Monday, November 03, 2003

There are no ways of describing Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo; it is quite simply, a masterpiece. Perhaps its biggest difference from the master of suspense’s other movies is that Vertigo is not really a thriller; it is a twisted, almost perverse love story. As a thriller, it is competent, though a little implausible. (The murder plot is impossibly far-fetched.) But it is only after a second viewing that the layers beneath it become clearer. In a way, Hitchcock himself makes that clear when he reveals the big secret halfway through the movie. The emphasis is not on what really happened but how our besotted protagonist (played by Jimmy Stewart, in his darkest role so far) will react when he finds out. (In his book-length interview with director Francis Truffaut, Hitchcock says that everyone opposed him when he decided that the secret would be revealed mid-way into the movie. But he remained firm, just the same. )

So what is Scottie in love with? He’s in love with the image of a woman; a woman who did not exist but instead had been rigorously coached for the part. Consider the way that Hitchcock introduces Madeline (Even the name, Madeline, has just the right air of mystery about it!!). We see Scottie searching the restaurant anxiously for something. Slowly the camera pans the room in silence. Finally it stops. As Bernard Herrmann’s haunting score rises up on the soundtrack, Hitchcock slowly zooms in on Madeline sitting with her husband. And what a sight she is!! Blonde, cold, alluring, and mysterious with just the hint of something carnal (Truffaut’s words) inside. (Personally I think its Novak’s eyebrows. There is just something bewitching about them.) In other words, a perfect example of the woman, that Hitchcock himself was fascinated with. But there is a catch. The real woman has fallen in love with him too. In her real form she is nothing like Madeline; even her name is just plain Judy. She is earthy and beautiful in a rather coarse way (the eyebrows again!). But can he love her? In Vertigo’s most disturbing scene, Scottie makes Judy do a makeover so that she looks exactly like Madeline. He is obsessed; she agrees because she loves him. When she emerges from the bathroom looking exactly like Madeline (she is the same woman, after all) Hitchcock gives the scene the unreality of a dream. This is probably Kim Novak’s best scene in the movie, and it is heart breaking. But of course, Judy makes a mistake and Scottie begins to suspect. In his rage, he takes her back to the tower where Madeline committed suicide. Somehow everything comes together: his rage, his grief, and his obsession. The end, when it does come, is starkly ambiguous, yet fitting.

Vertigo would probably not be the same movie if it had not been for Bernard Herrmann’s beautiful (or is it haunted?) score. Among all the collaborations between them, this is definitely the best. There are long dialogue-less passages in the movie and Herrmann’s score makes up for that, enhancing Hitchcock’s visuals. The love-theme is a motif that appears throughout the movie; Scottie and Madeline are doomed, so are Scottie and Judy, the score subtly emphasizes that.

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