RSS

Tag Archives: Kim Novak

Re-watching Vertigo – Questions, Questions

0913Q_VertigoPoster_30pEver since watching Vertigo for the first time several weeks ago (my original review can be found here), I knew I wanted to see it again now that I knew the twist. I was especially curious about the first half of the film. I wanted to see what I could pick up since I knew that Madeleine is really Judy, who is playing Madeleine.

This time I watched it with my grandmother, who first saw it when it was released in 1958, just before my mom was born. She’s always loved Alfred Hitchcock’s movies and each year would see his latest film. Vertigo, though, was not her favorite. She found it a bit slow and rather creepy. We had a great time discussing it, though.

What was most interesting is how the focus of the story seemed to change on a second viewing. The first time, it is all about Scottie (James Stewart). We are seeing things as he is seeing them (at least in the first half) and are as confused as he is. Kim Novak’s Madeleine is an enigma to us, aloof, unknowable, almost not of the world (which I think is partially why Scottie is fascinated by her – he is not as attracted to the more down-to-earth Judy). But on a second viewing it suddenly became about her. Now that I knew it was Judy Barton playing Madeleine Elster, I was wondering what she was thinking.

vertigo-pic-4When did she fall in love (as soon as she met him, in his apartment?), was she really unconscious after jumping into San Francisco Bay (that must have been fun – you’d have to pay me a lot of money to deliberately jump into a bay and hope the man following me doesn’t take his time about rescuing me)? How much is she hewing to a script prepared by Gavin Elster? Was that really what the real Madeleine was like, almost other-worldly? When she drove to Scottie’s house to give him a thank-you-note, was that done with the knowledge of Elster or did she just do that because she liked Scottie and wanted to see him again?

I’m thinking that every move she made had to be planned by Elster. He needed Scottie to be there when Madeleine supposedly jumps off the bell tower. Did Elster really plan for Scottie to fall in love? That doesn’t seem like the kind of thing one could plan. But it also doesn’t seem like there was much that Judy did (as Madeleine) that wasn’t calculated, presumably by Elster. On viewing it again, I can’t really think of any moments in the first half where I thought, “ah, that is really Judy coming through.” Perhaps the moment when she is standing on his doorstep and making eyes at Scottie while he reads her letter has a bit of the real Judy, but she stays in character pretty much the entire time. What is genuinely Judy was the emotion.

And I was wondering, did Elster make up his plan as soon as he heard about Scottie in the paper, and how he had acrophobia? If you really think about it, it’s a ridiculous plan, but that’s is not really the point of the film. Hitchcock film’s don’t always make the most logical sense. Vertigo is telling a psychological and human story; it’s all about the characters, not the minutiae of the plot. Hitchcock would never make a mystery writer.

kim-novak-in-vertigo-1958In shifting my viewpoint from Scottie to Judy, it suddenly became her tragedy more than his. She’s the one who gets trapped, first by Elster and then by her love of Scottie. My grandmother and I were musing that you could create a movie series called “Ten Stupid Things Women Do” and choose ten movies to illustrate. I’m sure Vertigo would fit in there somewhere.

And I wonder, was she Gavin Elster’s mistress? Scottie accuses her of it at the end and asks her what Elster gave her after he ditched her. She says money. Is that a tacit confession to his accusations, or does she just mean that she got money for doing her job? How did she ever get involved with Elster and agree to his plan?  As a curious side-note, there is a twisted Pygmalion element to Vertigo. Elster teaching Judy how to be Madeleine must have looked a bit like a darker version of Shaw’s play…and then Scottie tries his hand at it in the second half of the film.

Elster is the real villain, actually a successful villain, who creates an alternate reality that entraps Judy and Scottie and then leaves on his merry way to Europe, having killed his wife. Maybe after Judy dies, the police will figure everything out, though I doubt they’ll ever catch Elster. The authorities are going to be awfully perplexed when another body shows up on the roof of the same mission, dressed in the same clothes and looking exactly like the other women, with the same man present in the tower.

I think that’s partially what I liked about Vertigo. There’s so much scope for imagination. So many films are complete unto themselves, but I like a movie that leaves room for speculation and imagination about the past or future or motivations of the characters. And Vertigo is practically bursting with scope for speculation.

 
6 Comments

Posted by on April 17, 2015 in Drama, Movie Thoughts, Romance

 

Tags: , , , , , , ,

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).

 
14 Comments

Posted by on April 7, 2015 in Drama, Romance

 

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

Pushover (1954)

downloadIf Phyllis Dietrichson had really loved Walter Neff, you might have a movie somewhat like Pushover, with a dash of Rear Window just for good measure. Pushover is more than just an imitation, but it is impossible to watch without making comparisons. Pushover is a B film noir. It’s not great, not perfect, but interesting in its own way.

The movie also marks the official debut of Kim Novak. It wasn’t her first movie, but as the credits say, it was “introducing Kim Novak.” The film also stars Fred MacMurray ten years after a similar role in Double Indemnity.

After a bank robbery that ends with the murder of one of the bank guards, the police know the identity of one of the two robbers, Harry Wheeler (Paul Richards). Their only lead on him, however, is a woman they believe is his girlfriend, Lona McLane (Kim Novak). To make sure she really is Wheeler’s girlfriend, though, they have cop Paul Sheridan (Fred MacMurray) get to know her and afterwards the police, including Sheridan, set up a stakeout on Lona’s apartment, waiting for Wheeler to show up. They tap her phone, follow her everywhere she goes and rent the apartment across from hers so that they can spy on her movements.

This is where the Rear Window elements come into play. The police are basically hanging around the apartment, watching her through a pair of binoculars. But of course, not only can they see Lona, but the other people who live in the apartments next to Lona, including a pretty nurse, Ann Stewart (Dorothy Malone). The police are watching Lona in shifts, two in the day and two at night. They expect Wheeler to show up at night so they put their best cops on the job during that time: Paul Sheridan and his partner, Rick McAllister (Philip Carey). Paul and Rick are very different guys, however. They both come from a poor background, but while Rick’s parents loved each other despite the lack of money, Paul says his parents fought all the time about money. His conclusion is that though money alone wouldn’t make you happy, it is still necessary. He is also strongly attracted to Lona. Rick, on the other hand, thinks she’s just another broad and finds himself drawn to the pretty nurse in the room next to Lona, who he keeps watching instead of Lona.

Fred MacMurray, Kim Novak and Philip Carey

Fred MacMurray, Kim Novak and Philip Carey

But Lona is not an idiot. She figures out that Paul was a cop all along and one night, while Paul is tailing her, she drives to his house. He gets out of the car and she asks him for an explanation. He admits being a cop and she admits that Wheeler is her boyfriend, though she maintains that she did not know he was a crook. She then suggests that since Wheeler is a murderer, it wouldn’t really matter too much in the long run if Paul were to somehow get the money. When he accuses her of being willing to use Wheeler’s dirty money she replies, “Money isn’t dirty, just people.” Of course Paul says no, but just as in Double Indemnity, you know he’s going to kick the idea around and eventually do exactly as she asks. And just as in Double Indemnity, he’ll do all the planning (Fred MacMurray really should keep away from scheming blondes).

Where Pushover is different from Double Indemnity is that while Phyllis Dietrichson (as played by Barbara Stanwyck) is a murderous psychopath who, despite claims to the contrary, never really cared for Walter Neff, Kim Novak’s Lona does care for Paul. It’s not entirely clear until the end, but there are enough clues to make the ending make sense. After all, although Paul meant to pick up Lona at the beginning of the film, Lona practically picked him up instead. She saw something in him she liked. Many people have commented that it is not believable that she would have fallen for craggy Fred MacMurray, but I disagree.

She said she noticed him in the movie theater and wondered why he was alone. I think she saw something in him, something that resonated with her. They’re both alike, lonely, dissatisfied and bitter with life, wanting things they don’t have. They understand each other. They fill a hole in each other’s lives; they need each other. They just think they need money, too. It’s rather tragic when, after everything’s fallen apart and Paul finds that Lona did not leave him, he realizes, “We didn’t really need that money, did we?”

images (2)One problem with Pushover is that it loses steam after Paul has committed the crime (he shoots Wheeler). Unlike Double Indemnity, which derives all its tension from watching how the crime is committed and how the two criminals subsequently self-destruct, there is not much tension after the murder. Everything starts to go wrong for him instantly and you know he is toast the moment the nurse sees him in Lona’s apartment. MacMurray does an admirable job playing a desperate man whose plans are going increasingly more awry and who finds himself resorting to crimes beyond his original intention, but the tension in the script is just not there anymore.

Fred MacMurray is a very fine actor with an under-appreciated range. He is today best remembered for his Disney films like The Absent-Minded Professor and The Shaggy Dog and also for being the foil in many a screwball comedy with Carol Lombard and Claudette Colbert; but he could also play weak, smarmy or un-principled men. I’d always heard of MacMurray’s three heel roles – Double IndemnityThe Caine Mutiny and The Apartment – but I think we could add Pushover to the list, although it is his most sympathetic heel. You almost wish he and Kim Novak could make a new life together (without the money), but alas his principles are not strong enough.

Pushover can currently be viewed here on youtube.

 
Leave a comment

Posted by on March 30, 2015 in Film Noir

 

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

 
%d bloggers like this: