Museums in Movies: Vertigo

This is an installment in an occasional series about depictions of museums in film. What elements of these movie reflect real life, and what is pure Hollywood fantasy?

This week’s post is a bit more sinister than my last Museums in Movies installment. I recently watched Vertigo (1958) as part of my efforts to become more familiar with Hitchcock. (Some mild spoilers ensue, but nothing that will ruin the ending.)

The theme of this movie is “Jimmy Stewart be creepin’.” Also “historic sites will try to haunt and kill you.” There are actually some similarities to When in Rome – obsessive love, charmed and cursed objects – but here horror is the director’s intention, not a side effect of bad writing. Vertigo is complex enough for some genuine nerdtastic analysis.

Jimmy Stewart plays John Ferguson aka Scotty, a San Francisco police detective sidlined by the vertigo and acrophobia he recently developed on an intense suspect chase.  He copes with forced retirement by hanging out with his platonic-but-not-really BFF Midge, who inhabits a modernist world that is too dull, practical, and safe. One of her design projects is a backless, strapless cantilever bra, reducing the mysterious female figure to engineering formulas. (And let’s be honest ladies – that contraption would never work.) Bertoia chairs and soothing Mozart aren’t enough to win Scotty’s heart. Poor Midge. Like her Mattel namesake, she’ll always be the runner up.

Luckily, a commission from a old friend gets Scotty back in action. Gavin Elster is concerned that his wife Madeleine may be possessed by her Haunting Tragic Ancestor, and so hires Scotty to tail her. The world of the Elsters is more exciting and mysterious. It’s also color coded. When husband is in charge, we see red. His plush office carpet is tomato colored, and the dining room at Ernie’s Restaurant has some out-of-control ruby flocked wallpaper. Green is the wife’s signature color, at least when her identity is solid. She wears green outfits, drives an emerald car, and later appears near a lime neon sign. When things start to get hazy, she’s often clad in gray or earth tones.

Ok, you’re saying, enough about decorative arts; where’s the museum you promised me? Actually there are several historic places on display throughout the film. Historians and detectives do a lot of the same work, except the people scholars stalk are already dead. Scotty’s travels around San Francisco looking for information resemble the scavenger hunt that is historical research. Unlike your researcher correspondent, he has the uncanny ability to find perfect parking spots everywhere he goes.

Don’t forget to check out the dec arts around the corner, ma’am!

First, there’s the art museum where Mrs. Elster goes to stare at the Haunting Tragic Ancestor Portrait of DOOM. Thanks to Scotty’s visual acuity, he notices that her hair and flowers are the same as those in the painting. A+ for connoisseurship! As a reward, he gets a free catalog from a cheerful security guard. For reals? Parking at this museum is awesome too – he just pulls up at the front curb.I want to go on a field trip there.

Second, Madeleine heads to another favorite primary source – a cemetery. She pauses to stare at the Haunting Tragic Ancestor Grave of FOREBODING. Scotty wisely takes notes on the inscription afterwards, instead of making a rubbing of of the stone and potentially damaging its surface. A+ for conservation!

Then, the lady in gray leads him to the Historic House Hotel of MYSTERY. This house has late 19th century aesthetic movement furnishings – did it seem stale and dated to 1960s audiences, or charming and olde timey? Either way, Scotty is too busy extorting information from Ellen Corby the desk lady to look for clues in the interiors. C for decorative arts appreciation, you’re slipping.

Luckily Scotty redeems himself by interviewing Midge’s friend the bookstore owner about Haunting Tragic Ancestor. A+ for oral history records, and he’s back in my good graces.

Then Madeleine makes her Ophelia-like leap into San Francisco Bay, and while she’s recovering Scotty gets her to spill about the Historic Mission Town of NIGHTMARES. That’s it, time for a roadtrip to the living history village. When they get there she lures him into the Livery Stable of ADULTEROUS SMOOCHING, and has flashbacks about growing up in the ye olde days. He’s all “Honey, I know the brochure said you would step into life in the past, but this is weirding me out. Also, when was the last time you heard someone say ‘livery stable’ in everyday conversation?” Before he can get her out of the carriage and back into the 20the century, she makes a run for the Mission Bell Tower of DEATH and DIZZINESS, and that’s when things really start to get crazy.

I won’t spoil the rest, since the film’s power lies in all the unanswered questions. What is reality? Who can be trusted? Is the past out to get us? Can Scotty use the power of fashion to manipulate womankind and his own heart? Were those real nuns or costumed interpreters?

No matter the answers, Hitchcock gets an A++ for using the unknowns of history and the multiple meanings of objects to tell a spellbinding story.