Dream Factory: A Lifelong ‘Vertigo’ Obsession Takes Its Toll

Cinema fully took hold of my senses in 9th grade, some 30 years ago, and during that year I was shaped by the stories of director Frank Capra (Mr. Smith Goes To Washington) and Woody Allen (Manhattan). But it was Alfred Hitchcock who shook me to the core. As millions of movie buffs can attest, ‘Vertigo’ is an experience that’s simply unforgettable.

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Note: This column isn’t a critical essay on the cinematic merits or innovation behind Vertigo, but rather my personal obsession with the film. The ensuing words, however feebly constructed, will assume that you have either seen the film or simply don’t mind reading spoilers. Along with my reminisces, I’ll also include a few thoughts on Park Chan-Wook’s The Handmaiden which actually made me reassess my own approach to Vertigo.

Flashback to 1986 in Chatsworth, California. I’m an honors student at Chaminade College Preparatory and I’ve fallen head over heels for our fellow classmate Kristi. She, on the other hand, has eyes for another student. Instead of jumping into the romantic fray and actually going for it, Kristi becomes a close friend. Though I was fine with this platonic equation, something was definitely missing. That empty place was immediately filled as I set my eyes upon Saul Bass’ iconic opening credits, Bernard Herrmann’s haunting and mesmerizing score, and the reddened glow Kim Novak’s eye. The Master of Suspense had me hooked.

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John “Scottie” Ferguson’s (James Stewart) acrophobia kicks in during the opening moments of the film, as his dizzying spell of vertigo leads to the inability to apprehend a suspect and, worse yet, the death of a fellow police officer.

Retired and looking for a little direction, Scottie helps Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore), an acquaintance from his college years, trail his seemingly unstable wife Madeleine (Kim Novak). Lesser filmmakers would have unimaginatively shot the Gavin and Scottie getting to know you once again sequence, but Hitchcock also constructs beautiful compositions during Vertigo’s exposition laden moments.

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Scottie’s introduction to Madeleine at Ernie’s begins almost 17 minutes into the film, and for over 10 minutes we follow our protagonist as he follows her the next morning to a flower shop, the grave of Carlotta Valdes and, finally, the museum where Madeleine stares at Carlotta’s portrait. Hitchcock shot the scene sans dialogue for over 10 minutes, relying mainly on score, shot composition, Novak’s hypnotic beauty and Stewart’s gradual surrender to illusion.

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But cinematic technique wasn’t on my mind as a clueless youth. Kim Novak, elegant as Madeleine Elster but possessing, as Francois Truffaut once said, an “animal-like sensuality” as salesgirl Judy Barton, was a total revelation.

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As Scottie trailed Madeleine to the museum as she sat looking at Carlotta’s portrait, I realized that cinema, as in life, can be appreciated from afar. Scottie’s infatuation for Madeleine led him to a sanitarium stint, and his suffocating grip on a helpless Judy indirectly leads to her death. Though Judy’s involvement in a woman’s murder may be construed as a karmic reckoning, I was (and partly still am) absolutely shattered by the film’s unforgiving close. With pain and tragedy possible bedfellows to romance and lust, what’s the point? Along with my own cowardice, I used Vertigo as my excuse for not jumping into the dating fray for most of high school. I ridiculously believed my love for movies (and infatuation for Kim Novak) would sustain me. These cinematic daydreams, for a spell, propelled my waking life.

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My passion for Vertigo, film noir, and suspense thrillers continued throughout college. I wrote for the UCLA Daily Bruin’s A&E department for three years, with my main concentration on film. Thirty-three years after graduating, I’m still covering and reviewing movies, and a huge part of this journey comes from my lifelong love for Alfred Hitchcock and, subsequently, Brian De Palma’s body of work.

Inspired after watching Vertigo at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, De Palma and Paul Schrader collaborated on Obsession. Shot by Vilmos Zsigmond (Close Encounters of the Third Kind) and featuring a standout score from Vertigo composer Bernard Herrmann, Obsession is another eye-catching film from De Palma that’s blessed with a solid performance from Genevieve Bujold. Cliff Robertson, in the surrogate James Stewart/Cary Grant role, was ill-suited for a role that demanded much more emotional depth. (Obsession was my Blu-ray pick of the week on the CinemAddicts podcast)

My continuing fixation with “form over content” bled into The Deepest Dream, a short film I co-wrote and directed about a man who, haunted by his wife’s untimely death, hires an escort to complete his own vision of a “remembrance of things past.” Instead of focusing on the exact storyline and working with the actors, I was much too fixated on the “idea” behind the film and specific shots that I wanted in the film. The short was my homage to Vertigo and Obsession, and though I have wonderful memories working with a group of friends, the short simply missed the mark due to my narrow creative scope (and skills). Check out the vid below (at your peril!):

Whether or not I was an able short film director is, in retrospect, not the biggest problem of the day. Rather, taking an imbecilic vision or theory you had as a youth and carrying it through adulthood is simply crippling. While championing the visual style of both filmmakers and stressing my love of form over content (i.e. that’s why I’ll continue to defend Brian De Palma’s The Black Dahlia), I’ve missed out on big picture. Life isn’t one master shot that can be adored over and over again. Split screens and split diopters be damned, in reality we need tons of coverage. Content, as they say these days, is king.

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Vertigo also played an important part in director Park Chan-wook’s (Oldboy, Stoker). While his latest feature The Handmaiden may evoke the visual mastery of Hitch and De Palma, there is a refreshing subversion at work within the narrative. The aforementioned filmmakers have framed much of their movies through the male gaze, and the women who live in this universe are either objects of desire or tragic souls (or in Vertigo’s case – both!)

The Handmaiden is a wonderful slap in the face to the suspense thriller. Though the perverse Uncle Kouzuki (Jin-woong Jo) holds dominion over women by having them read erotic literature at his command (Kouzuki’s obsessive control over Lady Hideko reminded me of Scottie’s emotional stranglehold on Judy), his comeuppance is just around the corner. It can be argued that Kim Novak’s Madeleine/Judy was deemed by Hitchock merely as a vision of beauty, but in The Handmaiden it’s the women’s passions that eventually drive the storyline.

KIM Min-hee and KIM Tae-ri in THE HANDMAIDEN, an Amazon Studios / Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios / Magnolia Pictures.
KIM Min-hee and KIM Tae-ri in THE HANDMAIDEN, an Amazon Studios / Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios / Magnolia Pictures.

If one sees Vertigo as an exploration of a man’s singular obsession over an unknowable woman (the idea of Madeleine) , The Handmaiden focuses on a love/deception tale through the eyes of two complex and intelligent women (Kim Tae-ri, Min-hee Kim) who ultimately value each other as human beings.

Kim Tae-ri & director Chan-wook Park. "The Handmaiden" Press Conference (CR: Greg Srisavasdi)
Kim Tae-ri & director Chan-wook Park. “The Handmaiden” Press Conference (CR: Greg Srisavasdi)

My guess is director Park sees The Handmaiden, which is based on Sarah Waters’ novel Fingersmith, as an expansion of Vertigo’s themes. As he said (through a translator) at The Handmaiden press conference, Alfred Hitchcock may have been the source, but he’s not everything:

“When it comes to Hitchcock, his film, VERTIGO, when I was watching it, I decided to become a filmmaker . . . However, as time would pass by, I would watch a lot of other films as well. And when I talk about filmmakers who have influenced my filmmaking, my work, I wouldn’t cite him only . . . But it’s not only about films, about the cinema, where I draw inspirations from. It would be works of art, works of literature, which have all provided fertile ground for me. It’s not just in the art, but in the experiences drawn from my own life, or what I’d watch on TV, or all of these would be sources of my inspiration. When you consider all these influencing factors, the element of Alfred Hitchcock being an influence becomes smaller and smaller in comparison.”

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Watching Vertigo in my forties gives me an entirely different perspective on the story. Midge Wood (Barbara Bel Geddes), brimming with compassion and moxie, would have been perfect for Scottie, but his mind continues to drift elsewhere. Scottie’s ideal woman can be conjured up in the form of Judy, just as long as she dyes her hair blonde and puts her hair up in a bun. Though his forceful transformation of Judy back to Madeleine may eventually cure him of acrophobia and acute melancholia, the eventual sacrifice is Judy’s life.

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Spending more than half of my life covering press junkets and watching movies, daydreaming about cinema is just part of my daily existence. But using movies, especially Vertigo, as a way to philosophically proceed in the world is simply inane. In my twenties I actually decided to join the land of the living (or, to reference Children of Men, the “human project”) and put those conceits to bed. As I grew out of my Novak fixation and became a true cinephile, my love for the film was mainly concentrated on Hitchcock’s masterful filmmaking. Hitchcock, in his interview with Francois Truffaut, claims that Vertigo’s “story was of less importance” than “the over-all visual impact on the screen.”

Even in the surrendering throes of middle-age, I still come back to Kim Novak and Vertigo. But unlike Scottie or my narrow minded younger self, my thoughts don’t center on physical beauty or finding some romantic ideal.

Whether you’re in a darkened theater or actually stepping out into the world, one is often the loneliest number.

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