The Modern Prometheus

Creature and Creator in 'Vertigo' and 'Psycho'

by Andrew W. M. Smith

20 June 2010


'Vertigo' and the Creature Made from Corpses

Scottie is, perhaps, a less obvious creator. Vertigo is at once a twisting mystery tale where a man is manipulated into killing and also a psychological study of oppressive guilt and the search for absolution. Yet, it is his fashioning of a memory in real life which ultimately leads to his downfall; as he conjures up the ghost of his lost love, her image is made flesh. Scottie’s obsessive pursuit of Madeleine’s lost identity in the person of Judy is both terrifying and dizzying. Hitchcock’s use of setting likewise makes central Scottie’s quest to recreate the past; his desperate searching takes him to the Palace of the Legion of Honor Museum, the Mission Dolores, the Portals of the Past, the eldritch grandeur of the giant Redwoods, and the iconic San Juan Batista mission. These sites all hold obvious links to California’s past and their inclusion speaks of the slightly otherworldly nature of Scottie’s obsessive quest. Camerawork is likewise important, as the dizzying focus pull of Scottie’s vertigo finds a complimentary disconcert in the spinning shot which captures the couples’ reconciliatory kiss after Judy has assumed Madeleine’s image. This linking of the central concept of the film, Vertigo, to the creative project of Scottie binds the interaction of creature and creator to the film’s plot.

The scarred legacy of Scottie’s rooftop plunge in the film’s first moments likewise haunts the story. Aside from giving the film its name and iconic shot, Scottie’s weakness motivates a quest to redress his humiliation and overcome his vulnerabilities. When he saves Madeleine from drowning, he fulfils an Orphic fantasy and becomes entangled in a web of longing for this mysterious and aloof beauty. Hitchcock pulls the rug out from under his audience, however, by shattering the expected progress of this new infatuation with Madeleine’s seeming death.

As Judy’s real identity as Madeleine’s double is revealed, we become aware of the ruse being perpetrated to hide the death of the real Madeleine. We also see an inversion of roles, as Scottie’s mundanity and streetwise veneer is replaced with a dreamlike obsession focussed on recreating the very image of his lost lover. After this reveal, Scottie’s self-imposed seclusion seems akin to that of Victor Frankenstein’s obsession in the run up to his creation, both with minds closed off from family and friends. Hitchcock’s skill is in deconstructing the romantic myth of the rescue fantasy by playing with conventional structure. The controversial reveal in the second act sets up a fraught and intensive character study in the third which complicates any interpretation of the film’s import. Suddenly the expected outcome is shifted, deceitful, and no longer our main focus.

Scottie’s attempt to model Judy upon his image of Madeleine is reflected in Hitchcock’s continual use of profile shots in the film. The capture of Madeleine’s profile in the perfect light becomes Scottie’s overbearing quest, as demonstrated when he and Judy choose a suit.

Judy’s unwillingness to act as a proxy for Scottie’s memory is palpable and it is unsettling to watch her squirm as he tries to create the perfect recreation of his memory. As the lady proprietor of the store says, “The gentleman seems to know what he wants.” Judy is unable to see what good can come of her impersonation and accepts only to pander to Scottie. The notion of a monstrous birth is important here, as the audience is ill at ease with the yawning realization that Scottie is engaged in a distasteful if not unnatural act. Choosing specific dresses, lipstick, and haircuts for his dress-up doll leaves Judy more Scottie’s creation than her own self. Her strangely halting protests at this fact disguises both the secret that she holds and her unwillingness to be fashioned again in the same way that the real Madeleine’s husband Gavin Elster had done initially. Judy becomes caught between the dowdy image and colloquial speech patterns which are hers and the idealized and exotic mystique of the role created for her by men.

Indeed, it is an aspect of this mystique, in Carlotta’s necklace, which marks the revelation of Judy’s real identity and the role she played in deceiving Scottie. Interestingly, there is another parallel here with the story of Frankenstein, as the violence begins after the Creature plants the murdered child William Frankenstein’s necklace on Justine the servant girl, who on this basis is found guilty and hanged. These pivotal moments with necklaces represent in both stories the moment where the creatures move beyond the control of the creator. Discovering Judy’s true identity has literally made Scottie’s mental projection flesh. Yet it also leaves him seemingly resentful. His menacing promise that there is “one final thing I have to do, and then I’ll be free of the past” clearly terrorizes Judy.

Having perfected his creation, Scottie seems disgusted with it. In the words of Victor Frankenstein: “I had desired it with an ardour that far exceeded moderation; but now that I had finished, the beauty of the dream vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart.” At the climax of the story, when Scottie is faced with a brutal choice which governs Judy’s fate, he loses control of his created scenario once more. His mastery over his created romantic object slips. Although his realization of the truth salves him of his lingering vertigo, it smashes the fragile compact between the illusion and reality of both Madeleine and Judy. By tearing down the vestiges of his created “Madeleine”, Scottie likewise terrorises Judy, the reality of his illusion. In criticizing her for sentimentally holding onto the necklace, Scottie appears as a Byronic hero, like Prometheus in Prometheus Unbound, consumed by the need for some form of vengeance: “Let a sufferer’s curse / Clasp thee, his torturer, like remorse.”

As Judy pleads with Scottie not to abandon her, her entreaties echo the words of Frankenstein’s creature: “Accursed creator! Why did you form a monster so hideous that even you turned from me in disgust?” Judy mentions her safety and catalogues what she has lost to bring Scottie back into her life. Despite a final embrace which hints at reconciliation, the near literal appearance of ‘deus ex machina’ (in the form of the Nun pacing to the top of the tower) startles the couple and sends Judy plunging to her death and the creator irredeemable. The enactment of the very mise-en-scène that triggered his obsession sees Scottie torn between achieving his creative project and the literal impact of this creation.

Reflections on the fate of the Creators

It is exactly this moment of successful creation which binds both Psycho and Vertigo. As Scottie succeeds in reclaiming Madeleine, her fate is repeated as in the image he seeks to recreate. As Norman Bates succeeds in fully forming the Mother of his mind, she seizes control in the same way she had dominated his life before her death. Frankenstein’s Creature, composed of rendered corpses, is ultimately responsible for the death upon which its creation relied. The obsessive relationships of Norman with his created ‘Mother’ and of Detective Scottie with his created image of Madeleine ultimately lead to both their downfalls. Their relationships begin with creation yet end in punishment and irredeemable loss. Bates loses both his freedom and his mind, whilst Scottie loses the woman he loves all over again.

If we are to cast the leads in Vertigo and Psycho as Romantic heroes in the vein of Victor Frankenstein, then it is necessary to focus on their role as creators. Yet, in studying their respective flaws, we perhaps draw closer to identifying Scottie with the lead of Prometheus Unbound and Bates with that of the Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. Norman’s creature beneath the skin may be more monstrous than Scottie’s creature conjured up from corpses, yet their roles as creators bind the two.

What makes this Creator comparison so powerful is the recognition that Hitchcock denies either character the redemptive transformation afforded the progeny of the Romantic imagination. Whilst Percy Shelley and Byron allow their charges to survive following some epiphany in their narratives, Hitchcock pushes his characters towards the unredemptive and callous ending of Mary Shelley’s monstrous tale. It is this lack of cathartic resolution which singles out Hitchcock’s work as enduring and profoundly affecting. By shattering the structural demands of an Orphic rescue fantasy in Vertigo and brutally denying the redemption of Marion Crane in Psycho, the Director shocks the audience and leaves them off guard. It is this created space between expectation and reality that allows Hitchcock to craft shocking and captivating films deserving of such analysis. Perhaps like Mary Shelley, the only Creator which emerges intact from her work is herself. It is the space created for the story which witnesses the tragedy. As Hitchcock himself intones in the trailer for Psycho, “You should have seen the blood, the whole place was, well, it’s too horrible to describe…”

Andrew Smith is a PhD student at Queen Mary, University of London. Born in Glasgow, he spent five formative years at the University of St Andrews where an interest in horror movies became a passion. Working as a projectionist gave him free access to modern genre cinema whilst heightening his appreciation of gory classics. Combining the academic study of French wine history with more leisurely commentary on horror cinema has proved above all else that the thrills of both wine and horror run as blood red as their thrills.

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