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Vertigo (1958) – Two Different Tragedies

download (1)If you’ve never seen Alfred Hitchcock’s VertigoDON’T READ THIS POST! Vertigo, like all of Alfred Hitchcock’s films, really deserves to be viewed without prior knowledge, though I don’t always manage it. But I knew very little about Vertigo before I saw it. I was expecting a kind of suspense story with a fair dose of romance, so I was a little taken aback, when in the first half of the film, what I got instead was a stunningly beautiful, dreamlike, almost supernatural, romance. It didn’t seem very traditionally Hitchcockian. Then the second half began and I was alternately surprised and a little appalled to find myself watching  a twisted tale, more nightmare than dream, of love turned to obsession.

I’ve put off watching Alfred Hitchcock’s later films (late fifties and on). I had the impression that, apart from the delightfully thrilling and entertaining North By Northwest, his films became more grim and less fun. And admittedly, Vertigo is more grim and less fun. However, I liked it a lot. It took me a while to decide that I liked it. I was too stunned by the ending to be able to make up my mind right away. I had to think about it and sort out my extremely varied reactions to the various parts of the film. If Hitchcock meant to manipulate his audience and jerk them around in unexpected and occasionally unpleasant ways, then he succeeded masterfully.

The first half of the film opens with John “Scottie” Ferguson (James Stewart), a retired police detective with acrophobia, who is asked by an old acquaintance, Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore), to follow his wife. Madeleine Elster (Kim Novak) is behaving strangely and Helmore thinks she’s possessed by her great-grandmother, Carlotta Valdes, who committed suicide when she was 26 years old. Madeleine is now 26 and going off into trances, driving to the museum and staring at Carlotta’s picture, visiting her grave, and even tries to commit suicide by jumping into San Francisco bay, all without remembering any of it. But Scottie falls completely in love with her and tries to help her realize that it’s not true; she is not going to die. But halfway through the film, seemingly irresistibly impelled, she jumps off the bell tower of a mission. Scottie can’t reach her into time because of his acrophobia, which prevents him from climbing the bell tower stairs.

Kim Novak as Madeleine and James Stewart

Kim Novak as Madeleine and James Stewart

This first half of the movie is almost like a movie on its own. It made me think of The Ghost and Mrs. Muir. It has a score by the same composer, Bernard Herrmann, and often floats along in the same, dreamlike way, like a tone poem. It’s haunting and the movie is almost worth watching just so you can listen to that wonderful score. But the first half also has seemingly supernatural undertones. The movie really has you wondering if it is true, if Madeleine is really possessed by Carlotta, which puzzled me because I had never before associated Hitchcock with supernatural films. But primarily, the first half is a romance between Scottie and Madeleine, the kind of romance that you know is fated to end badly and if the movie had ended there, it would have been a complete, though tragic, story.

But it didn’t end there. After Madeleine dies, Scottie goes into a deep depression. He can’t seem to accept she’s gone or get over his all consuming love for her when he meets a young woman who looks just like Madeleine. Her name is Judy (Kim Novak, also) and her hair is a different color and she does it differently and is a working girl in contrast to the extremely remote, almost in another world, sophisticated Madeleine. Grasping at anything that could bring Madeleine back to him, Scottie asks Judy out. She says yes and the audience learns, though Scottie doesn’t, that Judy is really Madeleine. Or rather, that Judy was playing Madeleine. Gavin Elster had hired her to pretend to be his wife so that he could kill the real Madeleine and use Scottie to convince the police that she was suicidal. But Judy/Madeleine fell in love genuinely with Scottie and when she runs into him as Judy she allows him to gradually take over her life. So eager to please, though wishing he would love her as Judy, she allows him to turn her into Madeleine. He buys exactly the same clothes Madeleine wore, has her change her hair and wear it the way Madeleine wore it. Protesting the whole way, she goes along with it.

James Stewart with Kim Novak as Madeleine and Judy

James Stewart with Kim Novak as Madeleine and Judy

But when he finds out that Judy was Madeleine all along, he feels betrayed, drives her to the place where she supposedly committed suicide and confronts her there. And in his shock, rage and hurt, he is finally able to conquer his acrophobia and climb the stairs. But once there and after explanations, Judy is startled by a nun and steps backwards, falling to her death for real this time.

The second half of the film is like a completely different film, almost feeling unreal at times. And when I first discovered that Judy was really Madeleine, it initially felt like a cop out that undermined the beauty of the romance in the first half. Here we’d had this very convincing, almost supernatural romance that you are invested in and it turns out to have a natural explanation after all. My first thought was it didn’t seem worthy of Hitchcock and that a twist for a twist’s sake wasn’t worth it.

But as the movie continued, it began to grip me anew. The second half is a mirror of the first, but less pure, less lovely, more obsessive and dark, ending as the first half did, except more bleakly, because now it is his fault that she died and not a vague, supernatural force beyond anyone’s control.

I like to think tragedy comes in two flavors: the lovely kind and the bleak kind. The first kind of tragedy is like “Romeo and Juliet.” It’s sad, but there is a sense of fatality about it, beyond anyone’s control and despite the fact that you don’t want the story to end sadly, there is a fittingness to it. The second kind is more like “Othello.” There is nothing fitting about the end. Othello is the author of his own tragedy and one’s reaction is less “Oh, how beautifully sad,” and more “oh my gosh, that’s awful!” The focus of the beautiful tragedy is on how lovely love is. The focus of the second is how people self-destruct and destroy their own love.

KimNovakandJamesStewartinVertigo195What is amazing is that Alfred Hitchcock manages to have both kinds of tragedies in the same movie! In the first half of the film, their love seems doomed through no fault of their own. The supernatural is too much for them. It’s somehow comforting, like “Romeo and Juliet.” The second half is the complete opposite. It’s not so much tragic as bleak because he is the one who is responsible, not any supernatural forces. But the first half was so beautiful, you really want that to be the real movie, even though it is actually an illusion. The reality is that Madeleine never existed. She was created and Scottie is in love with a woman who isn’t real and in his obsession over her he takes the real woman and tries to turn her into the image of an image. And she, in her desperate need of him, lets him.

Kim Novak really does a sensational job as both Madeleine and Judy. Apparently, there were critics who complained she was too stiff, but I thought she was really quite good at conveying suppressed passion. She is still because she is holding back. And in the end, despite the appearance of remoteness at the beginning, she becomes truly the most sympathetic person (despite the fact that she apparently helped Gavin Elster commit a murder – we never do hear what happens to him. He said he was going to Europe and when the movie was finished my sister trenchantly offered the hope that he get run over by a bus). Scottie, on the other hand, goes from being the man we sympathize with to almost the villain. He’s almost crazy with love and you can see it in his eyes and how he treats her. He is a victim, but becomes a shadow of Gavin Elster; trying to make a real women into the shadowy Madeleine and then killing her (so to speak – it’s not directly his doing, but he is the catalyst for the accident). It’s truly a masterful movie; I’ve never had a movie elicit quite so many different emotions within a two hour framework. I am quite eager to see what it will be like on a second viewing.

Here is an example of the lovely score by Bernard Herrman (who also composed the scores for Hitchcock’s PsychoMarniThe Man Who Knew Too MuchThe Wrong ManNorth By NorthwestTorn Curtain and The Birds).

 
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Posted by on April 7, 2015 in Drama, Romance

 

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The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947)

bdb96316682ef26ef0a985c306ab92b9Most ghost stories are meant to be frightening or creepy, even when they are funny, but The Ghost and Mrs. Muir is a ghost story of a different tradition; it is a romance, a beautiful and poignant love story that gets me every time I see it.

Sometime in the early nineteen hundreds, Mrs. Lucy Muir (Gene Tierney) is widow who has been living with her husband’s mother and very overbearing sister and she yearns for independence. She has some money from her husband and takes her daughter (Natalie Wood) to the ocean where she falls in love with Gull Cottage, which is thought to be haunted. She tours the house and there are some odd occurrences (like laughter, which could theoretically just be the wind) but she’s indomitable and rents the place. The cottage used to belong to a sea captain, Captain Daniel Gregg, who died four years earlier, reportedly of suicide.

One evening, during stormy weather, Lucy goes down to her kitchen to prepare tea for herself, but the lights go out and her candle is repeatedly blown out and in prim and proper annoyance, she announces that she is not afraid of the ghost, that his tricks are quite unimpressive and she dares him to show himself. To her surprise, he (Rex Harrison) really does reveal himself. She is very taken aback, but still indomitable and the ghost, Captain Gregg, is rather impressed. They make a deal: he’ll stop haunting the whole house and keep to her bedroom (which used to be his bedroom) so her daughter won’t see him if she’ll put his picture up in her room (which he likes). Also, he expects her to leave the cottage to sailors as a home, which is why he had been haunting the house in the first place, trying to keep other people away. He also rather indignantly denies having committed suicide – he was sleeping in a chair with his window shut because there was a storm and kicked the gas on with his foot.

Rex Harrison and Gene Tierney

Rex Harrison and Gene Tierney

The two argue a lot, but also become friends and spend a great deal of time talking about their lives. When her income from her husband unexpectedly peters out so that she can no longer afford to stay at Gull Cottage, Daniel suggests that she write a book, or rather that he write it and she take the credit for it. He calls it “Blood and Swash,” to her mild disapproval, but he asserts that this must be a man’s book, the unvarnished life of a sailor, which is basically his own life story.

It is while they are writing the book together that Lucy begins to realize that she and Daniel have gotten themselves into a pickle, emotionally. She realizes they are in love, but there’s nothing to be done about it. But after they finish the book and find a publisher, she meets another man, a real man, named Miles Fairley (George Sanders – in one of his inimitable cad roles) who pursues her, despite Daniel’s strong disapproval.

Rex Harrison and Gene Tierney make such an adorable couple, which is kind of funny because I don’t think I would have applied that term to either of them on their own. Gene Tierney is a gorgeous woman and I never considered Rex Harrison exactly cute, but together they are perfect; they convey that these two souls were made for each other. They are companions, as well as lovers. In fact, they are companions because they can’t be lovers. He is cantankerous and goes about saying “blast” this and “blast” that (a habit that Lucy picks up, much to the surprise of several of her acquaintances) and has lived a very full life. Lucy is very refined, very proper, but with a will of her own and a longing to do something worthwhile. She loves to hear his stories and he recognizes a kindred and queenly spirit in her. He calls her Lucia instead of Lucy, because he considers it a name fit for a queen.

b8ce2caed6798145200b564e21299f73I must confess the end didn’t go in the direction I was expecting at all, but it’s a beautiful story, but also quite sad because it’s about loneliness. She is a lonely widow, though she never complains about it. When Daniel tells her how he ran away to sea when he was young and how his aunt was probably glad to be rid of him, Lucy asks him if she ever wrote and he replies that she did faithfully until she died. Lucy comments that his aunt probably missed him much more than he knew. When Lucy falls for Miles Fairley, she does so partly as a reaction to the fact that he is alive and can provide real companionship and love.

But in truth, Lucy and Daniel were made for each other and Lucy never does find a real companion in life. She loves her daughter, but it’s not quite the same thing. She cares for her servant, Martha, but that also is not quite the same thing. The tragedy is that they didn’t miss each other by many years. He only died four years before she came to Gull Cottage and if he’d been alive, she still would have come to that village, they would have met, and they could have been together. When Miles Fairley enters the picture, Daniel talks to her while she is sleeping of all that they have missed, allowing himself to image what it would have been like if they could have been together.

The-Ghost-and-Mrs-Muir-1947-Gene-Tierney-and-Rex-Harrison--300x226The Ghost and Mrs. Muir is another example of what I call a cosmic romance: the romance that was fated to be, where there is no other one for you, that transcends time and space. Though, in this case, it’s a bit like something went wrong with fate. They were meant to be together, but he accidentally died, and that kind of messed everything up. So they have to wait for after life to truly be united.

The score was written by Bernard Herrmann, who is probably better remembered for his scores to movies like Psycho and North by Northwest. He joked that the score was his “Max Steiner score” (who wrote sweepingly dramatic scores for movies like Gone With the Wind), but it’s haunting, lovely, almost like a tone poem, often running along in the background and providing a cohesive feel to the movie, as if the movie were part of the tone poem. Leonard Maltin describes the movie as a fantasy, which it is more than a ghost story. It is a movie that has to be accepted on its own terms (why there is a ghost is never explained) and is rather achingly romantic, almost a tear-jerker, with a tremendous amount of charm from the actors.

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Posted by on October 27, 2014 in Fantasy, Romance

 

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