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  • Writer's pictureCraig Messenger

The Evolutionary Themes of Hitchcock’s Vertigo

Hitchcock films hold a special sort of cachet with me. I’m not sure why. I don’t think that they’re the absolute greatest films of all time. I didn’t watch them with her or him or them. I talked to my grandpa about them a few times. The films. I wonder how many he had actually seen.

But I watched Vertigo the other day – I think it was my second time. In most of his Hitchcock appearances, Jimmy Stewart is really more damsel in distress than savior. Going on and on and on about waiting just a minute. Falling over all the time – a cherry solider without the tact or athleticism to actually solve the problem. Kind of made me wonder who let him out of It’s a Wonderful Life, what their punishment should be.

Scottie – before the fall

Yet overshadowing Stewart’s strange way of being in his final Hitchcock collaboration was the film’s wonderful illustration of the key foible of man. A foible so key that it has kept him well fed over the years.

Vertigo’s third act reverberates with the desperation of a man so obsessed with his desires that he can’t be bothered to experience them. Its increasingly poignant examples of the guy who just doesn’t get it crest into a punchline so plainly obvious (albeit earned) that even you saw it coming – and you’re not that good at that sort of thing.

But when we watch it unfold, it tears at us a bit. We cringe. It’s meant to be cringeworthy. When Scottie goes on that spree – when. he. just. can’t. stop. himself. – we all coalesce.

We suffer together that tragic fate of man… his – no, my painstakingly futile quest for the ephemerality of possession.

We realize somewhere between the gray suit and those brown shoes that – well golly, we’ve got a pair of each in the closet!

Judy’s continual tosses of rejected life rafts into Scottie’s turbulent waters – as she grips those brunette locks with her final fibers of hope – remind us that Vertigo is a film condemning the self-destructive human condition of wanting.

Judy pleads with Scottie, begs him, to just be here, now. And he nods along politely until he realizes, callously proclaims even, that here would be so much nicer if we could just do something about these crummy floors.

The unsettling pit in your stomach stems from the realization that we are all Scottie far more often than we are Judy. Judy is the hallowed soul already through her crucible, that life experience so transcendent as to cleanse her of the sapien convention to consume. She’s become free to sit under the tree… watch the apples fall.

But most of us shop with Scottie. We think with him too. We lunch together, our offices are even right next to each other! That next thing, the next line item to check off, the next next, and then it’ll be perfect!

But it won’t be then, because it already is now.

Why can’t we get that through to this state-of-the-art cerebral cortex? (…she’s top of the line, by the way)

Because this thing’s made of unadulterated animal adaptation, and that’s a hell of a drug!

Judy – after the fall

Natural selection is often a convenient mental framework to parse ideas through. Organic matter does something, and we ask what would Darwin have to say about it?

I like to check in with him often about things of this sort. After ruminating on Vertigo and realizing that the mental cataloguing and pursuit of things is more tantalizing than the eventual possession of those very things – Chuck would remind us that the hungry animal is the dangerous one.

That the cat perched comfortably, chewing on a limb is fat. Slow.

Maybe human kind and our ancestors kept making so many kick-ass babies all this time because we want rather than enjoy. In the transience of a revelous dinner, the caloric clock ticks on.

And we can understand this phenomenon. It makes sense. But it’s a real chore to turn off. Millennia of carefully crafted natural intuition is a tough shield to shake. And so it has endured, and in this well-fed time it’s seeped into other aspects of human psychology ­– those more honed to collect than to nourish.

Judy has marched the path through these muddied waters of want. Hitchcock’s Buddha. That path chaperoned by some transformative experience of mind…one that heightens our senses – heightens ­our appreciation – of the present and finally lets the future go.

Maybe you’d like to try on the path for yourself, see if it suits you? We’re actually having a sale..

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