September 08, 2014

The Truest Love Story Told on Film

Spoiler Alert: The following post contains several crucial details about 'Vertigo' (1958). Please do not read it if you haven't watched the film yet.

In their first meeting early in the film, when Gavin Elster offers the 'job' to Scottie, Elster talks about the good old days of San Francisco. "The things that spell San Francisco to me are disappearing fast", he says, before adding those 'things' - "color, excitement, power, freedom." Later, Scottie visits an elderly book-shop owner, to enquire about Carlotta Valdes, the woman whose spirit has been supposedly haunting Elster's wife. Apart from other things, it is revealed to us that Carlotta was abandoned by her man, who kept their child and threw her away on the streets. "You know, a man could do that in those days. They had the power and the freedom." Last week, as I watched 'Vertigo' for the fourth time, the repeated use of the words "power and freedom" hit me like never before. Was this, the power and the freedom to dump your woman, that Elster was wistfully referring to in the earlier scene? That I knew the real truth behind Elster's plans definitely helped me read his lines in a new light. And my views got consolidated later, at the climax, when a livid and outraged Scottie is confronting Judy after having figured out how he was framed. Here, in the closing minutes of the film when he talks about her relationship with Elster, the words are repeated again - "...You were his girl, huh? Well, what happened to you? Did he ditch you? With all of his wife's money, and all that freedom and that power, and he ditched you. What a shame."

It is easy to dismiss this Hitchcock masterpiece as just another mainstream Hollywood suspense thriller. But then, I don't think it is too difficult either to figure out how deeply layered and hauntingly profound this story is. The example above is an illustration of what J. Hoberman writes in his 1996 review of the film, which according to him is "a mystery that only improves with knowledge of its solution". As mentioned above, the story can be read as a brutal tale of a man's successful abandoning of his woman - murdering her in this case, and the absolute victory of its demonic and invincible antagonist. This shameful act happens every day in each part of the world, although not all cases are covered with such an incredibly flawless plan. But more remarkably, I believe 'Vertigo' is the ultimate love tragedy, as deeply passionate and devastating as most love stories I encounter in real life. I have a feeling that you relate more with Scottie and the film if you are a man, and especially as you age, and see hints of all kinds of love affairs in this film. Please excuse my almost cynical world-view when it comes to love, and allow me to indulge in this reading of the film.

Look at the still above from the wonderfully crafted chase sequence when Scottie is following 'Madeleine'. Scottie is literally 'in the dark' and the woman he is following is nothing but an image - shiny, colorful, bright, and daringly inviting him to get infatuated with her. Hoberman's one-line description of the film is perhaps the most apt way of defining it. He writes that the movie is concerned with "being hopelessly, obsessively, fetishistically in love with an image" and I think the still above is exactly this definition, in these many words and more. But aren't all love affairs the same? When we fall in love, we are actually attracted to and infatuated with an image of the person we think we're falling in love with. That image is always extremely alluring and we are always taking a risk, and willingly so, when we fall for it. Scottie took a risk - he allowed himself to be drawn to the 'mentally-unstable wife' of his old schoolmate. And when that image crashed, the harsh reality hit him on his face. Haven't all of us experienced the same in our love affairs? I must add that I'm not saying that the person we love 'tricks' us into this by projecting a wrong and superficial image of herself or himself. It's just that this is how love affairs get constructed, and both parties are victims of this trickery that love plays on them. Afterall, isn't Judy as much a victim of this love affair as Scottie?

This brings me to another aspect of this love tragedy - the woman's perspective. Let us think of Judy and her story. She is a young girl from Kansas, somehow surviving in San Francisco City to support her mother back home. One day, a rich man discovers her and realises that she looks like his own wife whom he's been wanting to get rid of. So he proposes to her this plan that would make her rich and her life more comfortable than she can imagine. She agrees and they together start tricking Scottie. Until now, it feels like fiction, the stuff of the movies. But what happens next is something that I've seen happening with so many girls. Judy falls in love with Scottie. If we try to figure out the reason behind this, we'll have to agree that her love had hardly to do with the external appearance of Scottie, or the image he was portraying. Roger Ebert mentioned somewhere what he came up with during a shot-by-shot study of the film - that the turning point for Judy would be the day when Scottie 'fished her out' of the bay and took her home. Remember, here we have a single man, finally taking home the woman he has desired, who is 'unconscious'. He undresses her and makes her sleep in his bed. It is almost evident that his conduct during this entire process muct have been impeccable and Judy, who was hardly unconscious, must have been going through all this with great nervousness and terror. Can it ever be easy for a woman pretending to be unconscious to let a man undress her completely in his own house? And when she is going through this entire thing, scared and not knowing where it will take her, she finds that Scottie treats her with care, does not take advantage of the situation in any way, and then when she wakes up, he behaves like a perfect gentleman. I believe, this is good enough for a woman to be exceedingly drawn toward a man. Soon she realises that this man is strongly attracted to her, this man of values. Not only that. When asked about the details he cooks up answers that definitely make him appear 'innocent', even 'cute' - as the woman knows certain ghastly details that he does not. Her falling for him is definitely justified then, just like most girls I've seen fall for their men, in a way much deeper than the other way round.

Even after the successful execution of the plan, Judy does not leave the city and go into hiding - she cannot, although the mastermind, Elster, has fled to Europe. By deciding to stay in the city, hoping to see Scottie just once, she is being foolish. But this is what we all do when we are in love, right? We do foolish, dangerous things. After being discovered by Scottie, she decides to go with the flow. She allows him to dress her and change her despite finding this unbearably hurtful. Scottie indulges in his perverse attempt to resurrect the image he was in love with, and she lets him do that, bit by bit, with the hope of eventually making him love the real her, until her surrender to his absolute power and control recreates for them that fragile love affair that rests on images that we seek and unwillingly (or willingly) portray. The very next scene, after an obvious time-lapse, that image is shattered again. Scottie gets to discover the real and complete truth and this triggers in him a reaction both calm and violent, and hence so dangerous. In his final confrontation with Judy, atop the church, he cries - "Did he train you? Did he rehearse you? Did he tell you what to do and what to say?" A heart wounded in love always reacts in this way, bitterness and jealousy completely overpowering you, and you act without thinking, until it ends in something that silences you. And if you are as unfortunate as Scottie, it can devastate you forever. The cyclical nature of finding and losing your loved one, often by your own doing and mostly due to matters out of your control, is again a very strong depiction in this timeless tragedy. The loss may not always be the loss of one's life, as in the closing seconds of the film, but isn't it as brutal as that? Isn't the image of a slightly stooped Scottie hanging helplessly over the roof top of the site of the biggest tragedy of his life the image of most of us when we lose our love? And don't we thank our stars when someone we know goes through this and we silently hope to either stay away from love or succeed in it? For me, John 'Scottie' Ferguson has become that dear 'someone' whom I care for since the first scene everytime I watch this film. And mostly, I see myself in his mad pursuit of this woman. If you can see yourself in either Scottie or Judy, you will agree with me about 'Vertigo' being the truest love story ever put up on screen. And I believe, most of you will, someday, if not today.

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