The first half of Henry Koster‘s Harvey questions my personal expectations of the film as a light studio-era comedy. Elwood P. Dowd (James Stewart) embarrasses his sister Veta Louise Simmons (Josephine Hull) and her daughter Myrtle Mae (Victoria Horne) in a socialite gathering at their old home. In turn, she wants to get rid of him, placing him into a mental institution, which is admittedly a treacherous thing to do. Then in the twenty-five minute mark, playwright turned screenwriter Mary Chase uses the old switcheroo plot.
The pompous middle management of the institution, led by Dr. Sanderson (Charles Drake) and assisted by the hopelessly devoted Ms. Kelly (Peggy Dow), literally turn their backs on Elwood’s symptoms, interrupting him before the Elwood introduces them to the titular imaginary white rabbit. They make the latter walk off scot-free while Veta cries her heart out to the doctor and gets labeled as hysterical. And only when the hospital staff realizes their mistake is when this movie supposedly oscillates into comedy territory.
A few scenes later, she labours on a detailed description of her treatment at the institution, her soliloquy having no place in a comedy film at all. These scenes feel so uncomfortable that it’s easy to just flick the switch away and tell everyone else that they’re the insane ones for calling this movie a classic. This sounds blasphemous but it’s kind of like Bridesmaids, where depression wedges itself into the comedy.
All I wanted was for the hospital to get the right guy, even though we can argue that both siblings have their traces of insanity. Once Veta is free we have the delight in knowing Elwood. Stewart’s characterization of the man is both mature, as he doesn’t give into stereotypes about people with special conditions, mixed with his eternally child-like voice. There are also the scenes in the bar and afterward, the alleyway, when he tells both Sanderson and Kelly what his drinking buddies think about Harvey, that makes his performance that’s disarming yet more comforting than Mary Chase’s quotable screenplay or words or language in general could be.
Drake and Dow’s matinée idol looks contrast the rest of the actors’ cartoonish appearances. There’s also the specificity within enunciation of certain words, especially Hull and Horne’s affected accents that make them sound either like Americanized Brits or rich middle Americans, speaking just like every upper class character “back then.” Hull’s expressiveness also saves her character from being simply a one-note hysteric, making us sympathetic for those who have to deal with a mentally shook relative. There’s also the cast who – and Stewart inadvertently falls into this as well – never fully reaches naturalism but that makes this movie a time capsule of theatre-based acting.
I also applaud this movie’s brave depiction of homosexuality. Just kidding, but you can argue for it.
This movie is brave because of its collaborative subversion of psychology’s labels, making me think of its limits within certain polarities. We can factor in gender within its ‘insane’ characters. The “white slaver” Wilson could be a “nut” himself, trigger-happy when it comes to wringing Elwood’s neck or shoving Veta around. The male-dominated institution is more lenient towards Elwood’s quiet insanity than Veta’s. In one of her soliloquies she recounts how Wilson strips her and how the other doctors ask her about sexual things, concluding that “they’re not interested in men in places like that.”
The movie makes psychology look like a practice that by nature hunts people down as well as causes for why people are the way they are. Sanderson makes up a story on why Veta wants to confine Elwood. Later, at the alleyway, he asks Elwood where he gets the name Harvey from only to end up dry, simply because he never asks the right questions, just like we shouldn’t. We should just let the eccentric yet pleasant people as they are.
There’s a hazy feeling in the air in some parts of the film, like in the opening and closing scenes that occur at night. However, that haze is more present in the afternoon when Scottie Ferguson (James Stewart) follows a suspiciously young Madeleine Elster (Kim Novak) out to a local, San Francisco churchyard cemetery. He walks carefully. He’s straining his eyes while paying close attention to her, his expressions somehow externalizing her cold fascination with a certain large gravestone. He sees her from afar, framed by wildflowers or in between trees or a grotto. The closer she gets, the more he’s inclined to hide himself. He wonders what she’s really like, the line between his duty to watch her for her husband and his fascination of her become blurry.
Here in Vertigo, Madeleine walks into the old Mc.Kit.Trick Hotel, opens the blinds and appears in a second-floor window, takes off her jacket, keeping a mannered elegance with those movements. Scottie follows in, asks the hotel manager about the woman on the second floor. Alas, Madeleine has momentarily disappeared. The woman becomes a ghost.
Director Alfred Hitchcock has 33 variations of the woman relatively going through the same things. Inhabiting someone else’s house and having to deal with its ghosts and history much connected to her own. She confronts questions about who she is and trying to grow up despite that history that hinders her. Madeleine is apparently possessed by a woman in her family tree, Carlotta Valdez – her ghost-like walks around the city hit important landmarks in Carlotta’s life. There’s a self-awareness and guilt within her psyche that haunts her. Scottie ends up lusting for Madeleine and her story, her dark American past. After rescuing Madeleine, she tells him about her nightmares instead of telling them to her husband.
Then there are characters like Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes) who find it funny. At first.
I’m still not exactly 100% sold at Novak’s performance, but that one dancer-like foot out Scottie’s bedroom, elegance and a double-performance nailed a minute or two after gaining consciousness…
This movie owes Black Narcissus a lot, with its red filters and red dissolves and fear of heights.
Oh, and Judy Barton (Novak again), you are the best part of this movie, with you eyebrows and sass and masochistic guilt. Are your eyes really blue or green?
The man knows exactly what he wants, which one of my professors find really, really strange. He’s a San Francisco man, after all. I followed fashion between 2005 and last year and I can’t remember details within a dress if my life depended on it. Well, the man is an ex-cop, who for some reason remembers square necklines but can’t figure out that a suicide can’t have a Christian burial.
I apologize if this post slightly veers away from an erudite interpretation of the film. However, this movie, intentionally or not, is a warning to young girls out there – if a man wants to change your hair, it’s the first sign of control and abuse.
Is Hitchcock or San Francisco to be blamed for the hotel names with puns?
‘I wanna stop being haunted.’
The flamenco-like musical score by Bernard Hermann pauses, Scottie calls her Madeleine, telling her that he’s in on her prank. The movie ends with one of the most real, well-acted uncomfortable scenes I’ve seen ever. I’ve always thought of Stewart as malleable into any type of man from all-American to creepy, and here he lets it all out. I can only imagine how Hitch and the two actors choreographed this, as Scottie confronts her with one emotional accusation after another, his body pressing into hers, his hand on her neck.Sometimes their faces are obscured.
Then he pushes her higher. The music begins again, like a bumblebee this time.
Vertigo’s screening at the Bell Lightbox tonight at 8:45. Lastly, AFP reported yesterday that Kim Novak has been diagnosed with breast cancer. Get well soon, Ms. Novak.
- Kim Novak surfaces to retrace past in boxed set (sfgate.com)
- Actress Kim Novak undergoing breast cancer treatment (latimesblogs.latimes.com)