Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Alfred Hitchcock | Vertigo | Psycho

murder for love: two hitchcock romances
by Douglas Messerli

at edge

Alec Coppel and Samuel A. Taylor (screenplay, based on a fiction by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac), Alfred Hitchcock (director) Vertigo / 1958

For years I have put off writing about Alfred Hitchcock's film Vertigo, not because I have nothing to say about it, but because I have so much! As I've noted elsewhere, the first time I saw this film at a small Manchester, Iowa theater in 1958, I was only eleven years of age. The film whirled around me like a mysterious, inexplicable virago. I was literally made dizzy by the film, and I remember, as it ended, going into men's room on the second floor of the movie house, thinking to myself, "I am too young to see this film." Immediately, I went downstairs once more and saw the movie all over again!

     Since that time I have seen the movie perhaps 50 times, both on television and in theaters, on DVDs and computer screens. Only on the latter, did the movie suffer.
     Even from the beginning I realized this film was about a romantic obsession—an obsession for a woman (Madeleine Elster/Judy Barton) dreamily played by Kim Novak, and an obsession for a city, San Francisco. Just as the film's structure functions as a kind of double helix (the coil appears in the credits, shifting at moments into a pattern very much like Crick and Watson's later representation of DNA, and again in Madeline Elster's hairdo, in the painting of Carlotta Valdes at the California Palace of the Legion of Honor, and in the rose symbolizing Scottie's descent into madness), in which everything that happens in the first part reoccurs in a slightly different form in the second, so too do these two obsessions weave around each other, the same woman appearing slightly different in the second part and city changing from a magical world of lights (both sunlit and artificial) to a darker world of restaurants and a night drive to Mission San Juan Bautista. Indeed, the two parts of the film are played out in almost oppositional worlds, the first the story of a glamorously beautiful woman, traveling in a kind haze through the sun-filled streets of the beautiful city and environs with Scottie (James Stewart) following and later joining her almost as if they were tourists, Hitchcock taking his audience along for the ride. It is a slow story of developing love— lushly accompanied by Bernard Herrmann's Wagnerian-like score—which ends tragically as the suicidal Madeleine Elster seems to jump from the tower of the Mission to her death, from which Scottie has been unable to save her because of his vertigo.

     The film then turns to Scottie's inquest ("Coroner: He did nothing. The law has little to say on things left undone.") and his descent into depression, a kind of madness that even his chipper and loyal friend Midge Wood (the wonderful Barbara Bel Geddes) cannot help him to escape.

   The second roll of the helix begins with Scottie's accidental encounter with a young woman who looks somewhat like Madeleine. But this young woman is dressed atrociously, her hair hanging in tasteless bangs. She works as a shop clerk. And there is little mysterious about her as she reports in her flat American accent her background, even providing her would-be offender with her driver's license. It has always struck me that if Judy had been made over by Gavin Elster into such a beautiful woman in the first part, why should have chosen to revert to Judy Barton in the second? And reportedly—I have not read the article nor have knowledge of its existence except for a message board posting on the IMDb site for the film—Claude Chabrol, writing on Vertigo, claimed that she is not the same woman, but another whom Scottie makes over to look like Madeleine. Yet, obviously, that does not account for the letter of admission she writes to Scottie before tearing it up, nor her possession of the jewelry previously worn by Madeline, nor her verbal admission on the tower of the Mission near the end of the film. And that reading misses the point. While everything in the second part is the same, has the same genetic make-up of the first, everything has changed, which gives the viewer the slightly sickening sensation that things are not right.      

     Indeed, they are not right. For by acting as Madeleine, Judy has helped in the murder of Gavin Elster's real wife. She is a murderess first, but also a cheat, a liar, even a kind of whore for allowing Scottie to dress and coif her as someone else:

          Judy: If I let you change me, will that do it? If I do what you tell me, 
                    will you love me?

          Scottie: Yes. Yes.

          Judy: All right. All right then, I'll do it. I don't care anymore about me.

In Hitchcock's patterning of the human DNA we recognize the potential for humans to be two beings, to have the capabilities of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Although Scottie has throughout this second half of the film been seeking his past, in recreating Judy into her former being he has also symbolically taken away her current life, which gets played out into the final incident where he forces her to return to Mission San Juan Bautista and, overcoming his dizziness (not only his vertigo but the confusion of his thinking) forcibly grabs her, demanding the truth:   

           Scottie: And then what did he do? Did he train you? Did he

                        rehearse you? Did he tell you exactly what to do,

                        what to say? You were a very apt pupil too, weren't you?

                        You were a very apt pupil! Well, why did you pick on

                        me? Why me?

The sudden appearance of a mission nun so startles Judy that she rushes to the edge, actualizing her previous performance of death.

     Again, Scottie has not been a true murderer, but this time, he is the direct cause. It is he who has forced her to return to the sight of the first murder and to confront her participation in it. And we know, in his almost existentialist pose at the edge of the roof, that even if he escapes the accusations of murder, he will never escape his anguish and guilt. In short, we can describe, at least metaphorically speaking, Scottie's act as one of revenge—growing out a kind of fatal disappointment in the woman behind Madeleine Elster—as a  murder for love.

Los Angeles, February 25, 2012.

the jealous mother

Joseph Stefano (screenplay, based on the novel by Robert Bloch), Alfred Hitchcock (director) Psycho / 1960

It was not until I began writing the essay above that I suddenly realized that Hitchcock's well known 1960 horror film Psycho bears much in common with Vertigo in the sense that it too is a kind of romance—a very strange one to say the least—but still a romance between a young man, Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins), and a passing stranger, Marion Crane (Janet Leigh), staying the night at his hotel. The two hardly meet, sharing only a short conversation over shared supper, where it becomes clear that the lonely Norman, miles from the more-traveled highway, is fond of his new guest, and through his shy looks and comments we observe his interest in her. An supposed argument with his mother confirms his emotions:

Norma Bates: [voice-over] No! I tell you no! I won't have you bringing

                       some young girl in for supper! By candlelight, I suppose,

                        in the cheap, erotic fashion of young men with cheap,

                        erotic minds!

Norman Bates: [voice-over] Mother, please...!

Norma Bates: [voice-over] And then what? After supper? Music? Whispers?

Norman Bates: [voice-over] Mother, she's just a stranger. She's hungry,

                         and it's raining out!

Norma Bates: [voice-over] "Mother, she's just a stranger"! As if men don't

                       desire strangers! As if... ohh, I refuse to speak of disgusting

                       things, because they disgust me! You understand, boy? Go on,

                       go tell her she'll not be appeasing her ugly appetite with MY

                       food... or my son! Or do I have tell her because you don't have

                       the guts! Huh, boy? You have the guts, boy?

Norman Bates: [voice-over] Shut up! Shut up!

     Unlike Vertigo, however, where Scottie—as a kind of voyeur—and Madeline—as an observed performer—have long days together as their love blooms, Marion is almost unaware of his feelings, and Norman has no time to develop a relationship. The two are completely pulled away from any possible consummation of feelings, she having stolen $40,000 and left her lover—for whom she has stolen the money in order to marry—back in Phoenix, he having a more powerful love-hate relationship with his mother. The romance of this frightening tale, from the beginning, is off kilter. Both the soon-to-be victim and the murderer are not who they pretend to be.

     Like Madeline, Marion is a liar and, in this case, a thief. The realization of her errors comes soon after her conversation with Norman, as she determines to return to Phoenix; and, like the mythical bird, she clearly hopes to be "reborn," to rectify her behavior. The shower, as numerous observers have noted, is a kind of ritual baptism, a washing away of her sins with a hopeful return to innocence. Yet, the attentive viewer also knows that a resurrection will be impossible, for as we have witnessed in Norman's room behind the motel's front desk, Norman's hobby is taxidermy: he stuffs birds, assuring no possibility of their being reborn out of the ashes.

     Minutes later, dressed as his mother, he stabs Marion to death in the famed shower scene, a scene so powerful that women all over the world became terrified to take a shower. The three minutes of 50 cuts is a kind of small and masterful film in  itself, revealing in its attention to the details to Marion's body just how obsessed Norman/his mother is with this woman. It is hard to perceive such a brutal murder as a kind of love scene, but the way Hitchcock has filmed it, beginning with the sensual pleasure Marion finds in the shower, her scream upon the sudden intrusion, the outstretched hand and fingers, the gradual fall, the appearance of blood, and the final focus upon her dilated eye, it is almost a kind of dance pleasure as well as a dance of death.

     Norman has to destroy her as his jealous mother to keep his psychosis alive; and it is that necessity—the acts of the jealous mother—that makes us realize just how attracted he has been to Marion. In a sense, Norman has been as obsessed with her as Scottie was with Madeline.

      But obviously, Norman is even more obsessed with his mother, a woman to whom he is not only in complete mother-son thrall, but with whom he is deeply in love. Indeed he has killed her because in her attraction for another man, he has believed that she has abandoned her love for him.

        It is tempting, in this Hitchockean muddle of Freudian-inspired psychological details to imagine Norman as being a latent homosexual. Certainly Freud might have argued that despite the boy's seeming love for and attraction to women he also fears and hates them, explaining his need to destroy the women to who he is attracted before they overtake his own identity, or hurt him with their inability to fully share his love.
          But with Norman the psychosis goes much further--partly out of guilt for his hidden hate and final murder of them, but also out of his own recognition that he cannot truly fulfill their love (in the case of his mother because of the obvious incestual restriction, and in Marion's case because he is still a virgin too terrified to ever proceed with a sexual advance) he replaces them, becomes them in order to consummate a relationship between himself and the women he admires from afar. Through his personal intercommunication with his inner mother / lover he creates a relationship of husband and wife, lover and dependent mate. Norman is more a kind of faux transgender figures rather than man who secretly desires other men.

     The rest of the story, how family and authorities discover the truth, hardly matters. The only thing that keeps the audience's interest—which is why the director was so determined not to reveal the story's secret and would not allow audiences to enter after the movie had begun—is the fact that we do not yet realize the truths I have just expressed above, that Norman is his mother, having killed her off long ago. What gradually becomes apparent is that his real lover / mother was a tyrant who would allow him no other lover, keeping him frozen in infancy forever. So, in the end, playing the role of both his mother and himself, he is, as his last name suggests, "Bates," a man forced to perpetually make love to himself in a kind a kind of psychical masturbation. As the doctor summarizes:

"Like I said... the mother... Now to understand it the way I understood it, hearing it from the mother... that is, from the mother half of Norman's mind... you have to go back ten years, to the time when Norman murdered his mother and her lover. Now he was already dangerously disturbed, had been ever since his father died. His mother was a clinging, demanding woman, and for years the two of them lived as if there was no one else in the world. Then she met a man... and it seemed to Norman that she 'threw him over' for this man. Now that pushed him over the line and he killed 'em both. Matricide is probably the most unbearable crime of all... most unbearable to the son who commits it. So he had to erase the crime, at least in his own mind. He stole her corpse. A weighted coffin was buried. He hid the body in the fruit cellar. Even treated it to keep it as well as it would keep. And that still wasn't enough. She was there! But she was a corpse. So he began to think and speak for her, give her half his time, so to speak. At times he could be both personalities, carry on conversations. At other times, the mother half took over completely. Now he was never all Norman, but he was often only mother. And because he was so pathologically jealous of her, he assumed that she was jealous of him. Therefore, if he felt a strong attraction to any other woman, the mother side of him would go wild."
[Points finger at Lila Crane]

"When he met your sister, he was touched by her... aroused by her. He wanted her. That set off the 'jealous mother' and 'mother killed the girl'! Now after the murder, Norman returned as if from a deep sleep. And like a dutiful son, covered up all traces of the crime he was convinced his mother had committed!" 

      So it is confirmed that Marion's murder was indeed a murder for love.

    At film's end, Norman sits covered in a blanket, as psychically dead as Scottie in Hitchcock's Vertigo. But while Scottie stood upon the ledge of tower from where Madeline has finally leaped to her real death, reminding us of his 20th century angst, the last images of Norman look more like a scene out of Fellini than anything else, hinting at something similar to the postmodern absurdity that cinema would portray in years ahead. Even Norman's thoughts—his absurd belief that "I'm not going to even swat that fly"—seems to be something out of Ionesco or Beckett rather than taken from a high modernist literary text, which Vertigo calls up. Despite the fact that the two protagonists stand and sit in similar positions, having both lost the women they most loved, Hitchcock's implication of what it means is far more comic in Psycho, despite the horrors of the film itself. For Norman, having finally buried his male self, has become his own lover.  

 Los Angeles, February 27, 2012 and September 30, 2021

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