Sunday, October 19, 2008

Continuity and the "Portals of the Past": Unresolved Issues in Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958)

There’s a special category of film fanatics who specialize in spotting continuity errors in movies. Continuity errors are disconnects between two shots, inappropriate and inexplicable given the time frame and events of a scene—for instance, when a half-smoked cigarette in one shut has suddenly shot back out to full length in the next shot

Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo would offer a goldmine of comparable “mistakes,” were it not for the fact that clearly most if not all of them are intentional on the filmmakers’ part. This is, after all, a movie about time and our clumsy efforts to erase the unpleasant effects of the past—to create false continuities in the mess of existence—to dispel guilt—to revise history by making it over—a driving purpose not only for the film’s hero, John “Scottie” Ferguson, played by James Stewart, but also for his antagonist—who, not to spoil the film’s ending for anyone who hasn’t already seen it—will remain unidentified.

What I’d like to do here is simply list these discontinuities—at least the ones I personally find perplexing and intriguing. I offer no film analysis here, no interpretations, no attempts to explain what, as I’m sure Hitchcock intended, should remain an unsolved mystery.

The film’s opening sequence ends with an unresolved action. Police detective Scottie hangs on the ledge, but we never see how he gets down. The next shot shows him in Midge’s apartment, calculating how he might be able to beat his fear of heights.

We find out that Scottie and Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes) were engaged once. She called it off, but we never are told why, even though then and later in the film it’s obvious that she still loves him. Perhaps the fact that he’s blithely best chums with the woman who dumped him is a clue as to what was wrong with the relationship in the first place. Or perhaps it’s her stalking tendencies—control issues evident when, later in the film, she plays the Mozart phonograph that Scottie told her he disliked earlier and tries to comfort him, saying, “Mother’s here.”

We also learn that Scotty has quit the police force, though his innocence in the policeman’s accidental death is unquestioned and the department has offered to keep him on. However, his chipper mood with Midge suggests that he is not deeply haunted by the officer’s death at all; despite Midge’s suspicions and concern, he seems ready to accept that it was not his fault.

Scotty tails Madeleine Elster (Kim Novack), who her husband suspects is haunted by her late great-grandmother Carlotta Valdes, to the florist’s shop, the chapel graveyard where Carlotta is buried, the art museum, and finally the McKendrick Hotel, where she rents a room and is well known to the proprietress. He even sees her opening a window. However, when a minute later he questions the proprietress, she states with certainty that “Carlotta” has not been there, even pointing to the unclaimed room keys and ultimately the empty room itself as proof. Why did the proprietress not see her?

Later, Scottie and Midge visit an antiquarian bookshop owner in search of answers to the mystery of the historical Carlotta. As the storyteller recounts his long and rather boring exposition (rather like Simon Oakland’s tedious explanation of split personalities in Psycho), the bookshop gradually darkens. When Scottie and Midge step out into the street, which has also darkened at dusk, I assume, the bookshop behind them suddenly brightens. Pop, the shop owner, is nowhere near a light switch, so the sudden illumination of a space associated with dead history has no natural explanation.

Of course, the central mystery of the film is the dead Carlotta, who haunts at least one character in the film, if not more. A tragic and (perhaps importantly) ethnic figure from California’s past, whose mystery is ultimately displaced when Scottie falls in love with Madeleine. However, the romantic mystery of her madness and death is never explained—and, more important, and, sorry, here a hint of a spoiler is unavoidable, we later learn that Elster’s wife may never have really been obsessed with (or possessed by) Carlotta after all—Carlotta’s story may be a “McGuffin” (Hitchcock’s term for illogical elements that nevertheless propel a plot—even a sinister one—forward). But later in the film, just when we’re convinced that the Madeleine/Carlotta story arc is a fraud, we see a distinctive necklace, which is hard evidence that a connection between Carlotta and Madeleine existed. This mystery has a logical explanation, of course, in fact, several logical explanations—which we’ll leave alone here.

I find it interesting that now, fifty years after the film’s release, America is mulling over its past—the 1960s, the Hanoi Hilton, the Weathermen, the civil rights movement, and assassinations (or threat of assassination), perhaps nowhere more particularly than in AMC’s series Mad Men, elements of which have been pegged by critics as Hitchcockian.

I should say “mulling over its past yet again,” since for such a young nation, America has an odd propensity for nostalgia. So here are other discontinuities, signs perhaps of the nation’s lightheadedness over the dizzying heights it reached over the last 100 years:

A war in Iraq that was conceived to “correct” an earlier war in Iraq.

A collapse of the world’s strongest economy in a shadow image of the Great Depression, a faltering of capitalism which, on paper, at least, could never happen again.

A nation’s election-year love affair with “hope,” “change,” and “country first,” while remaining hopelessly cynical, reactionary, and self-involved.

Hispanic immigrants, legal and illegal, descendents of the continent's first European settlers, who may, like Carlotta Valdes, now hold the key to the future.


  1. Hey, I'm honored you added me to your blogroll.

    I added myself as a follower, since anyone who posts consecutively about Ruskin and Hitchcock is going to be about as much fun and as addictive as crack.

    But without the bugs crawling under one's skin.

    Burroughs is must see t.v. but not must live t.v.

    xo B.

  2. This was intriguing. I had to search my memory because I last saw this film many years ago (although not only once).

    There are fan sites dedicated to sharing just such observations.

    I can usually catch a bunch in some of the campier movies I know by heart.

    I love Heathers, and one of the funniest continuity errors occurs when different characters stop by the coffin of the first "suicided" Heather to offer up their "profound" spiritual revelations (almost invariably vain, self-serving thoughts). If you keep your eye on the "dead" Heather, you will see the slightest change of position, expression, hair placement, etc.

    It's very funny once you've stopped looking where the director wants you to look (each actor facing death with their philosophical voice-overs).

    There are numerous other continuity blips, one involving a coffee mug, a fatal Drano posset.

    A common (and embarrassing) continuity error is when a vehicle has to make a leap over a canyon, natural or manmade. Often, the two separate shots (how it is usually done) don't match up angle-wise.

    I think the one Speed movie has a particularly embarrassing example of that.

    Truly bad editing.

    But these are technical glitches.

    I think you make a good case for the fact that Hitch was playing with negative capability, that this puzzle wasn't meant to be solved really...

    That's what makes The Birds such a great movie. No bogus explanations. Nature in slices. And that's all you're going to get.



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