The Fragments of the Mirror: Vertigo and its Sources
In Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief (1955), ex-cat-burglar John Robie (Cary Grant) has returned to his hotel room from a tryst with Francie Stevens (Grace Kelly) during which the two of them had dined in her mother’s suite and watched, through the window, a display of fireworks above the bay. Suddenly Francie invades John’s room with an anguished demand that he ‘give them back - Mother’s jewels!’ This incident isn’t to be found in David Dodge’s novel (1953) on which the film is based. Rather, it may recall a much earlier, and famous, episode in fiction: the central incident of William Wilkie Collins’s great mystery-story about a jewel, ‘The Moonstone’ (1868). Of the latter, scholar Anthea Trodd writes: ‘the novel owes its career in the psychoanalytic journals to the fact that its central episode takes place at midnight in the heroine’s bedroom when her tacit acquiescence in the theft of her valuable becomes hysterical reaction by morning’.
As we’ll see, there are other cases of Collins’s (direct or indirect) influence on Hitchcock. But here’s a rather different kind of ‘borrowing’ by the director. Stephen Rebello has shown that when Hitchcock was planning Psycho (1960), he looked again at Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Les Diaboliques/The Fiends (1954), which was based on the novel by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac. Hitchcock particularly noted aspects of the French film’s publicity campaign, as well as its use of ‘moody, dirty-dishes-in-the-sink black and white’. In addition, he probably enjoyed seeing again on screen the actor Charles Vanel who in Les Diaboliques plays the snooping Inspector Fichet and in To Catch a Thief the edgy restaurateur Bertani. We’ll see that Vanel (1892-1979) seems to have specialised in appearing in plots based on a ‘big lie’. Les Diaboliques is certainly that, as it involves characters conspiring to stage an elaborate hoax version of events in order to try and frighten their victim to death.
Such plots found their way into several Hollywood movies, and Humphrey Bogart appeared in at least two of them. In Curtis Bernhardt’s Conflict (1945), he plays a wife-murderer whom psychiatrist Sydney Greenstreet tries to scare into a confession by making it seems that the wife is still alive. At one point, Bogart visits a pawnshop and sees what looks like his wife’s recent handwriting in the ledger. He leaves to fetch a police officer. When the two men return, a different pawnbroker awaits them. This man denies all knowledge of a colleague or an assistant. Moreover, the line in the ledger now bears someone else’s signature. Here of course there are echoes of Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes (1938) and an anticipation - perhaps a direct influence on - the scene in North by Northwest (1959) in which Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) returns with the police to his abductor’s house where all evidence of what happened the night before has been erased or removed. We’ll see that Conflict certainly influenced a key moment in Vertigo.
But another influence on the scene in North by Northwest (and the one in Conflict) is likely. Vincent Sherman’s All Through the Night (1942) depicts Bogart as a good-at-heart racketeer who helps to smash a gang of Nazi fifth-columnists who use a New York antique-auction business as their cover. After Bogart is kidnapped by the gang, he manages to escape and return with the police - only to find a surly, know-nothing attendant minding the tidied-up premises. The attendant denies everything! Now, the influence of All Through the Night on North by Northwest is made especially likely by the fact that another of the scenes in Sherman’s film looks like the forerunner of Hitchcock’s memorable auction-gallery episode. Needing an excuse to enter the gang’s storeroom next to the auction room, Bogart hits on the ruse of making an unusually high (and therefore unbeatable) bid for an old desk - to the consternation of the auctioneer (Conrad Veidt) and his sinister offsiders (Judith Anderson, Peter Lorre), who see what he is up to.
Of course, in Thornhill’s case, he makes crazier bids, for his intention is to force the gallery staff to call the police. Another 1942 film may have inspired this aspect of Hitchcock’s auction-gallery scene. Sidney Lanfield’s My Favourite Blonde is actually something of a spoof of Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps (1935), and it cast Madeleine Carroll alongside Bob Hope to help make its point. In a typical escapade, Hope and Carroll find themselves holed-up in a hotel room by foreign agents who have staked out the building. Desperate, the pair pretend to be a feuding husband and wife (as in Hitchcock’s recently-released Mr and Mrs Smith), and start to wreck everything in sight. Soon the hotel management arrives with the law ...
So it looks as though Hitchcock, somewhere along the line, saw how he might amalgamate these two scenes from different films in order to maximise the comic effect. That he kept a file of just such ideas was revealed in an exhibitors’ campaign-sheet for Torn Curtain (1966). Most of Hitchcock’s films, it said, ‘begin in pigeonholes where he stores sudden thoughts and ideas’. The release quoted Hitchcock as saying that his file contained ‘several score’ ideas for films. But he then added: ‘The volume is the least important aspect of all. Only quality counts in that file.’
I’ve cited Curtis Bernhardt as a director who may have influenced Hitchcock, i.e., whose film Conflict contains at least one scene that is echoed in Hitchcock’s work. Bernhardt (1899-1981) was a German who came to Hollywood after working in Great Britain and France; what’s to our purpose is that Conflict was based on a story by two authors at least one of whom had his own roots in Germany - the American-born Robert Siodmak (1900-1973). Siodmak’s career had definite involvement with Hitchcock’s: for a time in the 1940s both men even shared the same producer, Joan Harrison. Moreover, like Bernhardt, Siodmak had worked in both Germany and France, before he returned to America in 1937. Siodmak’s The File on Thelma Jordan (1949) stars Barbara Stanwyk and Wendell Corey. Not only does its noirish plot combine elements of Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944) with aspects of Hitchcock’s The Paradine Case (1947), but it contains a key moment in which the two principals, hitherto separated in the frame, back together behind a barred gate - thereby providing an image of complicity which Hitchock almost certainly noted and then used with telling effect in Strangers on a Train (1951).
And there’s one more
German expatriate who belongs in this article. I’m thinking of William
Dieterle (1893-1972) whose career, initially as an actor, had already
begun when Hitchcock worked for a year in Germany in 1925. Coming to
Hollywood at the start of the sound era, Dieterle soon confirmed his
already high reputation as a director. By the time he made The Life of Emile Zola (1937), he had shown himself to be ‘at his best, an incomparable master of crowd scenes and pictorial composition’.
In that film, an ‘umbrella’ motif is artfully used. It culminates in
the spectacle of a vast sea of umbrellas belonging to an angry mob
waiting in the rain outside the Palais de Justice where Zola (Paul Muni)
is on trial. Most of the shouts heard are against Zola and for the
Army; when a pro-Zola voice is raised, its owner is promptly set upon by
the other ‘umbrellas’ nearby. This intriguing scene would be echoed
three years later by the episode in Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent
involving the assassination of a diplomat on the rain-swept steps of
the Amsterdam town hall and the gunman’s escape across a square full of
(b) Vertigo and vitalism
‘The world’, said the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860), ‘is my representation’. He meant that everyone sees the world subjectively, as mere appearance. But the world is also what it really is, Kant’s unknowable Ding-an-sich. Schopenhauer called that reality the world’s Will, and characterised it as a life-force that is also a death-force. Schopenhauer’s heirs included Nietzsche and Freud.
It’s to Freud in particular, and his writings on instinctual repression and other matters, that I want to turn. For reasons of space, I’ll concentrate on the brilliant essay, “Delusions and Dreams in Jensen’s Gradiva” (1907). This analyses the 1903 novella by North German playwright and novelist Wilhelm Jensen (1837-1911), a work described by its author as a ‘Pompeian fantasy’.7 Here’s a synopsis:
A young German archeologist, Norbert Hanold, is so attracted to the image of a girl in an ancient relief which he sees in a Roman museum, that he makes a plaster cast of the relief and begins to fantasise and dream about it. Part of his fantasy is that the girl had died in Pompeii when Vesuvius erupted in 79 A.D. The obsessed Hanold calls the girl Gradiva, ‘she who steps along’ (so-named by him because of her distinctive gait), and he resolves to visit Pompeii that very spring in a seemingly impossible quest to find the girl herself. When he gets there, he does indeed see someone who resembles her! She comes out of a house and passes trippingly across a row of stepping-stones to the other side of the street. Hanold follows her. It’s midday, the traditional ‘hour of ghosts’. Suddenly the girl vanishes into a building. Hanold hastens after her and, entering the building, soon finds her again, sitting on some low steps between two yellow columns. He is emboldened to make her acquaintance. She tells him in German that her name is Zöe (which means ‘life’ in Greek). Over the ensuing days the acquaintance grows, though Hanold persists in his belief that Gradiva and Zöe are one and the same person. In fact, the girl happens to be a childhood sweetheart of his, which explains why she is happy to enact his fantasy. Finally, she reveals to him who she is (her German surname, Bertgang, actually means the same as Gradiva). Hanold finds that he is cured of his delusion, and his repressions, and the two people become lovers.
So here life triumphs over death. A deep subjective fantasy having its roots in a forgotten childhood memory receives an elaborate unearthing, which suffices to free both people to face the world afresh - though that world no doubt still holds unknown rigours of its own. For some reason, I think of Last Year at Marienbad (Alain Resnais, 1961), as well as Hitchcock’s Spellbound (1945) and Vertigo!
We know that Hitchcock in the 1940s studied Freud. Given the close resemblance of parts of ‘Gradiva’ (even in synopsis) to parts of Vertigo - witness the respective heroines’ ‘vanishing acts’ - can one doubt that one of Freud’s essays that Hitchcock sooner or later read was the analysis of ‘Gradiva’, and/or perhaps Jensen’s original novella? In any event, many of Freud’s comments in the essay are pertinent to Hitchcock’s film. I’ll mention a few of them.
Importantly, Hanold in ‘Gradiva’ at first actually prefers his fantasy to the reality. The real Gradiva/Zöe turns out to be a neighbour of his whose existence he had simply ‘forgotten’. As Freud shows, Hanold goes to Italy to indulge the fantasy and escape the reality. Moreover, after he discovers the relief in the museum, he’s happy to elaborate his fantasy so long as it seems to fit his professional interest as an archeologist - but he’s more than a little disconcerted when the flesh-and-blood Gradiva/Zöe materialises. And not just because a dream isn’t supposed to turn real. There’s an Oedipal conflict going on in Hanold, though ironically Freud never refers to it as such. We learn that Zöe lives with her father, a noted Professor of Zoology, over the way from Hanold in a university town in Germany. Hanold seems to have been cowered by the proximity of such an eminent man and his daughter. As children, he and Zöe had played together, but the time soon came when he had felt the need to put aside childish things and concentrate on his own career. He had abandoned his playmate. At the same time, Zöe’s work-preoccupied father had tended to ignore her as well - a man’s prerogative, no doubt.
Concerning an Oedipal syndrome in Vertigo, we may sense how Gavin Elster’s relation to Madeleine/Judy initially appears to Scottie to be that of a (fairly amenable) father/guardian, as well as that of a husband. On another occasion, Freud would note that in some male fantasies, a woman already attached to another man - husband, fiancé, or friend - is an especially desirable love-object. Thus we may infer special reasons for why Madeleine/Judy appeals to Scottie, and what she means to him. But there may be others. When Scottie finally loses his beloved, it’s due to the intervention of a shadowy mother-figure (about whom I’ll say more below).
Freud emphasises how Hanold succeeds for a time in keeping Gradiva/Zöe at a certain distance. By identifying her with a classical setting, as for instance in an early dream when he sees her enter the temple of Apollo, Hanold puts her on a pedestal. But now, at Pompeii, a turning-point is reached. He rests his hand on hers, ostensibly to test her corporeal reality yet clearly with an underlying erotic motive. You think of how in Vertigo, sitting before the fire in his apartment, Scottie places his hand on Madeleine’s as if by accident when he reaches for her coffee-cup ...
Above all, it’s Freud’s comments on how Gradiva/Zöe shows a ‘peculiar oscillation between death and life’ that seem to me to catch the Vertigo note. Freud remarks that Pompeii provides an apt symbol for both repression and for the excavation of buried memories. Clearly, San Francisco, with its colourful history part-destroyed by earthquake and fire, and by the fog of memory itself, offers an equivalent. And if Gradiva/Zöe and Hanold both move between death and life, Madeleine/Judy and Scottie do the same. Indeed, everything in Vertigo reflects such a dualism or ambiguity. For instance, is the Sequoia forest (whose trees are ‘always green, ever-living’) really a place of life, or is it rather (being dark and overwhelming) a place of death? Is even the busy city itself truly living, or is it just a place of death-in-life? (Its people seem to move as if underwater.)
Here I’m reminded of Nietzsche’s phrase, ‘Man is something to be overcome’, and of how Hitchcock had encountered that German philosopher, if only indirectly, through the writings of such authors as John Buchan (‘The Power-House’, 1913) and George Bernard Shaw (‘Man and Superman’, 1903). I think Scottie aspires to be an Übermensch figure, and that he betrays as much when, for example, he disdains both Midge’s pity and Judy’s ‘sentimentality’. Nietzsche of course despised compassion as a sign of the inauthentic individual, of the common herd, though he allowed it in the Superman himself. However, Hitchcock’s attitude to the Superman was always ambivalent. Hence the critiques of that figure you find in Lifeboat (1944), Rope (1948) - and Vertigo. And hence the ambivalence the latter film shows towards life, for such ambivalence marks a continuing degree of repression in Scottie certainly but maybe also in the filmmakers.
That’s to say, I think Hitchcock’s position was closer to the pessimist Schopenhauer’s than to the optimist Nietzsche’s. Whereas Nietzsche regarded will as entirely positive, as the source of man’s strength, Schopenhauer saw Will as a mixed blessing (though it’s all we’ve got), as inherently blind and destructive as well as vitalising and procreative.
As we’re about to see, the author Edgar Allan Poe expressed ‘a wish to get out of the world’. Was this just a neurotic impulse?
(c) Some literary sources for Vertigo
Here I want to treat, quite briefly, works by half-a-dozen authors of differing nationalities and reputations. Those authors are: Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Edgar Allan Poe, Alexandre Dumas fils, William Wilkie Collins, Thomas Mann, and Robert Nathan.
(i) Hitchcock expresses appreciation of Goethe’s ‘Faust’ (1808, 1831) in his article “Pourquoi J’ai Peur la Nuit”/ “Why I Am Afraid of the Dark”. I think Scottie in Vertigo may be seen to resemble a Faust-figure (as well as an aspiring Superman), and in evidence it will be helpful to consider Camille Paglia’s thumbnail summary of Goethe’s great drama:
Gretchen is naïve sentiment, Mephistopheles cynical sophistication. Faust is caught in the middle, like all mankind.
Then there’s the film’s Mephistopheles, the suave and fiendish Gavin Elster. He quickly grasps Scottie’s frustrations and discontent. In effect, he tempts him with his true heart’s-desire, for Madeleine is to Scottie the very symbol of worldly ‘colour, excitement, power, freedom’ yet she’s also someone who is still mysterious and other-worldly.
That is, Madeleine is like Goethe’s Helen of Troy who supplants the simple and abused Gretchen in Faust’s fancy and points him toward ‘the world of eternity where all the opposites are transcended’ (as Jungian analyst Jolande Jacobi puts it). In Scottie’s and Madeleine’s case, I think that for ‘opposites’ we may also read ‘dualisms’. And Scottie, like Faust, glimpses happiness for a time, only to be left desolate when Madeleine/Judy ‘departs’ (cf ‘Faust’, Part Two, Act III).
Moreover, Goethe’s drama surely gives us the best clue as to why Scottie finally loses Judy. His loss, remember, follows hard on the mother-superior’s intervention, her apparition rising up like some dark, chthonic threat. As her very title suggests, she represents what Camille Paglia calls the Great Mother! In turn, her apparition may recall Faust’s journey to the supernatural realm of ‘the Mothers’ where the spirit of Helen exists in eternity. As Paglia says:
The Mothers appear
in ‘Faust’ when the hero tries to materialise the spirit of Helen.
Adult love is overshadowed by maternal claims to priority. The male
struggles through his sexual stages, returning to the mother even when
he thinks himself most free of her.
(ii) Of all authors, Edgar Allan Poe (1809-49) fascinated the young Hitchcock ‘most of all’. Interestingly, Hitchcock would remark that he had felt ‘an enormous pity’ for Poe’s life which ‘had never been happy’. He added that it was because he had been so taken with Poe’s stories that he afterwards made suspense films. Literary scholar Karl Miller says many illuminating things about Poe’s work that I find relevant to Vertigo. For instance, he notes that several of the stories express ‘a wish to get out of the world’, and cites as examples ‘William Wilson’ and ‘The Unparalleled Adventures of One Hans Pfaall’. It’s an observation that surely applies with equal force to Scottie, a part of whom clearly wishes to be, in a sense, upwardly mobile. If he could, he would even escape the spiral of history itself, whose image is the cross-section of the felled Sequoia. (In this connection, I also think of how Schopenhauer praised Kant for showing that we can’t get out of the world ‘by horizontal movement, but that by perpendicular movement it is perhaps not impossible to do so’. I’ll come back to this.)
However, Miller adds that there was a more cautious, stay-at-home side to Poe:
But romance is
variance, as well as velocity and vertigo, and the soaring self vies
with a self that stays, knowing that flights may fail.
embody the search
for a mother, and an effort to regain the mother he had lost, and his
‘depart, yet live’ may be matched with the tension in his writings
between an impulse to guard against the horrors of premature burial and
an impulse to be interred with the maternal remains. No one has given
such point to the traditional joke about the romantic rhyme of ‘womb’
Central to ‘Ligeia’ is the notion that death is but an infirmity of man’s will. Three times Poe’s tale quotes the following passage from ‘Lux Orientalis’ by English theologian Joseph Glanvill (1636-80):
And the will ...
dieth not. Who knoweth the mysteries of the will, with its vigor? For
God is but a great will pervading all things by nature of its
intentness. Man doeth not yield himself to the angels, nor unto death
utterly, save only through the weakness of his feeble will.
An intensity in
thought, action, or speech was possibly, in her, a result, or at least
an index, of that gigantic volition which, during our long intercourse,
failed to give other and more immediate evidence of its existence. Of
all the women whom I have ever known, she, the outwardly calm, the
ever-placid Ligeia, was the most violently a prey to the tumultuous
vultures of stern passion. And of such passion I could form no estimate,
save by the miraculous expansion of those eyes ...
(iii) First, though, a word about Hitchcock’s ‘quoting’ of the novel and play ‘La Dame aux Camélias’ by Alexandre Dumas fils (1824-95). That work, of course, contains another of fiction’s ‘archetypal’ fascinating women (like Ligeia), justifying literary scholar David Coward’s recent claim that courtesan Marguerite Gautier exists ‘at the centre of the collective unconscious’ - even though, by the same token, she doesn’t ‘properly belong with Emma Bovary or Anna Karenina on the high slopes of literature’. When making Vertigo, Hitchcock surely had Marguerite in mind, and specifically this passage from the novel (spoken by Armand Duval):
‘A few minutes
later, as I loitered on the boulevard, I saw Marguerite at the window of
one of the restaurant’s large rooms: leaning on the balcony, she was
pulling the petals one by one off the camellias in her bouquet.’
Later, just before Madeleine’s first suicide attempt, Scottie sees her pulling apart a nosegay of flowers and throwing them one by one into the bay. The flowers appear to be mainly rosebuds, i.e., not camellias, but in any case what we sense from Madeleine’s gesture is her feeling that her past life (with its various affairs?) hasn’t amounted to much. The surrendering of the nosegay to the sea thus serves as an image of the death drive and of ‘Nirvana’ which, significantly, appals the Scottie character in the Vertigo novel, discussed below, where such an attitude is likened to the alleged unthinking passivity of animals.
And again, Scottie twice sees the woman he has been following appear at an upstairs window, once as Madeleine and once as Judy. The ‘theatrical’ connotations of these two moments suitably suggest Scottie’s rivetted attention. I was reminded that Hitchcock may have previously found occasion to refer to Dumas’s tale when I recently re-read Australian critic Adrian Martin’s 1984 article on Notorious (1946), where he notes how the self-disgusted Alicia in that film ‘corresponds to a certain feminine stereotype leading back precisely one hundred years to Marguerite Gautier in Dumas’s Lady of the Camellias (“I had a sort of hope I should kill myself by all these excesses”)’.
(iv) Hitchcock called English novelist William Wilkie Collins (1824-89) ‘quite brilliant’, and Collins’s ‘The Woman in White’ (1860) has been described by at least one authority as, ‘in the highest sense of the term, the greatest melodrama ever written’. Here, I simply want to note how that novel provides, in its haunting apparition of the woman-in-white herself, one more precedent for the numinous Madeleine in Vertigo; and likewise, how the opera-loving, cosmopolitan Count Fosco, whom another critic suggests is ‘the most brilliantly portrayed villain in mystery fiction’, anticipates aspects of the malevolent Gavin Elster. Crucially, Collins helped pioneer in fiction the type of plot I’ve referrred to as the ‘big lie’.
(v) Clearly, Thomas Mann’s ‘Der Tod in Venedig’/‘Death in Venice’ (1913) resembles Jensen’s ‘Gradiva’ in some aspects of basic plot, being about a German man who, on an impulse, makes a springtime journey to an historic seaside city in Italy (Pompeii; Venice) where he becomes obsessed with, and starts to follow around, a classically beautiful figure (the girl Gradiva/Zöe; the Polish boy Tadzio). A direct influence of Jensen’s novella on Mann’s seems likely, although in the case of Mann (1875-1955), he is said to have drawn on events in his own life which occurred in the summer of 1911 - to the extent that the real-life Tadzio, one Baron Moes, eventually recognised ‘himself’ in Visconti’s superb 1971 film. Also, Mann said that he partly modelled the German writer in his tale on the Austrian composer Gustav Mahler; and the tale overall shows the influence of the thought of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, both of whom Mann admired.
The image of Venice in Mann’s tale, like that of San Francisco in Vertigo, is ambiguous. Venice is described by Mann as ‘half fairy-tale, half-snare’. (I’m reminded of Oscar Wilde’s description of San Francisco as a city with ‘all the attractions of the next world’.) Thus Aschenbach, the writer in the tale, and very much an Apollonian figure, has always striven in his work to create forms which ‘would body forth to men ... the mirror and image of spiritual beauty’. He might be echoing Schopenhauer’s notion of great art’s capacity to reveal Platonic Ideas - just as one possible function of the many mirrors in Vertigo is to show the viewer (Scottie; the film audience) the eternal forms hidden within temporal ones. But now Aschenbach is growing weary, and for him the nearby ocean begins to exert that part of its profound appeal that is almost sensual and ‘opposed to his art ... a lure, for the unorganised, the immeasurable, the eternal - in short, for nothingness’. For the artist, to succumb to the eternal is to stop creating, and it is on this ironic note that Mann’s tale does in fact end.
Yet one of the great and affecting scenes in fiction - and perhaps in film - is surely Aschenbach’s death presided over by a seemingly abandoned camera on a tripod, whose ‘black cloth snapped in the freshening wind’. Nearby, the entrancing figure of Tadzio wades into the water, and it seems to the dying man that
the pale and
lovely Summoner out there smiled at him and beckoned; as though, with
the hand he lifted from his hip, he pointed outwards as he hovered on
before into an immensity of richest expectation.
However, on the
basis of Schopenhauer’s philosophy there is an unresolved problem posed
by [Wagner’s] work, and it is this: the lovers speak endlessly of unity
with each other in death, but they will be united in death only in the
sense that they will be united with everything and everybody else,
including all the other characters in the opera.
Something that reinforces my view is Magee’s saying that, according to Schopenhauer, only ‘compassionate, not sexual, love, a love in which the will is denied’, could achieve a true oneness of individuals in this world, the world of phenomena (representations). In ‘Death in Venice’, we’re specificlly told that Aschenbach, a very one-sided man, no Superman in fact, has rejected all ‘compassion with the abyss’, i.e., the world at large, and that his concern has been ‘with beauty only’.
Now I come back to Vertigo. Very much the equivalent of Mann’s image of the camera is (I suggest) Hitchcock’s image of the mother-superior, the nun whose black-clad figure becomes literally one of death when Judy falls from the bell-tower, yet whose valedictory line for the film’s characters - ‘I heard voices ... God have mercy’ - carries the note of Hitchcockian compassion. But Scottie, as we’ve seen, has rejected compassion, which he seems to think amounts to merely being ‘sentimental’. In a film about ‘the small stuff of history’, and people’s brief lives, the nun’s words do bring a touch of resignation and Nirvana, but the wilful Scottie is oblivious of it.
The ending of Mann’s novella plays on the Schopenhauerian term ‘nothingness’, an ambiguous concept both in Schopenhauer and in Hitchcock. It’s important, I think, to recognise that ‘knowledge’ (which, however, is still something ...) may take various ‘forms’, including the Platonic ones mentioned above. So we may indeed know something more than representations, and art offers one means to obtain such knowledge. It’s far from being the only means, though. Now, I’ve deliberately allowed into the present article more than just, say, Freudian matters. And in both ‘Death in Venice’ and Vertigo I see ‘Freudian’ elements that in fact should probably be understood more broadly. A couple of these are what is often called the oceanic feeling (which Freud paraphrased as the feeling of ‘oneness with the universe’) and its concomitant notion of the dissolution of the ego. On the first of these Freud corresponded with the French writer and musicologist, Romain Rolland, but professed that he could find no trace of such a feeling in himself. However, he proceeded to characterise it as a regression to an earlier state: that of the infant at the breast. His somewhat dismissive estimation doesn’t satisfy psychiatrist and author Anthony Storr, who comments drily that the oceanic feeling ‘seems a more important experience than [Freud] admits’. Storr acknowledges that the feeling may indeed be related to early infantile experience of unity with the mother, but he observes:
those who have
experienced the states of mind recorded by [Admiral] Byrd and by William
James record them as having had a permanent effect upon their
perception of themselves and of the world; as being the profoundest
moments of their existence. This is true both of those who have felt the
sense of unity with the universe and of those who have felt the sense
of unity with a beloved person.
(vi) A synopsis of the short novel, ‘Portrait of Jennie’ (1940), by American writer Robert Nathan (1894-?), is included in the useful book ‘A Treasury of Literary Masterpieces’ (1969), and I must confess to having read only that potted version. But of course I’ve watched many times the exquisite 1948 film, starring Jennifer Jones and Joseph Cotten, to which I’m coming. I want to mention the novella at this point if only because it so obviously belongs with the other novellas already discussed. Also, there’s at least one moment in Nathan’s story which, though ‘Hitchcockian’, I don’t recall from the film version. Here’s an excerpt from the synopsis:
Jennie appears at [the artist] Eben’s studio; she has come to pose.
During their conversation, Eben mentions how lost he had been at the
time they first met [in Central Park]. Jennie seems upset at the word
‘lost’. She says that they couldn’t both have been lost. On returning to
the room after a brief departure, Eben finds Jennie gone. He had not
heard the hall door close.
(d) A brief note on ‘D’Entre les Morts’
So far is Boileau and Narcejac’s novel from being merely ‘a squalid exercise in sub-Graham Greenery’, as Robin Wood unfairly calls it, that I would venture to suggest that it represents one of the best novels Hitchcock filmed in America - contending in that respect with Daphne du Maurier’s ‘Rebecca’, Helen Simpson’s ‘Under Capricorn’, and Jack Trevor Story’s ‘The Trouble With Harry’. Its most obvious progenitor is Georges Simenon’s ‘Lettre à mon juge’ (1947), whose author had been extolled by Narcejac in his study, ‘Le Cas “Simenon”’ (1950). Moreover, nothing could be further from the truth than claims by Wood and others that ‘Hitchcock took very little from “D’Entre les Morts” apart from the basic plot line’.
For instance, Wood says that ‘the novel offers no equivalent for the sequoias [scene]’ in the film. Not only do Flavières (the Scottie character) and Madeleine visit the Forêt de Fontainebleau (Part I, Chapter 4), although this is just mentioned, but a key scene soon follows that takes place in the Louvre. Here, the couple pass ‘through a dark entrance’ to where they saunter ‘among Egyptian gods in the coolness of a cathedral’, and they converse on the very matters that Scottie and Madeleine raise in the film’s Sequoia forest. Finally, Flavières and Madeleine leave the building and find themselves, ‘somewhat breathless, in front of a lawn in the middle of which a sprinkler was shedding a rainbow’. (As Scottie and Madeleine leave the forest, the impression given is indeed that of their emerging from a cathedral into the light, a moment soon followed by the scene on the clifftop with its piece of overt romanticism, the crashing waves.)
Moreover, Flavières now begins to feel the same ‘peaceful exhaustion he had known as a boy when he had been running the whole day along the banks of the Loire’. I’d make two observations here. First, that childhood haunt includes some ancient caves, which the novel repeatedly mentions as a place of mystery and of the earth. At one point (Part II, Chapter 4) Flavières is reminded of how Christ’s body had lain in such a cave before the Resurrection, which connects with the novel’s frequent references to how Orpheus had tried to bring back Eurydice from the underworld. Second, Flavières’ ‘peaceful exhaustion’ is part of a pattern in the novel whereby he is simultaneously drawn to, and repelled by, a peculiar passivity in Madeleine which he sees as being like that of animals, which ‘have no pasts and no futures’ (Part I, Chapter 5). For what this signifies, we need only look at a reference in the novel’s first chapter.
The novel’s equivalent of Gavin Elster is the prospering shipbuilder, Gévigne (prospering, because it’s wartime and ships are in demand). When Gévigne mentions his wife’s troubling recent behaviour, in which she suddenly appears to enter a trance and her face becomes like a ‘mystic’s’, he refers Flavières to ‘a German film called Jacob Boehme we saw at the Ursulines back in the ’twenties’ (Part I, Chapter 1). The reference to the mystic Boehme (1575-1624) is a key to the novel and, to some extent, Hitchcock’s film. Not only had Boehme hoped, as part of a general reformation of Christendom, to reunite Protestants and Catholics, but his writings influenced later thinkers like Schopenhauer and Nietzsche in Germany and other groups and individuals like the Quakers and William Blake in England. Importantly for what I’ve been trying to show in this article, Boehme taught that ‘will’ is the original force. Also, that
Man must die to
self-centredness and enter a state of total surrender ... In this state
he is ‘reborn’. For Boehme ... rebirth is at the heart of all processes,
both in man and in the universe.
As for Protestants
versus Catholics, such a theme is just detectable in Hitchcock’s film
where I take it that Scottie (whose real name is John Ferguson) is a
(Scottish Lowland) Protestant who finds himself at variance, so to
speak, with the film’s omnipresent Catholic iconography and the yet more
exotic, almost at times non-human, passivity of Madeleine.
(e) Some cinema sources of Vertigo
For convenience, these can be listed as German, British, French, and American - though the distinction isn’t clear-cut, as we’ll see.
(i) The influence of German Expressionism on Vertigo has often been remarked, and is anticipated in the Boileau and Narcejac novel when it refers to a German film seen in the ’20s (although, as far as I know, ‘Jacob Boehme’ is purely an invented film-title). Similarly, Lotte Eisner’s book about such German films, ‘L’Ecran Démoniaque’/ ‘The Haunted Screen’, first published in France in 1952, contains several entries on a kind of psychological vertigo. As for the actual ‘vertigo’ effect in Hitchcock’s film, it’s basically just a more elaborate subjective effect than the one used by E.A. Dupont in Variety (1925) and then re-worked by Hitchcock in the circus climax of Murder! (1930). And German Expressionism’s emphasis on mother-figures, remarked by Siegfried Kracauer in ‘From Caligari to Hitler’ (1947), is echoed in Hitchcock’s film in some scenes with Midge. Specifically, Kracauer mentions the films The Street (1923) and New Year’s Eve (1923), in both of which a man breaks down and rests his head on a woman’s bosom, a gesture signifying ‘desire to return to the maternal womb’. It’s like the gesture seen in Vertigo when Scottie collapses off the kitchen-stool into Midge’s arms.
(ii) When Madeleine describes her dream of ‘walking down a long corridor that once was mirrored’, she is echoing imagery and indeed the title of a little-known British film, The Corridor of Mirrors (Terence Young, 1948). But it’s likely that Hitchcock had seen the film: for a start, it contains several Hitchcockian elements, among them a jealous housekeeper (like those of Rebecca and Under Capricorn) and a suitably macabre climax set in Madame Tussaud’s (like the one in Mrs Belloc Lowndes’s ‘The Lodger’). The very plot shows more than a passing resemblance to Vertigo’s, being about an artist obsessed with a Venetian woman in a 400-years-old portrait, whose living double he encounters in present-day London and makes his mistress. In Under Capricorn, which Hitchcock filmed in England after Young’s film came out, Lady Henrietta (Ingrid Bergman) is described by Adare (Michael Wilding) as both a ‘work of art’ and a ‘reincarnation’.
Moreover, the corridor and mirror imagery of Young’s film has a distinctly Cocteauesque look, which is literally underscored by Georges Auric’s music, and reminds you of Hitchcock’s admiration for Cocteau’s Le Sang d’un Poète/The Blood of a Poet (1932). Such imagery in Vertigo is ubiquitous - even the famous shot down the bell-tower is a corridor image. It’s evoked, too, in the smallest details, such as Madeleine’s memory of having once fallen into a river, ‘trying to leap from one stone to the next’. That image conflates Cocteau’s/Young’s idea of a fraught corridor with the memorable image of the stepping-stones in ‘Gradiva’. But underlying it is Madeleine’s fear, which she tells Scottie, of the darkness outside the corridor and her knowledge ‘that when I [finally] walk into the darkness that I’ll die’.
British director Noel Langley effectively helped ‘licence’ Hitchcock to make Vertigo when in 1956 he went to Hollywood and filmed a ‘true’ story of reincarnation, The Search for Bridey Murphy, starring Teresa Wright, which caught the public’s imagination. But of course Hitchcock’s own fascination with such material had begun long ago - as far back as 1920 - when he attended the original London stage production of James Barrie’s mystical ‘Mary Rose’ whose title-character lives in and out of time and whose mother has cause to wonder, ‘where is my child?’ ...
(iii) In an article on Belgian director Jacques Feyder, author and critic Peter Cowie refers to an influential film made by Feyder for Films de France, Le Grand Jeu/The Great Game (1933). The Foreign Legion story is set mainly in Morocco, and the actress Marie Bell plays two different women. Here’s Cowie:
The film’s device
of having a man haunted by the vision of a blonde woman he loved, and
seeing her materialize in subtly changed guise as a brunette, would be
used subsequently by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac for the novel
that became the basis of Hitchcock’s Vertigo.
In the original Le Grand Jeu, actor Charles Vanel had a supporting role. As we’ve noted, Vanel would later play Bertani in To Catch a Thief. In 1938 he was seen in the French film Carrefour, directed by Curtis Bernhardt. Like Siodmak (and Hitchcock), Bernhardt had earlier worked in Germany. He and Vanel now co-operated to make one of the touchstone ‘big lie’ films, which may well have influenced ‘D’Entre les Morts’ and Vertigo. Briefly, the plot of Carrefour concerns amnesia. The film’s evil mastermind (Vanel) learns of a diplomat who has lost part of his memory, and sees in this an opportunity for blackmail. He employs an elderly actress to impersonate the diplomat’s mother who will convince him that he has committed a crime. When Hollywood remade the film in 1942, as Crossroads, it had William Powell as victim, and Basil Rathbone as villain. Parallels with Vertigo include the mastermind figure (whose origins lie in melodrama and its mutation, German Expressionism), and the attempt to take advantage of a man’s infirmity by means of an elaborate hoax, the ‘big lie’. In Vertigo, Judy imitates the real Madeleine, whom Gavin has murdered; and an elderly lady, presumably a paid actress, compounds the subterfuge by playing the ‘innocent’ landlady of the McKittrick Hotel.
(iv) If there’s one American film that is the progenitor of Vertigo, that film is Portrait of Jennie adapted from the Robert Nathan novella by German expatriate director William Dieterle. It was made at the Selznick studio in 1947, at about the time Hitchcock was filming The Paradine Case there. Hitchcock already admired Dieterle’s work to the point of imitation (the umbrellas scene in Foreign Correspondent). On seeing Portrait of Jennie, he would have noticed how Jennie resembles Mary Rose, a girl who lives in and out of time. But Dieterle’s haunting film and Vertigo have other correspondences. For instance, both move towards a tragic climax involving a tower. And both are memorable for their sea-imagery. Further, the films’ similarity is underlined by the fact that composer Bernard Herrmann worked on both. (For Dieterle, though, Herrmann composed just ‘Jennie’s Song’ - while Dimitri Tiomkin, the film’s official composer, adapted various themes of Debussy, including passages from ‘La Mer’.)
Another fine American film of the ’40s, showing indebtedness to Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940), is Lewis Allen’s ghost tale, The Uninvited (1944). Set on the coast of Cornwall and Devon, it anticipates Vertigo by referring to a Spanish ancestor (Carmel, instead of Carlotta), to the Liebestod from ‘Tristan und Isolde’ (a rather sardonic touch this time), and to the sea as a place ‘of life and death and eternity, too’. But what is certainly the most direct link to Vertigo is seen when the haunted heroine, played by Gail Russell, breaks away from her would-be protector (Ray Milland) and runs toward the nearby cliff-edge, clearly intending to commit suicide at the very place where she had been told her mother threw herself over. The spot is marked by a single, gnarled tree - a tree identical to the one we see in Hitchcock’s film when Madeleine breaks away from Scottie and runs towards the cliff-edge ...
There are many such ‘quotes’ in Vertigo, and here are some more. When Scottie throws down several cushions before his fire and invites Madeleine to make herself comfortable, the moment recalls a famous scene early in A Bill of Divorcement (1932), the first film of Katherine Hepburn. The film’s producer, David Selznick, afterwards described the scene as having given him ‘one of the greatest experiences I’ve ever had’. (The film was directed by George Cukor from the play by ‘Clemence Dane’/Winifred Ashton, who co-wrote the novel on which Hitchcock’s Murder! was based.)
In 1940 Hitchcock directed a few scenes in the San Francisco movie The House Across the Bay when regular director Archie Mayo fell ill. As one of its characters is an aircraft engineer, perhaps a memory of that film occurred to Hitchcock apropos the moment in Vertigo when Midge mentions a new type of brassière designed by ‘an aircraft engineer down the peninsula’. But there’s another possibility: as is well known, aircraft magnate and movie tycoon Howard Hughes once attempted to design a seamless bra for Jane Russell ...
Undoubtedly, Hitchcock and scriptwriter Samuel Taylor looked at various San Francisco movies before making their own. One that certainly impressed them was George Stevens’s I Remember Mama (1948) in which Barbara Bel Geddes plays Katrin, the film’s narrator, who is first seen in the attic of her immigrant-family’s house, where she has just finished typing her first novel. Her window looks out upon the city. In other words, this artistically-inclined spinster is a prototype for Midge. Indeed, it looks as if Hitchcock and Taylor noted and deliberately re-used some of Bel Geddes’s mannerisms, such as when in the earlier film Katrin ventures to criticise a patrician doctor (a bearded Rudy Vallee) and then blushes in confusion at her temerity. The corresponding moment in Vertigo comes, of course, when Midge suggests to Scottie’s doctor in the sanatorium that the use of Mozart as therapy ‘isn’t going to help at all’.
Underlining the connection between the two films, actress Ellen Corby, the landlady of Vertigo’s McKittrick Hotel, appears in I Remember Mama as, even then, a wiry old maid - who aspires to marry an undertaker. Leslie Halliwell’s ‘Filmgoer’s Companion’ says that Corby specialised ‘in nosey neighbours and prim spinsters’.
Anatole Litvak’s vehicle for Bette Davis and Errol Flynn, The Sisters (1938), features the San Francisco earthquake at its climax and has an earlier scene in which actress Lee Patrick plays Davis’s empty-headed neighbour whom we hear incessantly chattering - until the soundtrack fades her voice and we see that Davis has just received a note from her husband (Flynn) saying he has left her. Similar use of the soundtrack occurs in Vertigo, and for an identical reason: to silence Lee Patrik, this time playing the woman at the Brocklebank Apartments whom Scottie asks about her car. Donald Spoto’s ‘The Art of Alfred Hitchcock’ describes Patrik as ‘the archetypal flibbertijibbet’.
We’ve already encountered in this article director Vincent Sherman whose All Through the Night may have inspired the auction-gallery episode in North by Northwest. Sherman’s Nora Prentiss (1947) is basically set in San Francisco though it’s said to be part-based on two British murder cases (presumably the Rouse and Crippen cases). Several moments anticipate Vertigo, including the one when the lovers (Ann Sheridan and Kent Smith) head out of town. Feeling suddenly happy, the Smith character announces their destination as ‘anywhere you like’ - the same fate-sealing line the Vertigo script gives Scottie just before Judy dons her earrings and the couple drive away for the last time. (Jewellery serving as a giveaway is itself a detail taken from the Crippen case.)
Finally, I want to say something more about the work of directors Robert Siodmak and Curtis Bernhardt. In 1946 they both made films in Hollywood about twin sisters, i.e., look-alike women, respectively The Dark Mirror (with Olivia de Havilland) and A Stolen Life (with Bette Davis). The latter film, especially, anticipates Vertigo by having a scene set in an apartment store where Glenn Ford asks the ‘good’ sister - who secretly loves him - to try on a dress which he is thinking of giving to his wife, the ‘bad’ sister. The audience is acutely aware of the woman’s discomfort and the man’s insensitivity, a situation that obviously prefigures the Vertigo scenes where Judy is made over by Scottie.
Given these two directors’ similarity of background (earlier work in Germany and France) and apparent shared predilection for certain themes and subjects (including crime dramas), their eventual co-operation on a project is hardly surprising: as we’ve already seen, Bernhardt’s Conflict was based on a story co-written by Siodmak (with Alfred Neumann). This is the film where Bogart, who has murdered his wife, is tricked by psychiatrist Sydney Greenstreet into a confession. It’s a good example of the ‘big lie’ story, like Carrefour which Bernhardt had made in France before the War. We’ve seen how it anticipated a scene in North by Northwest; now let’s see how it anticipates a scene in Vertigo.
The basis of Greenstreet’s scheme is that Bogart must be made to think that his wife has come back from the dead or, at any rate, never died. In the street one day, Bogart thinks he sees his wife walk by, wearing her customary green outfit, and he follows her into a building where she enters an upstairs flat. At this point a landlady blocks Bogart’s way, saying how that particular flat is vacant and is always kept locked. Bogart protests, so she leads him upstairs - where the flat indeed proves to be empty. Thus the scene anticipates the McKittrick Hotel episode in Vertigo, where Ellen Corby plays the seemingly guileless landlady, just as it harks back to Carrefour, where an elderly actress impersonates the amnesiac diplomat’s mother.
Presumably, in the case of the Vertigo episode, it represents a trick engineered by Gavin Elster to make Scottie become even more obsessed with the mysterious Madeleine. Such a playing on a character’s infirmity (amnesia, acrophobia) is itself a characteristic of these films. To end on, then, here’s a more general example of a film anticipating Vertigo. Robert Siodmak’s The Great Sinner (1949) is loosely based on an aspect of Dostoyevsky, and stars Gregory Peck as a man effectively held captive in the Wiesbaden casino by his new-found mania for gambling. With beginner’s luck he wins a fortune, but, as the casino’s wily proprietor had foreseen, soon loses it again. Later he is visited in the casino grounds by the apparition of another victim who says, in effect, ‘I told you so’. In all of this I see not so much a set of direct parallels with Vertigo as a significant general ambience common to several such films. For instance, gambling or infatuation or vertigo itself are recurrent expressionist or noir motifs. When Peck finds out his weakness for gambling, it’s like the moment when Scottie, clinging to a San Francisco rooftop, suddenly finds out he suffers from acrophobia. And when Peck wins a fortune only to lose it, this isn’t very different from how Scottie ‘wins’ Madeleine from death and then loses her. As for the wily proprietor, he of course may be found in German films of the ’20s (and Hitchcock’s Spellbound), as well as making common cause with all the other mastermind figures we’ve noted. Above all, as the ghostly apparition in the casino grounds could testify, what these various films most share is perhaps their general sense of worldly entrapment - a snare disguised as a fairy-tale.