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An Inconsequential Yarn: Writing Alfred Hitchcock’s VERTIGO

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“They say every true San Franciscan has one foot on a hill and the other in the past.”—Kate in Samuel Taylor’s The Pleasure of His Company 
Since Vertigo is a film that garners such personal reactions, I wanted to begin this piece on something of a personal note. It’s not a matter of whether one likes the film or doesn’t.  For those who truly connect with Vertigo, it’s because it resonates with something inside of them. I was in high school when I saw Vertigo for the first time and the build up to seeing it was intense. It was only a few months before that I had begun to seriously study the master’s work, having been introduced to The Lodger, The 39 Steps, Sabotage, Notorious, Rear Window, and North by Northwest. Having become hooked on Hitchcock through that line up in school, I began my own exploration of every Hitchcock film I could get my hands on and by reading the corresponding chapter from Donald Spoto’s The Art of Alfred Hitchcock afterward. Then I’d re-watch the film over again, etc.
Given the laudatory opening paragraphs on Vertigo in Spoto’s chapter, as well as its massive size in relation to chapters on other films, I knew to expect something very special. When I finally did see Vertigo, I was swept away by its beauty, its movement, the emotional punch it delivered, and by its haunting images and score. Over the next five years or so, I would watch it once a month—yes, I was that obsessed (I would perform the same monthly ritual with Rear Window and North by Northwest as well). To this day, I still get goose bumps during certain sequences, and on occasion well up by the final moments of the film.
After a few years of immersing myself in my own Hitchcock education, I had become increasingly curious about his collaborators, particularly his screenwriters. I was of course familiar with the countless statements Hitchcock made about how for him the most creative part of the filmmaking process was the writing and preparation stage, and that the actual process of shooting the picture was boring. Statements like this fed my curiosity to know how much of an impact his writers had on the finished films. What did they bring to the table? What contributions did they make beyond the dialogue? I found myself becoming more and more fascinated by these writers who had sat beside Hitchcock, not merely observing him create and taking down dictation, but who’d earned a seat in the inner sanctum and engaged with him in creating these films.
Of the Hitchcock screenwriters of the 1950s and 1960s, Samuel Taylor was not the most prolific. Although he directed a film after having written only two screenplays, Taylor did not adapt quite as well to the Hollywood lifestyle as say John Michael Hayes, Ernest Lehman, or even Joseph Stefano. Each of these writers found their niche—Hayes as adapter of “difficult” material, Lehman as adapter of road-show musicals, and Stefano brought his special touch to the small screen as principal writer for The Outer Limits. Sam Taylor however was more at home writing plays in Maine and then seeing them through to production on the New York stage. Yet, in spite of a short list of screenwriting credits in comparison to say Lehman or Hayes, Taylor played a significant role in shaping and refining Hitchcock’s most dreamlike film.
An Unconventional Screenplay
By conventional screenwriting standards, the screenplay for Vertigo could be regarded as a failure. It contains so many “no-nos,” cheats, and just plain writing crutches that most writers would never attempt to get away with all in the same script—flashbacks, a dream sequence, and a lengthy voiceover where a character composes a letter on screen in order to explain much of the plot. But these devices, to name just a few, are exactly what make Vertigo work. The illusory nature of the movie required an unconventional script.
By the end of 1956, Hitchcock had already been through three writers in adapting the Boileau and Narcejac novel D’Entre les Morts. Playwright Maxwell Anderson had a go at a first draft which Hitchcock found lacking in mood, direction and structure. Hitchcock then turned to his old friend Angus MacPhail who knocked out a very rough outline—what today might be called a step-sheet. Structurally, the MacPhail outline closely resembles the finished film and Hitchcock hoped he would be up to the task of roughing out a construction or treatment from which Anderson would write a second draft. However, MacPhail opted to bow out gracefully. Hitchcock then turned to Paramount contract writer Alec Coppel, who had provided the text for one of the threatening notes used in To Catch a Thief when a re-take was needed after principal photography. Coppel worked closely with Hitchcock in fashioning a screenplay that followed MacPhail’s structure and now included most of the visual set pieces that Hitchcock envisioned for the film.

With Coppel’s draft, Hitchcock now had a mysterious, moody love story with elements of the supernatural, and a big twist to be revealed in the final scene—the supernatural elements were merely a hoax conceived to cover up a murder. Hitchcock returned to Anderson to finesse the dialogue and clarify the characters’ motivations, but the writer turned him down. As was custom when he needed a new writer, Hitchcock reached out to his go-to agents, one of which was Kay Brown, who on learning the film was to be set in San Francisco immediately suggested her client Samuel Taylor.  

Samuel Taylor

Hitchcock’s New Writer
Although born in Chicago, Samuel Taylor grew up in San Francisco and attended the University of California, Berkeley, so he was already quite familiar with both the flavor and history of the City by the Bay. In fact, at the time Kay Brown suggested Taylor to Hitchcock, he was busy writing his play The Pleasure of His Companywhich was also set in San Francisco. No doubt, this appealed to Hitchcock who longed to film the city for the big screen (an early treatment for I Confess and an aborted adaptation of David Duncan’s The Bramble Bush had both been set in and around San Francisco).
Taylor was sent the Coppel script and Hitchcock’s notes and after some initial uncertainty, he accepted the assignment and met with the director. “When I read the screenplay that had been written, I was quite confused because I couldn’t follow it at all,” recalled Taylor. “When I saw Hitchcock after I read the script, I knew what the problem was. I said to him, ‘It’s a matter of finding the reality and humanity for these people. You haven’t got anybody in this story who is a human being—nobody at all. They’re all cut-out cardboard figures.’”

This was exactly what Hitchcock wanted and needed to hear. When writing for Hitchcock, you were hired because you brought something to the table that Hitchcock, as producer, felt the project needed. In the case of Vertigo, it was the emotional story and characters that needed work at this point. Taylor told Hitchcock he would need to invent a character to help make Scottie real. To Taylor’s surprise Hitchcock said, “Fine.” And with very little discussion about it, he went off and created Midge.

According to Taylor, once he invented Midge, the whole picture fell into place for him.  “All the Midge scenes were mine,” recalled Taylor. “He didn’t know anything about Midge until he read the script and liked it.” Midge provided Taylor the opportunity to give Scottie more back story and allowed him to eliminate any scenes with Scottie’s police colleagues. Midge became the cynical voice of reason—much like Stella in Rear Window—not believing in any of the Carlotta Valdes nonsense. Taylor also added to the San Francisco flavor of the story by changing Madeleine’s dead ancestor from the novel’s Pauline Lagarlac to Carlotta Valdes, drawing on the local Spanish history. The Carlotta Valdes back story—that she was of Spanish-American ancestry, had been raised on a mission settlement, and that at a young age was a cabaret entertainer who became the kept woman of a wealthy, powerful man who abandoned her after having his child—added a social/sexual subtext that had been lacking in the previous scripts.
To speak even more about that history, Taylor added the character Pop Leibel. The Pop Leibel Taylor recalled from his childhood ran a candy store instead of a bookshop. Taylor knew the bookshop atmosphere well from having worked in a similar one while in college. With the invention of Pop Leibel, Taylor introduced a phrase that added to the script’s subtext. “Power and freedom” are used three times in the film significantly—first by Elster to Scottie, then when Pop Leibel refers to the man who left Carlotta but kept her child, and finally by Scottie to Judy. All the talk about “wandering” that pervades the movie also came from Taylor. And with these changes, Taylor helped Hitchcock layer the script into something very special.
And yet Taylor found that something was still missing. Something he couldn’t quite put his finger on. He told Hitchcock that it was lacking a “Hitchcockian thing.” And then it hit him. Rather than saving the big reveal for the ending, they should let the audience in on the secret—that Judy was the woman who had pretended to be Madeleine. “The whole first act is deception,” said Taylor. “But once you get past the death and actually have destroyed the man, you’ve got to tell the audience that this was a plot. It can’t be a surprise. You can’t go all the way to the end of the picture.”
Hitchcock agreed. Thus the flashback showing Judy reaching the top of the mission tower where Elster was waiting with his dead wife and Judy’s letter writing scene were written. Taylor’s instinct was exactly correct and followed the Hitchcock suspense principle in providing the audience with information. Yet, in retrospect, Taylor felt that the letter writing scene was weak. “I think, Hitchcock and I goofed,” remembered Taylor. “After the Mozart scene, we should have said, ‘What about the girl? This is the time to tell the audience what is happening.’ And we should have gone back to Gavin Elster. We shouldn’t have forgotten about him and the girl that cavalierly.”
Taylor said years later that the letter writing scene was inept; pointing out that he also hated resorting to it in the film adaptation of his own play Sabrina Fair, which he adapted with Billy Wilder. Taylor suggested that the “argument scene” between Judy and Gavin Elster should not have been played offstage. “You would get a much stronger feeling about the girl if she had to face Gavin Elster and say, ‘You’re going away, and without me.’”
Taylor reasoned that primed with this knowledge before hand, the audience would have a much greater sense of apprehension, anxiety, and foreboding at watching Scottie wander around San Francisco looking for Madeleine. On this point, I couldn’t disagree more. The audience needed to meet Judy from Scottie’s point of view beforeHitchcock could cut away to hers. Furthermore, Hitchcock’s concern was with Scottie and Judy. There was no dramatic reason to see Elster or Midge again. As the world of the film became smaller—i.e. fewer and fewer characters—the situation between Scottie and Judy intensified.
Perhaps Taylor’s Monday morning quarterbacking was due to the criticism Vertigo received on its initial release. Nevertheless, even with its disappointing performance at the box office, Hitchcock had enjoyed working with Taylor enough to invite him back to collaborate on the screenplay for No Bail for the Judge—after Ernest Lehman turned him down. Sadly, Taylor’s script was victim to the director’s move from Paramount to Universal in 1961 and it remained unproduced. Taylor and Hitchcock would remain friends socially, and the writer came back to help Hitchcock with a rewrite on the troubled Topaz.

 

Inconsequential Material
I’ve always felt that Samuel Taylor best articulated Hitchcock’s approach to film and to working with writers when he said that constructing a film was like putting together a mosaic. And for Hitchcock, that mosaic was comprised of his favorite scenes, but when he didn’t have a good writer, there were pieces missing in that mosaic.
Taylor also understood that to Hitchcock, plot was secondary to story, observing that while the plot of Vertigomay be farfetched, the story is honest and true. “Hitchcock was a very emotional man,” recalled Taylor. “And having a good actor in Stewart, and having a good situation of a man driven almost to madness by what has happened, he was able to infuse it with enormous emotion. He preferred telling an inconsequential yarn, but bringing to it all the artistry he had.”
Taylor was not denigrating his own work when he referred to Vertigo as “an inconsequential yarn.” To put it in other terms, one could say that the director and his writers were constructing their yarn out of—if not smoke and mirrors—mirrors and some carefully placed fog. The film was constructed and designed to be Hitchcock’s ultimate love story, and in that respect, it succeeded on every level.
  • Samuel Taylor is quoted from a talk he gave at Pace University (my alma mater) in June 1986, and from the BBC’s Omnibus (1986).
  • For more on the structure of the Vertigo screenplay see The Hitchcock Kiss.
  • For a complete account of the screenplay’s development, I recommend Dan Auiler’s Vertigo: The Making of a Hitchcock Classic.

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