Romantic Obsession with a Woman Who Never Existed: Vertigo (1958)
Alfred Hitchcock’s 1958 masterpiece is loaded with psychological twists and turns destined to keep viewers spellbound up to the film’s conclusion. It is one of those rare films that, once it snares you in its grip, will not let you go.
In a shrewd casting double, “Vertigo” combines one of the screen’s most durable and likable leading men, James Stewart, opposite one of the most hauntingly beautiful up and coming female superstars of the fifties Kim Novak, the dazzling blonde from Chicago that Columbia boss Harry Cohn handpicked to become the successor to the studio’s reigning leading lady, redhead Rita Hayworth.
Fill in the Blanks
Hitchcock kept audiences entertained by making them constantly guess, frequently fooling them and leaving them begging for more of the same. One interesting technique employed in “Vertigo” is that of inviting audience members to fill in the blanks.
This technique is used at the beginning of the film. Cinematographer Robert Burks, one of Hitchcock’s regulars, provides an amazing chase sequence on top of a roof in scenic San Francisco. The superb color tones make the scene all the more magnificent as Stewart, a plain clothes San Francisco Police Department detective, is part of the chase.
After the fleeing criminal suspect leaps from one building to the next Stewart comes perilously close to toppling immediately to his death. Stewart holds on to some shingles for dear life after having failed to execute a successful leap. A uniformed officer comes to his aid. As he prepares to reach out and take Stewart’s hand, the uniformed officer plunges to his death, emitting a final desperate cry.
A close-up of Stewart’s face followed by a scene of the city far below suggests the chilling possibility of the detective following his colleague’s ultimate fate of plunging to the ground.
From there Hitchcock imposes a cut of Stewart sitting in the apartment of his old friend from his college days and briefly his fiancée, Barbara Bel Geddes, a performer who grew up on the New York stage but was equally comfortable before the cameras. To extend the opening scene’s height factor, Bel Geddes’s apartment is situated on a high floor, affording breathtaking views of the city below.
The crisp script of Alec Coppel and Samuel Taylor shrewdly and quickly informs audience members with a biographical sketch of Stewart’s character, along with his longstanding friendship with Bel Geddes, including their brief engagement and his comment that she had broken it off. Stewart has a cane and states thankfully that he is due to visit his doctor and have his “corset” removed and will be able to scratch his back again. We realize that he survived his brush with death but we never learn how, a blank Hitchcock leaves for us to figure out.
Stewart laments that, while he is known as “Reliable Ferguson” he could not stop his police colleague from plunging to his death. Ultimately he was left with acrophobia, a fear of heights that induced vertigo. Bel Geddes protests that the partner’s death was not his fault and he should not blame himself. The ultimate result of the tragedy was that John “Scottie” Ferguson quit the police force.
In an act of determined resolution Stewart decides to climb a foot ladder in Bel Geddes’s living room step by step. He gains confidence initially but finally, taking a look outside the window at the sprawling city far below, Stewart collapses as Bel Geddes prevents him from falling on the carpet.
Reliable Ferguson and doing a Favor for a College Friend
The scene with Bel Geddes establishes that he has been contacted by another of his college acquaintances, this one a man with the distinguished name of Gavin Elster. Stewart explains that he had heard that he went east and that the old college gang had lost track of him.
A meeting in Elster’s palatial office reveals that his return west involved marrying into huge money, specifically a shipping empire. The reliable Scottish side of Ferguson causes him to rebel when Elster explains that an evil spirit has seemingly taken possession of his wife, a woman from nineteenth century San Francisco historical folklore named Carlotta Valdes.
After initially telling Elster that he and his wife should be visiting a “shrink” if not “a psychologist” or the “family doctor” the skeptical Scot feels sorry for his old friend. He finally reluctantly agrees to at least observe Elster’s wife once from the bar at Ernie’s Restaurant, where the shipping magnate is taking his wife prior to an opera performance.
When the retired officer with the bad case of vertigo gets one look at the dazzling Novak, cast as Madeleine Elster, as she walks past him his skeptical side vanishes and he agrees to follow her during these “episodes” her husband explains occur during the day, experiences that he insists Novak cannot remember.
Is Elster the Cinema’s Most Unique Villain?
Alfred Hitchcock is a director renowned for playing tricks and dropping what are called “roman candles” into film scenes. The thoroughly suave, definitively polite Gavin Elster, was played by British born Tom Helmore, who had previously appeared in small roles under Hitchcock during the director’s London period.
The question that emerges after evaluating his role as Gavin Elster in “Vertigo” is whether he was the most unique villain not only put on celluloid by Hitchcock, but by anyone else. His cunning machinations resulted in the deaths of his wife, by his own hand and after brilliant previous planning, along with the demise of the film’s leading lady and the total psychological destruction of the male lead.
The Copell-Taylor leads us along with assured professionalism as the pieces fit together concisely. When old school chum Stewart as retired detective Ferguson meets him in his office attention is registered on a painting showing San Francisco a century earlier.
Tom Helmore as Elster delivers a negative commentary of San Francisco in mid-twentieth century. He sees it as clearly lacking the style and overall excitement of the city a century earlier. His knowledge and interest in the earlier San Francisco invests him with the planning skills to carry out a convincing charade for the detective’s benefit as he follows and eventually falls deeply in love with a woman who was seemingly destined to kill herself at the age of 26 in the same manner of the tragic Carlotta Valdes.
Another point made in the first meeting between Elster and the retired police detective is that with the changes between the current period and yesteryear that the nostalgic ship magnate would not mind leaving San Francisco. This is a key element since ultimately he will tell Ferguson at a key moment that he is leaving the country and will probably move to Europe, and that furthermore he will probably never return.
Along with making Elster a unique villain due to his letter perfect deportment every moment that he is on screen, belying the evil plotter and killer that he actually is, Hitchcock has again succeeded in eluding censors in perhaps an even more clever manner than in “Notorious” (1946) when he found a way for Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman to be sexually provocative without having footage cut.
Until many years later screen killers were compelled to pay for their crimes. There would be no commission of crimes and waltzing off together in the sunset as Steve McQueen and Ali MacGraw would do in the violent 1972 Sam Peckinpah film, “The Getaway.”
After Tom Helmore as Elster succeeds with his brilliant machinations in using both Kim Novak and James Stewart as pawns in killing his rich wife and pocketing his profits, as far as we know he pays no price for misdeeds that would fill Sherlock Holmes’s arch-nemesis Professor Moriarty with envy.
Two More fill in the Blanks Episodes
Once that Stewart begins tailing Novak, innocently following Helmore’s cunning game plan, Hitchcock inserts two more instances where audience members are asked to fill in the blanks in the manner of the earlier mentioned beginning of the film.
When Novak, following Helmore’s game plan meticulously, fakes a suicide attempt by jumping into San Francisco Bay, leading Stewart to believe that he has saved the blonde beauty’s life, he drives her to his apartment near Coit Tower.
After the episode in the water the scene shifts to the apartment. Novak is sleeping in the bedroom and her wet clothes are drying. Finally she rises and converses with Stewart for the first time. How could she have been where she was dressed as she was without Stewart removing her wet clothes, dressing her in dry bedroom apparel, and putting her to bed? We learn nothing about what happened from the moment Novak jumped into San Francisco Bay and that when the audience finds her sleeping in Stewart’s bedroom.
Another question arises. Novak leaves on her own presumably in her own car. There were two cars initially as Stewart was following and watching Novak. Stewart could not have driven both cars home, yet we learn nothing of another party being involved in any regard.
The second unexplained incident occurs when Novak parks and enters the McKittrick Hotel, where the establishment’s clerk, Ellen Corby, tells Stewart she is a regular resident. Corby insists that Novak has not been in the hotel that day, adding to the psychic dimension that Helmore has invented. The unresolved question is whether Stewart only believes he saw her enter the hotel and appear at the window of an upstairs room, or whether Corby is also in on the plot and is attempting to fool Stewart.
Romantic Obsession with a Woman Who Never Existed