Those Bitches are Crazy: Aaron and Alex Re-Examine the Misogyny of Vertigo

Aaron: So in an effort to be totally up to date with my Ira “100 Best Movies of All Time” list, I decided to re-watch Hitchock’s Vertigo, about 15 years after the last time I saw it. I should start out by saying that it’s a great film that will definitely be on my list. Maybe that’s a given.

It’s certainly one of Hitch’s best, most elegant and maybe the best example of his “simple complexity” (a term I just coined here now!), where a story moves in sometimes unexpected directions, but there are not too many twists, keeping our interest while not confusing us and diminishing our experience. (Mystery screenwriters should take note: most Hitch movies have only one or two twists or double-crosses. That’s it.)

One thing I was struck by on this most recent viewing was how very misogynistic and cruel the story is. This is a film about obsession, mania and depression (a pretty impressive topic for 1958, by the way). There are four main female characters (though only two actresses), all of whom suffer from some sort of mental breakdown or devastating humiliation.

The first women we meet, Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes), is a good friend of Scottie (Jimmy Stewart) who clearly wants to have a relationship with him, but who he doesn’t seem to care about sexually. In fact their relationship is never totally described clearly and we never really know why are they friends or why he doesn’t like her (which is rather cruel to begin with). Then there’s Madeleine (Kim Novak), the rich wife of one of Scottie’s old buddies who is obsessed with a portrait of (woman #3) a 19th Century woman named Carlotta and might be somehow possessed by her. We’re told that Carlotta killed herself when she was 23, the same age Madeleine is now. Finally, there’s Judy (Kim Novak), a woman who looks like Scottie’s buddy’s wife, who was posing as her (as Madeleine) so the buddy could kill the wife and get away with it.

So the story has Madeleine (well, Judy acting as Madeleine) totally out of her mind and walking around San Francisco as a near-zombie. She’s overcome with her obsession with Carlotta, sometimes not remembering where she is or realizing what she’s doing. To Scottie, this is strange, but totally acceptable. We see her trying to kill herself by jumping into the Bay at Golden Gate Park (and being rescued by Scottie). Then there’s an uncomfortable scene where Midge, desperate for attention from Scottie, paints a picture of herself as Carlotta, poking fun at Madeleine’s obsession with her and showing Scottie that he should love her and not Madeleine.

Next, overcome by whatever emotion women feel when they’re in love, Madeline runs up a bell tower and jumps to her death (at least that’s what Scottie thinks). This event, along with the previous loss of a cop buddy of his, sends Scottie into a state of vertigo-related catatonia. He goes to a mental hospital for his cures where Midge takes care of him, but he doesn’t seem to care… because he’s catatonic (a near-zombie).

In the next section, however, Scottie is totally healed. Boom. He is sad that Madeleine is dead (well, very sad), but he’s doing things and participating in the world again. He goes to some of their old haunts and ultimately discovers Judy (now a brunette). They begin a relationship based on the fact that Judy looks like the woman he knew as Madeleine (who was just Judy with blond hair) (dating someone because they look like your ex is always a good idea). He asks her to dye her hair blond so she would look more like Madeleine, which she reluctantly does (even though this works against her idea of not telling Scottie the whole story… but she’s so in love with him, she loses track of her goal).

Once she dyes her hair, Scottie figures out that she looks a lot like Madeleine and the story starts to unfold. They go to the bell tower where Madeleine jumped, they kiss and then, when a nun (an asexual woman) surprises them, Judy loses her balance and falls out the window to her death … by accident.

What we see throughout the story is that women are very unstable, unset in their ways, absolute cyphers of material who are silly and easily swayed. They get obsessed, do rash things, are prone to violent self-destructive acts and are literally unbalanced on two feet.

Why is it that Scottie goes crazy and into a near-zombie state, but he heals, while Madeleine never heals (to say nothing of Carlotta who was crazy and killed herself a long time ago)?Why is Scottie’s obsession with Madeleine (before or after her death) acceptable (nobody comments on it other than the sidelined Midge, who is really just shown as a silly girl), while Madeleine’s obsession with Carlotta not OK? What about the treatment of Midge, who is absolutely lovable, good-looking, smart, funny and has some emotional connection to Scottie, but totally humiliated when she makes a bad joke with the gonzo mashup portrait? (She mostly disappears from the film after Scottie gets out of the hospital. Thanks for the bedside attention, Midge.)

What about the strange thing that Scottie basically demands that Judy change the color of her hair to look like someone he knew and loved, but she never knew? She tells him she doesn’t want to (and it really exposes her and undermines her greater goals of getting away with the murder of Scottie’s friend’s wife), but he insists as if she doesn’t have a choice. There’s some line there about, “it couldn’t mean that much to you.” Uh, yeah, Scottie, it could.  Finally, what about how Jane is shown as so unstable that she falls to her death. Sure it’s symbolism, but it’s pretty blunt.

Scottie’s buddy, who kills his wife, basically gets away with it and there is no outrage that he did what he did, because women are disposable… as Scottie shows clearly. I would accept that the story is told from his point of view, but then why does Hitch show us Scottie’s recovery in a hospital, while all the women die or are forgotten about? It’s not really Scottie’s point of view, it’s Hitch’s point of view. (And I’m not saying Hitch hates women; I don’t think he does. He does doesn’t like them in this movie.)

Alex, you know a lot about women. Am I crazy here? Am I reading too much into these things, coming at the film with a too-modern view of things? Why do I still love the movie even though it is rather offensive in its sexual politics?

Alex: Aaron, I love the title you came up with for this post because it could easily be read to mean that the ‘bitches’ in question are Aaron and Alex. (Oh, and we are nothing if not bitchy, honey.)

I too revisited Vertigo this week. We’re looking again at this movie in order to figure out where it places on our in-progress lists of the 100 Greatest Movies of All Time, and also because next spring’s Ira round-up of the all time greats will coincide with Sight & Sound magazine’s round-up, which both institutions do every ten years. (They do it in the year ending in the digit 2. Don’t ask me why.) Here are the results of the S&S 2002 poll — in which Vertigo placed as the #2 greatest movie of all time in the critics’ poll and #6 in the filmmakers’ poll.

I hasten to say that Vertigo is not on my working list of top 100 movies (which currently stands at 122 titles — December 1 is our deadline for submitting our lists). My favorite Hitchcock is Notorious, followed by Psycho and I Confess. I risk Ira heresy by making the following statement:

I don’t like Vertigo.

There. I said it. May the wrath of Andrew Sarris be visited upon me.

Of course there is much about the movie that impresses, and for Hitchcock lovers like us it adds to, and elaborates on, the rich body of his obsessions. This was the third or fourth time I’d seen the movie, and this time around I was especially struck by Kim Novak’s performance as Madeleine/Judy. She’s really great, especially in the second half of the movie, when, as Judy, she knows the whole truth but at every moment has to calculate what to let Scottie know and what to conceal. We watch her simultaneously thinking and suffering the pain of having to withhold the truth from the man she loves.

For me, it’s that very love that is at the heart of the problem you’re describing, Aaron. Is Madeleine really in love with Scottie? I mean, really? I have no trouble buying his feelings for her — especially because the more deeply he becomes involved in her world, the more his “love” for her becomes something perverse, a symptom of some fucked-up psychology — but I found myself asking of the movie, “Wait. Hang on. When did she fall for him?”

Both Madeleine and Midge have a hankering for Scottie, and there’s something maternal/healing about their relationships to him; his pain draws them in. This betrays the movie’s hetero-male point of view — as you say, Aaron, more Hitch’s than Scottie’s. Or at least we can say more the movie’s point of view than the protagonist’s.

Despite Barbara Bel Geddes’s wonderful performance as Midge, I find the construction of that character utterly dishonest. My big complaint about Vertigo is that throughout the movie we can see the narrative gears at work, and never more so than in Midge. She’s a character who is there only for exposition, and, as you note, when she’s served her purpose she disappears from the movie. You can almost hear the screenwriters’ conversation in which they decide they have to conceal that device with some character dimension — suffering, of course — that will hide the fact that she is just that: a device. So Midge and Scottie have a prior relationship and she holds a candle for him. But there’s a very revealing moment when Scottie makes mention of the fact that back in their college days they’d been engaged and it was Midge who broke it off. Hitch dutifully gives her one of his signature close-ups — with camera about 18 inches over her head, looking down and from a semi-profile angle — to let us know she has more history and thought about what Scottie just said but is holding it in.

But that’s the last we hear of it. Yes, we could fill in the gaps, we could draw a picture of Midge and why she both needs Scottie and keeps him at a distance, but I believe it would be a sort of arbitrary picture. The movie doesn’t really give us enough to fill in the gaps. And so the device is unmasked as the device that it is.

I feel similarly about Madeleine’s “love” for Scottie. When/why/how did it happen? I can’t really answer that question, but what I know for sure is that if she doesn’t love Scottie, then we have no movie! Maybe it says more about me than it does about the movie, but I’ve never been able to watch Vertigo without seeing through it.

I’m not sure her death in the end betrays an essential misogyny about this movie — I’m not so sure the movie isn’t harder on him than it is on her — but what it does reveal is Vertigo’s weird death obsession. I find the whole enterprise very maudlin and sadistic.

Most cinema buffs point to Vertigo as a great achievement in point-of-view and psychology, perhaps the pinnacle of Hitch’s experiments with both of those cinematic qualities. Obsessions of Hitchcock’s that are also endemic qualities of film as a medium. My answer to that particular praise of Vertigo is: well…yeah…I guess. I can’t argue with that praise, but it seems a little bit like admiring the cookware without enjoying the meal.

Vertigo, with its formal/stylistic ingenuity coupled with its clunky exposition and cold character equations, feels to me like an experiment. As opposed to Notorious and I Confess and Psycho: those movies doesn’t feel like experiments. They feel like operas.

Aaron: Alex, you make a very compelling case. I should admit that you’ve swayed my opinion with what you wrote. I guess what I responded to so dramatically was the technical merits of the film (that Hitchcock guy knew what he was doing) and the presentation. I think you show very well that there are some big holes in the script (I particularly like what you say about Midge). (You should try to use your powers of argument to sway more men in their opinions and tastes.)

In many ways I feel like Midge is the most interesting character and the most pathetic (meaning that we identify with her the most). Compared to Madeleine/Judy, she seems to have much more personality and shows interesting emotions like jealousy and pain. I never really identify with Madeleine/Judy because she’s so weak, so much of a zombie and such a pushover in her relationship with Scottie. The look on Midge’s face you describe when she’s talking to him about their college days is great, as is the look on face when he gets angry with her about the painting she makes. Maybe this is where my feelings that the film is misogynistic come from.

Madeleine/Judy is such a cypher that I don’t really connect to her pain (and as much as Hitch and Scottie treat her badly, she does herself no favors by dying her hair so easily against her will). I think your point about not knowing why Madeleine is in love with him is also important. Again, because she is seen as such a binary character here, we just accept that she does fall in love with him, but can’t really connect to their relationship or his appeal to her. We never really see why she likes him. Well, really it’s that we never see why Judy likes him so much; it’s understandable that Madeleine “likes” Scottie because she’s really Judy playing the role of Madeleine falling for Scottie to lure him in deeper.

All of this is to say that I might move this film down my Best of All Time list. I think you’re right that as a script, there are some bad aspects… regardless of the fact that end result looks amazing.

Alex: Oh, Aaron, my powers of argument have swayed so many men…. But I’d better stop there. My mom might be reading.

I’m glad you said you identify with Midge because I do too, and I might have sounded as if I’d prefer to see her jettisoned from the movie. Quite the opposite: I’d rather see her more fully incorporated into the proceedings. The scene where she defaces her painting and starts calling herself “Stupid” and tearing her hair out is, to use one of my favorite five-dollar words, horripilating. (Thank you, Joy Williams.)

And I agree that the movie looks amazing. All the color schemes — Scottie is usually associated with brown, Madeleine with gray (or, one might say, a self-conscious black-and-white), Judy with green — are rich and fascinating. The movie is enjoyable for the abundant creativity that is endemic to the project. Bernard Herrmann’s score has got to be one of the most beautiful and intense ever put to film. (That Herrmann was never Oscar nominated for any of his Hitchcock scores is an embarrassment to the Academy.)

Reading your thoughts on Madeleine/Judy’s falling in love with Scottie, it occurred to me that there might be something in the first two-thirds of Vertigo about the idea of performance. She performs being in love with him and is surprised to find, after the curtain has come down on her show, that the performed emotion remains with her.

And yet…I’m not sure there’s really a there there. That feels like something we might graft on to the movie in order to help explain away its essential lack of believability. Just as champions of the film use the Scottie’s-point-of-view approach to justify the inconsistent/implausible actions and feelings of Judy: “Of course we can’t see what’s really motivating her. Because we’re seeing her as Scottie sees her, and he’s turning her into what he wants her to be. It’s not about the nature of their relationship, it’s about Scottie’s obsessiveness and his point of view.”

But if that were true, the movie wouldn’t need the scene in which Judy reveals to us (but not to Scottie) the truth of what really happened when she was masquerading as Madeleine. If the movie were all about Scottie’s P.O.V., it would never need to show us Judy’s P.O.V. No, this movie is trying to be a tragic romance. It wants to persuade us.

You know, every time I’ve seen Vertigo, something about it has made me feel embarrassed. Hitch would surely see in praise in that sentiment — maybe the movie is so intimate that it gives me a sense of being violated.

But when Judy says things like, “If I dye my hair, will that be enough? Will that let you give me your love?!” I always feel kind of icky.

And qualities of the visual scheme don’t sit easily with me; the gauzy quality of some of Scottie’s P.O.V. shots of Madeleine is really hokey. Deliberately so, perhaps, but that actually makes it more hokey. (We get it, Hitch.) And the obviousness of the process shots always makes me go, “Well, it was the olden days.” But I think Hitch liked us to know when he was using a process shot, I think he liked them looking clearly different from everything else. Maybe there’s an expressiveness there, or an absurdist quality, that he loved that just plain doesn’t compute for me. (Or maybe it does and I don’t realize it. That is to say, Hitch might know exactly what he’s doing in poking at my unconscious. But then you could use that argument to justify every artistic choice behind every film.)

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About Aaron & Alex

We're two highly opinionated, movie-going, liberal, cynical, (single) New York Jews who like to bitch about movies.
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3 Responses to Those Bitches are Crazy: Aaron and Alex Re-Examine the Misogyny of Vertigo

  1. M. George Stevenson says:

    I can’t believe I just read a debate about Vertigo that included a reference to Hitchcock movies as operas and find not a word about Bernard Herrmann’s score, which for me is in many ways the entire point of the film. When I last saw Vertigo, it was at the Ziegfeld debut of its restoration and when I left, I thought i should be exiting into LIncoln Center. This is the one Hitch from his late 1950s pinnacle to be organized around its score rather than vice versa (and I say this having just rewatched Psycho).

    Even more than the color elements, the musical character associations are positively Wagnerian and utterly and obviously part of the pre-conception of the whole. The grandness AND absurdity of the plot, which I must remind you, was based on a novel written specifically in hopes of its being filmed by Hitchcock (one of the co-authors also wrote the novel on which Diabolique is based) are part and parcel of making a cinema tone poem on the theme of Death and Transfiguration. Does this also mean that the film partakes of the inherent Madonna/whore misogyny on which so much Romantic art is based? Absolutely, but the crazy capital R Romance of the film as a whole is why its finally turning into a critique of Scotty’s obsession is so powerful: The wages of Love is death and payable in direct relationship to the intensity of the passion, an unusual variation on Hitch’s core themes.– To quote Clara Pelton: Where’s the guilt? Scotty doesn’t seem to have any at all, which is in keeping with

  2. M. George Stevenson says:

    Last sentence should read: Scotty doesn’t seem to have any at all, which is in keeping with his Don Jose/Rigoletto/Don Juan origin and function.

  3. M. George Stevenson says:

    Also — up too late and way too tired — should have been “barely a word about the score” and mentioned the operatic nature of the masquerade plot elements, which are completely implausible unless you’ve already suspended enough disbelief to accept the equivalent of a through-composed all-singing environment.

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