“Do you believe that someone out of the past, someone dead, can enter and take possession of a living being?” Gavin Elster asks retired detective Scottie Ferguson at the beginning of the 1958 masterpiece, Vertigo, Hitchcock’s strange tale of obsessive love.
But is it Gothic? Of course it is, as much as that other classic of obsessive love, Wuthering Heights. Gothic doesn’t always require the histrionics of thunderstorms and old dark houses, though the Gothic eye candy is always appreciated.
Vertigo has its fair share of Gothic tropes: the woman apparently possessed by an ancestor who committed suicide after a long battle with mental illness; the old dark house, the McKittrick Hotel, once home to the mad Carlotta Valdes; the mysterious portrait (Carlotta again), and a nifty bit of repressed Freudian symbolism with the metaphorically mpotent Scottie unable to save the beguiling Madelyn Elster when she makes her ascent into that juicy phallic symbol, the bell tower at San Juan Bautista.
Besides, Bernard Herrmann’s score is one of his best. I can’t imagine the film without it, and find myself listening to it repeatedly during writing sessions for my own Gothic fiction. It’s lushly romantic and appropriately punctuated by moments of mystery and sheer suspense.
It’s no wonder that Hammer Studios, inspired by the third act plot gymnastics of Vertigo and Hitch’s other masterpiece, Psycho, tried their hand at Gothic tinged psychological thrillers such as Scream of Fear, Paranoiac, and Nightmare with varying degrees of success.
If you’ve never seen Vertigo, or haven’t watched it lately, February 14th is a great day to revisit this mesmerizing ode to obsessive love. Is there any other kind?