(Dir. Alfred Hitchcock, United States, 1958)
Objects of Desire: Women in Vertigo
Alfred Hitchcock’s tumultuous relationship with his leading ladies – and with women in general – is well documented in the annals of behind-the-scenes histories of cinema with new claims of his flagrant disregard for the opposite sex surfacing to this day. And yet, despite the persistent portrait of the man’s misdeeds – reportedly flashing his female leads to elicit shocked performances and soliciting one actress for sexual favors then enacting revenge on set when refused, to cite the two most startling accusations – most remain curiously unsubstantiated. There are those who worked closest to him who would corroborate these claims as well as many who quickly dismiss them as completely fabricated. Aside from his clear (arguably sexist) preference for blondes and a famous quote suggesting men are inherently better performers, it’s likely we’ll never know whether Hitchcock harbored intense feelings of misogyny or, less seriously, ascribed to the traditional, widely accepted views on women of the time.
Since today’s fans and detractors alike were never on set for any of these alleged incidents, what we have to go on are the movies themselves, the most famous of which all feature (blonde) women central to each film’s narrative. He’s no stranger to subjecting women to violence or tragedy (though he’s certainly no Lars von Trier!) – see Janet Leigh’s iconic shower death in Psycho or the physical and psychological torment of Tippi Hedren in The Birds. But, he’s also occasionally disposed to showcase heroics in the most unlikely of characters as in Grace Kelly’s dainty, socialite Lisa Fremont in Rear Window (though admittedly she’s mostly there for window dressing). But, if there’s one film in Hitchcock’s enormous catalogue that most draws attention to its treatment of and ideas on women, it’s none other than his widely regarded magnum opus Vertigo.
The achievements of Hitchcock’s masterpiece are innumerable – the unparalleled suspense-building in the least likely fashion imaginable, a meticulously controlled mise-en-scène, a gorgeous Technicolor palette that allowed red walls and a green dress to pop against the cloudy grays of San Francisco, Bernard Herrmann’s mesmerizing score, Jimmy Stewart’s perfectly unnerving performance, one killer twist, etc. – and the plot details are well-known to most lovers of film and casual moviegoers alike. At the film’s center is Stewart’s Scottie – a police detective forced into early retirement due to a rooftop accident triggering crippling acrophobia and vertigo – who’s enlisted by an old classmate to undergo a private investigation of his wife’s abnormal behavior suggesting hints of the supernatural. As Scottie begins tailing the beautiful Madeleine about town, closely observing her every move, he begins falling for her himself. When those sentiments are reciprocated, Scottie urges her to discover the cause of this erratic behavior, now not for her husband, but for their love.
When Madeleine falls to her death from the bell tower at a far-off church, Scottie is overcome with grief and slips into a nearly catatonic depression. Not long after, Madeleine’s perfect double appears in the form of Judy Barton, a brunette without Madeleine’s air of sophistication or seductive elocution. Could this be the same person? Hitchcock doesn’t let his audience wonder for too long. Judy reveals as much in a letter explicitly detailing his old pal’s elaborate ploy to murder his wife and use Scottie as a witness to her faked suicide, performed by Judy as Madeleine’s lookalike. Judy subsequently tears up the note and allows Scottie back into her life in hopes that he can now learn to love her as Judy. It’s a bold narrative decision; a twist that Hitchcock could have milked till the film’s final moments. But, it quickly becomes clear that he intends us to focus our attention not on solving a mystery, but on studying our rapidly unhinging protagonist as he increasingly pressures Judy into assuming Madeleine’s likeness once again. The film’s back half packs one hefty emotional punch as Scottie unravels given our knowledge and his lack thereof regarding Judy’s true identity. It’s maddening to see Judy reluctantly transform into Madeleine in order to win Scottie’s affection and to witness Scottie driven to near insanity as he forces her to mount the stairs where “Madeleine” first died.
The film, ultimately, is a tragedy. In the end, Scottie loses both the woman he claims to love and, more than likely, his mind. Hitchcock’s film is primarily concerned with the psyche and mental regression of his male protagonist Scottie, but the man’s relationship with and treatment of women is crucial in understanding how we as the audience are to perceive his circumstance as either lamentable tragedy or deserved comeuppance. There are two major female characters in Vertigo, and both exist to further the plot of Scottie’s downward spiral. Kim Novak’s Madeleine/Judy duo is the axis on which the film rotates. The idea of Madeleine is the object of Scottie’s intense desires; so much so that he aggressively projects the feelings associated with her on Judy, though he is at first completely unaware of the actual connection between the two. Hitchcock fittingly captures Novak as if she were a prop, an object to be sought after. A large portion of the film consists of Scottie watching her closely. Her routines and gestures form the basis of his study, then her features and figure fuel his growing desire.
The second female character is less pivotal to the film’s plot, but she provides grounding for Scottie’s character immediately following his accident and intermittently as he falls for Madeleine. We learn to care for Scottie during his early interactions with Midge (Barbara Del Geddes) that provide back-story for both characters. In their very first scene together, it becomes clear that Midge harbors feelings for Scottie to which he remains oblivious. But, as an audience, we’re conditioned to guess straightaway that she will not serve as this protagonist’s love interest. In contrast to Novak’s glowing, distinct features highlighted by melodramatic strings every time she appears on screen, Del Geddes is made to look comparatively homely. We first see her hunched over a desk wearing plain clothes and sporting unflattering spectacles. Throughout the film, Midge is treated as a repository for Scottie’s feelings and insecurities until he doesn’t need her anymore. After Madeleine supposedly plummets to her death, it’s Midge who dutifully remains by Scottie’s side while he recovers. She patiently and kindly speaks to him hoping he’ll snap out of his coma-like state, but Hitchcock immediately cuts to Scottie, now physically rehabilitated, in desperate search for some trace of Madeleine throughout the city. Midge is never seen again.
Hitchcock is so rarely interested in moralizing, and Vertigo is no exception. He does not condemn Scottie for his dismissal of Midge and his harmful actions toward Judy, but rather allows him to fall victim to natural consequences of such unfair treatment. There isn’t any closure for Scottie and Midge, but it’s not difficult to imagine that there’s no room left in his heart for their friendship once the thought of resurrecting Madeleine consumes him. His actions arguably spell the end of their close-knit relationship. As for Judy, not only does she lose her own life because of Scottie, but he also loses his sanity in the pursuit of his desires. Here, Hitchcock shows the self-destructive nature of obsession. For obsession is what this is, no matter how much Scottie cushions his sentiments with flowery words like “love.” He doesn’t love Judy and can’t love her. She is but a shell to him; only her physical appearance matters. Only when she changes her hair, her dress, and her demeanor can Scottie even hold her in his arms.
It might be tempting to read Vertigo as a feminist manifesto of sorts with its seeming denouncement of such flippantly objectified treatment of women, but given Hitchcock’s personal history, women’s rights were not likely at the forefront of his thoughts. Too, it’s important to note, the two women here do not represent fully-fledged characters. The film seems to suggest that the greatest desires of their own hearts beat for one man. Despite Midge’s apparent successful career, the motivating factor for most of her onscreen actions is her affection for Scottie. Likewise, Judy appears unable to assess her own self-worth and remains in a destructive relationship with Scottie allowing him to transform her into another woman, finally worthy of his love. Some might find this assessment unfair citing Judy’s real love for Scottie as her motivation, but if that’s true, then this is a failure on Hitchcock’s part to add any credibility to their supposed blossoming romance (admittedly, this is a flaw of many major Hollywood classics when swelling strings and abrupt passionate kissing could believably stand in for love).
Ultimately, Vertigo is a film distinctly about women (though not a particularly progressive one), but one that sees them through a decidedly male perspective. The women in Vertigo are mere objects of desire, and even if these are not especially nuanced characterizations, the film makes a case against such obsessive longing nonetheless. At film’s end, Scottie is left with nothing. He loses a dear friend, and he loses the one he so desires not once, but twice. There’s only hollowness in such objectification (whether of women or men alike), and the final tragic moments of Hitchcock’s masterpiece stand as a perfect image of that powerful truth.