As co-writer of the Hitchcockian Broadcast Signal Intrusion, Phil Drinkwater knows a thing or two about layered, cyclic mysteries. Here in a special guest essay for our Hitchcock’s Women series he tumbles through the dizzying dualism of gender in Hitch’s Vertigo…
Many of the filmmakers of the 40s and 50s might be described as Freudians, in so far as they were enthralled by the idea that the subconscious revealed our deepest desires and fears. The idea that dreams might be the key to our own personal truths was highly alluring to directors, many of whom felt that cinema was as close to dreaming as we could get whilst awake – as Fellini best put it, “Talking about dreams is like talking about movies, since the cinema uses the language of dreams.”
Hitchcock (as well know) certainly had Mummy Issues, which begs us to wonder whether he was such a dedicated Freudian because he was so keenly aware of the complex relationship between a boy and his Ma? After all, a boy’s best friend is his mother. Or was his work’s quite obvious mother fixation unintentional; instead his subconscious accidentally spilling out onto celluloid? Clearly Freud himself would have been happier with the latter explanation, but maybe the truth lies somewhere in the middle.
Bearing all of this in (the swirling subconscious of my) mind, I thought it might be interesting to examine some of the ways Hitchcock attempted to wrestle with this most complicated of relationships, choosing just one scene to do so. But how to choose when we have such a rich selection? There are so many films – Psycho, North by Northwest, Notorious – before we even get to individual scenes. So, I’ve decided to go down a leftfield route and have chosen a scene from his undisputed masterpiece Vertigo – specifically the scene where we are introduced to Midge.
The key difference between the mothers in his other work and the mother in Vertigo is that here, the ‘mother’ isn’t literal. Here the mother is an idea, a symbol. And she is physically manifested in the character of Midge.
In this scene, where we are first introduced to her in her apartment, Scottie behaves in a childish way – in keeping with James Stewart’s boyish persona. He has to ask Midge to explain what a bra is, for example. He is not yet fully masculine, the film arguably being about his journey from child to man. Vertigo as a physical condition is merely used here as a metaphor for Scottie’s maturation into a controlling, destructive masculine figure: he seems to be on two parallel journeys – from Boyhood to Manhood and from Superego to Id. The fact that Hitchcock draws parallel between these two separate journeys seems to indicate that possibly – according to Hitch – to embrace Manhood is to actually embrace the Id.
Freud argued that we are sexually attracted to the mother in our early years. In this scene, we learn that Midge and Scottie were an item in college, all those years ago when – if we stick with the boyishness idea – it would have been Scottie’s metaphorical infancy.
Freud also argued that in order to become a man, one must reject the mother in order to fully function in a masculine sense. At this early stage in Vertigo’s narrative, he is not quite ready to do this. Returning back to the ‘vertigo as emasculation’ metaphor, Scottie climbs the step-ladder only to fall down into Midge’s bosom – the place where he feels safest, as we all did once – nursing at our mother’s breast. This moment is what psychoanalyst Stanley Palombo suggests shows Scottie’s “…raging fear of his dependence on Midge and her mothering… Mother’s bosom has been revealed as both the parapet to which Ferguson clings for dear life… and as the abyss into which he must fall…”.
What follows in the rest of Vertigo’s narrative is the gradual rejection of Midge – starting in the scene where he literally rejects her unsubtle sexual advance (painting her own face onto the object of his desire) and culminating in the sequence where – in a last ditch attempt to get Scottie to accept her – she whispers softly to him “Mother’s here” before leaving the room and walking out of the film, never to return, utterly rejected. This is the point in the story where Scottie is freed from her maternal grasp to pursue his Id-like impulses and desires, to contort into the grotesque, perverse masculine monster we see stand dominantly over the fallen body of the woman he bent to his every dark and sinister will in the film’s last frame.
There is, however, a counterpoint to this particular interpretation of Midge. It could be argued that instead of (or as well as – this is a film about duality after all) being representative of The Mother, she is in fact a proto-feminist; the first truly modern woman in cinema. She lives alone, provides for herself financially and is entirely independent. Her apartment is open and bright and full of modern art. She designs underwear for women – for their comfort, not for the gaze of men. But is she ultimately empowered? Perhaps not. Hitchcock sets up this modern woman – an indicator of where American equality, particularly in San Francisco – was heading in 1958, only to reveal that underneath her seeming independence and liberalism all she really wants is for Scottie to love her. Again, we can turn to the scene where she paints her own face onto the image of Carlotta – a clear attempt to project herself into Scottie’s fantasy that fails. This almost seems to be Hitchcock’s deconstruction of feminism, and of women in general. Her final scene – “Mother’s here” – is her desperate attempt to mean something to Scottie, even if that something is not what she wanted.
But, there is a final twist. Firstly, these two disparate things that Midge seems to represent – The Mother and the Proto-feminist – might actually be thematically linked. What do they have in common? They seem so separate. Yet closer inspection reveals that what ties them together is the fact that, as ideas, they both represent a threat to patriarchal masculinity. From a Freudian perspective, it is The Mother – and the male attachment to her – which holds back masculine development. From a cultural perspective, the emerging feminist movement of the late 50s / early 60s is a great threat to traditional masculinity. Remember, this film is released during a real crisis of masculinity in post-war America: men had returned from war – where they had served an almost cartoonish masculine purpose – to find that not only had women coped just fine without them, but they had even taken their jobs – manual labour which had been traditionally reserved for men. This triggered a sort of mass emasculation and Vertigo seems in part to be a response to that.
So, ultimately, where does Hitchcock stand? What is he actually saying about this mother-figure? Is Vertigo a rejection of her and feminism and an attempt to reassert a dominant hegemonic patriarchy? Or is this an exposé and examination of cruel, destructive masculinity, one where our male hero is no hero by the end, but instead a sweating, heaving misogynist?
I don’t know. I suppose that’s part of the magic of Vertigo.
One last thought though. The thing about Midge is that she escapes. She gets out. She walks away from the narrative alive, which is more than can be said of Madeleine, of Judy, of Carlotta. Despite the fact that masculinity in this film is clearly triumphant – patriarchal order remains unquestioned – it is still revealed to be completely destructive and negative, and Midge – as both our Mother and our modern feminist – is the last woman standing. So, perhaps mother will always be here.
Broadcast Signal Intrusion is now available to buy on Blu-ray. You can read our interview with Phil about the film, or if you’re looking for more Hitchcock content check out Rebecca McCallum’s deep-dive on Vertigo here.