Jimmy Stewart never struck us as all that nice. There were, sure, the poems he’d read about pints of milk or his dog named Beau on Johnny Carson. (Sample verse: “He bit lots of folks from day to day,/ The delivery boy was his favorite prey.”) But that was when he was so old he needed glasses big enough to make him look like the owl in a Tootsie Pop commercial. Actually think for a second about the characters he played: they were, the best ones, colossal dickheads.
In The Philadelphia Story, for instance, he’s condescending, too wry, a tabloid reporter stuck covering a society wedding who gets loaded and tries to bone the bride-to-be. In Rear Window, it’s bad enough that he’s become, trapped in that wheelchair, this peeping tom, creepy, obsessed, but he also treats Grace Kelly most of the time like she’s a flesh-eating virus he might catch. And in It’s a Wonderful Life, George Bailey may be the bulwark that prevents Bedford Falls from devolving into Potterville, but the man is also self-righteous, self-pitying, driven easily to suicide, and a screamer. This is the bravery of Jimmy Stewart. He didn’t hedge for your sympathies, he screwed with them. He undermined his sappy, sad face with nasty, sinister eyes; and used that timorous, aw-shucks voice to say the most terrible things.
Which brings us to Vertigo. It’s on TCM, this Saturday evening, at 5:45. Don’t count on doing much afterward, because it tends to leave a person pretty fucked up. But it’s Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece and maybe the finest American movie ever made, our apologies to Godfather fans.
Here, Jimmy Stewart plays Scottie, a detective forced to retire because dizziness hits him at any height above chair level. Kim Novak plays the rich woman he’s hired to tail, who is probably sick in the head but may be possessed by the ghost of a Spanish noblewoman, whom he falls in love with and loses. Ms. Novak plays too the shopgirl he meets later on, also loves, wants to possess.
So, he remakes the shopgirl in the image of the dead rich woman. He’s like a Hollywood talent agent manipulating some kid fresh off the bus into the shape of a starlet. He re-creates the style of gray suit he remembers, dies her hair platinum blond and twists it back up into the tree-ring knot he longs to caress. “Judy, please, it can’t matter to you!” is what he pleads, as he dolls her up and destroys her.
Maybe the detective parts of him are still whirring and humming inside, putting her puzzle together piece by piece, deducing with great difficulty why the rich woman and the shopgirl look so much alike, making the mystery make sense. But he’s also so deeply disturbed, so awful and broken, that Freud and a whole team of Viennese psychiatrists wouldn’t be able to figure him out. Hell, they couldn’t even name what he’s got. His vertigo, bad enough, becomes a disequilibrium that can never be righted. We think Scottie’s weirder and scarier than Heath Ledger’s Joker, but because he wears a Jimmy Stewart suit and Jimmy Stewart seeming-good intentions instead of facial scars and war paint, it’s hard to see.
Anyway, for anyone who doesn’t already know, we’re loathe to spoil the ending, so all we’ll say is that Scottie cures himself of his vertigo, but the cure is tragic.
And about Kim Novak, who you’ll mourn twice, she had the crazy knack of acting both earthy and uncanny. We recommend following Vertigo up with one of two other Kim Novak movies: Kiss Me Stupid, a Billy Wilder sex-farce co-starring Dean Martin as a grosser, hornier, even drunker version of himself, or The Notorious Landlady, the comic thriller she made in London with Jack Lemmon and Fred Astaire. In each of these films, she again plays someone pretending to be someone else, but these masquerades end happily. Of course, there’s no real antidote for Vertigo.