Lost in the Dissolve: Another Lady Vanishes in Hitchcock’s VERTIGO
20 July 2014
Marjorie Wood (Barbara Bel Geddes), called Midge by her good friend John Ferguson (James Stewart)—whom she calls Johnny or sometimes Johnny-O—is a secondary character in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1958 thriller Vertigo. Midge, as she is most often referred, is a “plain-Jane,” glasses-wearing realist. She is articulate, intelligent, independent, and a talented artist. When the film begins, the audience meets Midge, having left her paintbrushes behind, pursuing a career as a brassiere designer. According to Midge, the job “pays the bills.”
Sadly, Midge is in love with Johnny, who happens to be her former fiancé from their college days, but Johnny does not see Midge romantically anymore; to Johnny, Midge is a great friend who he can go out for beers with. Even when Johnny, a detective, suffers a terrible trauma on the job, and Midge cares for him, Johnny is still unable to see Midge as a lover; addressing herself on more than one occasion as “mother,” Midge is maternal, not sexy. Nevertheless, the two seem very close and spend a lot of time together…until Midge disappears from the film without any explanation. Although unintentional on Hitchcock’s part, in Vertigo Midge vanishes without a word, communicating to viewers that independent and self-reliant women are easily discarded.
As stated, Midge is a sensible woman; pragmatist would be an accurate way of describing her. And, initially, this characterization compliments the equally pragmatic Johnny. As a detective, Johnny would have to be a logical thinker, reliant on evidence in decision-making, and in complete emotional control. Yet, when Johnny suffers a near death experience, he decides to quit the police force. Even though Midge encourages him to stay, Johnny refuses to return to work, perhaps fearful that the acrophobia and vertigo he now has as a result of the trauma will present him obstacles on the job. Unbeknownst to the two friends, Johnny’s refusal to return to work is the beginning of Midge’s end.
With spare time available, Johnny meets with an old friend from college, a friend Midge does not remember—which should have been a red flag to Johnny about this mystery friend’s credibility, as Midge seems the type of person who would remember everyone. This old friend hires Johnny to watch his wife, Madeline (Kim Novak). According to him, Madeline may be possessed by the spirit of Carlotta Valdes, a young woman jilted by a lover and driven to suicide. Despite the supernatural nature of the case, Johnny takes on the investigation, a decision which will eventually push Midge out of his life.
As Johnny becomes more and more involved with his case, Midge begins questioning his investigation. Johnny shares little with Midge, perhaps because he knows her sensible mind will not take his case’s ghostly circumstances seriously, or because his interest in the sultry Madeline distracts Johnny from acknowledging Midge. Either way, the more invested Johnny becomes in Madeline and her apparent possession, the further away he moves from Midge, despite Midge’s efforts to remain a part of his life.
The once pragmatic friends are now an awkward pairing; Midge is still as matter-of-fact as ever, but Johnny begins to slip into a world full of illusions. Had Johnny talked to Midge about the case, as she seemed to want him to, Midge, likely, would have helped Johnny see the facts through the illusions. Midge would have been his anchor, rooting him on logic and reality. However, Johnny goes willingly into the world of illusion.
This decision leads him right into another trauma, Madeline’s death. One may assume Madeline’s demise would end his investigation and restore his life to what it was before he took on this case, but that is not the direction Vertigo takes. Instead of returning to reality from his world of illusions, Johnny enters a new world, one of complete delusion. And, remembering how reality-based Midge is, a world of delusions is no place for Midge and she, literally, disappears from the film without explanation.
There are a few ways one can read Midge’s disappearance. First, in her final scene, the audience sees Midge standing alone in a hallway of the sanatorium Johnny has been placed in. Juxtaposing this final shot with her current status in Johnny’s life, Midge is standing in the place she does not belong. She tries to keep footing in Johnny’s life, but as his illusions turn to delusions, she no longer belongs with him. And, in Midge’s final scene, she stands in the hallway of a sanatorium full of people out of touch with reality, a place this woman, who is grounded in reality, does not belong. And so, in one of the film’s dissolves, Midge disappears.
From a feminist perspective, Midge’s independence seals her fate in Vertigo, a fate worse than death, eradication. The other women in the film (Carlotta, Madeline, and Judy) all die; their stories are each carried through to an end. Their deaths are linked to the men each woman loved: Carlotta eventually kills herself after the love of her life discards her, Madeline’s husband kills her, and Judy’s accidental fall to death is the result of an argument with Johnny. Yet, Midge does not die like the other women; she is not granted an ending. And, the difference between Midge and the other women is that Midge is independent, meaning not romantically or financially bound to a man.
Carlotta, Madeline, and Judy’s deaths are all tragic, but Midge’s disappearance is the film’s greatest tragedy. She is not given the dignity of an ending, of some closure; standing alone, she effortlessly dissolves as Hitchcock moves into the next scene.
Of all the things that can be said about the “Master of Suspense,” careless is certainly not one of them, is it? Can it be possible Hitchcock did not realize the implication about women and their worth he was making when he created an independent, intelligent, talented women, then undercut her by portraying her as completely undesirable, and finally allowing her to simply disappear without a word or care?
The answer is no, he is not careless. Hitchcock did not make Midge disappear, the studio did. Hitchcock filmed a final scene for Vertigo, one that was only discovered in the 1990s. After Judy’s death, Johnny returns to Midge’s apartment, not only recuperating the film so that Johnny returns from his delusion into reality, but also highlighting Midge, showing women can exist on film without being sex symbols; strong women can survive a film unchanged. Unfortunately, Hitchcock lost his last scene when his cut of Vertigo was censored. Amid the subliminal and subversive messages intentionally communicated by Hitchcock lies a unplanned message: women who are not attractive to men and dare to exist without a man deserve to be discarded. Terrifyingly, Vertigo’s 1950’s audiences did not take issue with Midge’s disappearance or its implications.
Retrospectively, early in the film, while in the bookshop inquiring about Carlotta, Midge and Johnny listen to the shopkeeper reminisce about the past, when Carlotta’s lover “threw her away.” The shopkeeper explains that men could discard women easily because “they had the power and they had the freedom.” The shopkeeper suggests times are different now; in the film’s world, men cannot abandon women as easily as they way they could before. Yet, apparently that shopkeeper, like Johnny, struggles with some illusions. In the film’s fictional world men are still abandoning women. And, even more frightening than that, upon Vertigo’s release in 1958, men have found a reel way to continue abandoning women in the real world. Inadvertently, Hitchcock proves the shopkeeper wrong by making Midge disappear, successfully abandoning a woman in Vertigo for all the world to see.