Thursday, January 19, 2012

Hitchcock Biographer Patrick McGilligan Discusses VERTIGO with John Greco

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
PM: 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.

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
PM: 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.

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'
PM: 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.

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
PM: 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.”

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."
PM: 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.

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 ( 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.


  1. Great interview, John. You tried to bring out opinions on many of the themes we have been discussing here, and it is always good to hear another view.

    I found the simile to the resurrection to be a most interesting thought. It makes perfect sense, if Hitch was a catholic. In the early days of his life, I am sure many religious doctrines were pounded into his mind.

    I really think that the director may have had inner demons that drove him to include many subliminal things in his films. I am also glad he was so good at it!

  2. I especially like your references to Kim Novak being the unwilling Galatea to Hitch's Pygmallion--she really does represent so many actresses who veer between wanting the fame and exposure soooo much, then realizing that in many cases, they are just a paperdoll, a "visual element" to the directors who manipulate their on-screen presence. Kim's career was plagued with such inferences, wasn't it? Consider her performace with Jimmy S. in Bell, Book and Candle for a nice comparison...
    Very nice insights, John. Well done!

  3. Loved reading this interview. McGilligan gives very insightful answers. I agree that Stewart lacked the romantic appeal for this role--maybe twenty years earlier he would have fit that mold. Still, I also think it sort of works because he was obviously out of Madeline's league, but somehow, in his mind, she loved him. Then, when he finds Judy (a woman a little more in his league) he wants to change her into his ideal. I'm sure Hitch noticed this as well.

  4. John, I've admired the interviews you've done at Twenty Four Frames, and this one continues the tradition of quality of those. As I've told you before, the quality of the questions is as important as that of the responses, and this interview certainly confirms that. Mr. Gilligan, clearly very knowledgeable about Hitchcock, gives some great answers to your well-chosen questions. You covered all the points of interest in this film that are important without becoming too arcane--San Francisco, Novak, Stewart, the reason for the film's lackluster reception at the box office, how it relates to the perennial Hitckcock issues. I was especially intrigued by the part about the eroticization of certain elements. A great interview that adds yet another layer to "A Month of VERTIGO."

  5. Even though I'm not really a fan of the film, Eve, I did enjoy reading this interview. I love stories about the process of film-making. It's so interesting to me to learn new things about a director I admire. (My favorite of the Hitchcock films are REAR WINDOW, THE 39 STEPS, THE LADY VANISHES, SABOTAGE, REBECCA, SHADOW OF A DOUBT, NOTORIOUS and DIAL M FOR MURDER.)

    I mentioned a Hitchcock book on my blog today - really in passing - on a post I did about author Paula Marantz Cohen.

    She writes fiction and is also the author of several non-fiction books. Among them, ALFRED HITCHCOCK: THE LEGACY OF VICTORIANISM.

    I haven't read it yet, but I'm wondering if you have.

  6. Thanks to everyone for the responses. If anyone has not read McGilligan's book, I must say please do, it is one of the few essentials for anyone interested in Hitchcock.

    Allan - I'm sure Hitchcock's inner demons were at work here and in his other films. I think many, if not all artist express their inner self in their art.

    Kay -You're right, Novak's career was "plagued" by directors who used her, or maybe just did not know how to use her correctly as Hitchcock did here. I know she hated being thought of and sed as a mere sex symbol.

    Kim - Glad you enjoyed the interview. James Stewart is an actor I have come to admire more and more with every film I watch him in. As Patrick says in the interview, "Stewart was a brave actor, willing to try anything and risk falling flat." I personally like that in an actor.

    R.D. - Thanks very much for the kind words. I have enjoyed doing these interviews and hopefully there will be more in the future. I think many of Hitchcock's films have a layer of eroticism to them going way back to THE 39 STEPS. Hitchcock always seemed to be pushing the censors buttons which is part of the fun in his films.

    Yvette - It does seem that people either love VERTIGO, thinking it one of Hitchcock's best or they hate it. There seems to be no in between. I do like your selection of his films that you did like.

  7. A very interesting interview - I would have enjoyed it at twice the length.

    "Vertigo" is the most overtly poetic and surreal of Hitchcock's films - it's less concrete, in it's plot and tone, and I think because of that there is much less of a mass audience appeal than a number of his other films. The connection between the sublime and the ridiculous is a close one - perhaps this is one reason why some undergraduates snicker. Not to come off unpatriotic, but this paradox might also be an aspect that the french are more likely to embrace (in the past and in the present) but that american audiences are often prone to reject. It's easier for a film like "Vertigo" to offend one's sense of reason - for some that's a negative, for others that's a definite plus. Fortunately, over time, "Vertigo" has been able to reveal it's powerful message to an ever widening audience.

  8. Fascinating conversations. Mr. McGilligan seems like a great guy to talk Hitchcock with! And of course, John, excellent questions and insights! Both of you are equally knowledgeable about Vertigo and both get down to the pressing questions everyone wants to know! I think Patrick's opening line "I admire Vertigo more than I adore it..." is quite telling. I too have an immense love for Vertigo, but I don't find myself rewatching it half as much as North By Northwest (my fool-proof choice when I invite friends over) or any other Hitchcock film. Yet, Vertigo is so vastly different than anything he ever made, its enigmatic and eerily graceful. I admire it with such intensity. Mostly, it is curiosity of how such a film as this was ever made in the first place. It is quite overwhelming. I must have seen Vertigo at least a dozen times by now, and every time I am still overcome by its magic. Your conversation with Patrick was very interesting. I certainly enjoyed it. Thanks for sharing.

    - Brandon Kyle The Cinephile, @bkthecinephile

  9. John - This may be a compact interview, but there is an incredible amount of information and sharp insight packed into your Q-&-A with Patrick McGilligan. His, by the way, is the Hitchcock bio I prefer and I reference it often.

    "Vertigo," I believe, is at least appreciated by most film lovers and I don't think it's inaccurate at all to say (to quote David Thomson yet again), "It's a test case: If you are moved by this film, you are a creature of cinema..."

    I'd like to thank you, John, for crafting another very fine interview and to thank Pat McGilligan for sharing his special understanding and observations on Hitchcock and "Vertigo" with us. Thank you both for contributing to "A Month of VERTIGO."

  10. This is an amazing interview. McGilligan definitely has an innate sense of film history. It is amazing you were able to interview him.

  11. John, thank you for providing an in-depth look at “Vertigo” the film and Alfred Hitchcock the director. Your questions and Patrick McGilligan’s responses add yet another dimension to “A Month Of Vertigo,” which is developing into a profound reflection on a career defining film. You have explored elements such as Hitchcock’s Victorian and Catholic background, and the film in light of a “resurrection parable.” In my research on Bernard Herrmann, I read of the importance of the music for J.M. Barrie’s “Mary Rose” in Hitchcock’s early life. He had attempted to locate the music for use on both “Rebecca” and “Vertigo,” and I wonder if the idea was a lifelong fascination for Hitchcock since the play essentially tells of the return of a lost love. I feel that Kim Novak’s performances in other films suffer when compared to “Vertigo” and her dual roles. Her lack of a distinct personality suits the story’s somewhat circular logic, and her character is a means to markedly different ends for both Elster and Scottie. She never reveals her motivation, but she gives brief glimpses of her humanity in her appeal to the audience and her appeal to Scottie. I think enigma is not quite the word to describe her, an enigmatic person is perhaps so by choice; Kim Novak’s Madeleine/Judy is unknowable by design. I think it is also a tribute to Hitchcock and his instincts as a director that the passage of five decades has not diminished the character’s fascinating quality.

  12. I want to thank everyone for the kind words and glad you all enjoyed the interview.It has been an honor to have been included in such fine company.

  13. Hi John, I really enjoyed this interview, as this is the biography I like most of Hitchcock. Reading Mr. McGilligan's views on this film was fascinating. I liked how he discussed Vera Miles and how Hitchcock would have tailored the role for her. Thank you for an excellent job.

  14. Thanks CFB, appreciate it and glad you enjoyed it.

  15. Thank you very much for sharing a very interesting interview with us Vertigo fans. I never really thought of it before, but Scotty does become less like able as the film progresses. Especially in the scene where they say:

    Judy: Couldn't you like me, just me the way I am? When we first started out, it was so good; w-we had fun. And... and then you started in on the clothes. Well, I'll wear the darn clothes if you want me to, if, if you'll just, just like me.
    Scottie: The color of your hair...
    Judy: Oh, no!
    Scottie: Judy, please, it can't matter to you.