Vertigo’s 3 Faces of Kim

2012 TCM Classic Film Festival

Kim Novak, Grauman’s Chinese Theater, Photo courtesy of TCM

Some see Vertigo (1958) as a cinematic travelogue, Alfred Hitchcock’s Valentine to the monuments of San Francisco. It also resembles a noir film in its set-up of a detective, John “Scottie” Ferguson (James Stewart) on the trail of a shape shifting femme fatale. Mistaken identities and murder, popular noir themes, also enter the storyline.

Although based on the novel D’Entre Les Morts by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, there’s a strong hint of George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, later adapted as My Fair Lady. In the 1964 film version of the Lerner and Lowe musical, Professor Henry Higgens (Rex Harrison) makes over cockney flower girl Eliza Doolittle (Audrey Hepburn). He wagers that with lessons in diction and comportment, he can “make a duchess of this draggle-tailed gutter snipe.” He succeeds and ultimately falls in love with his creation, admitting as much in the song “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face.” 

In Vertigo, it isn’t as simple as an ugly ducking turning into a swan with everyone living happily ever after. As we discover late in the film, Scottie’s old college chum Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore) has already played the Higgins part, transforming Judy Barton (Novak), a dark-haired sales girl who exudes cheapness, into the alluring, blonde Madeleine. She’s an idealized version of the wife he intends to murder. Scottie has never met the real Madeleine, so he begins to tail Elster’s counterfeit. There’s something of Higgins in Elster’s crisp British-inflected diction and fastidious manner. He also stands in for Hitchcock, himself, who enjoyed the role of puppet master.

Since Judy and Madeleine are so remarkably different, it’s unbelievable that she was successfully living a double life, unless she had a professional hair and makeup team working on her day and night. And, after having experienced her power as Madeleine, why would she return to being plain old Judy, from “Salina, Kansas”?

In The Acoustic Mirror: The Female Voice in Psychoanalysis and Cinema, Kaja Silverman writes that “very high stakes are involved with aligning the female voice with the female image.” Novak speaks with three distinct voices, the unsophisticated Judy who Scottie discovers after the “death” of Madeleine, Madeleine herself and the Judy who reads the confession letter in voice over, a hybrid voice of the two other voices, less ethereal than Madeleine but seemingly brighter than the Judy we first meet.Madeleine also conjures the spirit of her supposed ancestor, Carlotta Valdes, who lived during the Spanish era and met a tragic end. Judy’s slip up involves Carlotta’s necklace. That too seems incredible. In returning to her sales girl personae, Judy changes back every detail to cover her tracks. When she puts on Carlotta’s necklace after Scottie has completed her physical transformation back into Madeleine, is it deliberate forgetfulness? By putting Scottie’s love to the test, she ultimately seals her fate.

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