What better way to ease myself back into the blogging routine after a forced absence than to return to a series that I very much enjoyed, the Randomised posts. In case you don’t know what this means, check out some of the others in the category’s archive. In short, I use a random number generator to give me three figures which will automatically decide three frames from a film, and these frames become the basis for a (hopefully) asymmetrical discussion of the film. It stops tired critics like myself from banging on about the best bits from their favourite films while ignoring the more interesting corners of a well known film. Of course, because it’s random, you might get the most famous, or the most banal images from your chosen text. That’s the fun. You just never know…
Probably because it’s familiar to me, and partly because the orange case makes it jump out at me from the DVD shelf, I’ve chosen Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) this time around. It’s admittedly an orthodox choice, so much so that it’s easy to forget that its masterpiece status is well-earned. It’s haunting and dreamy, unfurling as many strands of meaning as you want to drag out of it: that’s Hitch’s real achievement – making populist packages that entertain but which can also explode with jack-in-a-boxes of complex perversity if you look even slightly deeper.
The randomiser has given me 17, 37 and 111. And the first image, from the 17 minute mark, is…
… ablaze with red. Scotty (James Stewart), a retired, traumatised detective, has been hired as a private investigator by Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore) to follow his wife around San Francisco in an effort to explain her odd behaviour. Elster has set up a scene where Scotty will get a good look at his wife Madeleine (Kim Novak) as the pair have dinner. In this shot, Scotty watches her leave. The stately, prowling camera is not quite Scotty’s point-of-view, but the embodiment of his increasingly inflexible gaze. It also stands in for our own fascination, allowing you, dear viewer, an out-of-body float through spaces where people look you in the eye but don’t know you’re there. In this shot, Madeleine is leaving, approaching the camera. Her husband looms behind her (fortuitously positioned in a manner that visualises his manipulation of his wife from the shadows), and the vivid decor plunges back into a distance of nested spaces. If these are not mirrored zones, they certainly look as if they might be. The green of Madeleine’s dress, and the gold of her hair, not to mention her central framing, make her the undoubted focus of the image: the rest of the composition has been cleared of any similar colours, and her skin is lit to glow brighter, blonder than anyone else in the room. At the right of the frame, though, is a tiny insurgence of green in the leaves of the pink rose. It’s an inkling of the importance of flowers in the iconographic identity (flowers, paintings, hair, jewellery) that Scotty gathers up and pegs on her.
At 37 minutes, we’re in the Argosy bookstore, where Pop Liebel (Konstantin Shayne) is telling the sad story of Carlotta, the mysterious woman with whom Madeleine appears to be fixated. I’m sure that, even before I’ve finished typing this sentence, you’ve noticed that all three of the carefully staged figures in this composition are looking in different directions. Ever more disconnected, Scotty listens while facing away. He holds his hat as if in reverence. He’s a strange investigator. Rather than interrogating his lead he passively takes the information, concentrating on selecting the bits that can be moulded to match his suspicions, his desire not uncover the truth but to confirm Madeleine’s desirous vulnerability. Ever-faithful Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes – hey, trivia fans, did you know that Jimmy Stewart starred with both Miss Ellies from Dallas? Bel Geddes’ replacement, Donna Reed, played the love of his life in It’s a Wonderful Life) is shunted into the shadows, intently watching the storyteller. She also is not necessarily interested in the truth, but in anything that might rationalise Scotty and bring him back into the scope of her fond attentions. Her simple love for him has a stifling insistence about it, but it’s never at the ferocious level of his obsession. It’s the most consistently touching aspect of the film, I find. Midge (another “M” name, but a witheringly diminutive one, loaded with unprecious overfamiliarity) enacts a simpler form of romantic love built on protective concern and stable availability. Scotty is already away, though, in pursuit of a beautiful ghost. The stillness, and dimness of the scene (the bookshop is a place of deep, arcane knowledge) is contrasted with the brighter lateral activity on the street outside. As with the previous image, the background action is oblivious to Scotty’s fixations, which find stillness and purpose by latching onto objects and making them stand out amidst the busy surroundings.
We finish in one of the unsettling scenes where James Stewart grimly, palm-sweatingly attempts to make over his new girl, Judy, into a perfect replica of Madeleine. It’s discomfiting to see America’s favourite actor so fixated on the finer points of female couture, and his needling, pathetic need is similarly shocking. It’s as if Madeleine’s fixation on a phantom presence from her past (all a fabrication anyway) has passed on to Scotty like an infectious dream. In describing this shot, I feel suddenly redundant. So efficient is the signification, through mirrors, of Judy/Madeleine’s duality and the crossfire of dishonest gazes at, but not really at, one another, that it seems trite to point it out. Mirrors are cinema’s most portable symbolic props, but here it is precise, as Judy retreats to a corner only to be confronted by the image of her own duplicity even as Scotty tries to reduce her to a mirror image of his absent object of desire. Note also the brown colour palette in this shot, in stark contrast to the earlier shots of Madeleine as a Vistavisioned semi-divinity. It is only when Judy’s transformation is complete that the screen once again explodes with colour.
Obviously, I can’t cover everything, so if you have any further observations about these images, please feel free to comment below.