dress she wore in the red restaurant when she was first revealed! (see this post here) Hitch’s carefully designed visual cues all point us in an evocative direction – cutting out the middle man, the conscious brain, and going straight to the emotions.
Oh, silent cinema, how I love thee.
P.S. I just came across this and had to add it as a bonus. Get a load – Hitchcock created these repeating editing patterns to demonstrate the emotional loop that Stewart’s character was stuck in. Someone thankfully cut them side-by-side: