Fear of Falling
Daniel Cockburn on Vertigo


Aren’t you ever gonna get married?

You know there’s only one man in the world for me, Johnny-o.

You mean me. We were engaged once, though, weren’t we?

CUT TO a high-angle CU of Midge. She glances up at Scottie, then back down at her work.

Far off, muffled, a CAR HORN HONKS.

Three whole weeks.

Ah, good old college days…

It’s the first dialogue scene in Hitchcock’s Vertigo, an easy, enjoyable, story-setting-up banter between our lovable troubled protagonist, Scottie (James Stewart), and his lady friend, Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes), a woman whose bespectacled bookishness holds her sensuality in check (she works for a ladies’ fashion company, but as a draughtsperson, not as a model). Her unrequited love for Scottie is relegated to a Platonic plane just as her character is relegated to this function: she’s there to throw Scottie’s map of psychosis into relief rather than to be a locale unto herself.

But what I remember most vividly from this scene—and when I say “remember,” I refer not to the first time I saw Vertigo (too young to “get it”; too young to know what self-destructive obsession really meant), but to my re-encountering it, a decade hence and full of avid film-student open-eyed receptivity, via a VHS collector’s-edition making-of documentary—is the honk of that car horn.

The commentators on this doc were waxing hagiographic about how Hitchcock would fix his camera in close-up on his actors and tell them, “Look up . . . look down . . . to your left . . . ,” acquiring seemingly meaningless and performance-less footage of looks and eyelines, and then he would cut these shots in at pertinent points. Their chosen example: Scottie says, “We were engaged once, weren’t we?”, Midge glances up at him for a half second in a pointedly high-angle close-up, and lo and behold: a moment devoid of performer’s intent or inflection nevertheless becomes a meaning-laden window into emotional inner space. This was manna to me, Exhibit-A proof of the dictums I’d greedily consumed: the Kuleshov Effect, the admonitions of David Mamet, the deadpan emotionalism of Hartley and Jarmusch, and the theological aphorisms of Bresson—all those odes to “uninflected filmmaking” which through careful cold planning is infused with the filmmaker’s will.

So Midge’s reaction shot was, I agreed then and now, a sublime moment. But even at that moment, I wondered how they could neglect to mention that car horn, that far-off sound which I still attribute to Hitchcock. It’s the only noticeable exterior-traffic sound in this whole Hollywood-studio sound-stage scene, obviously not an accident, its intentionality especially obvious for the way the honking sound syncs perfectly with Midge’s glance, making of this moment a significance. But significant of what?

Significant of this moment’s meaningfulness, for sure—the tiny upward eye-shiver, married to this almost-musical sound cue, cannot help but be read as a minor revelation, a few frames wherein Midge lets her guard down (not to Scottie, but to us). We know this is a moment of deeper resonance for her than our protagonist realizes. But significant also of something else: of a man behind the curtain, of the fact that we have a window on a world where the sound is obviously orchestrated, where everything is cued in a choreography of eyes and horns and motions and sounds, combining to form a meaning greater than any of this play’s puppets can be aware of.

What would you think, how would you feel, if you were engaged in a two-hander conversation, and a fraught moment came and went, as they so often do, without either of you remarking on it, and you happened to notice that this moment happened to be marked by a noise coming from elsewhere, a totally unrelated noise that nevertheless felt perfect, felt scored, too perfect to be believed but also too perfect to be denied. Would you love it? Would you shrug it off? Would it give you pause, or awe, or fear? The fact is: this kind of thing happens all the time. The question is: what do you make of it?

And behind that question: do you make something different of it when it happens in a movie than when it happens in reality? Think carefully before you answer. Because what are movies, if not the creation of little universes we can compare to our own? And what is the act of watching, writing about, and thinking about movies, if not the act of training ourselves for watching and considering our own world, or at least testing out perceptual paradigms to see how well they work? But in this cinema-bound life-lessons training session, there is one certainty that we have, a luxury (or maybe a restraint) that we don’t have in reality. We know, when watching a movie, that it was made.

And so we thrill to these synchronicities because the synchronicity is intentional. We look at a movie and we see a network of happenings, all of which are component parts of this constructed world: a world that we look at, evaluate, make sense of, as a series of choices that came from somewhere. We can read and decode this web in any number of ways—as an expression of the director’s conscious intent, or as a Freudian revelation of his/her unconscious, or as a text to be opened up in any direction—but regardless of the tack we take, our starting point is the assumption that the movie is a thing to be read, connections traced and ideas decoded.

So we watch and think and talk about movies as a series of choices made by a controlling creative force. And it’s that force, that behind-the-scenes will, that we are thinking of when we read the text, when we open up the movie world and trace connections and talk about similarities, contrasts, motifs—when we derive meaning from the film.

Those who read the real world this way are generally thought of as being in the grip of delusion—or, depending on your point of view, faith.

We know that films are made up of unconnected moments, scissored from our world and pinned to a timeline of similarly snipped events. No reason to be frightened of that—why should we be? We sense an authorial mind and hand behind the scissors and the pin, we know someone has sliced this glance and this car-horn from their original environs and stitched them together in celluloid . . . and we feel a sort of weird elation at having noticed that mind and identified with it, identified with the will to snip and order and infuse. This elation is well and widely taught, and it goes hand in hand with the compulsion to watch and consider a movie as a network of intentions. In watching film, this is commonly called the auteur theory; in life, it’s known as paranoia.

Although Scottie and Midge don’t, by our everyday standards, actually exist, we nevertheless consider them extant on some fictional level—we talk about their characters having motivations and imaginable experiences. Given that, ask yourself: did they notice the car horn?

Neither of them seemed to. Scottie’s so oblivious to all but his own charms and neuroses that it’s hard to imagine him noticing a distant, natural sound when he can’t even see the frustrated lust trying to catch his eye half a room away. Although, ironically, this is just the sort of thing to which Scottie becomes dangerously over-attuned: Vertigo is the story of his transformation into a man unable to distinguish the world outside from the one inside, falling into a spiral of déjà vus and recurring motifs where the compulsion to make meaning of coincidence and repetition overrides all other impulses—as apt an avatar for a film audience as I could imagine.

But let’s suppose Midge did notice it. Just because she didn’t mention it doesn’t mean she didn’t hear it: often it’s the most intense and troubling experiences that we choose to keep private. And let’s ask ourselves: if she heard the horn, what did she think? Did she think, “Boy, that sound sure came at a strangely apropos time,” or “Thank goodness something filled up that awkward silence”? Or did she think, from whence this occurrence? And by whose hand?

According to the anecdotal history, Barbara Bel Geddes didn’t know that Hitchcock was going to use her glance in that manner. And it’s highly unlikely that she knew a car horn would be layered over it to make her flicker of vulnerability into a pleasurable music-like movie moment. But this is even more certain: Midge had no idea that she looked up then, in that way, not because she wanted to, but because Hitchcock told Bel Geddes to look up. Does this make your heart go out to Midge? It does mine; poor girl, never knowing that her most internal moments are the result of the intentions and actions of people whom she’ll never know, whose existences she could never even imagine.

But I also imagine this: maybe Midge did hear the car horn honk, even if only at some outer edge of awareness, and maybe it did awaken something in her, some impossible to articulate knowledge or unscratchable itch. I imagine that she dimly wondered, for a split second, if she was part of a web of meaning, if there were perhaps some other vantage point, inaccessible to her, from which someone else watching might be able to see the shape of her world and understand her place in it. And whether she found it comforting or terrifying is anybody’s guess—but whether we find comfort or terror in similar moments of coincidence in our own real world is up to us, years of training in darkened flickering rooms notwithstanding.

If, in a film, the intersections of motifs and coincidences stand out too much, we read the intentionality as being too blatant. The filmmaker’s hand is too visible, and we say that we can no longer suspend our disbelief. The movie becomes a piece of music, a progression of self-contained, aestheticized moments. And the more we think of it this way, the more it becomes divorced from representation, from life: just a series of faces and objects moving around the screen while a musique concrète plays on the soundtrack. (This mode of perception exists in life, too. It’s called dissociating.)

But why do we need to “suspend our disbelief”? As though disbelief is the foundation on which an elaborate and opaque façade of believability must be constructed. And so it is . . . in film worlds. We have trained ourselves well in this. But, for those of us who have trained ourselves too well, who swallowed Bresson and Kuleshov and the auteur theory too fully at too formative a time, who have internalized the habit and made disbelief our own personal ground-state, the coincidental honking of a real-life car horn can be a dangerous thing, a moment where the authorial intention behind the universe makes itself uncomfortably apparent, and we can no longer suspend our disbelief in the world. Moments like these are trapdoors through which we might at any time suddenly fall, into a spiral of déjà vus and recurring motifs where the compulsion to make meaning of coincidence and repetition overrides all other impulses.

But there is hope: hope that the auteur theory is not all it’s cracked up to be, just as a paranoia (though it makes perfect sense to the paranoiac) is in actuality a delusion.

And I think of this close-up, the glance, and the smile—did I mention the smile? No, partly because I hadn’t remembered it until I reviewed this scene, and the Hitchcock mystique certainly doesn’t account for it, what with its adulation of his method, his supposed puppet-mastery of degree-zero performances. But that’s not what happens here; she looks up, the car horn honks, and she smiles. These things all happen at once. And it’s a wry, wan, knowing smile, one that to my eyes contains sadness but also a deep awareness, a resigned acceptance of her position on the sidelines, something a bit like wisdom and a bit like happiness. Who is smiling there? It’s not Hitchcock. It’s definitely Barbara Bel Geddes. But I think it might be Midge too.