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ENGA11H3 Chapter Notes -Barbara Bel Geddes, Bra, Trackback

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Garry Leonard

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frequently been made that the plot hinges on a wild improbability: not so much that a man who
has seen the woman he loves fall from a height should not stay to make sure she's dead, as that
the murderer should count on his not doing so. But if one is going to approach the film in this
way, a moment's thought will make it clear that the whole plot is quite fantastic -- no one would
ever set about murdering his wife in that way. Most of Shakespeare's plays can be demolished in
the same way, and with just as much validity. As in Shakespeare's plays, in fact, the organization
of Vertigo is thematic; plot, characterization, psychology, all are strictly subordinated to thematic
Whatever aspect we choose to consider, in passing from book to film, we find total
transformation. The difference in significance in the locations, for example, is not simply a
matter of transposition from France to America: the novel offers no equivalent for the sequoias,
and the complex thematic and emotional deepening that comes with them. The characters are
quite altered and an important new one (Midge) introduced. Of even greater consequence is the
difference in the attitude to them: in Boileau/ Narcejac they are despised like so many
ignominious worms, and we are invited to look down upon them, and to regard life as squalid
and ignoble; in Hitchcock they become entirely acceptable representatives of the human
condition, whom we are permitted to regard -- for all their weaknesses and limitations -- with
respect and sympathetic concern: no question here of any failure of awareness of human
potentiality, flawed and imperfect as the protagonists may be. The drab, willful pessimism of
D'Entre les Morts is an essentially different world from the intense traffic sense of Vertigo,
which derives from a simultaneous awareness of the immense value of human relationships and
their inherent incapability of perfect realization.
The first image is of a horizontal bar standing out against a blurred background: a single object against
an undefined mass. The shot is held for a moment, then two hands grab the bar, the camera moves
back, the focus deepens, to reveal a city spread out beneath the night: suggestions of clinging and falling
set against a great wilderness of rooftops. There follows the accident, with Scottie (James Stewart)
clinging to a collapsing gutter while a policeman, trying to save him, plunges past him to his death
hundreds of feet below. The sensation of Vertigo is conveyed to the spectator by the most direct means,
subjective shots using a simultaneous zoom-in and track-back that makes the vast drop telescope out
before our eyes; we watch, from Scottie's viewpoint, the policeman hurtle down.
When we next see Scottie, he is sitting in the apartment of Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes). We do not see,
and are never told, how he is rescued. Midge and her apartment (that contrasts markedly, we see later,
with Scottie's own, which is furnished largely with antiques) represent one of the possibilities before
Scottie. The assessment of Midge herself is made with that complexity and economy so characteristic of
Hitchcock (though it is only completed by the contrast offered by Madeleine); it is an assessment not
only of a clearly defined character but of a whole milieu, even of modern culture itself. It is a very
sympathetic portrait: Midge is practical, realistic, emancipated, eminently sane, positive and healthy in
her outlook: but from the outset the inadequacies revealed later are hinted at. A trained artist, she
devotes her energies to sketching the advertisements for brassieres. In her cluttered studio-cum-living-
room, Miros on the wall are juxtaposed indiscriminately with fashion designs. Entirely devoid of mystery
or reserve, the kind of sexuality she represents is suggested by her smart sex-chat about corsets and

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brassieres ("You know about those things, you're a big boy now"), she reduces everything to the same
matter-of-fact level. Yet one senses already a discrepancy between what she is and what she might be: a
depth of feeling, of constancy, is hinted at, more visually than verbally, which is at odds with the
superficiality of the cultural environment her flat evokes. Her look at Scottie when he reminds her that it
was she who broke off their three-week-long engagement is one of those moments that reveal the basic
strength of the cinema, because it suggests things not really formulable in words: one could say that the
rest of the film defines why she broke it off. If there is something a little boyish about her, there is also
something -- Scottie actually uses the word -- "motherly." she disapproves of Scottie's leaving the police,
she supervises his attempt to "lick" his Vertigo (by climbing her portable steps) as a mother might help a
child to master a bicycle, alternately urging and restraining.
Next is the transition from the smart modernity of Midge's apartment to the discussion about the past
in Elster's office. Behind Elster we see shipbuilding in progress, and there is a model ship in the room,
carrying a suggestion of escape. The walls are covered with prints of San Francisco in the "old days":
Scottie and Elster examine one as they talk. Elster bears a clear thematic relationship to Scottie:
Shipbuilding -- modern development -- bores him; he has a nostalgia for the past, where a man had
"freedom" and "power": the words are echoed twice later in the film: 1. in the bookshop (linking Elster
with the man who destroyed Carlotta Valdes) and 2. at the end when Scottie exclaims to Judy: "all that
money! all that power!". There is in Elster a hint of the inexplicable -- of the diabolical -- in his intuitive
understanding of Scottie's psychological traits (the metaphorical, as well as the literal,vertigo), in his
fastening on them and using them. When Scotty jokes he won't be able to go to bars at the top of
hotels, but three are plenty of bars at street level, Elster asks "would you like a drink now?": at the end
of the film, Scottie's insistent question, "Why did you pick on me? Why me?" never gets an explicit
answer. Elster, like other Hitchcock villains, besides being a clearly defined character in his own right, is
reflective of a weakness in the hero. but there is another visual clue in the large glass window behind
Elster where we see cranes moving this way and that. He is a director--apparently of a shipyard, but it
also looks like a movie set. And he sets about telling Scottie a story that at first seems far-fetched and
with no relevance to Scotty. but the he says "we're going to the opera. dining at Ernie's . come have a
look. Then decide?" What an odd request! Why would seeing her change his mind? but elster, like a
skilled director creating a "star" for the screen (precisely what Hitchcock is doing for a young Kin Novak
in this movie!) has put together a woman just for Scotty: superficially aloof, but with a vulnerability, and
in danger in a way she does not understand, and therefore in need of a protector, though she doesn't
know it. It is the "back story" Elster the director supplies in his office that causes Scotty to "see"
Madeline this way--In other words her significance is not inherent to her, but is an effect of her
position, of the story Scotty tells--in fact makes up--about her. Scotty's reality is based on a fantasy, but
it is a "reality" he falls in love with, and when the "real" Judy appears to him later, he will not see her,
but will only "see" her potential to be Madeline. with Judy too Elster has bound a weakness. She is a
small town midwestern girl who left home and came to the big city--like so many women who went to
Hollywood to "be a star". And Elster is a casting director who has her as a lover first and then "uses" her
in his "picture" before discarding her after the "movie" is a success and has accomplished what he
wanted (getting rid of his wife and securing him her fortune, which he would have lost had he divorced
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