In Hitchcock/Truffaut, the 2015 documentary film about the book of the same name, the director James Gray calls the scene from Vertigo (1958) in which Judy Barton (Kim Novak) comes out of the bathroom dressed as Madeleine and kisses Scottie Ferguson (James Stewart) the greatest moment in the history of cinema.
“At that moment, everything that Hitchcock was about, everything that cinema is about, comes together in the most beautiful way,” he says. “Yes, it’s a fantasy, but the fantasy is real to him.”
Who could disagree?
The point of this post is not to make the case for Vertigo’s greatness, or discuss the ways in which the film embodies the fears and desires of its creator. Instead, it is to explore the film’s relationship to another Hitchcock masterpiece, his first American movie, Rebecca (1940).
This film’s masterpiece status is widely disputed, most notably, by Hitchcock himself.
F.T. Are you satisfied with Rebecca?
A.H. Well, it’s not a Hitchcock picture; it’s a novelette, really.
(Chapter 6, Page 127)
Hitchcock’s assertion is, of course, ridiculous.
(In fact, it is so absurd that I am writing my senior thesis at Middlebury College, in part, to deal with that very claim. But, again, the point of this post is not to explore the history and meaning behind that view.)
To refute Hitchcock’s claim, it is essential that we compare Rebecca to his later works, especially those considered his best, like Vertigo.
Both films deal with a kind of necrophilia. In the case of Vertigo, it is Scottie trying to bring Judy back from the dead. In Rebecca, it is the house keeper Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson) keeping the room of the deceased Rebecca in pristine condition, as if she were going to walk through the door at any moment. The sexual nature of the scene in which Mrs. Danvers shows the second Mrs. De Winter (Joan Fontaine) around Rebecca’s room near explicitly shows that the relationship between Mrs. Danvers and Rebecca was more than just an employer-employee one.
This brings us to our comparison between the two. From the part of Hitchcock/Truffaut in which the two directors discuss Vertigo:
Note: Truffaut dedicates not even six pages to their discussion of Vertigo, showing how the film did not truly take on its masterpiece status until much later. I have selected certain passages and parts of passages to accompany this video essay. Some are included in the essay itself. The entire six-page exchange is worth reading.
F.T. Can you tell me what it was about this book [D’Entre les Morts, the novel from which the film was adapted] that specially appealed to you?
A.H. I was intrigued by the hero’s attempts to re-create the image of a dead woman through another one who’s alive.
To put it plainly, the man wants to go to bed with a woman who’s dead; he is indulging in a form of necrophilia.
F.T. He’s like a maniac.
A.H. Cinematically, all of Stewart’s efforts to re-create the dead woman are shown in such a way that he seems to be trying to undress her…
…. that green light gives her the same subtle, ghostlike quality.
A.H. … we’re telling the story from the viewpoint of a man who’s in an emotional crisis.
F.T. … I feel that you really like Vertigo.
(Chapter 12, Pages 243 – 246)