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Monday through Thursday, I do a show with Kevin on my Youtube channel at 5pm. On Thursday’s show, we’ll do a movie club and discuss a different film each week. This Thursday we will discuss an Alfred Hitchcock classic.
“Did he train you? Did he rehearse you? Did he tell you what to do and what to say?”
This cry from a wounded heart comes at the end of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo,” and by the time it comes we are completely in sympathy. A man has fallen in love with a woman who does not exist, and now he cries out harshly against the real woman who impersonated her. But there is so much more to it than that. The real woman has fallen in love with him. In tricking him, she tricked herself. And the man, by preferring his dream to the woman standing before him, has lost both.
Then there is another level, beneath all of the others. Alfred Hitchcock was known as the most controlling of directors, particularly when it came to women. The female characters in his films reflected the same qualities over and over again: They were blond. They were icy and remote. They were imprisoned in costumes that subtly combined fashion with fetishism. They mesmerized the men, who often had physical or psychological handicaps. Sooner or later, every Hitchcock woman was humiliated.
“Vertigo” (1958), which is one of the two or three best films Hitchcock ever made, is the most confessional, dealing directly with the themes that controlled his art. It is *about* how Hitchcock used, feared and tried to control women. He is represented by Scottie (James Stewart), a man with physical and mental weaknesses (back problems, fear of heights), who falls obsessively in love with the image of a woman–and not any woman, but the quintessential Hitchcock woman. When he cannot have her, he finds another woman and tries to mold her, dress her, train her, change her makeup and her hair, until she looks like the woman he desires. He cares nothing about the clay he is shaping; he will gladly sacrifice her on the altar of his dreams.
But of course the woman he is shaping and the woman he desires are the same person. Her name is Judy (Kim Novak), and she was hired to play the dream woman, “Madeleine,” as part of a murder plot that Scottie does not even begin to suspect. When he finds out he was tricked, his rage is uncontrollable. He screams out the words: “Did he train you? . . .” Each syllable is a knife in his heart, as he spells out that another man shaped the woman that Scottie thought to shape for himself. The other man has taken not merely Scottie’s woman, but Scottie’s dream.
That creates a moral paradox at the center of “Vertigo.” The other man (Gavin, played by Tom Helmore) has after all only done to this woman what Scottie also wanted to do. And while the process was happening, the real woman, Judy, transferred her allegiance from Gavin to Scottie, and by the end was not playing her role for money, but as a sacrifice for love.
All of these emotional threads come together in the greatest single shot in all of Hitchcock. Scottie, a former San Francisco police detective hired by Gavin to follow “Madeleine,” has become obsessed with her. Then it appears Madeleine has died. By chance, Scottie encounters Judy, who looks uncannily like Madeleine, but appears to be a more carnal, less polished version. Of course he does not realize she is exactly the same woman. He asks her out and Judy unwisely accepts. During their strange, stilted courtship, she begins to pity and care for him, so that when he asks her to remake herself into Madeleine, she agrees, playing the same role the second time.