Spirals and Straight Lines

Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock, 1958) and North by Northwest (Alfred Hitchcock, 1959) 

Let’s raise a glass to the nice folks at Dalston Rio for spoling me rotten with this double bill. Screw the heat and the sunshine, I can’t think of a more rewarding way to spend one’s Sunday afternoon.

I thought one good way into talking about these two films might be to attempt a comparison -they were made back-to-back- but they’re actually very different. One is a dark love story that deconstructs love, and shows how we project our own ideas onto our lovers/victims. The other is an utterly accomplished action film, a ripping yarn located in the world of espionage; a world of poisoned umbrella tips, Tintin & Snowy, all of that. Not to belittle it; Vertigo is the one I know much better but to say that North by Northwest is no match for it is to say that Lionel Messi is no Maradona.

What they have in common is that they are mysteries; at the outset, we are as in the dark as the hero, then a device is employed to put us in the know and one step ahead of the hero- who finds out and catches up with us at a later point. Both involve lots of fretting over a non-existent person (Carlotta/Madeleine and George Kaplan). Both feature definitive Hitchcock blondes and soigné English villians, as well as an iconic Everyman leading man.

In both, the latter has a slightly adolescent view of women and their mysteries; Scottie’s fascination with the brassiere models, Thornhill studying Eve’s blusher, tweezers and leg shaver when he is locked in the bathroom. There are mother figures too; Scottie’s unrequited lover Midge comforts him with the words “Mother’s here”, and Thornhill’s closeness to his domineering mother (who “sniffs my breath like a bloodhound”) looks forward to Psycho.

Perhaps the best way to describe their differences is by looking at the Saul Bass title animations. Without wanting to get too heavily into Freudian symbols (fashionable though they were in Hitch’s heyday- see Spellbound), Vertigo is all deep, swirling circles and North By Northwest fills the screen with strident straight lines, inclined upwards. In Vertigo the spirals come after a female face and a zoom into the eye, then the pupil. The isolated eye is quivering, looking one way then another, we half expect Bunuel’s razorblade to slice it open. The human form, and the window to its soul, are under the microscope. The lines of NBNW eventually morph into the glass windowframes of gleaming skyscrapers. It’s impressive, modern, an artificial construction, a tall story; smoke and mirrors. The swirl in Kim Novak’s bun versus the phallic train on which Cary Grant takes his bride.

Anyway, Vertigo. Jimmy Stewart was always my proxy in this film, and I felt that Madeleine’s first “death”, which throws him into grief and insanity, was the point at which the film took off into the stratospheres; when he haunts their old meeting places, mistakes strangers for her, then takes it all out on the first woman he meets (who happens to be the same woman). The one close friend of mine who was as much of a Vertigo obsessive as I, however, rooted for the grey-suited blonde who was fixated on her suicide. She felt the film would be better if it ended with that first death, and often turned it off at that point. Most likely there are as many reasons to fall under the spell of this film as there are people who have done so. 

Years ago when I first discovered the film, I saw all my experiences and defects mirrored in it. There are times when I have started weeping as Scottie falls off the stool at the beginning, and not stopped the whole way through the film. But life moves you along, and one can only be disappointed in love so many times before the water table gets saturated; these days I watch it with much more objectivity. Vertigo feels perenially fresh because it changes as the viewer changes.

As you step back, other things come to the fore. For all I’ve said about the artifice of NBNW, you could say that Vertigo is equally about the artifice of cinema. The plotters manipulate Scottie as Hitchcock manipulates his audience, knowing when and how hard to tug on the heartstrings and the nervous system. On the first day of “tailing”, when Scottie follows Madeleine into a grotty back room off a grotty back alley, it’s still a shock and a surreal sight to see the door open on an ceiling-high display of brilliant flowers. Scottie has a very elaborate show laid on for him, as do we.

Something new catches your eye with every viewing. Maybe the minor characters; the English villain who gently prods Scottie to look for his weak spots (“Would you like a drink now?”). The repressed, forlorn Midge, who needs paintings to tell Scottie what she needs to tell him. We know she’s amorous from the moment Scottie idly recalls their university dalliances; the camera cuts straight to an intrusive close-up of her pout. The masochistically comic relief of the court coroner, who slaughters Scottie with an assessment of exaggerated bias and no little malice. The fruity-voiced German, the lighting in whose antique bookshop gets darker and darker and darker as he delves into the story of Carlotta Valdes.

The supreme attention to detail; the Bunuelish touch of Novak’s dangling, resistant foot after Scottie has hauled her to the top level of the bell tower. Novak in silhouette and profile, on that first night in Judy’s hotel room where the sickly green neon seeps through and makes it a ghost train of a bedroom. Novak always looking over his shoulder as they kiss at the Spanish church. The first date, where Scottie’s eyes latch onto a blonde lookalike in a grey suit and Novak realises what she’s done.

If one accepts that Hitchock films are firmly embedded in the star system and each star actor brings their own persona to their roles, you could say that Kim Novak is playing four roles-within-roles. She plays the feline-faced Hollywood actress Kim Novak, playing a dumpy shopgirl from Kansas, playing a posh and distinguished heiress, playing the restless spirit of a C19th suicide.

Her tragedy is that nobody loves her as she truly is; in a way it is the dilemma of a typecast actress. Scottie/the public fell in love with a character she played and unless she wants that love to die, she is condemned to keep playing that character for the rest of time. People don’t want you warts and all, they want a mysterious ideal which they can follow discreetly from the car behind and onto which they can project, project, project.

With its 39 Steps man-on-the-run plot and its dazzling array of locations, North by Northwest is a perhaps lighter handling of some similar problems; identity and playing a role. Thornhill is exasperated and furious when the criminals mistake him for their quarry Kaplan and are deaf to the truth (“You make this very room a theatre”). Then, like Alain Delon in Mr Klein, he gets sucked into the vortex and starts to accept his role- he introduces himself as Kaplan in the United Nations, hangs out in Kaplan’s hotel room and answers the phone. He protests vehemently when he is framed for car theft, but soon becomes a car thief to escape from the exploded oil tanker.

Then there’s the blonde, again playing parts-within-parts. Thornhill first meets Eve as the goodtime girl on the train who is upfront about her sexuality. When he follows her to the auction and sees her with Vandamme, he thinks he’s figured out who the true Eve is and becomes the “peevish lover stung by jealousy”; Thornhill rages at her. But there is still another layer to the onion; she’s acting with Vandamme too because she’s FBI. More so, in fact, as she feels something for Thornhill and her reactions to his anger have put her in jeopardy; Thornhill is contrite. She loves him, she loves him not.

I like James Mason in this film and wanted more of him; he’s a similar kind of actor to Dirk Bogarde. The first thing he does upon entering the film is to close the curtains on the daylight and illuminate the lamps- as if confirming that Thornhill has been ripped from his dull life and planted into an adventure movie. Hitchcock gives him most of the best lines too.

Where Cary Grant is alpha male action man, bedding the girl, rolling around in dust and perpetually climbing windowledges, Mason never does anything that would crumple his blue wool suit. He’s aloof, cerebral, slightly sickly. He’s got one of those faces and his performance reminds me of a line from Neil Tennant; “I wanted to give the impression that I didn’t care at all, because in fact I cared very deeply”. They way he looks at Eve, even as he plots to kill her, shows that still waters can run the deepest.

The set pieces are too well-known to merit recounting, but it’s always funny and exciting. The pace is so breakneck that there isn’t time to catch your breath, let alone scrutinise any holes in the plot. I enjoy the subversiveness of Thornhill having to go drink-driving to stay alive, pulling goofy faces as his car swerves offroad. I enjoy the surreal, Kafkaesque scene in the lift where everyone but Thornhill is laughing hysterically, just as he is seconds away from death. I enjoy the unbearable, Western-like tension of Thornhill’s wait at Prarie Stop 41 and the faceless, inexplicable terror of the crop-dusting plane.

Seeing the two films together, I wondered if North by Northwest was an attempt to atone for the rigorous pessimism of Vertigo. As Eve falls off the cliff-face at Rushmore, Thornhill reaches out and grabs her hand as Scottie failed to do with the policeman. Both are clinging on by Thornhill’s fingers, with a villian grinding his foot onto the fingers, when the cliffhanger is abruptly resolved by the deus ex machina of an FBI marksman (cut to the FBI guardian angels, the favoured James Mason at their side and still making droll remarks).

Then, the jump cut to that fairytale ending. It’s as flippant and comic as Vertigo‘s finale is devastating and Wagnerian; with a dumbfounded Scottie standing on the ledge, one only hopes that the nun will do the human thing and push him over as well.


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August 2009
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