Issue 04, Volume 02
THE UNCANNY VALLEY
by Martin Tarrou
It is no secret that the films of Alfred Hitchcock make little sense. Why, for example, would people attempt to murder a spy by causing a head injury and then arranging for their ally, who just happens to be an internationally renowned brain surgeon, to do the dirty deed himself (The Lady Vanishes)? Does it really make sense that highly trained agents of a Soviet informant would not only mistake an advertising man for their target, but also eventually let their wrong man undermine the whole operation (North by Northwest)? Hitchcock’s first critics found plot holes that made all these films seem utterly worthless; it took the French critics to point out how symbolically and metaphysically rich his films were, despite their implausibility. Yet the question remains: why resort to implausible plots at all if they are unimportant to the deeper significance of the film? Surely other directors have been able to make equally meaningful works without risking the ire of skeptical audiences.
Hitchcock’s absurd plots break one of the very first rules of drama. In a much-cited passage in the Poetics, Aristotle wrote that “probable impossibilities are to be preferred to improbable possibilities.” Anything self-consciously fantastic works by this, and the maxim even seems to gel quite well with Hitchcock’s insistence, in conversation with Francois Truffaut, that cinema should aim to capture a slice of cake rather than a slice of life. Traditional drama tends to present absurd situations that nevertheless somehow resemble to our own lives, and which touch us for that same reason. It detracts from the drama if the spectator is left wondering whether a situation could happen or not.
Fantastic story lines tend to fall into one of three categories. In the fantastic marvelous, fantasy elements -- anything that couldn’t actually happen -- are truly present in the story. In the fantastic, fantasy elements may or may not be real in the world of the story. In practice, these two forms are almost always more interesting than the fantastic uncanny, where everything is explained away either as a dream or an elaborate plot of madness. The fantastic uncanny is almost always a way to lessen the impact of everything that has come before it, which is how it functions in films like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari or Fritz Lang’s The Woman in the Window. It is a tool used much more by censors than artists, a cheap thrill which alienates the viewer from the work as a whole. Usually it’s a gimmick that doesn’t even bother to consider the metaphorical resonances of what’s gone on in the drama. And yet it was precisely this gimmick to which Hitchcock kept returning. Maybe, instead of sharply distinguishing between the fantastic and the real, he wanted to bring the two into as close proximity as he could.
Vertigo is perhaps the best example of Hitchcock’s utter disregard for these strict categories because it follows them first, only to then willfully undermine them. It is the story of detective Scotty Ferguson (Jimmy Stewart), who suffers from the titular disorder. An old acquaintance, Gavin Elster, hires Scotty to investigate his wife Madeline (Kim Novak), who he believes has been possessed by a ghost of her ancestor, the suicide Carlotta Valdes. Scottie, although highly skeptical of Gavin’s story, begins to follow Madeline through her daily routine. At this point, hints of the fantastic begin to enter, as Scottie becomes increasingly isolated from the rest of the world. He looks in from a dark, shabby alley into a bright and colorful flower shop where Madeline is, yet he never enters. As the camera cuts between the viewer and the viewed, they seem to be in different locations altogether, and we are left unsure whether what we are seeing is real, or whether it’s Scottie’s projection as he begins to fall for Madeline.
After he rescues her from a suicide attempt, the two meet and begin a relationship as he attempts to save her from what he believes are merely psychological specters. Yet he fails, and his vertigo ultimately prevents him from saving Madeline from another suicide attempt. Overcome with guilt, his nightmares show us that Carlotta’s ghost had existed all along, and he ends up in a mental hospital without any real hope of recovery. At this point, Scottie has tossed his skepticism and submitted to the idea of ghosts. Scottie’s friend Midge, his only former grounding in reality, tells the doctor at the hospital that he is still in love with the dead woman. At this point, the story seems to be concluded. It is a tragic story full of empathy and fear, engaging to the end. The fantastic, in the form of Carlotta, enters Scottie’s life and he is seemingly punished for his hubris in not believing. Yet, despite this supposed resolution to the tragic plot, Hitchcock refuses to end the movie. Instead, he brings it back down to the level of the literal and prosaic––or does he?
Scottie gets out of the hospital and begins searching for Madeline, seeing her likeness in every woman he passes. He follows a woman named Judy, who looks almost nothing like Madeline. Eventually, it is revealed through a flashback that Judy was Madeline all along. She had been hired by Gavin to impersonate his wife and make her seem suicidal, with Scottie as the star witness. Gavin then used Judy as bait to lure Scottie to the tower -- where he murdered his real wife and made Scottie think it was a suicide. There were never any ghosts all along in Vertigo -- just one of the most absurd murder plots to grace the screen. It can initially seem like the cheapest, most convoluted move in the book. Hitchcock’s other movies feature strangulation, blackmailing an innocent, sabotage, and any number of simpler paths to murder; even by the standard of his other plots, Vertigo is absurd.
But this move also pushes Vertigo definitively into the realm of the fantastic uncanny, where the most improbable of possibilities has replaced the plausible tragedy of its first section. By continuing past its logical endpoint, Vertigo breaks all the rules. For the final part of the movie, Judy attempts to make Scottie fall in love with her separate from his memory of Madeline, while we become increasingly concerned that Scottie may have taken his love for Madeline to a new level. With more knowledge about the situation than Scottie, the audience asks Hitchcock’s favorite questions: Will our hero find out? And what he will do about it? Rather than making us fear a fantastic ghost, Hitchcock makes Scottie and his potentially violent reactions the subject of suspense. And he is all the more scary because -- however improbable -- he is a possibility. While we may have sympathized with Scottie’s plight, we took comfort in the thought that this could never happen -- there was a separation between us and the fantastic world of the film. Now, we are left to wonder how this character we’ve attached ourselves to could become so dangerous. Up to this point, the film has demonstrated Madeline’s suicide and Scottie’s tragic fall as a ghost story outside our own world. But here, Hitchcock has effectively shown that such ghosts are not mere metaphor. Through Scottie’s obsession, the non-existent Carlotta can have agency in the real world -- possibly even ours.
It is interesting, however, that Scottie does not even need Elster’s plot to motivate his search. The ghost that prods Scottie and leads to Judy’s death is not a ghost of the dead, but a ghost of misperception. The plot doesn’t center around anything abstract or unrelatable, but merely a particular form of that everyday conundrum: not knowing who someone really is. Even Judy’s own identity is incoherent. She repeats that she wants to be loved “as I am.” Yet more moving are her last words to Scottie as Madeline. She says “You believe I love…you’ll know I loved you and I wanted to go on loving you.” This is Judy speaking; she is breaking character. But the entire situation is still a product of acting: we have grown as attached to Kim Novak’s Judy as Scottie is to Judy’s Madeline. Judy is merely a creation of Kim Novak; the ghosts we thought we escaped return in the very activity the audience is engaging in: the spectatorship of film and drama. Hitchcock has taken a fantastic concept -- a ghost controlling someone from beyond the grave -- changed it, and located it within the incoherency our own everyday experience.
Hitchcock loves these great reversals, and he loves keeping our disbelief suspended as his scenarios become more and more absurd. His cinematic power lies in his ability to show that the metaphysical concepts embodied in his films can take on literal force. The critic Robin Wood called it the “therapeutic theme” in Hitchcock: the characters are pulled out of normalcy by the plot of the film, but the story focuses more on their own personal problems. It is the events of the film which end up allowing them to solve their problems and safely return to reality. In North by Northwest, the well-spun intrigue keeps the viewer entertained and occupied, but it also reveals the incoherency of identity in society. In a world where identities can be forged and people invented, a Wall Street exec might not be so different from a spy. By submitting to his fantastic transformation from everyman to secret agent, Roger Thornhill is able to find the motivation to be himself, and he assumes a new identity as he returns to the world of the real.
The queen of Hitchcock’s absurd plots, The Lady Vanishes, can lay a similar claim to this device. The train initially seems to be one inhabitable by any English subject on holiday. People are reasonably friendly, but occupied in their own worlds, whether it’s the world of a hidden affair, a cricket test match, or an unhappy coming marriage. Our heroine’s belief in Miss Froy, the vanished lady of the title, seems -- despite all of her insistences to the contrary -- merely a brief side-effect of a bump she’s received on the head. Eventually, though, she stumbles upon an elaborate plot to make Miss Froy disappear. At the end of the film, she has pulled all the other English onto her side, united at last by their shared lot. It’s by this movement that Hitchcock’s plot acts as therapy, allowing our heroine to both find Miss Froy and take new pleasure in the comparatively drab, unadventurous sphere of married life.
Hitchcock’s gliding between the real and the fantastic is central to his method, the germ of his films’ metaphysical richness. In Vertigo, he doesn’t pull a normal person into the world of the fantastic and then return them to the world of the everyday. Instead, he pulls us into the world of fantasy. But rather than return us, the film holds us. Vertigo’s source novel -- the basis for its plot but not its genius -- is titled D’entre Les Morts, or “From Among the Dead.” Yet Vertigo does not simply come from the dead. It pulls us into that new and clean grave that is the world of cinema, and makes us aware that the capacity for obsession is very much alive in each of us.