Now entering his creative peak, Hitchcock revisited some older material, reinvigorating it with a global politics and a big budget grandeur; he crafted his only film based explicitly on actual events; and then he gathered all of his ideas, all that he had learned in his nearly 40 years in the business, and stitched them together into what many believe to be the greatest film ever made.
The Man Who Knew Too Much
When we think of James Stewart, we think of him as one of Hitchcock’s leading male actors, as someone upon whom the weight of the show was time and time again thrust. And for good reason. Over a long career with Hitchcock, Stewart proved worth his weight in gold as a leading performer—as L.B. “Jeff” Jeffries, the man who manages to unravel the thread of a murderous plot all from the confines of a wheel chair, in Rear Window; as John “Scottie” Ferguson in Vertigo, the detective who overcomes his acrophobia in an attempt to save his beloved Judy, all the while being played a pawn in perfidious scheme; even as Rupert Cadell, the nihilistic professor who discovers the fatal game being played by Brandon and Phillip in Rope.
But in the 1956 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much, we encounter a different James Stewart. We suspect from the title that he, as Dr. Benjamin “Ben” McKenna, is “the man who knew too much,” again in the spotlight as the actor who carries the show. But as the movie plays out, it becomes more and more obvious that the character most important to the unfolding mystery is Josephine “Jo” Conway McKenna, the former musical star, wife, and mother, played by Doris Day.
To set a female actor in such a privileged position is unusual for Hitchcock, and some might chalk it up to a stereotypical use of the mythical, and as-yet unconfirmed, feminine intuition. But really, Doris Day plays the character that is most important to the advancement of the “good” forces in The Man Who Knew Too Much, and she deserves to be recognized as such. For example, it’s Jo, not Ben, who gets a jittery feeling in her gut regarding the stranger the McKenna family encounters on the bus as they arrive in Morocco (Louis Bernard, played by Daniel Gelin). It’s Jo who discovers Ambrose Chappell to be a “where,” rather than a “who.” And most importantly, while Ben and the police are helpless to save the Ambassador from his Moroccan assassinator, Jo takes on an entire symphony orchestra with a scream that reverberates through the Royal Albert Hall as well as through thriller film history.
In his article “Hitchcock’s Imagery and Art,” Maurice Yacowar discusses the function of justice within Hitchcock’s thrillers, including The Man Who Knew Too Much. Virtue and Hitchcock’s justice are endangered,” he says, “by the merely human law.” Here, Yacowar is making reference to Hitchcock’s repetitive use of the theme of “man’s limited freedom in society” while discussing his use of the “conflict between privacy and public involvement.” This line of thought is interesting when applied to position of Jo as mother and wife, both of which are seemingly private institutions here cast into the public sphere. We’re forced to wonder about women’s “limited freedom in society” and whether or not Jo represents a strong break from standard modes of thinking about sex and gender during the 1950s.
It seems to me that Doris Day’s Jo deserves more credit than she is given. While she might not be “the man who knows too much,” she is the woman who knows enough to save the lives of the ambassador and her son, Hank. And as such, we should reconsider the importance of her role, and the ways it played with gender conventions, in Hitchcock’s overall approach to the “mysterious blonde” trope.
The Wrong Man
In Hitchcock’s trademark films, he took a gamble: Psycho was a stab at horror that cracked the genre wide open; in Shadow of Doubt it was noir as a “return of the repressed”; in Vertigo it was a thriller-turned-statement on obsessive love and voyeurism. But , time and again, he returned to his career-long theme: the innocent who must prove his innocence. Never was he more direct about this than with The Wrong Man, even if he would later complain about the results. By pulling away from the intrigue/espionage approach which characterized The 39 Steps and Saboteur, this film concentrates on a victim simply trapped by the unfounded charges against him. Less fuel for high concept, The Wrong Man becomes a study of oppression.
Christopher “Manny” Balestrero (Henry Fonda), a nightclub bassist and family man by day, walks into a loan office to find himself wrongfully accused of robbery. The evidence against him is circumstantial, and thus leads to a painstaking investigation. He’s apprehended by plainclothes cops looking more like thugs getting a delivery for their boss. After questioning Manny, they parade him through the various crime locations, scenes in which meta-filmic “looking” now becomes diegetic exploitation of the protagonist. The bureaucratic process which entangles Manny appears to tighten and suffocate him. Confined spaces highlight Hitchcock’s inversion of his usual fugitive-on-the-run films.
Manny looks for alibis, but most anyone who could vouch for him turns up dead; his financial issues pile up. As the case wears on, his wife, Rose (Vera Miles), crumbles, thus becoming a sounding board to Manny and another case of Hitchcock’s misogyny (a cross we fans have to bear). Through a restrained (even underplayed) performance—this was Hitch’s only film explicitly based on a true story—Fonda finds the humanity in the suffering Manny. Save for the family’s reaction to his arrest, Hitchcock restricts the film to Manny’s point of view, bringing his (and our) attention to character over the structured plot. Fine use of point-of-view shots and a minimalist Bernard Herrmann score unify the project, and helps us to dismiss a tacked-on happy ending.
Alfred Hitchcock’s influence on subsequent filmmakers is enormous, and no film has been as significant in that regard as Vertigo. Filmmakers like Brian DePalma, Chris Marker and Terry Gilliam haven’t just quoted from or paid tribute to Vertigo in their films; they’ve meditated on it, taken threads from it and tried to follow them, in some cases heading off in an oblique direction, not unlike the film itself. In a way, the obsession that they, and so many film critics, have with Vertigo is akin to the role “obsession” has in the film itself, to the crazed way John ‘Scottie’ Ferguson (James Stewart) behaves.
Alec Coppel and Samuel Taylor’s screenplay for the 1958 film was based on the 1954 novel D’entre les morts (published in English as The Living and the Dead, though it could be translated as Among the Dead, which seems coooler), by Boileau-Narcejac. The story involves a troubled retired police detective, Ferguson, who is asked by an old college friend to follow his wife Madeleine (Kim Novak). He becomes fascinated with her behavior, and the story unfolds in strange directions, at a slow, dream-like pace, from there. To outline in such basic terms the plot of a film that many consider among the greatest ever made feels inappropriate at best. But, part of the attraction of the film lies in its elliptical nature. For many film lovers, in many ways, the film stands alone.
The special-ness of Vertigo among Alfred Hitchcock’s films has much to do with the abstract-ness of the film. The way the mystery is left a mystery for so long begs us to interpret the film in more ways. The first time you see Vertigo, the resolution feels fake, like the only explanation for what we’ve seen must be mystical, not logical. Perhaps after spending so much time participating in Ferguson’s search, we’ve joined him in his irrationality.
Scottie Ferguson might be Stewart’s most complicated character. If his previous role in Rear Window seemed creepy, in Vertigo he goes beyond creepy, but it is his great strength as an actor that somehow his genial personality pulls us along with him. It is in many ways the passionate and complex performances of Stewart and Novak which help make the absurdity of the story feel compelling, believable. There is an uncanny emotive power in both Stewart’s obsession and Novak’s tangled identity as tormented wife and object of a man’s love and/or possessiveness.
Though not fraught with that many twists and turns, Vertigo leads down many dark corridors. Indeed, its dreamy pacing seems to suggest a floating narrative; we never feel as though we are being driven toward a tidy resolution. The story of obsession, of the anonymity of the person next to you, touches on classic human-nature themes: the way lovers create each other, the way people become obsessed with the past, the way the unknown in people taunts us. Vertigo is at once a ghost story, a psychological study, a detective story, a horror movie, and a love story. It has inspired seemingly countless theories from film critics and academics. It is also a study of a city, San Francisco, and of the influence places have on people. A large amount of our viewing time is spent with Stewart as he drives around the Bay Area. We join him as he returns to specific places which recall particular memories of what has happened here in the past. With him we’re haunted by the power places hold; we join him in forcing those memories back under the current. We, like he, are haunted by paintings in a gallery, the rings of redwood trees; all objects that contain generations of stories and ghosts.
Vertigo exists also on a purely cinematic level. It is a case study in the unity of image and sound, in the thematic use of color, in how images alone can produce emotions. Bernard Hermann’s score is haunting, dreamy and scary. It’s vertiginous in direction but goes beyond just a circling motion. My first viewing was as a child, and though I by no means understood the plot, the images stayed: swirling shapes standing in for dizziness, a person falling from a great height, a woman’s white-blonde hair, the landmarks of San Francisco. Vertigo is a prime example of the way cinema speaks beyond words, the way a film can burn into your brain even if you have no idea what’s going on.