Comfortably situated at the nexus of film and literature were French writers Pierre Boileau (1906-89) and Thomas Narcejac (1908-98), often billed simply as Boileau-Narcejac, who—like some two-headed Gallic Matheson—excelled at thrilling audiences on both page and screen. They wrote the novels upon which H.G. Clouzot’s oft-remade Diabolique (1955) and Eric Red’s Body Parts (1991) were based, and helped adapt Georges Franju’s Eyes Without a Face (1960) from the novel by Jean Redon. Perhaps the best-known entry in their filmography is Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958), based on their 1954 novel D’Entre les Morts (From Among the Dead), published in Geoffrey Sainsbury’s 1956 translation as The Living and the Dead.
The screenplay for Vertigo is credited to Alec Coppel and Samuel Taylor, yet according to Hitchcock biographer Donald Spoto, he used only Taylor’s material after rejecting earlier versions by esteemed playwright Maxwell Anderson and Coppel. Anderson (in whose Anne of the Thousand Days yours truly starred as Henry VIII in high school) had shared script credit on Hitchcock’s previous film, The Wrong Man (1956), with Angus MacPhail, who similarly rewrote his work. Taylor adapted Billy Wilder’s Sabrina (1954) from his own stageplay Sabrina Fair, along with Wilder and Ernest Lehman, who would write Hitch’s next film, North by Northwest (1959).
The majority of Hitchcock’s films were literary or stage adaptations, yet he was known for taking one or two elements that had drawn him to the material, and inventing the rest in close collaboration with his screenwriters. Sometimes he started with a potboiler such as Francis Beeding’s The House of Dr. Edwardes, which became Spellbound (1945), but he claimed that even John Buchan said Hitchcock had improved upon his novel The Thirty-Nine Steps, and an adaptation as faithful as Psycho (1960) was rare. However, although Vertigo updates the story from 1940s Paris to contemporary San Francisco, and invents the character of Midge Wood (Barbara Bel Geddes), a surprising number of elements in the novel have specific analogs in the film.
Police detective Roger Flavières left the force after his fear of heights indirectly caused a colleague to fall from a roof during an attempted arrest, and now reluctantly accepts an assignment from an old school friend, Paul Gévigne. The wealthy shipbuilder’s wife, Madeleine, periodically appears to be possessed by her great-grandmother, Pauline Lagerlac, who killed herself when she was Madeleine’s age, and whose necklace Madeleine inherited. Flavières follows the seemingly oblivious Madeleine to various locations—including Pauline’s grave and a small hotel that had been her home, where Madeleine rents an upstairs room—and saves her life when she tries to drown herself, just as Pauline did.
No longer able to follow Madeleine anonymously, Flavières begins joining her in her travels, falling in love with her in the process, and recognizes her detailed description of a small town she has seen in her “reveries” as an actual location. They visit the village and enter the church with its tall tower, but as she ascends to the belfry Flavières is overcome by his acrophobia, and watches in horror through a window as Madeleine plunges to her death from the tower, an apparent suicide. And yet, some time later, he chances to spot a woman who bears an uncanny resemblance to Madeleine, and obsessively begins following her as well.
Flavières starts a relationship with the woman, who swears she is not Madeleine but Renée Sourange, and begins trying to remake her in Madeleine’s image, down to her hairstyle and grey suit. When he discovers Pauline’s necklace in her possession, the truth comes out: Gévigne had recruited Renée to impersonate Madeleine in order to murder his wife, knowing that his vertigo would prevent Flavières from reaching the top of the tower and seeing Gévigne push the real, dead Madeleine—whom Flavières had never met—to the ground below. Renée dies during their final confrontation, leaving the devastated Flavières as a man who has lost the woman he loved…twice.
If that sounds to you like a recap of Vertigo with the names changed to protect the guilty, you’re not the only one, and it was a little disorienting to read the book with scenes from the film playing in my mind’s eye, right down to the detail of the green light coming through the window of Renée’s hotel room. But for all its fidelity, it has three main points of departure from the novel: the aftermath of Madeleine’s death, the manner in which John “Scottie” Ferguson (James Stewart) encounters Judy Barton (Kim Novak), and the circumstances of her own death. In each case, with all due respect to Boileau-Narcejac, I think Hitchcock and Taylor surpassed their source.
Scottie does exactly what Flavières was expected to do, providing Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore) with the perfect alibi by testifying to “Madeleine’s” suicidal tendencies at an inquest presided over by the hilariously sarcastic coroner (Henry Jones). Flavière, on the other hand, throws a monkey wrench into Gévigne’s plan by concealing the fact that he was present when she died, leading the police to investigate her husband and beneficiary as a natural suspect, since she was seen driving toward the village with an unidentified man. This leads, again indirectly, to a comeuppance that Elster does not meet, or at least is not shown to, when Gévigne’s car is machine-gunned by a plane (presumably German) as he tries to flee Paris and police scrutiny.
In the film, Scottie is institutionalized for an unspecified period after the tragedy, while Flavière, rejected by the army for medical reasons, sits out the war with a lucrative legal practice in Dakar, and soon after returning to Paris spots Renée in a newsreel. This seems even unlikelier than Scottie happening to see Judy on the sidewalk, as Flavières uses his detecting skills to track Renée down, and in an amazing piece of luck discovers that she is still staying at the same hotel in front of which the newsreel footage was shot. Finally, the enraged Flavière strangles her, apparently unintentionally, after he learns the truth, whereas having Judy’s death mirror Madeleine’s provides an ending whose circularity befits the film’s spiral motif and Möbius-strip plotting.
As Taylor told Spoto, Hitchcock “knew exactly what he wanted to do, and he explained several scenes in meticulous detail. But…I realized that the characters had to be personalized and humanized, and further developed.” In that light, Midge fulfills two functions, not only aiding in the exposition—as does Argosy Bookshop owner Pop Liebl (Konstantin Shayne), another invented character—but also humanizing Scottie through their somewhat troubled relationship. Casting Stewart, that most amiable of actors, probably helped the most, yet it is the intensity of Scottie’s darker aspects, however much more likeable he may be than the crotchety Flavières, that makes Vertigo one of his and Hitchcock’s best films.
It’s been said that Hitch’s primary leading men reflected him as he wished to be—Cary Grant in Suspicion (1941), Notorious (1946), To Catch a Thief (1955), and North by Northwest—and as he saw himself: Stewart in Rope (1948), Rear Window (1954), and The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956). The nakedly self-revelatory Vertigo dramatized a penchant for remaking his leading ladies, most notoriously with Tippi Hedren in The Birds (1963) and Marnie (1964), and it is no surprise that he retreated to safe, if familiar, entertainment with North by Northwest. Hitchcock felt betrayed when a pregnant Vera Miles, who had starred in The Wrong Man, turned down Vertigo; ironically, by the time the script problems and other delays were resolved, she was available, and although sticking with Novak, he later cast Miles in Psycho.
Needless to say, Robert Burks’s dreamlike photography and Bernard Herrmann’s aptly vertiginous score contributed immeasurably to the film’s effectiveness, as did the well-chosen northern California locations. Opinions differ regarding the quality of Novak’s performance, yet many felt that she was eminently suited to the dual role of, first, a woman who is out of it half the time and, second, a Kansas shopgirl molded by an obsessive Svengali. Hitchcock’s controversial decision to tip the audience off sooner than the authors did makes Scottie’s manipulation of Judy less objectionable, since we already know—even if he does not—that she is an accomplice to murder, but in any case, the result is an unforgettable characterization and a cinematic masterpiece.