William Inge‘s work like Bus Stop and Splendor in the Grass are heart wrenching narratives about people who may or may not just find each other once in their lives. The depiction of women in his work are also memorable, from Cherie’s sequined exhaustion and Wilma Dean Loomis’ slow burn. These portrayals are my points of comparison with today’s ‘Best Shot‘ selection, PICNIC, and its leading female character Madge (Kim Novak).
Madge is a reluctant ideal, a woefully un-rehearsed queen with a cardboard crown, a deconstructed female character (I use ‘deconstructed’ instead of ‘evolving’ but evolution to me suggests a certain fullness which Madge never really has). She’s a trapped in a fictional world ruled by the female gaze, targeting both her and her male counterpart Hal Carter (William Holden). She’s never fully glamourized because of our raw first impressions of her, which is probably a more honest and refreshing depiction of women during the postwar era. All of this drama is shot by James Wong Howe (occasionally aided by a young Haskell Wexler). Wong Howe’s transforms his use of dazzling light, normally seen in his contrast-heavy noirs, to the kind of nature-philia and human choreography reminiscent of rococo and impressionism seen in this movie. It’s like using the artistic systems of the old world to depict the new, the latter’s white people entitlement marred hierarchy and rebellion.
And that is why this shot is my best. This scene isn’t the climax of the movie, neither is it integral in Madge’s ‘construction’ but it’s a part of the process. A lot is discussed in this room, marriage, a woman’s desirability, intelligence. And a fight is going to break out, as Madge is simultaneously being built up and torn down.
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)
I don’t wanna be that guy who ridicules the Academy for its missteps, but I just noticed something about the year I indicated above. What do I know, I’ve only seen seven movies from that year, but those seven have pretty good performances. In essence, I’m FYC’ing people 50 years too late, and I’m really pushing myself for a chance to watch the movies that won and were nominated pretty soon.
Elizabeth Taylor got a nod for her performance in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.” I haven’t seen it in a while. For an untrained viewer it would seem like there’s nothing special about her performance. But then her husband died while she was filming. Another actress could have made Maggie unwatchable, desperate and shrill but she made her character alluring and strong. But is that enough? Besides, Richard Brooks turned the movie into a ‘sexy drama’ and I still wonder what Elia Kazan would have done if he directed.
I do however have high praises for the supporting cast, who stole the show. Judith Anderson was haunting as Big Momma, and I can’t believe she was overlooked. And she gets better with other movies, but I love Madeleine Sherwood here too.
And then there’s Kim Novak in “Vertigo.” Honestly, I like her more as Judy Barton. Matt Mazur called Judy Barton ‘de-glammed’ although I see a campy character who’s rough on the edges, the total opposite of the classy Madeleine. Basically a character who’s lived two lives. Novak thankfully made her character balance these two personas well, without seeming schizophrenic. Novak could either have been a lead or supporting, but the poor box office revenues probably took it out of consideration for the Academy.
Another overlooked masterpiece is “Touch of Evil.” I don’t know why I’m so partial towards Janet Leigh because she becomes so much better a few years later and the Academy only paid attention to her once. Regardless, she can do more asleep and drugged up more than most of her generation can do awake.