Sara Paretsky discusses Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo
On Watching Vertigo on the Big Screen in 35mm with an Audience
Posted by suzidoll on December 5, 2011 FROM TCM MOVIE MORLOCKS
On a cold, blustery Chicago afternoon, I was safely tucked in the back row of a theater watching Vertigo as it was intended to be seen—on the big screen in 35mm with a theater full of movie buffs, cinephiles, and Hitchcock fans. The rich, saturated colors of the new print were a treat after seeing so many contemporary films shot in the drab, flat, burnished colors of digital cinematography. The film was followed by a commentary and discussion led by mystery writer Sara Paretsky and psychologist James W. Anderson, a professor at Northwestern University. Watching Vertigo on the big screen helped me notice details that had eluded me on previous viewings, while comments by Paretsky and Anderson offered a different point of view on the film. I also learned a great deal from the insightful observations of the audience members.
Part detective story and part psychological thriller, Vertigo is about a man who cannot come to grips with his obsession for a woman. And, it is also the story of what it means for the woman to be the object of that obsession, though that part of the tale is often overlooked. Hitchcock was fond using a doppelganger theme in his films, in which one of the main characters has a double who is exactly like them and yet the opposite of them. A doppelganger theme often employs a doubling structure in the narrative; in other words, patterns or events are repeated twice. With this viewing of Vertigo, I noticed that the doubling structure for this film consists of the real version of a character or event juxtaposed with a phony version. Kim Novak is introduced as Madeleine Elster, but she is really Judy Barton who is masquerading as Madeleine as part of an elaborate murder plot. The phony Madeleine pretends to be obsessed with her great grandmother, Carlotta Valdes. Jimmy Stewart is John “Scottie” Ferguson, who is hired by Gavin Elster to follow his “wife” to learn more about her obsession. Scottie is the dupe in the plot who will ensure that Elster’s plan is successful. In pretending to be obsessed, Madeleine visits places associated with her ancestor, including the graveyard where Carlotta is buried and the museum where her portrait hangs. Scottie’s desire for the phony Madeleine, especially after her death, turns into a real obsession, which is manifested through his haunting of the same places—her gravesite, the museum, etc. We see Scottie follow Madeleine to these places in the first half of the film as part of her pretense; then we see him haunt these places in the second half of the movie as part of his real obsession. While recovering from his breakdown, Scottie runs into the real Judy, whom he tries to recreate into the Madeleine who never existed, which duplicates Gavin Elster’s deeds though for different reasons. Truth and illusion follow the same patterns in this story, and, like Scottie, we can’t always tell the difference.
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