Sunday, 13 May 2012

Hitch, Marty and Chris: Vertigo and Its Spiritual Descendants

Warning: Spoilers for Vertigo, Shutter Island and Inception Follow

In 2010, Leonardo DiCaprio starred in two films that were linked not just by his presence but by their obsession with reality versus dreams, the deconstruction of professionalism through emotional turmoil, the way romantic desire can be twisted by the mind and...obsession. The two films were Martin Scorsese's Shutter Island and Christopher Nolan's Inception. While Comparing the two of them would be fascinating, I'd like to link them back to Alfred Hitchcock's 1958 film Vertigo. Shutter Island and Inception, arguably moreso than the other genres and films they refrence, contain significent thematic similarities to Hitchcock's film.

All three films are essentially mazes crafted by their respective directors, and also by characters in the films. for their protagonists to travel through, reaching an emotional chararis or realization about themeselves. The catch is the characters don't know they're in a maze or think they know what kind of maze they're in. In Vertigo former detective John 'Scottie" Ferguson (James Stewart) feels he understands what's happenng every step of the way At first, he believes that Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore) just has an active imagination, that his wife Madeline (Kim Novak) couldn't really be possessed by a sprit- but as he learns more about Madeline's great-grandmother Carlotta Valdes, he begins to believe there's something to Elster's story.


What Scottie fails to understand is he's part of  Elster's plan to murder his real wife. The Madeline Scottie follows is just a decoy. Scottie sees what he believes to be Madeline committing suicide from jumpng of the top of a bell tower. What he actually sees is the dead body of the real Madeline Elster. With Scottie a witness, Elster gets away scott free.


Scottie is also part of Hitchcock's maze, which ties the plot and the psychological aspects of the Scottie character together. Htchcock takes Scottie on a journey from a man emotionally detached but curious former detective to a man obsessively in love with Madeline, so in love that he makes over Judy (Novak again), the decoy Madeline, back in to Madeline. Hitchcock eventually leads Scottie to finally overcoming his acrophobia. Hitchcock also brings Scottie to a revelation about his obsessive love for Madeline: it can never be real because Madeline was never real, at least not the one he knew. By makng Judy over all he's done is, like Elster, strip away Judy's identity for a dream. Men, and I speak as one myself, sometimes cling to a fantasy woman rather than something tangiable in front of us. What's disturbing is in Scottie's case the fantasy woman and the real woman are the same. He comes to the realization about his obsession, it's too late to go back- and as Judy falls to her death, for real this time, Scottie loses the real woman he could not love. As Scottie is standing outside the bell tower, he's come out of the maze- what kind of man and what his future holds remains one of the great mysteries of film.


In Vertigo, Scottie is a former detective, spendng most of the film outside of his profession while still taking part in it. In Martin Scorsese's Shutter Island, Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a former US Marshall who is a patient at Ashcliffe Hosptal for the Criminally Insane on Shutter Island. His real name is Andrew Laeddis and he went insane after killing his wife Dolores (Michelle Williams) who in turn had murdered their three children.Teddy spends the movie outside of his profession yet taking part in it as well. He has created a reality where he is still a US Marshall and has come to Shutter Island to invetigate the disappearance of a patient named Rachel Solondo (Emily Mortimer).

As with Vertigo, the plot mechanics of Shutter Island are a fabrication. In this case, a fabrication made by Teddy to esccape from his guilt of not helpng his wife who he knew was mentally ill. Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley) allows Teddy to play out his fantasy, which also includes Nazi experiements done on the island, so that Teddy can come to realize the truth and come to accept what's he done. Vertgio takes us through what seems like several genres, thriller, mystery, ghot story, gothic romance until it reveals itself to be a character study about obsessive love. Shutter Island travels through film noir, paranoid conspiracy thriller, horror and romance, and, at the top of a lighthouse, reveals itself to be a story about the way film narratives comfort and help us escape from reality. Scorsese creates a tribute to the films he loves and also ties them in to the pyschology of the Teddy character. Teddy has created a world that, uncomforting as it is, is more bearable than the truth.  Horror movies can scare us but they do so in mangeable ways. Film noirs have a cynicism to them but they also have style to burn.

I think the strongest link between Vertigo and Shutter Island are the themes of lost love and trying to reclaim that love through fantasy. Teddy constantly dreams about and imagines Dolores. Part of his illusion is that Dolores died in an apartment fire started by ''Andrew Laeddis," who Teddy is looking for on Shutter Island. Teddy has preserved Dolores the way she was rather than what she became. He preserves her in time like Scottie preserves Madeleine and just as Scottie made over Judy, Teddy has made over his subconscious. Teddy, like Scottie, has to come to the realization, that his love is a fantasy. The real Dolores, and his relationship with her was destroyed when she murdered her children. Teddy has to confront the real woman, not the dream, not the fantasy.

Vertigo and Shutter Island are both about the crumbling of professionalism through romantic desire. Scottie is at first a detached but curious observer but things become more complicated when he falls in love. Teddy's mission, while a fantasy, is complicated by the appearance of Dolores, who feeds in to his paranoia, thus making his fantasy much more dangerous.

A dead wife who appears in the protagonist's dreams is the most humourous connection between Shutter Island and Christopher Nolan's Inception. Nolan has been compared to Stanley Kubrick and drew inspiration from Ridley Scott and Michael Mann for his Batman films. For me, I see him comparisons between him and Hitchcock. Like Hitchcock, Nolan's films exist in a heightened reality. On the surface are films driven by twists and turns, elements that have led Nolan to be labelled a shallow director -"amusing but mechanical"- according to critic Jim Emerson. In his time Hitchcock also seemed to be the victim, I and I think still is, of being labelled shallow.  But, like Hitchcock, beneath Nolan's plot mechanics lie interesting psychological studies of obsession.

I think Inception, out of all Nolan's films, has the strongest thematic links to Hitchcock, which brings me back to the role of the dead wife in the film. Leonardo DiCaprio again has a lost love on his mind. He plays Dom Cobb. He's an extractor, a man who is hired to steal infomation from powerful people. He does this by having an architect build a dream world he and the subject can enter. Once inside Cobb can extract the information needed. Things are complicated by the constant appearance of Cobb's deceased wife Mal (Marion Cotillard).

Cobb and Mal spent 50 years in the dream world known as Limbo. Mal began to lose track of reality, which led Cobb to perform inception on her, convincing her that they needed to kill themselves in order to wake up. Once in the real world Mal still believed she was in a dream world, which led her to suicide. In Vertigo, it was partly Scottie's guilt for what he believed was Madeleine's death that led him to make over Judy in to his lost love. In Inception, it's also guilt that causes Cobb to hold on to the memory of his wife, to create a vision that doesn't blame him for anything, that's preserved in time, even moreso than Madeleine or Dolores. Like Teddy, Cobb has made over his subsconscious, and even stays in it to visit and be with Mal.

Inception is all about mazes. The dream worlds Ariadne (Ellen Page) create for the job to incept Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy) are all designed to be mazes- and ultimately the film is a maze that not only the Cobb and his team send Fischer through, but that Nolan sends Cobb through as well. The maze in case requires Cobb to downwards, both literally and metaphorically. "Downwards is the only way forwardss" he says- which speaks for his character arc. To let go of his guilt and the fantasy he clings on to, he must go downwards back to Limbo.

All three films end on the top of a building of somesort. In Vertigo, it's the bell tower, In Shutter Island it's the lighthouse and in Inception the film ends on the top floor of a building in Limbo. In in these places where everything is revealed and the characters reach an emotional catharsis of sorts. It's in this building that Cobb tells Mal

"I can't imagine you with all your complexity, all you perfection, all your imperfection. Look at you. You are just a shade of my real wife. You're the best I can do; but I'm sorry, you are just not good enough"

 Cobb realizes he can't bring back Mal back from the dead. Like Scottie, all he can do is create an image, a fantasy. There are echoes of Andrei Tartovsky's Solaris in Shutter Island and Inception, and Solaris may owe much to Vertigo. All four films are about a romantic desire that's can't be completely fullfilled, how you can never really know who the person you love really is.

Vertigo, Shutter Island and Inception all concern the nature of dreams and their relationship to filmmaking. Much has been made of how we never see how Scottie got down from the roof at the beginning of the film. Is everything after the first scene some kind of dream. The film almost moves like a dream, with plot points that don't make sense and several concidences. The scenes of Scottie following Madeleine also have a dreamy quality to them. Shutter Island's dream sequences evoke different genres, from melodrama to horror, relating to the movie Teddy has crafted for himself in the real world. Inception combines several genres, the heist film, the spy thriller, film noir, sci-fi and even a little bit of Fred Astaire. Nolan does this to emphasize how movies themselves are like dreams.

All three films also involve continous loops, relating to the constant loops films are on- when we rewatch them the characters go through the same motions even if we know the story. Scottie ends the movie standing over an abyss, where he began the film. Cawley compares Teddy to a tape that's on a endless loop. Inception begins with Cobb in Limbo and eventually returns to that scene at the end. Teddy breaks this endless loop by pretending to regress again, making the surgeons perform a lobotomy on him. Cobb makes Saito (Ken Watanabe) realize he's in Limbo, making Saito shoot himself and Cobb to wake up.       

The last shot of Inception is Cobb's totem spinning on the table. The film cuts to black before we know if it topples. Cobb, while happier than Scottie is at the end of Vertigo, is suspended between dreams and reality. We're always suspended between not knowing what is real and what isn't. Are we constantly dreaming? We ultimately have to accept what is given to us- if life is a dream, make it a happy one.


  1. Oops--I still haven't seen EITHER Shutter Island or Inception, but you're making me want to watch them more than ever. Thanks for the nudge.....

  2. You're welcome :) I'll have to put the spoiler warning on the post. They're really good films. I feel Shutter Island, in particular, is underrated.