Tag Archives: San Francisco

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).


Posted by on April 7, 2015 in Drama, Romance


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Gentleman Jim (1942)


I don’t know why he has a mustache in the poster, because he certainly doesn’t have one in the movie

I think the best word to describe this movie is boisterous. Boisterous, infectious, rowdy fun. Directed by Raoul Walsh, Gentleman Jim was reportedly one of Errol Flynn’s favorite movies and he worked hard at it, working to master the footwork and left hook of James J. Corbett, boxing heavyweight champion from 1892-1897.

Not necessarily historically accurate, it is an incredibly fun film and it’s hard for me to fathom why it’s not better known. I was inspired, however, to research the truth about Corbett. In the film, there’s no villain, melodrama, or angst; it maintains the same tone throughout, with one, nice reflective moment at the end, when Corbett has defeated the great John L. Sullivan and become the new heavyweight champion of the world. Sullivan, who is another one of those boisterous characters, played colorfully by Ward Bond, had been striding confidently through the streets surrounded by excited fans and adoring children, banging on saloon counters and declaring that he can beat anyone in the world. Now that he has lost and his emotionally lost – though Corbett admits that he beat Sullivan when no longer in his prime – he retires gracefully and Corbett is touched by his demeanor and takes a moment to reflect what it will mean to Sullivan that he is no longer at the top.

But apart from that moment, the film is relentlessly fun and upbeat. Errol Flynn’s Corbett is one of four children in an Irish family who all have broad Irish accents except him (he has a precise Australian accent). His father is a cabby and his brothers are longshoreman, but he is a bank clerk (which might account for his accent – perhaps he tried to polish his accent to get a good job, but picked an Australian to teach him how to speak). His brothers like to make fun of his tie and his stiff collar, but he defends himself by fighting them in the barn (as the neighbors like to say “The Corbetts are at it again!).

Alan Hale and Errol Flynn

Alan Hale and Errol Flynn

His father is played by Alan Hale Sr., who appeared in 13 movies with Errol Flynn, most famously as Little John in The Adventures of Robin Hood. Usually, he was his buddy or pal, once he was his enemy, but this time he’s his ‘Pop,’ proud as punch of his son, his boxing prowess, and his fancy clothes. Flynn’s Corbett is a bit of a social climber, opportunist and definitely a dandy. He even has his trainer smooth down his hair between boxing rounds.

Professional boxing was considered highly disreputable and in many states was illegal, so when Corbett runs into a Supreme Court Judge at an illegal boxing match, a judge who happens to be on the board of the bank where Corbett works, he comes to his rescue when the police raid the place. He also manages to finagle his way into the Olympic Club, where all the gentleman congregate, and is sponsored by the judge and by another banker and his daughter (Alexis Smith). The judge wants respectable young men to learn boxing so that they can change the perception of boxing in the public eye.

thO7QRZF3AThe film traces Corbett’s rise from bank clerk to social climber at the club (much to the annoyance of the members – among other irritating habits, he is always having himself paged) to professional boxer. The fights are very well staged and Flynn rarely used a body double for the fights.

One great match takes place on a dock, with people from both the lower and upper classes lined up to watch. At one point a policemen tries to shut down the match, but he is tossed into the water. Corbett’s opponent has conveniently lost his gloves and is boxing with bare knuckles. It’s almost a brawl. Corbett is hit and falls out of the ring and into the water, only to climb back up and knock the guy out. Then more police come running in and people scatter, many jumping into the water. The film captures a wonderfully carefree and rowdy time in San Francisco.


Flynn with John Loder and Alexis Smith

There is a romance, though it is not based on actual fact. Alexis Smith plays a wealthy miner’s daughter who would like to see him lose, just to take him down a peg. Of course, in romantic tradition, she’s just kidding herself and is crazy about him.

If Corbett was the first respectable boxer, John L. Sullivan was the last boxer to fight before the Marquess of Queensbury Rules was generally accepted by boxers; rules like using gloves during a fight, three minute rounds with a minute rest in between, a man on one knee is considered down and cannot be hit, and so on. The rules got their name because they were endorsed by the Marquess of Queensbury, John Douglas. The rules marked the beginning of a degree of respectability for boxing. James J. Corbett also helped make boxing more accepted by his soften spoken and gentlemanly behavior, which is how he got the nickname Gentleman Jim. Flynn’s Corbett is perhaps less soft spoken and very brash and cocky, but it’s probably more entertaining that way.

Ward Bond and Errol Flynn

Ward Bond and Errol Flynn

Corbett also performed often on vaudeville and practically made a second career of it. This was usual for sporting celebrities, though often they were lousy actors, but Corbett was a step above the rest. We never get to see Flynn actually performing, though it is clear that he is doing so, at one point reading a Shakespeare play and demonstrating how he would act it. He doesn’t get much beyond “Hark,” however.

Corbett is also considered the first scientific boxer, using more strategy and fancy footwork, as opposed to charging in and swinging. They tried to capture this to some degree in the film, focusing often on Flynn’s feet and having him dance around while Sullivan and other opponents charge him.

The entertainment factor is high in this film, with the fights and the colorful cast of supporting characters and the late 1880-90s fashions and setting. Jack Carson appears as Corbett’s friend and fellow bank clerk and William Frawley is his cigar chomping manager. Alan Hale is always wonderful and Ward Bond is suitably larger than life, but with a poignant dignity at the end. But I have to say, I believe this is my favorite Errol Flynn movie of all. He’s so cocky, but never irritating, a blatant social climber who never forgets his shanty Irish background and is always capable of a rueful grin. I never thought he was more appealing.


Posted by on July 21, 2014 in Movies


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