By Joseph Eastburn
One of my three favorite movies of all time is “Vertigo.” I have seen it countless times. I would tell you, without a doubt, that I understand the ending. At least I thought I did.
Many years ago, when we still had VCRs, my wife mentioned that though she had watched parts of the movie, she had never seen it all the way through. So I rented the restored, widescreen, VHS edition of “Vertigo” that featured the original orange-and-black poster art on the box. I probably hadn’t watched the movie in a few years. Waiting for a day when we both had a block of free time, I glanced in the box and saw that the previous viewer hadn’t rewound the movie. I popped the video cassette in and up came that wonderful scene (with the San Francisco bay in the background) where James Stewart is leaning in a car window trying to convince Kim Novak that it doesn’t make sense for them to wander separately—they might as well wander together. Her great comeback line: “Two people together are not wandering but always going somewhere.” Foreshadowing for the fated journey they were about to take. I was hooked. So I snuck in the second half of “Vertigo” and even the documentary on the making of the movie before my wife and I saw it together.
To get my wife intrigued, I passed on some interesting details from the documentary, namely that it took Hitchcock six years to make Vertigo and that the great filmmaker seemed as obsessed as the characters in the story. I also mentioned that Hitchcock had originally wanted Vera Miles to star in the movie, but with many production delays, by the time principal photography began, Miles was pregnant. So he chose Kim Novak.
My wife said, “I always thought Kim Novak was dull.”
Excuse me? This must have something to do with the selective perception of men and women. The entrancing, kittenish, unbelievably sexy Kim Novak, dull? I don’t think so. I should have been forewarned that my wife would bring a whole new perspective to my viewing experience. Finally Friday night came. With our daughter away at a sleepover, we both settled in front of the television screen with a container of Trader Joe’s evil chocolate-peanut clusters.
We watched the movie.
Somewhere in the middle, I began to wonder if my wife had ever seen the shocking ending. She hadn’t. In the last few seconds of the movie, when Kim Novak screams in the darkness and disappears out of the bell tower into thin air, my wife exclaimed, “That’s the ending of Vertigo?”
While we were getting ready for bed, I asked, “Did you like the movie?”
With a faraway look, she said, “Yes.”
I went and brushed my teeth. In the bathroom, I had the feeling—the way you often do with repeated viewings of great movies—that I had picked up on nuances and heard certain lines anew, particularly in the last scene. So, I walked into the bedroom and asked, “What did you think of the ending?”
“They set him up.”
“Right, but what does the ending mean?”
“When you do something bad, you get punished.”
We had several exchanges about how the James Stewart character had brought the Kim Novak character back to the San Juan Bautiste Mission tower to solve the murder mystery and cure his phobia of heights. Then I said, with utter certainty, “But he never intended for her to fall to her death.”
My wife looked at me like I had ten heads. “She jumped.”
“What?” I said.
To me, this was inconceivable. I had always thought the James Stewart character had lost the love of his life. He had regained her only to lose her a second time in the same frightening way. To me the ending was about the loss of love, echoed by the Barbara Bel Geddes character, who loses Stewart’s love. Besides, I thought, Kim Novak didn’t look suicidal in that last scene. She was trying to passionately convince Stewart that she had only allowed him to make over her second character, Judy, and dress Judy, and change Judy’s hair color—and finally turn Judy back into her first character, Madeline—because she loved him so much. Despite everything, now they could be together. I told my wife she was wrong, way wrong, and said so a few too many times.
And I slept on the couch.
I couldn’t believe it—one of the most romantic movies ever made in Hollywood, and my wife and I had argued over it. Lying there in the living room, I thought about that last few seconds of the movie and wondered what was actually on screen. I found myself back in the front of the VCR fast-forwarding to the ending.
Here’s what happens:
After pleading with Stewart, Novak walks across the tall alcove opening at the side of the bell tower and kisses him ardently, hoping she can convince him to love her. During the kiss, she hears steps and her eyes are briefly averted with a flicker of dread. Cut. The camera picks up a dark figure walking up the stairs—you hear one, two, three steps. The figure just stands there. Cut. Kim Novak breaks the kiss, says, “No,” and backs out of frame, leaving a close-up on Stewart’s astonished face while someone off-camera says, “I heard voices.” Almost simultaneously, you hear a scream. Kim Novak’s character is no longer there. Cut. The figure at the top of the stairs is a nun. Cut. Stewart is looking down. Cut. The nun crosses herself, says, “God have mercy,” and rings the bell.
To me, Novak was startled by the figure, stepped back, and accidently fell to her death. And when you look at the final shot of the movie where James Stewart walks out onto the ledge of the tower with his arms raised slightly—he’s cured of his acrophobia, but his gesture suggests he has lost everything else.
Then I realized my wife had a point.
The director had taken the camera off Kim Novak at that last crucial instant. By cutting to the foreboding figure coming up the stairs, Hitchcock had introduced a stunning ambiguity. He had opened the door to the possibility that she had jumped. In fact, the camera didn’t record what had happened. Viewers were left to remember hours of haunting images and Bernard Herrmann’s brooding, driven score to guide them to the truth of what they thought they had seen.
In the dark, I walked back into our bedroom and my wife and I talked. She thought the Judy character had jumped because Jimmy Stewart would never love her, protect her, or defend her the way he would have loved, protected, and defended the beautiful, blond Madeline. He couldn’t because she had tricked him and lied and conspired to kill someone and he is a cop. Judy was destined—in Hitchcock logic—to die the same death that she had helped cause the real Madeline to die, a suicide.
But the real Madeline didn’t kill herself, I said. She was murdered.
My wife argued that the Judy character had to kill herself because she started the ball rolling by bringing back the bad vibes of the miserable, crazy (and dead) Carlotta, and then Carlotta’s karma came back to get Judy when she broke the rules of love. You don’t trick people and expect them to love you. I didn’t fully agree with my wife’s argument, but I couldn’t help thinking about Stewart’s troubling last lines to Judy.
He kept saying, “No, there’s no bringing her back.”
Did Judy unleash the unexpected? Did she pretend to be another person for pay; that is, acting a role—only to find herself falling into that other persona, losing her own personality, in fact, becoming the dead person? Is that what we risk when we do things for money or for love? Was she simply afraid to face the dark person coming up the stairs? Does the unseen figure represent Judy’s, and for that matter, the audience’s unreasoning fear of the unknown, the obscure side of experience, the collective shadow we all bring with us into the theater?
I realized how a great movie is like a Rorschach: It reveals different meanings to different people. Each person’s history and fantasies and dreams are engaged as they identify with the characters in a story. The documentary said Alfred Hitchcock believed in “pure cinema,” that is, pictures without words. “Vertigo” creates many of its most powerful moments this way.
In the last ten seconds of the movie, the master used his camera to open a small window in the unconscious of the viewer. He ended one of the greatest mysteries in the history of film with another mystery.