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“On the Edge: A Writer’s Take on Vertigo and Alfred Hitchcock” by Paul D. Marks

Paul D. Marks is the Shamus Award winning author of White Heat. His story “Windward” is currently nominated for the Shamus and and Macavity Awards, and he is the coeditor of the Anthony-nominated anthology Coast to Coast: Private Eyes from Sea to Shining SeaHe is a former Hollywood scrip doctor, and his film-industry experience as well as his role as a writer of novels and stories of the thriller and noir persuasion are at play in this post, which he put together for us on the occasion of Vertigo‘s sixtieth anniversary this year. Read on to hear about the history and symbolism of the film, the traits and tools that have come to be known as “Hitchockian,” and how they relate to crime fiction (and vice versa).

Recently, Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo played in theaters in honor of its sixtieth anniversary. Many people think it’s Hitchcock’s masterpiece, including me, though there are some dissenters who find it less than stellar. When Vertigo came out in 1958 it wasn’t a huge success. In fact, it bombed, both with the critics and at the box office. But in 1998 The American Film Institute named Vertigo one of America’s 100 best movies. I like a lot of Hitchcock’s movies. I love many of them. And though I always say that Vertigo and The Lady Vanishes are my two favorites, Vertigo is by far the superior film, the culmination of his art. Watching it again reminded me of what a terrific movie it is and why Hitchcock is the master of suspense.

So when Linda Landrigan, editor of Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, asked me to write a piece about it I jumped at the chance. Linda asked what I see and love about the movie, and wondered what things writers might glean vis a vis Hitchcock and our writing. To that end, I’ve expanded the scope of this piece to talk both about Vertigo and Hitchcock in general and how his techniques can help us as mystery/thriller writers.

The term “Hitchcockian” was invented to describe certain qualities that he exemplified. He may not have invented all of them, but he certainly made them his own. Things like innocent people being accused or caught up in a series of events they don’t really understand, but have to figure a way out of. Average, normal people getting thrust into those situations, feeling a sense of vertigo (no Hitchcock pun intended) until they can get their bearings and get back to some semblance of their normal lives.

There is, of course, a different “syntax” for films and prose. Movies are a visual medium, they appeal to the senses, while novels and stories are more of an intellectual exercise and appeal to the imagination. Screenplays are blueprints, whereas novels/stories are the finished products. Movies mostly don’t contain interior thoughts or monologues, though on occasion they do have voice over narratives. And if you’ve ever seen a screenplay, descriptions are brief and to the point: a beach is a beach and described with a “slugline,” like this: EXT. BEACH – DAY (SUNSET). And the description of that beach is sparse. The sunset isn’t described in flowery terms of glorious purples and pinks and surging waves . . . unless you’re writing “50 Shades of the Beach.”

But in terms of narrative, there is a lot in common between movies and prose. So first, let’s talk a bit about Vertigo and then how Hitchcock’s techniques can be applied to prose writing.

Vertigo

Possible spoilers ahead.

On the surface, Vertigo is the story of former San Francisco cop (detective) John “Scottie” Ferguson (James Stewart), who suffered a traumatic event that led to his retirement from the force, as well as causing his acrophobia and vertigo. Later, Scottie is approached by old friend Gavin Elster to follow Elster’s stunning wife, Madeleine (Kim Novak). He claims Madeleine is acting strange and wants Scottie to keep an eye on her, find out what she’s doing and protect her from something bad happening. Scottie takes the gig and, in the process, he not only falls in love with Madeleine, he becomes fanatically obsessed with her.

Put simply, Vertigo is a story about obsession. Of course, it’s also about many other things. But Scottie is obsessed with Madeleine. Later, he’s obsessed with Judy (also Kim Novak). Madeleine is obsessed with the past and with Carlotta Valdez, a distant relative. The film is obsessed with life and death, love and obsession, if that’s not redundant.

Scottie’s obsession drives the film. He’s the Everyman that we can all relate to on one level or another. Vulnerable and flawed, but virtuous at the same time. He falls into a trap and spirals down from there.

So what makes Vertigo Hitchcock’s masterpiece? It’s not just one thing, but a coalescing of all the elements of the film so that it becomes the culmination of his art. The plot is very complicated on one level, but also very simple in terms of mysteries and thrillers. In fact, Hitchcock said of it, “boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy meets girl again, boy loses girl again.” But then it’s not so simple because Scottie’s obsession takes it to a deeper level of meaning.

On top of the plot and story, two separate things, and the characters, you have the visual style of the movie, rich colors, great cinematography and tracking shots. Beautiful images, like in a dream. The music comes into play bringing a haunting, intense quality to the film.

The film is rich with symbolism and motifs that add to the layers of intrigue. Hitchcock uses the symbol of a spiral in many places. The opening credits begin with an extreme close up of a woman’s face and then zooms into her eyes where we first see the spiral symbol. The spiral staircase of the mission. The spiral swirl of the hairstyle worn by Carlotta Valdez in the portrait and Kim Novak’s copycat style of hair pulled into a swirl. The rings of a redwood tree. The round bouquet of flowers that Carlotta/Madeleine holds. All of this reinforces the sense of vertigo, both physical and symbolic.

He also uses colors to convey ideas. The colors of red and green—one symbolizing life, reality. The other death, the unreal, fantasy. Another thing is the use of mirrors. We don’t know if what we’re seeing is the real person or a mirror image until the camera pulls back.

There’s always something more to understand. Something you might not quite understand the first time you see the movie but you’ll discover the next time. There are layers to everything.

On the negative side, some people complain about Kim Novak not being the best actress for the part. I would have probably been one of them a few years ago but I’ve learned to appreciate her more over time. I’ve come to admire the way she’s able to morph from being the cool object of Scottie’s obsession to an ordinary, almost plain woman, who is now desperate to keep Scottie.

The main screenwriter, Samuel A. Taylor, said Hitchcock wasn’t happy with Novak’s performance. But Taylor had just the opposite view and was perfectly satisfied with her because, “If we’d had a brilliant and famous actress who’d created two roles, it might not have been as good. I am completely satisfied with her performance–because she seemed so completely naïve–and therefore it was right. There was a quality about the girl, but no self-conscious art, and it worked well.” (from “The Art of Alfred Hitchcock,” by Donald Spoto.)

Another thing some people complain about is the long, silent sequence in which Scottie follows Madeleine. I think it’s because they have short attention spans and want more “action”. But it builds the sense of danger and suspense as we wonder what Madeleine is doing and what’s going to happen. It’s lyrical and we watch Scottie as his fascination with Madeleine begins and grows.

So, that said, what can writers learn from cinema’s master of suspense? Might as well start at ground level:

The MacGuffin

One of the first things one thinks of in regard to Alfred Hitchcock is the MacGuffin. And, while it sounds like something you might be able to order for a snap breakfast at McDonald’s it isn’t. . . . What the MacGuffin in a story is doesn’t really matter. It’s simply a device to get the plot moving. It’s the people/characters and how they react to the MacGuffin that matter. But an interesting MacGuffin and what people will do as a result of it makes for an interesting story.

In Rope, Hitchcock’s Nietzschien exploration inspired by Loeb and Leopold, the MacGuffin is the dead boy’s body in the trunk—the trunk that Brandon and Phillip are serving dinner off of. It’s also the rope used to murder the victim and tie a stack of books together.

In Strangers on a Train, tennis player Guy (Farley Granger) must retrieve the MacGuffin, his cigarette lighter, that’s fallen into Bruno’s (Robert Walker’s) hands and that would implicate him in murder.

In Psycho it’s the money Janet Leigh stole, thus forcing her to make a getaway and ultimately land at the Bates Motel, all the while unaware of approaching danger.

On the surface the MacGuffin in North by Northwest is spies and microfilm, but the story is really about Cary Grant, an innocent victim caught up in a deadly game, trying to clear his name and extricate himself from the sticky wicket in which he finds himself.

Vertigo is more complicated; there’s more than one MacGuffin: Scottie’s vertigo, and the “idea” of Carlotta Valdes (she really is unimportant in terms of us knowing much about her but supposedly Madeleine is “possessed” by her or thinks she is). Or is Madeleine the MacGuffin—the elusive dream woman that Scottie pursues and tries to possess, even to the point of trying to resurrect her from the dead by reshaping Judy into Madeleine?

Hitchcock said this of the MacGuffin in François Truffaut’s interview with him:

The main thing I’ve learned over the years is that the MacGuffin is nothing. I’m convinced of this, but I find it very difficult to prove it to others. My best MacGuffin, and by that I mean the emptiest, the most nonexistent, and the most absurd, is the one we used in North by Northwest. The picture is about espionage, and the only question that’s raised in the story is to find out what the spies are after. Well, during the scene at the Chicago airport, the Central Intelligence man explains the whole situation to Cary Grant, and Grant, referring to the James Mason character, asks, “What does he do?” The counterintelligence man replies, “Let’s just say that he’s an importer and exporter.” “But what does he sell?” “Oh, just government secrets!” is the answer. Here, you see, the MacGuffin has been boiled down to its purest expression: nothing at all!”

So, you need something to kickstart the plot, jam it motion, get the characters moving. The MacGuffin is that thing, but what it is isn’t necessarily the most important element.

Entertain

Hitchcock never forgot the real reason people go to see movies—to be entertained and have fun. To step outside of their ordinary lives and experience something thrilling and exciting, but still go back to the safety of their homes. Writers can learn from this too. We need to keep in mind what our readers want. What will entertain and thrill them. They might want to be scared out of their wits, nervous, uptight, but also know that (in most cases) the hero will get out alive in the end. We should try to give our readers an entertaining experience.

Close-ups intensify emotion

As mentioned, film is a visual medium and the drama of a close-up or an interesting angle can make a huge impact on a movie audience. Hitchcock used close-ups as a way to evoke emotion or startle the audience into feeling what the character is feeling. In the opening of Vertigo, Scottie, the SFPD detective, and a uniformed cop chase a bad guy across San Francisco rooftops, with the city and bridge in the background. Scottie slips, grabs onto a rain gutter, and hangs on for dear life. We see the terror in his face, in his eyes, the panic as he looks to the ground. The camera zooms out from his point of view to give us a sense of his fear. How he feels, his sense of “vertigo.” This sets up the whole film—Scottie’s character, his flaws, and his vertigo, which come into play later.

But what can writers learn from this? The close up in a movie is somewhat the equivalent of going inside a character’s head—which movies don’t often do. Sometimes in prose it’s a quiet moment where we learn something personal about a character. These things can draw a reader in and make them empathize with a character. It’s also similar to what I call the Quiet Scene where characters reveal more intimate details and maybe some backstory about themselves.

Dialogue and Reaction Shots

Hitchcock knew that people don’t always say what they mean. Hitch believed you could have people talking about one thing while really saying something else. Writers can use this by infusing their dialogue with subtext. It adds intrigue to a scene if characters are talking about the weather, but the reader might know that one of the characters is worried about the rain washing away the dirt covering the body they just hid behind the garden shed.

In Vertigo Gavin tells Scottie how he misses the old San Francisco and a time when men had all the power and freedom. A little foreshadowing and subtext. But also in Vertigo, there is very little conversation. Scottie and Madeleine or Scottie and Judy don’t talk a lot, and when they do talk the dialogue is meaningful. But the intense emotions aren’t expressed in dialogue but mostly in visual close-ups. As writers it’s tempting to have our characters express all their emotions through dialogue “I’m sad,” “I’m angry!” etc. Use dialogue along with actions to convey emotions instead of just relying on dialogue alone.

Working in film, one of the things I learned is that reaction shots can determine how the audience interprets a scene. For example if you have a scene of someone slipping on a banana peel and cut to the crowd or an individual laughing the audience will have a much different take on what happened than if you cut to those same people concerned and distressed. In prose writing we can do this by seeing how others, or even the narrator, react to certain actions by various characters.

Less is more in terms of violence

Writers love to write graphic descriptions, but sometimes it’s too much. Hitchcock knew how to pull back from a scene and only show a hint of violence. And that hint would carry more weight than showing all the gory details. Think of the classic shower scene from Psycho and how that’s still shocking even though we don’t see a single sliced tendon or Janet Leigh actually getting stabbed. So the lesson for writers is—sometimes less is more. Think about a small slice of violence instead of showing us every gory detail. Let the reader’s imagination take them there. One of the things Hitchcock said about suspense is, “The more left to the imagination, the more the excitement.”

I had written the previous paragraph before I watched David Baldacci on In Depth on Book TV. And he pretty much said the same thing, so a little moral support for this position. He said: “I like to leave it to the imagination. The scariest scene I have ever seen in film is the shower scene from Psycho and there is no violence. It’s all in your imagination. You let the mind go and you are good.”

And think about what I said above about reaction shots. The way other characters react to something can be as powerful, or more so, than showing explicit details.

In Vertigo there’s very little actual violence. We see Elster’s wife fall from the tower and the cop falling at the head of the movie. But nothing is very graphic. Still, we know how traumatic it is by what happens to Scottie, how he reacts and how devastated he is.

The Unseen Story

Another thing that strikes me about Vertigo is the “unseen” story. I won’t give away any spoilers but we mostly see the movie through the eyes of Scottie and his perception of reality, but later the curtain is pulled back and we see everything that happened that he didn’t initially see. Sometimes I find myself trying to write a short story and I realize I’m trying to write about everything both in front of and behind the curtain. A good book or story doesn’t always reveal everything at the start or may reveal one person’s truth and not another’s.

In Vertigo the first half of the movie is from Scottie’s perspective and then we meet Judy and see her perspective and it gives us a totally different story from what Scottie’s POV told us. This is one way to build suspense in a novel—the reader knows something that the protagonist doesn’t. That builds suspense as the reader watches and worries about what will happen to the protagonist.

Sometimes the story is in what we don’t see and what we don’t know.

Past is Present

In many of Hitchcock’s movies the past influences the present. Scottie is afraid of heights because of an accident that’s left him acrophobic and paralyzed by fear. And we know his fear of heights is foreshadowing and will come into play later. The past is always with us. It influences the present. Madeleine becomes obsessed with the story of Carlotta Valdez and seems to be possessed by her. Carlotta’s story also mirrors Madeleine’s and Judy’s stories. She is a kept woman who has no freedom or power and this gives us an insight into the three different women portrayed in the story: Midge, Madeleine, and Judy. As writers we can use the past to foreshadow and give depth to our stories. What happened in our characters’ pasts that has made them choose certain paths? As the saying goes, Past is Prologue (which just happens to be the name of a story of mine to appear in a future issue of AHMM).

The Twist Ending

Hitchcock was also a master of the twist ending. Again, I think of Vertigo, or The Lady Vanishes, another great story. Both have terrific twists. The story is going in one direction and the reader is caught off-guard when things go in a totally opposite direction from where they thought they were going. I think the lesson for writers is obvious—try to not be predictable, look for ways to surprise readers, but still be believable and have events grow out of the story. Don’t pull rabbits out of a hat or bring in a deus ex machina to solve your problems. Set up the solution early on with hints, foreshadowing, etc.

Suspense: The Bomb Under the Table

Hopefully I’ve kept you in suspense waiting till the end to write about this topic. Hitchcock said if you have two people sitting, talking across a table, then boom, a bomb goes off, you’re scared for a few seconds. But if you have those two people talking and the camera reveals a bomb under the table and you cut back and forth to the bomb, you build suspense and the audience (or in our case the reader) is on the edge of their seat the whole time. They’re scared and nervous for a much longer time, plus they’re rooting for your characters, almost like the cliché of kids shouting at the screen to the cowboy to beware of the baddie behind the door. Try to do that, to build suspense in that way, but with prose. To keep it simmering and lingering until it finally explodes and you get the maximum bang for your buck. A lot of filmmakers and crime/mystery writers have used that technique. But Hitchcock was the master.

Now, in a movie it’s easy to cut back and forth between the bomb under the table and the people sitting there talking. In a story or book you can do this by switching characters so we see the same scene from different characters’ points of views, something like what happens in the film Rashomon. Generally you’d do this at a chapter or section break like in Robert Crais’ The Promise, where one chapter or section might focus on PI Elvis Cole, another on LAPD K-9 officer Scott James, another on bad guy Mr. Rollins, etc., and we see the same action unfolding from all of their points of views. And from each we glean a new or different piece of information.

In Vertigo we have two “bombs.” The first is Madeleine—we don’t know what she will do. Is she going to kill herself? Then in the second half Scottie becomes the bomb. Will his obsession destroy him? Also in the second half the audience now knows something that Scottie doesn’t and that makes us more tense as we wonder when and if he will discover the truth.

Hitchcock’s relationship to writers

With Hitchcock it’s sort of a symbiotic relationship. While, as writers, we may be influenced by him on a conscious or subconscious level—he would like that, us being influenced subconsciously—many of his movies were based on books, Vertigo and Strangers on a Train, were based on novels, and Rear Window was based on a short story by prolific writer Cornell Woolrich. So while we draw inspiration from him, he drew inspiration from us.

And though Hitchcock didn’t often get screen credit for writing, he was very hands-on in terms of working with his writers. I knew Ernest Lehman a little—the writer of Hitchcock’s North by Northwest—and he verified that. Hitchcock planned everything meticulously, working out stories and characters well ahead of time, well ahead of the screenplay stage, and often even before a writer was brought on board. He’s famously noted for his detailed storyboarding of every scene and often every shot in a scene.

One writer who definitely comes to mind as being heavily influenced by Hitchcock isn’t a prose writer but a screenwriter and director, Brian de Palma. Many of his works, such as Blow Out, Dressed to Kill, and Body Double, are very obviously influenced by Hitchcock—some people would say too much. I’m not one of them.

As for prose writers, many of Harlan Coben’s stand-alone novels such as Tell No One and Stay Close are very Hitchcockian but with a modern sensibility. I would put Dennis Lehane’s Shutter Island in the influenced-by-Hitchcock class. And Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn, with its tale of revenge and payback, and a terrific twist ending, is definitely a contemporary child of Hitchcock. Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train, with the hapless drunk caught up in something she doesn’t quite understand is also a Hitchcock descendant. And, of course, A.J. Finn’s Woman in the Window, which is basically Hitchcock’s Rear Window meets The Girl on the Train.

But even writers who may not seem directly influenced by Hitchcock, such as Robert Crais, Walter Mosley, or Michael Connelly, are probably subliminally influenced by him and most have heard of the MacGuffin and the suspense techniques he pioneered.

Hitchcock is in us as crime writers and informs all of our work by osmosis if not directly. And if you haven’t seen Vertigo or haven’t seen it in a while, check it out and see if it inspires you and your writing.

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