by guest contributor John Greco
John Greco of Twenty Four Frames recently interviewed award-winning biographer Patrick McGilligan, author of Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light (Harper Collins, 2004). The focus of their dialogue was the director's mysterious and magnificent Vertigo.
John Greco (JG): Where does Vertigo fall within your pantheon of Hitchcock films and films in general?
Patrick McGilligan (PM): 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 Scottie 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!
JG: How important was shooting the film in San Francisco to the film and Hitchcock?
|Judy and Scottie and San Francisco's Palace of Fine Arts|
JG: 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?
|An iconic twist|
JG: 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 have been in the dual role?
PM: 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.
JG: Kim Novak has been criticized over the years as being too lightweight 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?
|Mysterious 'Madeleine Elster'|
JG: 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, that 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?
|Gavin Elster and 'Madeleine' at Ernies|
JG: 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.
|"...a resurrection parable."|
JG: 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 stature in later years.
PM: 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 heads. 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.
|Biographer Patrick McGilligan|
Guest author John Greco has entertained a lifelong fascination with cinema and photography and has been blogging on classic film for about 3½ years at Twenty Four Frames. He recently launched another blog featuring his own photography (johngrecophotograpy.com). Pat McGilligan’s Nicholas Ray: The Glorious Failure of an American Director, was published in July. Click here for John’s interview with the author regarding this most recent biography.