Chris Marker on Hitchcock’s Vertigo

Speaking of filmmakers on filmmakers, one of my favorite film essays:

`Power and freedom’. Coupled together, these two words are repeated three times inVertigo. First, at the twelfth minute by Gavin Elster (‘freedom’ under-lined by a move to close-up) who, looking at a picture of Old San Francisco, expresses his nostalgia to Scottie (‘San Francisco has changed. The things that spelled San Francisco to me are disappearing fast’), a nostalgia for a time when men – some men at least – had `power and freedom’. Second, at the thirty-fifth minute, in the bookstore, where `Pop’ Liebel explains how Carlotta Valdes’s rich lover threw her out yet kept her child: `Men could do that in those days. They had the power and the freedom … ‘ And finally at the hundred and twenty-fifth minute – and fifty-first second to be precise – but in reverse order (which is logical, given we are now in the second part, on the other side of the mirror) by Scottie himself when, realizing the workings of the trap laid by the now free and powerful Elster, he says, a few seconds before Judy’s fall – which, for him, will be Madeleine’s second death -‘with all his wife’s money and all that freedom and power … ‘.Just try telling me these are coincidences.

Such precise signs must have a meaning. Could it be psychological, an explanation of the criminal’s motives? If so, the effort seems a little wasted on what is, after all, a secondary character. This strategic triad gave me the first inkling of a possible reading of Vertigo. The vertigo the film deals with isn’t to do with space and falling; it is a clear, understandable and spectacular metaphor for yet another kind of vertigo, much more difficult to represent – the vertigo of time. Elster’s `perfect’ crime almost achieves the impossible: reinventing a time when men and women and San Francisco were different to what they are now. And its perfection, as with all perfection in Hitchcock, exists in duality. Scottie will absorb the folly of time with which Elster infuses him through Madeleine/Judy. But where Elster reduces the fantasy to mediocre manifestations (wealth, power, etc), Scottie transmutes it into its most utopian form: he overcomes the most irreparable damage caused by time and resurrects a love that is dead.