In college, I took a class in aesthetics, and it got me hooked on the idea of metacinema, especially in the case of Hitchcock. This is an essay I wrote for a film blog a thousand years ago, but it never got published. So here it is.
The Man Who Had a Lot to Learn
Hitchcock constructs a pedestal for himself that would make anyone else dizzy.
We witness a pageant extolling the cosmopolitanism of San Francisco. We witness the technique of a master at his peak. We witness some of the most intense and sympathetic performances of sadness and confusion ever to appear on film. These are all very good reasons to see Vertigo; at the basic economic level, Hitchcock has already succeeded. I thought it necessary to point out that any higher purpose that I attribute to this film is strictly icing on an already magnificent cake.
The story of Vertigo has had such a gripping effect on our popular consciousness that perhaps it needs no reiteration. Scotty Ferguson (James Stewart) is recruited by his old college buddy to follow his wife, Madeleine, whom he suspects of being possessed by the spirit of her ultimately suicidal grandmother. Scotty evidently thinks he can solve her case better by falling in love with her, and so actually provides very reliable surveillance up until Madeleine jumps out of a very high monastery tower.
If the movie would have ended at this point, we would still have had a great viewing experience; nothing really interesting happened, but it all looked really good. But after the bereaved Scotty gets chewed out by the law (his previous employer), we’re treated to his spiral into depression, denial, and guilt; his trip downwards is slower and more metaphorical than Madeleine’s, but due to its delectable agony, it proves much more enjoyable to watch.
The sucker punch is that none of what Scotty has experienced is authentic in the way that he thinks. After he finds Madeleine-lookalike Judy, a secret aside is doled out to the audience revealing that Judy was in fact impersonating Madeleine the whole time so that Scotty would witness her strange behavior and her apparent suicide. The body that Scotty sees fall from the tower belongs to the real Madeleine, she having been killed earlier and tossed by her husband, Scotty’s old friend and the instigator of this whole mess. His name is Gavin Elster.
This man, this simple and somehow baffling mustache vehicle is in fact the hidden main character of Vertigo. He’s played to an impressive degree of unremarkability by Tom Helmore, and perhaps because of this, he is the carrier of Hitchcock’s almighty ‘MacGuffin’. Although he enjoys only twelve minutes of screen time (and is absent entirely from the second half of the film), it is this man’s machinations and vision of a specific series of events that make a story exist at all. Hmmm, this sounds remarkably like the director’s role in the film-making process…
And that, of course, is the punchline. Just like in Rear Window, Hitchcock has used the medium of film to make a statement about film. In this case, we’re getting a glimpse of the actual process of directing, from pitching to casting to denouement. Gavin Elster is a proto-Bobby-Bowfinger who needs Scotty Ferguson to star in his picture; he knows he’ll get a more convincing performance out of him if he lets him think that the story unfolding around him is real.
Hitch gives us a plethora of clues to this interpretation, but two huge ones stand out.
The subtle clue
Madeleine’s and Scotty’s famous oceanside exchange (the one backdropped with the From Here to Eternity-esque waves) is peppered with images that strongly suggest metacinematic interpretation. Madeleine speaks the following loaded passage:
“It’s as though I’m walking down a long corridor that once was mirrored and fragments of that mirror still hang there, and when I come to the end of the corridor there’s nothing but darkness and I know that when I walk into the darkness that I’ll die. I’ve come to the end, I’ve always come back before then…There is a room, I sit there alone. Always alone.”
Madeleine seems to be describing the experience of a theater-goer, walking down a footlighted hallway with movie posters on the walls, walking into a very dark room where the sensory stimulation is so absorbing that it requires a kind of death, the death of self-awareness.
Madeleine is the only person in Scotty’s life who could conceivably offer him insight into the role that he has played within the whole picture; she has already done so for us. She stands outside the boundary between the real and the manufactured, so she is the one who can drop hints (to Scotty, and to us) that there is in fact a boundary to be discovered.
The more blatant clue
The director’s trademark cameo in this film occurs as Scotty is entering the shipyard to meet Elster for the first time. Hitch walks across the screen carrying a trumpet case, as if heralding us: “Here comes the ‘director’!” We are to subconsciously associate the man in the movie who functions as the director with his real-life counterpart.
What distinguishes Vertigo from other metacinematic marvels likeRear Window is that we get a chance to see the transformation of a person into an actor (albeit involuntarily) and then watch him try to transition back into his pre-cinematic life. These changes are, for Scotty, incredibly emotional and momentous points in his life, but what they show him was that he was in fact happier when his life was in the hands of a director. He had no control over the events of the ‘film’, of course, but he was allowed to find love on a level that he had been previously too emotionally dry to appreciate.
Scotty’s skills as a detective and his acrophobia had made him psychologically ripe for an intense and unique life experience, but his lack of imagination (as displayed in his first discussion with Midge) would surely prove to be a poor range-finder in this regard, if left to his own devices. It is only under the tutelage of a director that he can really get what he needs out of life.
Hitchcock is plugging the necessity of directors. Directors (Hitchcock seems to be saying) see the non-cinematic life of an actor as boring and without promise. They see themselves as providing the necessary service of adding drama and spice to the world of both the actor and the audience. After the director’s influence is taken away, we are left looking for remnants of the fantasy in our post-cinematic world, and if we by chance happen to come across something that we think we can transform into the director’s vision, we’ll only screw it up because the distance between the director’s vision and our approximation of the same is of too great a distance for our sanity to allow. According to this film (and this interpretation), a director is endowed with an exclusive visionary power that if duplicated by mere actors or audience, results in great tragedy.
If Gavin Elster, Scotty’s ‘director’, had had one final scene with Scotty after Judy falls out of the tower, all he’d have to do is paint that upper-class smile on his face and say “See, Scotty? Even though I have in fact done you wrong, you can’t hate me. You need me to provide you with all the things you can’t find on your own. And it will always be this way, my boy, for you and for everyone like you.”