This post contains spoilers for "Vertigo."
Alfred Hitchcock liked to make things weird, and not just on-screen. He made things beyond weird for Tippi Hedren in "The Birds" and generally made a lot of actors uncomfortable, to say the least. He also managed to make some excellent films, with as sinister an aura as the man himself seemingly possessed. And believe it or not, part of his filmmaking prowess came from an ability to maintain an almost childlike approach.
There's something important about having a child-like perspective on art. Stan Brakhage wrote about it in his 1963 cinematic manifesto "Metaphors On Vision," in which he talks about an "eye unruled by the man-made laws of perspective." It sounds a bit pompous but the basic idea is anything but. Approaching something without any pre-conceived notions of what that thing should be can lead to real artistic achievement. In the case of Hitchcock, he had some of that magic in his consistent ability to take himself out of his own films and think as an audience would. The famous auteur was able to maintain an eye unruled by his own knowledge of the story and come at his own movies as a viewer with no prior understanding of the plot.
For 1958's "Vertigo," the Master of Suspense adapted the French novel "D'Entre les Morts" and could have easily become too immersed in the, at times, convoluted plot to maintain his usual directorial savvy. But that didn't happen. In fact, Hitchcock was not only able to maintain his characteristic control over the movie's plot and the various beats involved, he also took the liberty of changing elements of the original story to better suit the screen — all with the audience in mind.
HItchcock Spoiled His Own Movie
"Vertigo" charts James Stewart's former detective John "Scottie" Ferguson's mental spiral as he's asked to follow the wife of his friend, Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore). Elster claims his wife, Madeline (Kim Novak), is possessed and wants Scottie to tail her and find out what's going on. Along the way, Madeline dies by suicide and Scottie descends into a state of confusion. Eventually, it's revealed that "Madeline" was, in fact, Judy Barton, an actor hired by Elster to cover up the murder of his real wife. Following what he thinks was Madeline's death, Scottie encounters Judy not knowing she is the same woman, and the two start a relationship. Judy's deception is revealed to the audience before Scottie finds out, thereby creating suspense as we, the viewers, wait to find out what Stewart's protagonist will do when he discovers the truth.
But in the original novel, that's not how things played out. In an interview conducted with critic and filmmaker Francois Truffaut in the 1960s, Alfred Hitchcock noted that "D'Entre les Morts" saves the reveal about Judy for the very end. For "Vertigo," however, the director made the decision to let the audience in on the deception early, to set up that all-important suspense. Speaking about why that was crucial, Hitchcock explained:
"I put myself in the place of a child whose mother is telling him a story. When there's a pause in her narration, the child always says, 'What comes next, Mommy?' Well, I felt that the second part of the novel was written as if nothing came next, whereas in my formula, the little boy, knowing that Madeleine and Judy are the same person, would then ask, 'And Stewart doesn't know it, does he? What will he do when he finds out about it?'"
Suspense Vs Surprise
According to Alfred Hitchcock, "Everyone around [him] was against this change." Typically, the big reveal would be saved until the film's denouement to maximize its impact. But the always-thoughtful director recognized the suspense that would come from the audience knowing something James Stewart's character didn't, and knew this would draw them into the movie in a way that a shock ending never could. There were also narrative benefits to his version. When Scottie asks Judy to change her appearance to be more like Madeline, her reluctance is all the more believable, as the audience knows it could give away that she and the "Madeline" that Scottie met are the same person.
It's the attention to details like this that helped "Vertigo" dethrone "Citizen Kane" as Sight And Sound's greatest film of all time back in 2012 (before being dethroned itself in 2022). But this kind of forethought goes beyond attention to detail. It's the difference between being childish and that childlike approach Hitchcock employed. Whereas lesser directors might get excited at the thought of a big twist at the end of their film, Hitchcock was always thinking about the primacy of suspense and how best to convey a story to an audience. It takes something special to be able to step back from your art, especially when you have something as complex as the plot of "Vertigo," and employ that "unruled eye."
For some reason, however, he decided to go beyond explaining his narrative choices in the interview with Francois Truffaut, telling him that Stewart's character basically "wants to go to bed with a woman who's dead [and] is indulging in a form of necrophilia." Almost made it through that interview without making it weird, Hitch.
Read this next: Alfred Hitchcock's 20 Best Films Ranked
The post Alfred Hitchcock Took A Childlike Approach To The Big Twist In Vertigo appeared first on /Film.