Vertigo: Symmetries, Synchronicity, and an Appointment in Samarra

Warning: Spoilers!!!

Warning: Spoilers!!!

Warning: Spoilers!!!

Warning: Spoilers!!!

Warning: Spoilers!!!

I first watched Vertigo (1958) probably about fourteen years ago. The film is one of the more unusual Alfred Hitchcock films of his oeuvre (alongside The Trouble with Harry (1955) and Mr. and Mrs. Smith (1941). Upon re-watching it, all of my original impressions–the clever symmetrical plot line, the ominous mood, the off-brand character played by Jimmy Stewart, and the stunning ending–were experienced, once again. But here, upon my second viewing, I’ve begun to see the film within a matrix of storytelling and associative cultural touch tones.

My thoughts about Vertigo are a whirlwind of narratological memories, a twister of similar films, myths, and tales. As I was watching the film, I googled something like “films like Vertigo,” because I knew I’d seen plot twists and characters like this before. There were some interesting connections, for sure; but the films I see floating in my cinematic funnel were different from those mentioned. I thought of films like Chinatown (1974), The Conversation (1974), the original Mission Impossible (1996), and Casino Royale (2006). Each of these films has a character whose actions bear resemblance to Kim Novak’s character (Judy/Madeline) in Vertigo; a character whose loyalties are conflicted and whose motives are mixed. Each of these have similar villains, plot twists, and romantic developments.

The connections between Vertigo and the other films I mentioned are numerous. Each of these films has an over-confident detective, a femme fatale, and a foggy reveal of reality. In three of these films, the femme fatale doesn’t like–or at least, wants to give up–her unseemly role in a murderous enterprise. She is part criminal and part victim, part temptress and part repentant lost soul. And in three of these four films, the detective character is either outwitted by others, or he is overwhelmed by the dizzying haze of complications. In other words, at the end of these films, detectives have their, “Forget it Jake, it’s Chinatown” moment. The same happens in Vertigo, with it’s stunning and abrupt ending.

I also can’t help but think of plots that seem so similar that I wonder if the writers were paying homage to Vertigo. In terms of television, there’s an episode of Monk (“Mr. Monk Goes to Vegas“) and an episode of Columbo (Prescription: Murder) that are unquestionably similar in how the villain attempts to manipulate others. I’m sure this only touches the surface of a grouping of films and stories with similar plots. Were they influenced by Hitchcock’s film; do they pay homage to it, or do they just share semi-common plot devices? Perhaps all these things.

Of course, none of these films really captures another element of Vertigo–the symmetrical, mind-bending, not quite fantasy, but almost too strange to be plausible unfolding of the story. Here again, I found myself, upon reviewing the film, like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz (1939), mixed up in the middle of a vortex of images, characters, and words all swirling around me. My first thoughts went to Juan Luis Borges, whose short stories require readers to think in terms of meta-fiction, meta-cognition, and the plausibility of paradoxes. The trippiness of “The South” will give any reader vertigo, and “The Circular Ruins” is a Descartes-esque story about dreams and dreamers. And if we’re going to talk about dreaming and being dreamed, then we need to talk about Inception (2010), a Christopher Nolan film, and Tenet (2020), a film that is most likely similar to Vertigo in its symmetry and repetition, though a very small world historical event (lol) has so far prevented me from seeing it.

There’s one final film that I think is worth mentioning–The Emperor’s Club (2002). This film fits into the “inspirational teacher/affected students” genre, and you might be thinking, “this film is like Vertigo?” Hear me out. Part of what makes Vertigo so fascinating and aesthetically pleasing it how it folds in on itself, each half–or so–repeating the other half. As Borges wrote in “The South,” [r]eality favors symmetries.” There’s something fascinating about a symmetrical story, something that helps to reveal whatever truths are contained within its narrative. The same thing is true with The Emperor’s Club.

In that film, William Hundert (Kevin Kline), a teacher at an elite school, has several run-ins with Sedgewick Bell (Emile Hirsch/Joel Gretsch). Each of these conflicts follow a similar set of frustrations, as Bell cheats and breaks the rules and Hundert tries to teach him otherwise. But the final two interactions between these two characters are symmetrical in a way that drives home the lessons of the film–that virtue is more than just a word and that a person’s character will ultimately catch up with one’s self. Bell’s compulsion to deny these two realities are, ironically, ultimately what proves them both to be true. And it’s the repetition of the story that reveals those truths. As the old saying indicates, “history [or in this case narrative] doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.”

In Vertigo, we see this sense of weird synchronicity, of rhyming and repetition that is all the more dizzying because the events of the story are mostly explainable. It would make sense that Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore) would seek John “Scottie” Ferguson to help him investigate his wife. It’s plausible that Scottie and Judy would fall in love. It’s probable that Midge Wood (Barbara Bel Geddes) would have a complicated set of feelings towards her almost-more-than-a-friend, Scottie. And the early psychological troubles Scottie wrestles with will presage his later dark obsessive turn with Judy. In this sense, the unusual events in the film are quite sensible and plausible.

But the probability of all of these events doesn’t explain their convergence to put Scottie in the same scenario three times, including two incidents that are basically identical. What does help to explain each of these instances is Scottie’s compulsions and actions. Scottie seems to dwell on his case of vertigo at the very beginning of the film, blaming himself, even as others don’t. This guilt colors his other decisions and frames his other problems in the film.

The guilt forces Scottie to relive that moment, in an almost compulsive reenactment. Scottie, perhaps out of a sense of guilt (and manipulation from Gavin), agrees to help his old friend by following Madeline. It’s Scottie’s recurrent secretiveness from Midge that leaves him alone to deal with his troubles, first with vertigo and then with Madeline. His obsession with Madeline complicates his already almost hopeless relationship with Judy. And it’s Scottie’s insistence on dramatically reliving that horrible day when he thought Madeline plunged to her death that leads him and Judy back to that tower, at the end of the film.

Of course, it isn’t Scottie’s fault alone. Midge’s refusal to come to terms with her feelings for Scottie creates a wedge between them that complicates his phobia and detective conundrums. And Judy’s choices, which are deeply unethical and self-destructive, certainly lead to her death, and her untimely death.

What these characters have in common is that they can foresee their impending mistakes, but they make them anyway; and it’s almost as if their insistence on avoiding those mistakes compels them further toward their inauspicious completion. Midge tells Scottie that the only way he can overcome his fear is by reliving it. Good advice perhaps, but also advice that ultimately leads to a tragic ending. In her quest to please her beloved Gavin, Judy uses a story of an historic woman (Carlotta Valdes) who is scorned by her lover–only to then find that she, Judy, will be scorned by Gavin, in basically the same way. Judy exploits the story of Carlotta’s suicide, but by doing so, pushes forward a series of steps that ultimately leads to her own demise. It is by trying to avoid their fate that in true Oedipal fashion each of these characters walk right into it.

All of this reminds me of a famous story that you may have heard of before, called “The Appointment in Samarra.” It’s a tale, much like that of Oedipus or Vertigo, about how a person’s attempt to defy fate, merely ensures that what’s fated will come to fruition.

There was a merchant in Bagdad who sent his servant to market to buy provisions and in a little while the servant came back, white and trembling, and said, Master, just now when I was in the marketplace I was jostled by a woman in the crowd and when I turned I saw it was Death that jostled me.  She looked at me and made a threatening gesture,  now, lend me your horse, and I will ride away from this city and avoid my fate.  I will go to Samarra and there Death will not find me.  The merchant lent him his horse, and the servant mounted it, and he dug his spurs in its flanks and as fast as the horse could gallop he went.  Then the merchant went down to the marketplace and he saw me standing in the crowd and he came to me and said, Why did you make a threating getsture to my servant when you saw him this morning?  That was not a threatening gesture, I said, it was only a start of surprise.  I was astonished to see him in Bagdad, for I had an appointment with him tonight in Samarra.

“The Appointment in Samarra” (as retold by W. Somerset Maugham [1933])

Vertigo is one of the most famous films of all time. The American Film Institute ranked it as #9 on their 2007 list of the greatest American films of all time. There’s any number of ways to engage with this film–it’s editing, acting, suspense, or its willingness to use its marquee actors in unusual ways. But one way that deserves mentioning, as I hope I’ve showed you, is as a film that demonstrates how fate is sometimes not the enemy of free will, but the product of our own choices–at least in part. (Of course, whence do those choices come from would be the next question?). It’s also, as can be seen, a film that converges together multiple different types of story telling, into one dizzying film that will give you leave you with . . . well . . . you know.

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