My Teen Obsession: How a Hitchcock Blonde Changed the Way I Look at Movies

This article originally appeared in The Anvil as part of the promotional build-up to the above event.

By the time I was 17, I'd seen almost every film Alfred Hitchcock had made. So, in 1983, when it was announced that Vertigo (one of the last few that I had not seen) would be released in a new print, I was ecstatic. For me, this was the movie event of the year. I had no way of knowing that it would also turn out to literally change the way I look at movies.

I was about as unprepared for Kim Novak's portrayal of "Madeleine" as Pearl Harbor was for a Kamikaze attack in 1941. "Madeleine" was everything I thought I desired in a woman at that time, in all of her glorious contradictions: timid, audacious, intelligent, sophisticated, mysterious, simple, complicated — often all in the same breath. I will never forget the devastation I shared with Scottie Ferguson (James Stewart) when I suffered her loss—twice—in a period of about 60 minutes. Even after the movie ended and the house lights came up, I sat in stunned, slackjawed silence, my eyes fixed on the curtains covering the movie screen like a red velvet burial shroud. People stared at me as they filed out of the theater. Later, I went to a vintage shop and bought a dark three-button suit just like Scottie's. Hey, I was 17. I'll obsess my way, you obsess yours.

Novak's performance changed how I viewed not only Hitchcock's movies, but also film in general. In the years B.V. (Before Vertigo) I was drawn to Hitchcock's films because I enjoyed his technical prowess. The very word montage—as uttered by Hitch—held an almost mystical fascination for me; its concepts were a Rosetta Stone-like key to interpreting the hieroglyphics of film imagery. Vertigo changed all that. Thanks to Ms. Novak, I was shoved headlong into an emotional abyss—one with stucco walls and a tile roof not unlike those of the film's Mission San Juan Bautista. In my psyche, Madeleine's bones remain there, twisted and sunbleached, to this day. After Vertigo, I understood film's unique power as an art form to reach into one's soul and play it like an organ.

Happily, Hitch's masterpiece remains a perennial screen favorite. I can count on seeing the film return to one of Portland's independent theaters about once a year. For that reason, I'm proud to say that I've never seen the movie on a television set. Nor would I want to. He gave us a big-screen performance, and watching it on an ordinary TV screen would be like listening to Maria Callas' performance of Carmen on a clock radio. Novak's Madeleine is, ipso facto, unattainable. I'm grateful to Hitch for giving us the few images of her that exist, so that I, like other Scottie Fergusons, may sit in a darkened theater and will her, once more, back to life.

Perhaps this movie had a similar effect on you. If so—or if you think you'd like to find out if it would—drop by our screening. It will change the way you look at movies.


Anonymous said…
Great blog, this should keep me entertained for a while. I became a Hitchcock fan about 10 years ago, must have been 17 or 18 years old, after a chance viewing of Rear Window on Belgian tv. Now I have seen all of his films except 2, and one of those, The Pleasure Garden, should arrive in the mail next week! Am I happy? No, I can't get over The Mountain Eagle remaining missing from my otherwise (almost) complete collection! A copy just HAS TO exist somewhere!
Wow!...I like the way you described
how your "chance meeting" with director Hitchcock and actress Kim Novak.(On film, of course) Changed your life and the way you look at films.
Btw, I think that you are
extremely "knowledgeable" when it comes to all things..."Hitchcock!" ...

Joel Gunz said…
Hello Martijn! I have a feeling that if THE MOUNTAIN EAGLE ever surfaces, it will be the cinema find of the year!
Joel Gunz said…
Hi Dame -- Thanks so much for the kind words. Curiously enough, Hitchcock films have been a big part of my life.
Anonymous said…
Hi Joel! My mum introduced me to Hitchcock through "The Birds" and "Marnie". I don't think anyone has portrayed women as accurately in film since. Great blog! :)
Meredith said…
over the past year this film has worked it's way up my list until finally taking over the number one spot as my favorite film. every time i watch it I notice something new and compelling, whether it be lighting, a camera movement, or a certain inflection in speech that adds new depth and i think it is jimmy stewart's best performance, even over the knock out job he did in it's a wonderful life. as someone who loves san francisco i also enjoy how in tune it is with its surroundings and the use of some of the famous landmarks. it creates something both familiar and eerie. I would probably cry if i found an opportunity to see this on a big screen. my only consolation is that they have done a beautiful restoration job on the newest dvd where the colors practically pop out of my smaller screen.

this is a wonderful post and a wonderful film!
Joel Gunz said…
Thank you so much, Meredith! Isn't San Francisco a great city to, as Scottie and "Madeleine" say, to wander in?
Unknown said…
Saw the movie on tv when I was 9. That was about 35 years ago. Saw the restoration about 20 times. The first Ernie's scene made my toes curl. Novak gliding across the room, seeing but not seeing Scottie. Also don't forget the most erotic scene never filmed: Scottie undressing Madeline, while she pretended to be unconscious. Amazing stuff.
Prussia said…
I just stumbled on this blog , I never thought anyone could be as obsessed by Vertigo as I am. I have owned at least three grey skirt suits and still strive to find the perfect Madeleine one! My ringtone was for a while the Hermann score.
When I was a little girl I even tried to do my hair in a Carlotta style bun! Long live the Vertigo geeks.
I love this blog - what a splendid find.
Krish said…
Love your blog (and of course love Vertigo) - I just wrote a post featuring the great man himself - musing on what he would be doing today....

Hope you like it!

Joel Gunz said…
Hi Krish -

Love your blog post! I believe that the next Hitchcock is, in fact, working in interactive, or gaming, etc. People forget that when AH started, very few people saw film as anything more than cheap, lowbrow entertainment for the "moron masses." Hitch's vision was to see that it could be much more than that. I think it's very visionary that you want to to study new media with the same tools of inquiry that are applied to film and other accepted art forms. Keep me posted on this!