:: Article

from Madeleine E.

By Gabriel Blackwell.

[EXT. Podesta Baldocchi (LATE AFTERNOON)]

“SOMEWHERE . . . SOMEHOW he’d loved her and let her slip through his fingers. He had seen her die. And now here she was looking into his eyes again . . .”

Tagline on Vertigo poster

When a fantasy object, something imagined, an object from inner space, enters our ordinary reality, the texture of reality is twisted, distorted. This is how desire inscribes itself into reality, by distorting it.

(Slavoj Zizek, The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema)

Two persons, looking each other in the eye, see not their eyes but their looks.

(Robert Bresson, Notes on the Cinematographer)

Once set down on paper, each fragment of memory . . . becomes, in fact, inaccessible to me. This probably doesn’t mean that the record of memory, located under my skull, in the neurons, has disappeared, but everything happens as if a transference had occurred, something in the nature of a translation, with the result that ever since, the words composing the black lines of my transcription interpose themselves between the record of memory and myself, and in the long run completely supplant it.

Simultaneously, my recollections grow dull. To conceptualize this fact, I use the image of evaporation, of ink drying; or else water on a pebble from the sea, the sun leaving behind its dulling mark, the salt film. The recollection’s emotion has disappeared. Occasionally, if what I have written in explanation satisfies me (later, on rereading), a second induced emotion, whose origin is the lines themselves in their minute, black succession, their visible thinness, procures for me a semblance of a simulacrum of the original emotion, now grown remote, unapproachable. But this emotion does not recur, even in lesser form.

(Jacques Roubaud, The Great Fire of London)

When I type an open quotation mark (“) into the search bar at the top right of my computer’s web browser, the browser, anticipating what I will type next, immediately suggests “judy barton,” followed by “gabriel blackwell.” Though this is the result of my own (past) actions, I can’t help but be struck by it.

It would all be much too complicated and unproductive to go into, since all we really care about on the outside is our hero on the run, not where he is running from and what, if anything, he is running to. . . . The chase itself is the point.

(John Russell Taylor, Hitch)

Hitchcock’s letter to Maxwell Anderson, Dec. 4:

You have to realize one very important fact. Here is a woman who has been an accessory to a murder, she has let herself revert back physically to her original color and style. And yet, she allows a man to recreate her in the image of the dead woman. Here, as you will see, she is taking a terrible risk. After all, she is a woman virtually in hiding. When she renews her association with the ex-detective she would love to pursue their old relationship in her current physical appearance, but naturally, he will have none of this. It is only as Madeleine he wants her. So, you see, Max, the woman must be desperately in love with him to allow him to do this. And this she tells him at the end of the story.

You can see what a chance she is taking because as Renee [the Judy character’s name at this point in the screenwriting process], she is safe both within her identification and being able to stand up to any probe into her background. Because remember that she was Renee before she was turned into a blonde, and was dressed as nearly as possible like Gavin’s wife. So again, Max, you see the woman falling in love with him is of the utmost importance to justify her behavior in section two.

Out of this narrative will emerge a chalk outline. It is the body of a woman.

(Kate Zambreno, Heroines)

It is Scottie’s idea to go to San Juan Bautista. It is prompted (as was certainly planned) by Judy/Madeleine’s dream, but the timing is left up to Scottie. And if he had not thought of San Juan Bautista? Gavin Elster, in the tower, waiting with a dead woman, his wife, Madeleine, for hours, perhaps days. How, for that matter, did Elster get Madeleine’s body into the tower? Does Judy scream because this has not, after all, been the plan? Are we so sure that she knows that she is impersonating a dead woman so that that woman’s murder can be covered up? When she is confronted with this gruesome scene (the sun is shining, it is California—the corpse, many, many days old, cannot be in very good shape), does she scream not because she has been told to but because she is truly frightened? Why doesn’t anyone go up the tower once the body is discovered on the tiles below? How do Elster and Judy make their escape?

Elster pays Judy off, buys her silence. It seems that we are meant to believe that this is what has happened, their partnership ended with a transaction. But it seems much more likely that Judy, having come upon this man waiting patiently in the tower with the rotted corpse of his murdered wife for an eventuality whose timing, even the likelihood of its occurrence, could not realistically have been planned so exactly, is disgusted with Elster—and with herself—and tells him she never wants to see him again. Any money that changes hands does so by way of an indulgence, a pardon.

E. T. A. Hoffmann’s story “The Sandman” is about a young man named Nathanael who is in love with Klara, the sister of his best friend, Lothar. Nathanael leaves Klara to go to school in another town, where he is accosted by an eyeglass salesman who bears an uncanny resemblance to a man who Nathanael feels was responsible for his father’s death. Thus distracted, he buys a telescope from the salesman to get rid of him. Looking through the telescope, he sees into his neighbor’s rooms, where a beautiful girl sits alone at a table, night after night. Nathanael becomes fascinated by this girl, named Olympia and said to be the neighbor’s daughter, even falls in love with her after attending her piano recital and then dancing with her all night long. Perhaps it is the suddenness (and the thoroughness) of Nathanael’s change in affections, but something about the story makes me think that there must be some resemblance between Klara and Olympia. Though we learn about Klara—even hear from her, via her letter to Nathanael—before we learn about Olympia, Olympia’s introduction comes soon after the beginning of the tale, and she immediately eclipses Klara. One substitutes for the other, both in the story and in Nathanael’s affections.

Noting the young man’s obvious interest in his daughter, Olympia’s father, a professor, invites Nathanael to come over and spend time with Olympia whenever he likes. Nathanael passes hours on end with Olympia, reading poems to her and telling her of his thoughts and feelings, and all the while, Olympia simply stares into his eyes and sighs. She is perfectly attentive and quiet, just what Nathanael has apparently always wanted (Klara, in her letter and in Nathanael’s memory, has been for him the shrill voice of reason, calling his fear of the eyeglass salesman a fantasy and denigrating his poetry as silly), never saying a word except when Nathanael finally takes his leave, whereupon she says, “Goodnight, my dearest.” But it turns out that Olympia’s perfect attentiveness is the result of the limits of her mechanism, for she is not human at all, but an automaton created by her “father,” the professor. Nathanael discovers this when the eyeglass salesman quarrels with the professor and takes the lifeless (and, in an odd detail, eyeless) Olympia away with him, slung over his shoulder. Nathanael is driven mad by the revelation that he has so exhausted his affections on an automaton, a thing, a mere conception. He was in love with Olympia, but Olympia was not real. What does that make him? He attacks the professor, screaming, “Whirl round, circle of fire! Merrily, merrily! Aha, lovely wooden doll, whirl round!” He nearly strangles the man, but is apprehended at the last moment and taken away to a sanitarium.

When he has recovered, he is sent back home, where he finds Klara is still in love with him, and, through her constancy, he rediscovers his own love for her. The two make plans to marry. But, on the point of leaving for their new home, they decide to climb the town hall’s tower one last time, to “look at the distant mountains.” Once at the top of the tower, Nathanael pulls out the telescope he bought from the eyeglass salesman and accidentally looks at Klara (standing beside him) through it, recalling memories of Olympia and driving him mad once more. He grabs Klara and, screaming “Whirl wooden doll! Whirl wooden doll!” he tries to throw her from the tower. Her brother, who has remained on the ground, hears all of this and rushes up the stairs. He saves Klara, but Nathanael, believing he sees the eyeglass salesman in the crowd below, throws himself from the tower before he can be restrained.

At the very least, the conclusion of “The Sandman” calls to mind Hitchcock’s Vertigo. There is the mysterious climbing of the tower, the man driven mad by the vision of a woman (who is not what she seems), the other man climbing to the top to save her. But even before that, there is the sanitarium, the woman as mirage or projection, the madness of the man when confronted by the rational woman, the fixation of the protagonist. Nathanael watches out of his window as the eyeglass salesman, who he believes to be the Sandman, a creature that plucks out the eyes of children who won’t fall asleep at bedtime, descends the stairs with the woman (not, as it turns out, a real woman) he loves, and is driven mad by the sight of it. Scottie watches out of the window of the tower as Madeleine (not, as it turns out, a real woman) apparently throws herself to the roof below, and is driven mad by the sight of it.

But where Hitchcock and his screenwriters might have borrowed certain images, atmosphere, even plot points from Hoffmann, the deformities they introduce into that same narrative present us with some interesting questions: as the protagonist of “The Sandman,” it seems natural to align Nathanael with Scottie, the protagonist of Vertigo. And Scottie is there with Judy in the tower; whether he intends to destroy Judy or not—psychologically, physically—he does destroy her. Nathanael, though innocently, we would say, out of madness, definitely intends to destroy Klara, but she is saved. It is as though Vertigo is a mirror image of “The Sandman” in this, most important scene. The differences in these scenes make me think that, in “The Sandman,” we have really only half of the story of Vertigo—the first half. Can it be that Elster, though seeming perfectly sane in the scene in his office and the scene at the inquest, has in fact—before the movie has even begun—been driven insane by the love for a woman who has not turned out to be, in some sense, real? Can it be that Nathanael is Elster rather than Scottie, and Scottie, in Vertigo, is only repeating what Elster has already gone through? Who else but a madman could contrive the atavistic story of Carlotta Valdes and Madeleine Elster? Who else but a madman would waylay a salesgirl and force her to play his wife playing a dead woman? Who else but a madman would ruin another man’s life by tricking him into playing witness to a death that isn’t a death, just to cover up a murder that no one has yet suspected has occurred, and which no one seems to care much about after it has been discovered? Who else but a madman could lie in wait in a church tower with the stinking corpse of his wife next to him, waiting for a woman he has hired to play this dead woman to come up through the trapdoor and scream at the grisly sight before tossing his wife’s corpse carelessly from the tower, having apparently given no thought to whether someone might then come up to the top of the tower to see if there is someone there, someone who might have pushed the woman over the edge? Scottie is the madman who succeeds in destroying the object of his love; he cannot be Nathanael. Nathanael succeeds only in destroying himself; he watches another man destroy his love. Elster, it would seem, murders his wife, but she is not after all his love. (Is she? How could he have any affection for a corpse?) Up in the tower at San Juan Bautista, he destroys his past life.

In D’Entre les Morts, the novel on which Vertigo is based, the parallels are clearer. After the tower, the Elster character is broken. The Scottie character refuses to act as a witness, and Gévigne (Elster) is haunted by charges that he has murdered his wife (which, of course, he has). He loses his fortune and is killed in the war. This, we would say, is nothing more than what he has deserved. Indeed, it is difficult to understand why, especially under the Hays Code, Hitchcock and his screenwriters would have let Elster off so completely. He suffers no repercussions from the murder of his wife, none at all. If the inquest is the last word on these matters, he inherits her fortune and goes off to live in a foreign country, unbothered by allegations or suspicions, perhaps out of the way of extradition even. He has committed the perfect murder, gotten away with it. But does anyone ever truly “get away with it”? Can there really be someone out there so completely without conscience, for whom the killing, the erasing, of another human being has no effect? Psychopaths can become more psychopathic, can’t they?; if we don’t completely understand their psychology, that doesn’t mean they don’t have one.

In his book Invisible Cities, Italo Calvino describes the city of Zobeide: “the white city, well exposed to the moon, with streets wound about themselves as in a skein.” Zobeide, he tells us, was founded by men who had shared a dream of a woman, naked, running through the moonlight in the streets of an inscrutable city. When these men came together, it was decided that the city of the dream should be built. It is unclear to me whether they believed that building the city would draw this mysterious woman from their dreams like baking soda draws the poison from an insect’s sting or if they believed that they were simply creating a situation in which the possibility of their dream coming true was somewhat less improbable (or, for that matter, whether they felt they were carrying out some dream directive or if they were all similarly mad). Whatever their reasons for building it, each arranged for this city’s streets to dead-end where they had lost sight of this woman in their dream. When new men arrived, having also suffered this dream, they changed the city’s plan to accord more closely with their own dreams’ endings, where each had lost sight of the woman. What Calvino doesn’t tell us is that, in doing so, numerous pockets of the city, inaccessible to anyone but those who found themselves there while the new citizens were executing their own dream engineering, were then closed off, creating tiny pockets of city in which one might find that the only passage out had suddenly been blocked, creating, at a stroke, completely private courtyards—prison cells, in other words. Inevitably, awaiting the dream-woman’s arrival, the founders of Zobeide laid in wait in these pockets of city, ahead of their dream-selves, waiting for the woman to be driven toward them. When other seekers came along, the founders found only themselves trapped, stuck behind walls too high and too smooth to scale, in front of doors opening into buildings now without egress, their lives even more circumscribed than the ones they had planned for their dream-woman.

[INT. Judy’s Hotel Room (NIGHT)]

Judy lives in the Empire Hotel, next to a restaurant (?) named—what else?—”Twelfth Knight,” Twelfth Night being Shakespeare’s farce of identity, in which men fall in love with men who are not men and women fall in love with women who are not women.

Scottie follows Judy home from Podesta, Baldocchi (the florist’s), after seeing the bouquet Carlotta Valdes is holding in the “Portrait of Carlotta.”

Judy: “I’ve been on blind dates before. Matter of fact, I’ve been picked up before.” By Elster? An allusion to (before) the beginning?

Better well hanged than ill wed.

(Soren Kierkegaard, Philosophical Fragments, via Shakespeare, Twelfth Night)

Judy writes her note to Scottie left-handed.

While we are, I think, meant to assume that Judy is taking down all that she says in her voiceover, when she holds her letter up to tear it in half, we can see that she has only written two lines. It’s possible, I suppose, that there is more writing on the other side of the paper, but it isn’t visible, and it really doesn’t seem likely, given the wide margin of blank space we can see. What did she really write?

Scottie sees the same woman, a woman who is not Madeleine or Judy, at Ernie’s at 01:43:00 (gray suit) as at 01:31:00 (blue dress/brooch).

“Is this some kind of Gallup poll?” Judy, too, must act a part, even after she has given up the part of Madeleine. She has, in accepting the part of Madeleine, agreed to play a part for the rest of her life, the part of Judy-who-was-never-also-Madeleine. Can there ever again be a “real” Judy?

Scottie is present in every scene in Vertigo, with two exceptions, when we cut to Midge in her car outside of his apartment, and in Judy’s hotel room, after he has left. But, in the case of Midge in her car, we know that Scottie is in the scene, he is just off-camera. He is at home, across the street, in his apartment. In the Empire Hotel scene, not only has he left the shot, he has left the hotel. We have lost track of him. If we take the contentions of critics Robin Wood and Tania Modleski seriously—that the movie is meant to be seen subjectively as though from his point of view—we are left wondering whose point of view this scene, the scene of Judy writing her letter, represents. The effect of his absence, his altogether exceptional absence, is to turn this scene into a fantasy. One supposes it is his fantasy, since he is absent, but it matters little whose fantasy it is if it is a fantasy, since the scene is more about exposition than psychology. The letter is not real.

A letter always arrives at its destination.

(Jacques Lacan)

Hitchcock wanted the letter in the film—and at this particular moment—against all advice to the contrary. Others pointed out that it would ruin the suspense, that the second half was already explained before it had fairly begun, that it was a clunky way of explaining what was going on. But holding something so large over the audience’s head, Hitchcock might have countered, was not suspense: that was mystery, and Hitchcock did not deal in mystery.

There is no such letter or even any such acknowledgement of the true state of affairs in Boileau and Narcejac’s novel, though it would be much more natural there (because, though the narrator of the novel is close to Flavierès (Scottie), it isn’t Flavierès, it is a third person narrator not bound to report only what Flavierès knows—it could easily tell us what Flavierès can only suspect). In fact, Flavierès’s certainty is the only thing the reader has to go on in believing that Renée is Madeleine—she will not admit it until the end of the novel, and by that point we cannot be sure that her confession isn’t made out of exasperation with Flavierès’s insistence that she is Madeleine, out of a kind of fatalistic resignation, or folie à deux. Indeed, because it is a book and the story is told in words only— Boileau and Narcejac do not have the luxury of having the same actress play both parts—it seems much less likely that Renée is Madeleine than that Judy is Madeleine. We cannot see to believe. We must trust in Flavierès’s words, and he has proven himself to be unreliable. By the end, he will have strangled this woman, whoever she is, to death; how can we possibly trust him?

I believe in my conscience I intercept many a thought which heaven intended for another man.

(Laurence Sterne, Tristram Shandy)

Anyone would distrust a person who said, “My companions and I are illusions; we are a new kind of photograph.”

(Adolfo Bioy Casares, The Invention of Morel)

The more you disguise yourself, the more you look like you.

(Jose Saramago, The Double)

Gabriel Blackwell is the author of three books, most recently, The Natural Dissolution of Fleeting-Improvised-Men.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, August 26th, 2013.