This interview originally appeared as a contribution to The Lady Eve’s Reel Life marathon, A MONTH OF VERTIGO which for any Hitchcock admirer is a must to check out. Just click right here! The month-long event had a spectacular list of contributors from such writers as Steven DeRosa author of WRITING WITH HITCHCOCK and Dan Auiler author of VERTIGO: THE MAKING OF A HITCHCOCK CLASSIC. In addition there are a whole list of contributions from some very fine bloggers covering just about every aspect of the film.
Biographer Patrick McGilligan, author of Alfred-Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light graciously agreed to answer some questions I posed on this Hitchcock masterpiece. This is my second interview with Patrick. We previously discussed his latest book, Nicholas Ray: The Glorious Failure of an American Director. You can read that interview by clicking here.
Finally, I want to congratulate Lady Eve on a spectacular job with A MONTH OF VERTIGO, an event I was proud to be part of.
Where does “Vertigo” fall within your pantheon of Hitchcock films and films in general?
Honestly, I admire VERTIGO more than I adore it but perhaps the reason for that is I am more inclined towards Hitchcock’s dark comedies with their playful humor – with major exceptions, I should say. Also, I have had the unfortunate experience, in recent years, of showing this film to undergraduates while teaching university film courses and have heard audible snickering in the audience during certain scenes, which isn’t true when you screen most of Hitchcock’s other accepted masterpieces. I think that is because there are some things about the film that can only be accepted by auteurists (the fact, for example, that it takes Scotty so long to recognize that Judy is/was Madeleine); you could say the same thing about the special effects for THE BIRDS – brilliant then, somewhat dated now. And yet we fear the remake!
How important was shooting the film in San Francisco to the film and Hitchcock?
San Francisco and the Bay area became increasingly important to Hitchcock after he bought a house up there during World War II and began commuting up on many weekends. It was part of his “Americanization,” though obviously, considering his accent and usual costume, never a completed process. The romance with the Bay area really began with SHADOW OF A DOUBT, which was a Hitchcock original tailored for that area, and it was a great pleasure for the director to imagine or (in the cases of VERTIGO and THE BIRDS) re-imagine European stories in his veritable backyard. Filming in the Bay area, or even living there on weekends, was radically independent for Hollywood in the 1940s, incidentally. I think this penchant is one of the things that makes Hitchcock a very intimate, personal director as well as a universal one. They now give VERTIGO tours of San Francisco, I’m sure you know.
“Vertigo” seems to have been a very personal film for Hitchcock. Scottie’s obsession with the makeover of Judy into Madeline mirrors to an extent Hitchcock’s own obsession with the making over of some of his leading ladies into his own vision of the icy blonde Hitchcockian ideal. Tippi Hedren for example, true?
I don’t really buy this notion except very generally. Hitchcock’s career is full of different types of women, and not all the blondes are icy – Grace Kelly really isn’t, either in REAR WINDOW or TO CATCH A THIEF. I think it is a cliché about Hitchcock that is sometimes true and that he helped to promulgate as part of his self-publicity. At the same time, it is also true that, especially in the early days of the silent cinema, particularly in America, the blonde heroine was a fixture – the Mary Pickford type, whose looks photographed dramatically in black and white. Hitchcock was very aware of that tradition. Yet it is also true that Hitchcock liked to make over his leading ladies, picking out their costumes, consulting on their hair-dos, offering behavioral tips for scenes. So, I guess it is fair to say that Scottie’s make-over of Judy in VERTIGO echoes (or prefigures) Hitchcock’s make-over of Tippi Hedren for THE BIRDS, as long as it is understood that sometimes the make-overs had little to do with the icy blonde cliché, or that he did the same thing more subtly, often, with the male characters and actors.
Vera Miles was originally set to play Madeleine/Judy but due to delays in pre-production and her eventual pregnancy she was replaced by Kim Novak. Any thoughts of how Ms. Miles would been in the dual role?
Originally I think the part was tailored for Miles. Hitchcock had a yen for Miles and really tried to elevate her to a ‘name’ stardom. But Miles couldn’t play the part because of her pregnancy, and gradually the role was reworked, the script rewritten, for another type of actress, Kim Novak. James Stewart was really in favor of Novak, importantly, and so was Lew Wasserman. She really gives a stellar performance, although you almost can sense her squirming under Hitchcock’s not entirely satisfied direction. I think that gives the film a piquancy that wouldn’t have been there with Vera Miles, but it’s almost not fair to speculate. Ultimately Vera Miles would have played it differently, Hitchcock would have directed her differently, and the script would have been written differently.
Kim Novak has been criticized over the years as being too lightweight of an actress for the role, I for one think her lack of depth, her innocence, if you will, added a dimension that would have been missing, with a more seriously trained actress. Does she hurt the film as some have said?
I agree with you that Kim Novak adds rather than subtracts to the film. I’d say the first requisite for the character she plays is ‘mysteriousness.’ Neither Judy nor Madeleine is intended to have any depth, per se. For the ordinary moviegoer Novak is convincing and beguiling. For the serious moviegoer she is more: she overcomes all prejudices against her limitations while adding to the ‘subtext’ of the film. Hitchcock’s ability to mold the actress, to cast a spell over her, is part of the grand achievement of the film.
Hitchcock’s films were always filled with eroticism. “The 39 Steps” with the implications of the two handcuffed together, the kissing scene in “Notorious,” the afternoon tryst in “Psycho” to name a few. In “Vertigo” it is implied, after Scottie saved Madeleine from drowning and took her back to his apartment, she is naked (under the sheets), suggesting he most likely undressed her. Was Hitchcock playing out personal fantasies or fulfilling a need missing in his life?
I certainly think that all the great directors play out their personal fantasies as well as fulfill needs missing in their personal lives. That is true of Hitchcock’s preoccupation with erotic symbolism, sexy actresses undressing before the camera, double entendre dialogue, and so on. At the same time it was part of his sophistication as well as his identification with his audience, that Hitchcock understood the ramifications of scenes that sometimes slipped by the censors, and that this quality in his films was enormously appealing and subversive to critics as well as ordinary moviegoers. One of the reasons the Hitchcockian sensibility can’t really be replicated by other filmmakers (despite many valiant efforts) is that it has so many components that are organic with him – his personality, his character, his life story – and yet work as part of his entertainment formula. The eroticization of scenes belongs to Hitchcock as much as the Macguffin or “the wrong man.”
Scottie is fanatical in transforming Judy into the image of the dead Madeleine, he is a man possessed. I found this to be one of James Stewart’s most intense acting performances, maybe with the exception of some of his roles in Anthony Mann’s westerns, his most extreme. He actually becomes less likeable as the film progresses.
I think Scottie becomes pitiful as well as pitiable, which may be traced to Hitchcock’s Catholicism. (The whole story is a resurrection parable.) Stewart was a brave actor, willing to try anything and risk falling flat, and he had remarkable close collaborations with several of Hollywood’s top directors – Capra, Ford, Mann, besides Hitchcock. But he and Hitchcock had more of a true friendship and partnership; they were actual business partners on the four films they made together. When an actor lets himself go emotionally like Stewart does in VERTIGO, or in the Anthony Mann films you mention – even IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE – apart from his considerable talent it shows his trust in the director.
“Vertigo” was a critical and commercial failure at the time of its original release. Was the film too complex for audiences of the day to appreciate or was there another reason? It certainly has gained in statue in later years.
Who knows? It could have been doomed by the advertising or release pattern. It may have done well overseas. It was certainly embraced by the French. It might be too strong to call it a failure – maybe a disappointment. I know that Hitchcock found fault with the film, even with James Stewart, not his performance, but with hindsight the director thought Stewart might not have had the necessary romantic appeal. But it’s a curious love story after all, and not the usual mystery or suspense, so American audiences in the 1950s may have been left scratching their head. And much of what Hitchcock critics and scholars treasure about it – all the embedded auteurism – wouldn’t have been obvious to those moviegoers. I’m not sure it is obvious to audiences today. After all, while VERTIGO wins over the critics and scholars, other Hitchcock films like REAR WINDOW, NORTH BY NORTHWEST or PSYCHO are more reliable as crowd pleasers.