When I was in high school, I was enrolled in the International Baccalaureate program. For those of you who don’t know what it is, it’s college-level classes that you take your junior and senior year, and, if you score high enough on your final exams, you can earn up to a year’s worth of college credit (depending on where you go and what you major in). One of the requirements for IB is that you write a 4,000-word extended essay.
My blog post about Sir Alfred Hitchcock‘s Vertigo (1958) is longer than the extended essay I wrote for IB.
I Like Vertigo.
And I’m not the only one. The British Film Institute named it the greatest film of all time in its 2012 Sight & Sound critics’ poll, and I will bring that up forever, because it definitely deserves it, and I’m tired of hearing about Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane (1941). Hitchcock’s masterpiece is the strange and haunting tale of a detective with a fear of heights who follows a woman around believing herself to be possessed by the spirit of a dead relative.
I didn’t see Vertigo for the first time until a few months ago, in a film class. I wasn’t particularly excited for it – my professor said she didn’t like it the first time she saw it, and I’d heard that it was hard to follow along. Maybe that’s why I paid so much attention to it and opened myself up to it the way I did, because I didn’t want to get lost – either way, I went home that night and found myself unable to sleep because my mind was too busy thinking about Vertigo, with Bernard Herrmann‘s whirlpool of a score swallowing me up.
My favorite movie used to be a tie between James Cameron’s Titanic (1997), William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973), and Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill (2004), but Vertigo broke the tie. I enjoyed Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), but he didn’t unseat Tarantino as my favorite director until after Vertigo, and I never really had a favorite genre before – now, it’s the suspense thriller. The shot of Judy Barton (Kim Novak) emerging from the bathroom as Madeleine Elster stops my heart and stills my breath every time with its romantic beauty, and the ending is so tragic and ironic and abrupt that the movie fades to black on the screen long before it ever fades to black in your mind.
I don’t know why it is that I fell in love with this movie so hard and so fast. Perhaps it’s because I can relate to it, personally, on some level – like Judy, I’m willing to change myself in order to become more perfect for other people, and I end up destroying myself along the way. Sometimes, when I’m unhappy, I think about Vertigo, and it restores my faith that there’s at least one beautiful, perfect thing in the world.
I’ve read articles about why Vertigo makes you obsess over it as Scottie obsesses over Judy and Madeleine, why it makes you fall into its universe like the characters do to their deaths. The theories range from the fact that it’s hypnotically structured in threes (three deaths: Scottie’s partner, Madeleine, and Judy; Kim Novak’s character (Judy) within a character (Madeleine) within another character (Carlotta Valdez)) to the fact that it’s overflowing with striking Technicolor cinematography of San Francisco. Whatever the reason, Vertigo is a beloved classic, so much so that a couple named Wendy Powers and Robin McLeod self-published a novel from Judy/Madeleine/Carlotta’s point of view.
The Testament of Judith Barton (2011) can be ordered online through Amazon or Barnes & Noble. It opens with Judy’s childhood in Salina, Kansas, and continues through to the events of Vertigo in California. Hitchcock gives glimpses into the mysterious woman’s past, such as a troubled history with her stepfather and an enigmatic relationship with the antagonist, Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore), but, other than that, he shows us what Judy does without showing us why.
The film itself is rooted in literature. Based upon the French D’entre les morts (1954) by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, Hitchcock pounced on the chance to adapt a Boileau-Narcejac crime story to the screen when fellow filmmaker Henri-Georges Clouzot beat him to their 1955 book, Les Diaboliques. Hitch commissioned Samuel A. Taylor to write the script because of his knowledge on San Francisco, and the film has since mythologized many of the city’s tourist destinations (after the critical reevaluation of its initial mixed reaction, of course).
Unless you’ve already seen Vertigo, you might not enjoy The Testament of Judith Barton as much as those of us who have. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that you have to be a fan of Vertigo to like the book, rather than just a casual viewer. Told in first-person narration, Judy openly admits that the first hundred or so pages of her story, concerning her life in Kansas, are not as interesting as what comes after, and, if you don’t know what comes after, a hundred pages is a long time to wait.
You can tell what fans Powers and McLeod are of the film. They must have physically visited Salina and San Francisco when they did their research to include the detail that they include, and they clearly studied the film, line for line, to match their writing with it, with the spirit of it. It’s truer to Vertigo than it is to D’entre les morts – Judy’s character in the original novel is a femme fatale motivated by nothing more than greed and lust for the villain, but Powers and McLeod’s interpretation is decidedly more complex and tortured than that.
There are moments of such brilliance, not only in content but also in writing, that I can feel the ghost of Hitchcock nodding his iconic profile in approval. Powers and McLeod cleverly introduce significant motifs and plot devices which any conscientious viewer of the film pick up on right away, and there are lines so profound that I sometimes have to put the book down to post them on my Tumblr. Its arrangement even mirrors Vertigo, with a prologue at the beginning, when Elster and Judy meet, like the prologue at the beginning of the film when Scottie’s partner dies trying to save him from his own acrophobia.
The book is legitimate, too – it was written and published with the blessing of the Alfred Hitchcock Trust.
Yes, since it is a self-published fan fiction, it can be a bit rough around the technical edges. A professional editor’s presence from a publishing house would’ve greatly benefitted the work. Otherwise, for what it’s worth, The Testament of Judith Barton is certainly a cut above the first-draft fanfic you’re apt to find online, and even a cut above many major published books.
Obsession is all about reliving something over and over, again and again, so, if you’re as obsessed with Vertigo as I am, feed that obsession. Rediscover what you’re sure you’ve already got pinned down in your mind. Circle back in that endless loop and fall all over again – fall in love, fall into madness, fall off a bell tower and into that vertiginous fate which awaits us all.
“Here, I was born… and, there, I died… It was only a moment for you. You took no notice.”