It's Kim Novak's 75th birthday today; a glass of rioja is hereby raised to lady while I consider her most iconic role. Whenever I watch 'Vertigo', I can't help but make a comparison to Michael Powell's 'Peeping Tom' and wonder what made one film enduring popular while the other was universally vilified and languished for two decades until it was rediscovered, re-evaluated and recognised as a masterpiece?
Quick comparison: in 1960, 'Peeping Tom' - a homely tale of scoptophilia, serial murder, pornography and the psychological abuse of a child by his father - triggered such a critical backlash that it all but ended Powell's career. Two years earlier, Hitchcock's 'Vertigo' - a romantic treatise on guilt, deception, sexual manipulation and the merging/confusing of sexual identity - garnered critical acclaim and remains a classic today.
Of course, the answer is self-evident.
The essential difference is in the approach to the subject matter. Powell's film is blatantly explicit, implicating the viewer purely for watching ("all this filming, it's not healthy"). Hitchcock, however, doesn't include a single explicit frame. The twisted psychology of the last third is arrived at via a by-the-numbers private eye narrative which swiftly segues into a lilting, if slightly melancholy, romance. Familiar genre trappings: reassuring to an audience.
San Francisco policeman James 'Scottie' Ferguson (James Stewart) is afflicted with vertigo after a rooftop pursuit during which a colleague falls to his death. Quitting the force, Ferguson undertakes a private eye job for industrialist Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore). The brief: shadow Elster's glamorous blonde wife, Madeleine (Kim Novak). Elster is worried that Madeleine is acting strangely, Ferguson, immediately captivated, drifts into a protective relationship with her.
When Madeleine dies, seemingly in an act of suicide, Ferguson is unable to save her, his condition preventing him from pursuing her to the top of dizzyingly high bell-tower. Understandably, he goes to pieces.
Three years pass before he encounters Judy Barton (Novak again), a brunette who, hair colour apart, is Madeleine's look-alike. What he doesn't know is that ...
... Madeleine and Judy are one and the same person, a twist that Hitchcock reveals almost immediately. This is another reason why 'Vertigo' avoided the fate of 'Peeping Tom': Hitchcock doesn't make the audience complicit in his protagonist's guilt the way Powell does. We know watch the score is. We can understand Judy's psychology, why she lets herself be put through Ferguson's indignities. Elster has paid Judy to impersonate Madeleine, to leave Ferguson a breadcrumb trail of morbid behaviour by which he perceives her death as suicide - an impression, crucially, which he testifies to at a court enquiry.
Result: a perfect cover story, the real Madeleine having been hurled from the tower by her husband ... who happily gets away with murder.
Judy, however, has lived with the guilt as surely as Ferguson. In order to expiate it ...
... Judy allows Ferguson to remodel her as Madeleine, dressing her in the same outfits and insisting she dye her hair blonde. It's in a cheap hotel room, walls bathed in sick green light from a neon sign outside, that Judy presents herself to him as Madeleine - and there's no doubt that the woman Ferguson embraces is Madeleine. Their embrace becomes a kiss, the camera whirling around them as the green-hued motel room gives way to darkness. The scene then shifts seamlessly to the coach house at the hacienda from whose bell-tower 'Madeleine' committed 'suicide'.
Think about it. Bear in mind that Ferguson is still unaware of the plot spoiler. In a nutshell, Ferguson remakes a living woman in the image of a dead woman in order to make love to her, and during that lovemaking the personality of the dead woman replaces that of the living one.
To use the kind of prose that you don't generally find in Sight & Sound or Cahiers du Cinema, this is some fucked up shit. Ferguson's act of consummation can be considered - metaphorically and psychologically - as necrophilia. The fact that Ferguson - Hitchcock's most flawed and disturbed character (and, yes, that includes Norman Bates) - is played by the most all-American actor of his generation, only paints the irony a darker shade of black.
It's a testament to Hitchcock's genius - and Kim Novak's striking beauty and dynamic screen presence - that such a bitter cinematic pill is so visually ravishing and so damn compelling.