Vertigo Alfred Hitchcock (USA 1958) James Steward; Kim Novak
Viewed: 24 09 2011 Star and Shadow Cinema Newcastle; Ticket: £5.00
retrocrit: sex and the cripple…
Vertigo’s plot, its settings and locations are of course all typical macguffins. They are the elaborate devices and visual mechanics that only serve to frame Alfred Hitchcock’s (AH) core obsession in this movie: the ritual of the fetish. The slow build up of the film, its ramshackle flaky story line with its cod parapsychological exploitation of the idea of possession and its ring a roses visual rotation of San Francisco tourist attractions, delivers the pay off in its finale: the sexual completion of the cripple. This final section in which Scottie rebuilds Madeleine ( interesting choice of character name; it is the Madeleine cake that energies Proust’s erotic memory journey through time) is a pure erotic act of film. The audience (this male one anyway) shares the complicity of Scottie’s psychic fixation, feels the tumescent race of blood fill out his limp erogenous tissues. Of course we see nothing; we don’t have to. We are seeing with Scottie.
AH seems to have understood the consequences that the development of corporate man had for the psycho sexual functioning of the male. Both Rear Window and Vertigo explore aspects of this schizoid detached objectifying state.
The opening sequence offers a banal explanatory back story for Scottie, who at the starting point of the film’s narrative is immediately presented as a ‘crippled man’ (symbolised by acrophobia) racked by guilt, inadequacy compounded by a sense of personal and career failure. It is during the opening section at Midge’s apartment that AH lays out his key concerns. In a phallocentric culture, Scottie is a castrated impotent, incapable of sexual functioning and all too aware of it. The scenario presents Scottie and Midge (Barbara Del Geddes) as just ‘friends’. Reading the interaction between them I think it’s evident that this presentation of their relationship is an assured scripted feint, the old conjurer displaying his mastery of misdirection to distract the audience from what is actually happening. The couple are man and wife and they have problems with their sexual relationship. As a good wife Midge (small blood feeding mosquito = wife?) tries to help him. But he cannot be aroused by her; she doesn’t pump his blood, she sucks his blood; she has no power over him. He is a castrate in a phallic corporate regime which dictates the rules of the game for both of them. He denies her both physical intimacy, of which coitus is a most powerful sign, and fertility.
This opening sequence has I think another necessary input besides the establishment of the cripple: it also brokers the appearance of the fetish.
The sexual functioning (phallic arousal), of corporate man has been conditioned to respond not to the stimulus of the body; but to the stimulus of the object or body part as object. Of course this starts with his own cock as object. But the process of objectification in particular pervades most aspects of sexuality where shoes, lingerie, breasts, legs, arse etc are projected as potent signs of legitimate sexual arousal. In linking the idea of sexual functioning to objects such as, cigarettes (at least until recently in the West) cars, interiors, fragrance, leisure, commercial interests through advertising and other channels, detach sexuality from the body onto the object fetish. In the first exchange between Midge and Scottie, AH effects the extraordinary appearance of a cantilevered brassiere (pronounced by Midge as brazeer) mounted on a stand. In response to Scotties puzzled question about it, Midge explains this new invention; its purpose is to aggressively push the breasts up and forward, accentuating their prominence making them into object signs of sexual potency. Of course for Hollywood in the ‘50’s women’s breasts were the most powerfully exploited object sign of the female stars, Monroe, Russell, Dors etc. (the maternal function of the breasts was not advertised). With the cantilever bra (possibly invented by Hughes) breasts become fetish, detached from the body and released into an independent existence available for development exploitation and celebration by Hollywood and the fashion industry. But Scotty is not fixated on the breast fetish; Midge is unable to arouse him with her cantilevered brazeer. Scottie the cripple needs another sort of object sign to enable him to find his erection.
Who better than AH with his intimate knowledge of himself and Hollywood to understand this? Hollywood as a parallel world where sex is welded to and defined by image. Image mediates sexual desire through body shape, hair style and colour, breasts, facial make up. Hollywood with its consistently ambivalent contradictory message of the sexual fetish: a magical thing available to the gaze yet simultaneously distant and inaccessible. As sex detaches from body and attaches to image, sexual functioning undergoes a significant re-conditioning process.
Fetish in contemporary English has dual (and sort of related) meanings. Firstly it points to an object believed to have magical power regarded with superstitious reverence; secondly a fetish is an object or body part that is psychologically necessary to achieve sexual gratification: no fetish no sexual arousal.
In Vertigo AH combines both meanings of the word. As a fetish it is her assemblage as sex goddess that causes Scottie to worship Madeleine. He is like a man wanting his wife to dress and look like Marilyn Monroe. From the first time he sees her with her peroxide blond hair, her demure beige clothing and shoes, she is a vision, a fount of magical power. Madeleine is constituted as pure image. Much of the film is composed of sequences of shots in which Scottie watches her from a distance. Even when he rescues her from the sea, there is little he can say to his object of worship, who at the same time becomes his object of desire, a fetish image without whom he cannot connect his mind to his sexual awakening.
On losing Madeleine , Scottie changes from cripple to dead man. He is as one dead, and only restored to life by his recreation of the fetish as the psycho sexual salve. It is an astonishing filmic realisation as Scottie item by item detail by detail recreates Madeleine. Watched by the complicit eye of the audience, he moves with increasing assurance towards both the image of the goddess and the arousal of his own crippled sexual functioning through the fetish of the image. The final assemblage of the image of Madeleine has an orgasmic intensity.
Interestingly AH was not happy with either of his stars’ performances. Both players seem detached and uncomfortable with their roles. It may be that the implicit obsessions of AH in making Vertigo acted as an inhibitionary factor because the explicit message was so close to the film’s surface that both Stewart and Novak were uncomfortable with the forbidden areas of psycho sexual functioning that lay at the heart of the film and of which they were the key expressive realisators.