Alfred Hitchcock's 1958 masterpiece Vertigo has been the subject of so much commentary and analysis — especially since its re-release in 1983 after it had been removed from circulation for 10 years along with four other Hitchcock classics — that it is extremely difficult to write or even think anything new about the film. Some would say that it's been done to death (“oh God, not another Vertigo essay,” etc.). However, I'm about to undertake that quixotic mission not once, but twice, on the Ibishblog (hopefully in rapid succession), and this is my first offering on the subject.
What I'm suggesting here, in a nutshell, is that the (as far as I can tell) completely overlooked primary source outside of Hitchcock's own work for Vertigo is Luis Buñuel's 1953 classic El, one of the earlier of his quasi-surrealistic Mexican melodramas that have received far too little attention in critical circles. I don't think there's any doubt that Hitchcock and Buñuel were keen observers and admirers of each other's work, and the parallels between the two films are extremely profound. Both deal with male hysteria about women and loss of identity as a primary theme and have crucial sequences involving jealous, controlling men throwing, or threatening to throw, the women they seek to possess from colonial Spanish-style bell towers. Of course one can't, and I don't intend by any means, to simply let that observation stand as a case on its own, but it surely qualifies as exceptionally powerful prima facie evidence of a deep connection between the two films.
El and Vertigo share a common theme, one that is a major feature of art throughout the ages, and deeply connected to cinema in particular: male hysteria. In most cinema, the possessing, devouring (and often murderous) gaze is implicitly male, its fixation the fetishized, objectified female form. Male hysteria, in this case, refers not simply to neurotic symptoms, but to those directly connected to male anxiety about women: control and possession of women, the psychic and social implications of such control, and its powerful role in the construction and maintenance of an illusory sense of male identity and ego. It reflects, of course, not only the loss of identity but also the threat of emasculation. Historically hysteria was considered entirely a feminine phenomenon, for many centuries beginning with the ancient Greeks, linked to the bizarre notion that the womb itself as an organ (hystera in ancient Greek) could actually physically relocate itself for various reasons, creating physical and behavioral symptoms. Before Charcot and especially Freud, these notions persisted although there was a brief period of recognition of male hysteria in the 18th century, especially in Britain, when it was described as “the English Malady.”
In spite of the resistance from general culture and medical thought to embrace the concept of male hysteria until the 20th century, it's been a consistent theme of art since ancient times. In his invaluable book Hysterical Men: The Hidden History of Male Nervous Illness (Harvard University Press, 2009), Mark S. Micale listed writers such as Burton, Shakespeare, Mandeville, Hume, Cheyne (author of The English Malady), Johnson, Wordsworth, Mill, and Flaubert as notable investigators of male hysteria and its various symptoms. I'd argue the list is actually far longer, and includes most of the canonical writers of Western classical literature, the Renaissance and all stages of modernity and postmodernity. In other words, in my view, the theme is virtually ubiquitous.
However, there is a particular affinity between the cinematic medium and the theme of male hysteria, particularly because of the centrality of the power of the gaze. In the outstanding essay, Male Hysteria and Early Cinema, Lynne Kirby examines the way in which Hale's Tours in the first few years of the 20th century used early cinematic train images to provoke fear and fascination with the new medium in the audiences. Both cinema and train travel, when first introduced, created widespread anxiety and even panic. The combination was irresistible. The shock of cinema was invoked to re-create the shock of train travel, often to devastating effect. Kirby argues that the train-related hysteria experienced by late 19th-century males was a key factor in permanently demolishing the idea that hysteria was exclusively a female phenomenon, and that the obsession of early cinema with the train as an instrument of trauma links film directly to that realization.
She appropriately quotes Walter Benjamin as noting that, “film is the art form that is in keeping with the increased threat to his life that modern man has to face. Man's need to expose himself to shock effects is his adjustment to the dangers threatening him. The film corresponds to profound changes in the apperceptive apparatus – changes that are experienced on the individual level by the man in the street in big-city traffic, on the historical scale by every present-day citizen.” Kirby suggests that cinema itself, at its earliest stages, produced de-gendered subjectivities in audiences: passive, traumatized, “feminized” male viewers and “masculinized” women. The intimate connection between the medium and this cultural crisis of patriarchy is fully played out in both El and Vertigo.
Hitchcock was an obsessive watcher of other people's films. He had a miniature cinema in his own home and, by all accounts, watched a new movie almost every night. His debt to Eisenstein is completely obvious and he acknowledged that on many occasions. There are other instances of direct influence that are quite obvious, and I think Luis Buñuel is a rather obvious case in point. In the 40s, Hitchcock composed a dream sequence in Spellbound with Buñuel's early collaborator and friend Salvador Dalí, which is in many ways interesting but also profoundly disappointing. The two were not a great fit artistically, for obvious reasons. Hitchcock was not a surrealist, while Dalí was only a surrealist, even in his “paranoid” period of paintings that can exhibit at least two distinct images depending on how they are viewed. Buñuel was not particularly well-known or admired in the United States during his period of exile from fascist Spain in Mexico during the 1950s, in which he made primarily surrealist-tinged melodramas. Without going into any details beyond the comparison I'm making here, I think it's obvious that a great exception was Hitchcock, who obviously admired his fellow master filmmaker.
El investigates a somewhat different version of male hysteria from Vertigo. El is about jealousy and paranoia that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: an easily accomplished union destroyed by almost deliberate self-sabotage. Vertigo is about fantasy and longing for an unattainable object, an object that is a construct of the mind of the delusional Scottie Ferguson and that he inevitably destroys. In El the destruction is aimed at the self and the relationship; in Vertigo it is aimed equally at the object and the self, in a total obliteration of any form of rational coherence. Yet both films are about the inability of a male protagonist to control a female object of desire. In both films, neurotic symptoms give way to deeper, underlying delusions and, ultimately, outright psychosis (that, at the end, we understand was there from the beginning). Their subject matters are therefore not precisely the same, but rather parallel and complementary.
However, there are strong indications that El served very directly as the primary antecedent for Vertigo. A great deal of work has been done in cataloging the influences on and sources for Vertigo, but if anyone has included Buñuel's 1953 classic, I'm not aware of it. For example Ken Mogg's essay The Fragments of the Mirror: Vertigo and its Sources exhaustively looks at potential influences on Hitchcock's masterpiece, but makes no mention of El. This is remarkable because on one obvious point, there is no mistaking the connection.
No image is more closely associated with Vertigo than that of the bell tower at the Mission San Juan Batista, a set constructed by Henry Bumstead, Hitchcock's brilliant art director on the film (and several others). Both Madeline and Judy die by falling from the bell tower. Indeed, it's impossible to think of Vertigo without immediately thinking of various images inside and outside of the bell tower, in particular the shattering final shot of Scotty standing, arms outstretched in limp defeat, as he looks down on the consequences of his crazed, careening set of maniacal actions.
El opens with credits that are entirely shot over the image of a bell in a bell tower. This is not any old bell tower, this is one in Mexico, as the Mission San Juan Bautista would essentially have been during the “old California days” before the territory became part of the United States. Madeline tells Scotty when she first describes the scene that it is a “village in Spain.” Indeed not. It is a village in Mexico. Not only do the two films share this iconic image as a defining motif, Buñuel gives us a template for the deaths of both Judy and Madeline. And it's impossible not to note that in both films, religion is associated with obsession, sexuality, danger and death. The bell tower, after all, is the highest point, the extremity, of a church, and source of the call to the faithful to attend prayers, but in these films it is also the scene murder, mayhem and symbolic rape. The suggestion, of course, is that taken to its extreme, like all obsessions, religion is a powerfully destructive force.
The opening sequence of El, which is an elaborate set piece during a high mass in a grand Catholic church (likely to appeal to Hitchcock's deeply Catholic sensibilities), is, in spite of the ambient noise of the service, essentially an exercise in what Hitchcock called “pure cinema.” It relies entirely on framing, montage and camera movement to tell the story, rather brilliantly, and there is no way that the artist responsible for the "pure cinema" of, for example, Marnie's deft escape from the Rutland office in spite of the cleaners would not have admired this. Buñuel was probably as much of a devotee of “pure cinema” as Hitchcock, and both of them have significant passages in almost all their films of it.
The scene depicts the sexually fetishistic and indeed masochistic ritual washing of the feet of pretty young altar boys by the priest, Padre Velasco, all officiated by rather pompous lay helpers including our protagonist. The scene is not only fetishistic, but ritualistic and extremely theatrical, with numerous shots of huge crowds in the cathedral straining to look at the priest's abjection before the novices whose feet he is worshiping. The most fetishistic image of all is the symmetrical row of bare novice feet waiting to be washed and kissed. The foot fetish theme, observed and aided by Francisco, who is one of the deacons whose job is to pour the water into the basins with which each quasi-catamite foot is cleansed and adored, is then repeated by him as he turns and casts his gaze across the row of feet among the worshipers. The shot pans over an analogous, echoing, row of them, only to return (in a classic Buñuel camera movement) quickly to a pretty pair of young, elegantly clad extremities. A similar “pure cinema” gesture is repeated in Buñuel's much later masterpiece Belle du Jour, as the unnamed title character's feet are shown drawn to, recoiling from, and then drawn back to the fetishistic brothel in which she eventually prostitutes herself.
At this point in El, the camera pans up, revealing an elegant, demure young woman who apparently immediately captures Francisco's imagination. At his possessive gaze, which she does not return or seem to acknowledge at first, she looks down, demurely, as if embarrassed by his sudden attention. Her gaze slowly rises to meet his intense stare. An obsession has begun. In an important contextualizing shot, the camera pulls back through the crowd in the cathedral, leaving the scene of fetishistic sexual/religious ritual and the instant attraction it seems to have engendered between the to-be couple, re-emphasizing the social gaze and the religious context of permissible fixation in which the drama is taking place.
The differences between Francisco's obsession with Gloria and Scottie's obsession with Madeline are obvious. In El, it is religiously and culturally inflected if not determined, whereas in Vertigo it is, to some extent at least, constructed by a deliberate criminal conspiracy. But there are some crucial similarities. One of the most important of these parallel themes is the tendency of both Francisco and Scotty to view Gloria and Madeline/Judy as disembodied objects, focusing on discrete aspects of their physiology or attire as their essential attributes. Francisco has a foot fetish. Scotty has a hair fetish. Scotty is fascinated by Madeleine's spiral hairdo, and it is the final flourish in his remaking of Judy into Madeleine: he cannot have her hair done in any other way. Elster calls his attention to it as well. There's also the repeated fetishistic focus on Carlotta's necklace, and, in the eeriest scene of all in Vertigo, the close-up shots of the lips, nails and hair of Judy as she is being re-transformed into Madeleine on the obsessive, hysterical instructions of Scotty.
The two characters have a marked tendency to obsess about the discrete parts of the female objects of their desire, as opposed to the person as a whole who seems irrelevant, uninteresting, unfinished or unsatisfactory. Everything must be right, but the discrete elements are individually greater than the sum of those parts. An anti-Gestalt is in effect. Even when Judy is finally and apparently satisfactorily recreated as Madeline — and a whole greater than the sum of its parts seems at last to have been achieved for Scotty — Carlotta's necklace — the ultimate fetishistic object in Vertigo — asserts its primacy and shatters the cumulative effect of the summation of the parts. Leaping off of the mirror in his gaze, coming to life from his dream, this fragmentary object single-handedly destroys his illusion and undoes the campaign to reimagine Judy as Madeline. There is much more to be said about this moment and this object in another essay, but what is important to note here is that in both of these films the synecdoches are invariably much more important than the totality of the desired other.
Francisco sees Gloria from afar in formal settings, many of them religious or reverential. She appears aloof, demure and inaccessible, but also caught up in the semi-spontaneous and un-staged impromptu moment in a theatrical environment supposedly not designed to produce this effect. She refuses his initial advance, registering a degree of shock at his boldness in a holy place, as he extends his hand to her and she walks off with an older woman, presumably her mother. Madeline, on the other hand, seems uncannily unaware of Scotty's rather unmistakable and barely disguised presence as he follows her around San Francisco on her merry dance, spiraling downward into himself. As he leaves the church in an effort to follow the two women, Francisco is briefly waylaid by Velasco and two other priests. When he tells them he must go do something “important,” Velasco admonishes him that, “if it's important, it's not good for Christians!” He has been warned.
Francisco lives in a bizarre house that is one third gothic, one third Art Nouveau and one third Antonio Gaudi. It doesn't have any analogues in Vertigo, certainly not Scottie's apartment, unless it is the sheer weirdness of Scotty's own mind. But it does call to mind, to some extent, Manderley in Hitchcock's first American movie Rebecca, and its “Alice in Wonderland” disproportionality between various figures, especially the young wife, and the exaggerated physical dimensions of the dwelling itself. In this case the strangeness of the flowing fixtures are another element. They certainly represent the odd amalgam of incongruous, warped ideas at war in Francisco's brain.
In Vertigo, these are expressed more directly in Scotty's actions, visions and delusions. In El, they are manifested in the physical structure itself, although perhaps it could be argued that the weird, spiraling, undulating landscape of San Francisco itself is Hitchcock's larger analogous framework to Francisco's house (in this sense, Scotty's home is not Francisco's, but San Francisco). This is, of course, emphasized by the idiotic priest Velasco's declaration that the house's architect, apparently guided by “sentiment, emotion and instinct… not reason,” must have been the opposite of Francisco who is so “normal and levelheaded.” This echoes Elster's disingenuous description of Scotty as the “hardheaded Scot,” when, of course, he is the ultimate romantic, and indeed delusional, ultimately, psychotically so. Both of these men have cultivated a manifest appearance of normalcy, levelheadedness and rationality, but both of them are in the grip of profoundly irrational, neurotic and indeed psychotic impulses.
Between the protagonists in El and Vertigo, there is a marked class difference. Francisco is fantastically wealthy, much closer to Gavin Elster, whom he somewhat resembles physically. Scotty is a man of “fairly independent means,” meaning he can freely retire from the police force and offer to support Judy, but he lives modestly, drives a middle-class car and shows no evidence of extravagance. Francisco is obsessed with his supposedly lost land in Guanajuato, and this drives his manifest neurosis, behind which lurks a more malevolent, misogynistic and psychotic streak. Scotty's neurotic symptom is acrophobia, the fear of heights, his vertigo, which is the screen behind which his own misogyny and psychosis lurks from the very beginning. So while their manifest symptoms and psychopathologies are very different, Francisco and Scotty share some deep-seated latent pathological tendencies that link the two films' images and concerns. Francisco's obsession, like Scotty's, is deeply rooted in the early 19th century, in this case his alleged ownership of large areas of Guanajuato, and in Vertigo the urban legend/historical legacy of the mad Carlotta and her unnamed lover/abuser. Both men are obsessed by the past of old Mexico and California, a Spanish colonial legacy and familial past that haunts them in their hysterical male fantasies of possession and desire.
Francisco is a control and neat freak about everything. Scotty is fastidious and careful, and obsessively controlling with Madeline and above all Judy, but mess and clutter don't seem to bother him. Scotty also seems to be satisfied with vague accounts of the urban legend of Carlotta, while Francisco is insistent on the details of documents so old (his lawyer tells him they are, after all, early 19th-century deeds) that they are no longer legally enforceable. Yet the need to control the narratives swirling around and haunting them, and through which they define their identities, is a powerful analog between the two characters. Both are repeatedly advised to leave well enough alone. Neither is capable of doing so, and take great offense at their allies who suggest it.
When Francisco enters the church for the second time, in a repetition compulsion looking for Gloria, he enters a very similar space in a very similar way as Scotty does in his entrance to the old chapel at the Mission Dolores while following Madeleine into the cemetery garden. The shot is extremely similar, even eerily so, and both are accompanied by haunting organ music. He stares at her from behind, with her hair done up in a bun, reminiscent of Scotty looking at Madeleine at the Palace of the Legion of Honor. But in this case, rather than being icily and preposterously indifferent to his presence, Gloria feels his gaze immediately, and becomes perceptibly excited and/or uncomfortable by it. She deliberately leans back to hear what it is he has to say to her. This is not the undead, aloof, ghostly ice queen Madeline. This is a warm-blooded woman who responds to male approaches, whatever the outcome might be.
Francisco confesses he's been coming to the church on a daily and nightly basis (though his role in the opening scene suggests he might be doing that anyway), on the grounds that he's been waiting for her to return. Repetition compulsion is in the air. She turns with her hand on her heart, apparently affected, and looks at him with wild-eyed amazement. She leaves quickly, but he follows her out and makes his pitch. She says she can't see him anymore, and the chase is on. His car follows hers, as Scottie follows Madeleine. In another instance of Hitchcockian or, Buñuel-esque, “pure cinema” Francisco observes Gloria meeting in a restaurant with her fiancé from outside the window. Her back is to him, just as Madeleine's is to Scottie in his first sighting of her at Ernie's restaurant. The affect is similar: jealousy, plotting, and a desire for possession.
Francisco knows and goes to visit the fiancé, who is an engineer at a construction company, and like Gavin he builds things (he calls the damn he's working on, “a hopelessly complicated job,” as Francisco's project also proves to be), although in this case it is Francisco who is constructing something. In Vertigo, Elster's shipbuilding construction is a metaphorical invocation of his elaborate murder plot, subtly in motion in the background of his first conversation with Scotty in his office. Francisco invites them both, and her mother, to come to a dinner party at his surrealistic mansion. Gloria is taken aback by Francisco's appearance as the host. As part of his pitch over dinner to Gloria, Francisco launches into a soliloquy about love at first sight, or more properly, the "amour fou" that was so beloved of the original Surrealists, including Buñuel. He insists that love cannot be built over time, but is immediate; that it emerges between people in an instant, and is instinctive, irrational, and, implicitly, self-destructive. Naturally he says this looking directly at Gloria. Another of the guests describes this as “a poisoned arrow.”
This also, apparently, is Scotty's view. His rational choice would have been Midge, or anybody else. Yet he is drawn instinctively to a woman who doesn't exist, seems to be insane and suicidal, is certainly at least completely disturbed, and who he believes is already married to an old school chum. His infatuation couldn't be more absurd or false, but it appears utterly irresistible and instantaneous. So obviously, Francisco and Scotty have similar perspectives on the matter of romance. Francisco thinks the love for a woman is “nurtured from infancy, and that a man walks past 1,000 women then suddenly meets one… that instinctive one! She fulfills a dream, answers the longing, this is a man's lifetime wish.” This might have been Scottie speaking at Ernie's.
As the party continues, Gloria is aware of Francisco's devouring, ravenous gaze and is both excited and alarmed by it. At the moment of her discomfort, the scene is disrupted by a commotion and explosion of dust from a storage room as Francisco's butler is trying to uncover a bridge table. This cluttered, dirty, profane interior space recalls the storage room behind the flower shop which is the first place Madeline leads Scotty — and also the outer portion of the fruit cellar in Psycho — a physical manifestation of the sudden, unexpected and unwelcome uncovering of a long-forgotten, polluted and filthy psychic interior – the return of the repressed indeed. As Francisco orders the butler out and the clouds of dust begin to settle, the piles of junk in the room appropriately collapse in ruins.
Francisco emerges to find Gloria staring out of one of the warped windows into the garden. He approaches her from behind, and the camera jumps to the other side of the window, looking at their conversation through the glass darkly. They converse animatedly and excitedly, but all we can hear is the distant piano playing from within. Their conversation is withheld, another gesture of “pure cinema,” and reminiscent of numerous scenes in Hitchcock films in which diagetic dialogue is deliberately, tantalizingly withheld from us. The most obvious example of this in the later Hitchcock classics from the 1950s is in the film immediately following Vertigo, North by Northwest, in which a very important dialogue between Thornhill and "The Professor" is suddenly and ostentatiously obscured by the roar of airplane engines. There are aspects of what is going on that we can only understand at most through our gaze, through the camera lens, and not through any dialogue. Words have been transcended, and deliberately withheld. Both Francisco and Gloria seem excited and even transported, though the asymmetrical and warped quality of the window is heavily foregrounded, and each is depicted in a separate, barred space as if in two separate frames, or two separate connected but unbridgeable spaces.
He passes around her from behind and opens the door to the garden. With their emergence into this space, dominated by ominous life-size statues of praying monks, (foreshadowing Francisco's own wretched and self-created fate), the dialogue resumes. He tells Gloria that his grandfather built the house there because he liked to live near the trees, and she says, “something in me loves trees, too.” Madeleine, in contrast, hates the giant redwood trees, because they tell her that she knows she has to die. But in this case, Francisco and Gloria have found one more thing, other than Catholicism and repetition compulsion, they share in common. Little else will emerge as the plot continues. Francisco grabs her and the two kiss passionately, followed by a fade to black. This is immediately succeeded by dramatic images of construction site explosions and giant rising cranes, the kind of "cheap Freudian joke" Hitchcock engaged in frequently and also publicly derided in himself. The most obvious examples are probably the fireworks during the kiss in To Catch a Thief and the inexcusable and notorious final shot in North by Northwest. Neither of these auteurs trafficked greatly in psychoanalytic subtlety.
It becomes clear that while the dam project has run into significant difficulties, so have the fiancée's plans to marry Gloria. He must return to the capital, but he wishes he never has to, and we already know why. Driving through Mexico City, he almost runs over a harried, dilapidated looking woman, who turns out to be Gloria. She seems horrified and afraid to see him, and turns away, but he is delighted and approaches her. As she explains she doesn't feel well, a large sign in the background reads “Bambi,” another not particularly subtle reference (Disney made that film more than ten years earlier, in 1942). On second thought she accepts a ride from him, in spite of her obvious fear, and on the ride she begins a long film noir-style flashback narrative.
She explains that her marriage went wrong on the very first night, as they travelled by train to Guanajuato (the site of his manifest obsession and hysteria) for their honeymoon. In a scene that is the inverse of the dreadful rape scene in Marnie, on the train Francisco immediately accuses her of thinking of other people and, in effect, being unfaithful. He withholds his affections in a cold, cruel and aloof manner. In the classic paranoid style, he takes her denials to be further evidence of his suspicions of her infidelity. Initiating a recurring pattern of hot/cold male hysteria, he awakens in the night to beg her forgiveness. She grants it without question with a passionate kiss, and onrushing train shots represent both the sexual implications repeatedly invoked by train shots in North by Northwest, and the careening, unstoppable nature of his hysteria. It also, of course, reminds us of the link between male hysteria, trains and the cinema established by Kirby.
The sweeping landscape panoramas of Guanajuato during the honeymoon scenes are highly reminiscent of the loving shots of San Francisco in Vertigo, especially when Scotty supposedly emerges from his catatonic melancholia after the inquest into Madeline's death. Yet Francisco remains largely obsessed with what he thinks belongs to his family, determined to possess what he believes is “rightfully” his, in both land and people. His manifest mania is for “justice,” and so is that of the former police detective and would-be chief of police, Scottie Ferguson in Vertigo. Both, of course, are in fact the agents of the most grotesque injustice, to themselves and to all those around them. In Guanajuato, Gloria meets an old acquaintance, and Francisco's suspicions began to run wild instantaneously. Many of the buildings in old Guanajuato are deeply reminiscent of the "old San Francisco" edifices that characterize both Elster's fantasy world created for Scotty and the scenes of his encounters with Madeline. The low-shot framing of the characters against the buildings is extremely similar, as if they were dominated and haunted by constructions of the past.
Francisco tells Gloria that he is most attracted to her “kindness and air of resignation” (whatever the latter might mean), but she tells him that her mother thought “the opposite,” without elaborating. She says, ironically, that she was most attracted by his “self-assurance,” the one quality he least possesses in reality. She does say, when pressed, that she finds him sometimes “unfair,” an accusation already manifestly demonstrated in word and deed. It couldn't be better calculated to offend a man whose manifest obsession is with “justice,” and he insists few men possess as a keen sense of it is he does. He takes the inevitable degree of umbrage, and this is reinforced by the appearance of the acquaintance at another table nearby. Demonstrating her point, he rushes to the conclusion that she may well be being stalked by the other man (who he also thinks is laughing at him, when he shares a joke with the waiter), which not only undermines Francisco's claim to a keen sense of fairness and justice, but also is an expression of his own stalking inclinations (which he shares with Scotty) and his acute paranoia. Other men are trying to steal his lands and his woman. He is characterized almost entirely by an exceptional degree of hysterical jealousy and possessiveness.
Once back in the room, his foot fetishism and obsessive/compulsive disorder reassert themselves when he picks up her shoes from the floor and lovingly puts them in the closet, rearranging them at the last second facing forward just as they were when he first saw her feet in the cathedral. When he discovers the acquaintance has the adjoining room, he becomes enraged and picks a fight with a man, leading to the acquaintance's ignominious expulsion from the hotel. In his rage, Francisco blames Gloria for everything, and she says the rest of the honeymoon was without any happiness. Upon their return, Francisco doesn't let her see anyone, including her own mother.
One day he unexpectedly bursts into her room in a good mood, presenting her a birthday present and ecstatically extolling the virtues of his new lawyer, who he is sure will be able to finally win his quixotic lawsuit. He announces the man is coming to dinner and orders her to be a perfect hostess, paying close attention to the main guest. Again, the framing divides them between windowpanes that are warped and twisted, and with theatrical curtains for effect. At the party, Francisco demands that Gloria pay close attention to the young lawyer, but inevitably becomes extremely jealous as they socialize and dance together. The lawyer tells her that the case is extremely difficult and that Francisco's optimism is ungrounded, totally contradicting what he has been saying all day. However, Padre Velasco does contrast the supposedly salacious way (it doesn't appear so to us) the lawyer is dancing with Gloria, noting that she is a married woman, with the "proper" manner Francisco is dancing with his partner (in whom he has no interest). There does seem to be an attenuated attraction between them, but no real reason for concern… yet.
The two go into the garden, on the same path that Francisco led Gloria when he first wooed her, between the twin statues of the reverent monks, although in this case other people are also present. When the butler tells Francisco they have gone into the garden, his reaction is palpable dismay, even though he virtually ensured and demanded that outcome. That night she is plainly excitedly preparing for a sexual encounter, but again he withholds his affections, going into his room and locking the door behind him. It is evidently a cruel punishment for a vivacious young woman. It is the beginning of a campaign of ignoring her consistently.
The spell is broken by the return of his incessant masochistic foot fetish, when at dinner after continuing to pretend she doesn't exist, he drops something, looks down and sees her feet. He arises with a look of affection and desire, which provokes an immediate positive response in her. The hot tap is on again, and he kisses her passionately, claiming he will “forget everything,” even though, as she professes, she has "done nothing” to forgive. She protests that the dinner table is not the time and place for such passion, and he immediately accuses her of being infatuated with the lawyer.
That night, the household is awakened in the wee hours by the sounds of her screaming and crying. It's evident some sort of sadistic exercise is taking place, although the nature of it is entirely unclear. Whatever is happening, Francisco's male hysteria is wreaking some kind of terrible vengeance on Gloria, much as Scotty's hysteria is unleashed on Judy in the second bell tower scene at the end of Vertigo. The next day, Gloria tries to enlist her mother's help but Francisco has already intercepted the mother, and frames matters in a way which induces her to admonish Gloria to understand his jealousies and “be good to him,” even after Gloria shows her a bruise on her upper arm. She has a similar experience with Padre Velasco.
When she returns from her meeting with the priest, who was also pre-prepared by Francisco, he follows her into her room armed with a gun. He shoots her point blank, but with blanks, just as Eve Kendall does with Roger Thornhill in North by Northwest. The campaign of terror continues, in the vain effort to exercise total control both over another person and over wild, self-fulfilling paranoid fantasies. She tells her ex-fiancé that after the fake shooting, he “seemed like a different man” and the hot tap began to run again. But, she says, the worst happened that morning. The flashback continues with Francisco ranting on the phone with his new lawyer about the case, insisting that something must be done to win the unwinnable suit. She wants to visit her mother, but he says he needs her by his side, and tells her he's going to take her to “a wonderful place.” And here begins the greatest parallel between Vertigo and El.
This marvelous space turns out to be… a bell tower. The first shot of it is the same one that dominates the credits, looking directly up, vertiginously, into the heart of a giant bell. He drags her down, not up, a short flight of stairs, to look at the people far below. He describes them as “worms that could be squashed in an instant,” recalling both the "god's eye" shots from far above the bell tower in Vertigo immediately after Madeline's death in which Scotty appears as a tiny figure exiting the building to the extreme lower right of the frame, and also the image of Roger Thornhill fleeing the UN building after the murder of Lester Townsend. Francisco praises his own egoism and says if he were God, “I would destroy them all.”
She runs away from him to stand immediately under the largest bell, and he goes to her and tells her that since they are alone “no one could stop me from pushing you.” “What if I took you by the neck and I threw you all the way down?” he asks her, leaping upon her in a rape-like action that seems a prelude to an actual murder. In the struggle, he tells her he could be “sending you hurtling down against the sidewalk!” If this isn't the strongest possible and most immediate antecedent in any work of art I have ever encountered to the deaths of both Madeleine and Judy, I can't imagine what would be (the dragging of Judy up the steps has a rape-like quality as well). She struggles away from him and descends the spiral staircase as the bells toll ominously in the background. Francisco collapses, utterly defeated, and, although sitting, in a rather similar stance of utter confusion to that of Scotty in the shattering final shot of Vertigo, also in a bell tower with tolling in the background.
The flashback is ended, and her former fiancé tells her she seems to enjoy suffering, which at this point is fair enough, and consistent with the unrelenting sadomasochistic nature of this narrative. The same might be said of Scotty and Judy, if not all the main characters in Vertigo. The ex-fiancée says she has ample grounds to leave him, but she says she can't but doesn't know why. He promises to help her in any way he can, and she leaves to go back in the house, but we can see that Francisco has observed who has brought her home. The ex-fiancée and Gloria both appear as tiny figures in the distance, exactly the sort of entities that Francisco, were he God, would like to “squash.” He confronts her, she admits that her ex-fiancé brought her home, and Francisco accuses her of being a slut. She declares that this is the final straw, and she only wishes it were true because he deserves it.
In his utter despair, sure she has been unfaithful to him, Francisco is framed in the bars of the railings of the staircase of his house, a very familiar//// image William Rothman brilliantly established as a Hitchcockian motif of being barred, trapped and psychically inaccessible in his masterpiece of cinematic criticism The Murderous Gaze. The most obvious analog in late Hitchcock is Lila Crane, framed behind similar wooden posts at the top of the staircase to the fruit cellar in Psycho hiding from Norman, yet inextricably pulled towards her confrontation with “mother.” Francisco collapses while going up the staircase, pulls out one of the carpet rods and, in a bizarre and infantile display of maniacal repetition compulsion begins beating out an inane repetitive rhythm against the staircase. A very deep shot of the giant room is streaked with night shadows that form a perfect //// pattern. Whatever the nature of his psychosis, it is approaching its very apex. Gloria, hearing the racket, wisely locks her bedroom door.
The next morning, Francisco is in the grip of a neurotic writer's block: he feels a compulsive need to write a letter to the governor demanding “justice” in his lawsuit, but cannot compose it. He induces Gloria to write it on the grounds that she is as familiar with the details of the case as he is. She dutifully begins, but he stops her, saying that it is too humiliating. He tries to do it himself, but again proves impotent. They determine to write it together, but by dinnertime when the butler asks if they want to eat, it appears she is composing it entirely on her own. The hot tap comes on full again, and Francisco begs forgiveness in an abject manner, telling her the letter doesn't matter and that he has been making her miserable. She assures him she doesn't hate him and he begs her not to leave. He tells her he understands that she would confide in her fiancée out of desperation. She says she didn't want to but she had no choice. He becomes utterly enraged, and says this is the one thing he could never forgive, the cold tap now running at full freezing level.
That night, Francisco prepares a most gruesome and classically Buñuelian male hysterical plot. At the stroke of midnight he prepares a palette of grisly instruments: bandages, gauze, alcohol, razors, scissors, twine and a large needle, fastidiously arranged needless to say. Placing these items in the pocket of his dressing gown, he picks up two large strands of heavy rope, each tied into large nooses. His intention is not mysterious, no matter how grisly it might be. This concept, which in the works of the Marquis de Sade (Justine, to be precise) is been described as “stricturing," the sewing up of the vagina, is a recurrent theme in the films of Buñuel, an impulse he plainly felt was the ultimate expression of male hysteria and desire to control women (Buñuel was a great admirer of de Sade, like all the early Surrealists, and especially 120 Days of Sodom). The nooses, though plainly intended as an instrument of restraint, of course also invoke murder and hanging. As he approaches Gloria's bed, the noose fills the screen, emphasizing again the murderous, life-obliterating quality of the intended act. As he attempts to place the noose-restraints around her wrists in preparation for his grisly operation, she awakens with an appropriately terrified response of screaming and fighting back. The servants are roused. Francisco recovers the evidence of his attempted crime, and flees the room but collapses in hysterics on the ground of his own bedroom, sobbing inconsolably and beating the floor like a child.
While this concept is present in a number of Buñuel films, he mercifully never allowed it to actually be enacted, much in the same way he prevented the trapped aristocrats in The Exterminating Angel from actually descending to the point of cannibalism, something he later said he regretted. How far one should go with these gruesome tropes is hard to gauge, but Buñuel's repeated reference to the idea is plenty for me. Indeed, the original French poster for his last masterpiece, That Obscure Object of Desire, features a pair of female facial lips crudely sewn together with twine. It's an arresting image, and probably as much as I'd ever want to see, although I will admit to owning an original copy of the first French poster. If it were not a metaphor, I wouldn't want to see it, let alone own it. So, if Buñuel can be accused of a certain diffidence, cowardice, and even a lack of courage, in this case that's what I appreciate. The suggestion is more than enough, thank you very much. Much the same can be said about all the intimations about necrophilia in Vertigo. The idea is there, but the act is not, and we should all be grateful for that.
Francisco is awakened to the news that his wife has fled, loads his gun, and goes off in pursuit of her about the town. In his quest, Francisco is pursued and preceded by giant shadows of himself, doppelgängers come to life more extravagantly than ever, and imagines that random servants are laughing at him when they clearly are not. The total psychotic break has certainly occurred, or at least reached its apex. He believes he spots her in a car, and in a perfect repetition of his initial pursuit of her by taxi, he jumps in a cab and orders the driver to follow her. The repetition compulsion motif is another very clear linkage between the male hysteria in El and Vertigo. The lost object is to be found by retracing steps and reenacting initial gestures. Scotty also repeatedly mistakes vaguely similar women in familiar spaces for Madeline, though they really do not resemble her at all. Francisco follows what he believes to be Gloria and her ex-fiancé into the same cathedral he first saw her, fondling his gun. He confronts the couple, but it is not her. Like Scotty after the death of Madeline, he has seen the lost object in all kinds of vaguely reminiscent distant images.
Francisco collapses in despair, but when an old man walks by him and coughs, it sets off a chain reaction of him imagining the entire church alternately laughing at him, coughing, and cutting back to normalcy. Many make horned gestures, the signs of the cuckold. This seems to have influenced a culminating scene in Roman Polanski's third installment in his claustrophobic trilogy, The Tenant. It also invokes Shakespeare's most extreme example of male hysteria, Leontes in The Winter's Tale, with his repetitive, thumping, pounding declaration of false cuckolding and horns: "Inch-thick, knee-deep, o'er head andears a fork'd one!" Francisco even believes that Padre Velasco is mocking him, and attacks the priest, turning on everything he supposedly believes in and destroying his carefully crafted public image of piety and respectability.
The dénouement of El features Gloria, a young boy (obviously her son), and a man who is not immediately identifiable approaching a monastery. Cassock-clad monks wander around, like the statues from Francisco's garden suddenly come to life. She is with Raul — her ex-fiancé, and now clearly her husband — and their seven or eight-year-old boy. They receive an exemplary report about the behavior of Francisco from the prior, who is surprised to discover they have named their son Francisco. Interestingly, when the monk asks if it is their son, they avoid the question and leave. He may be named Francisco because he is Francisco's.
Wandering again in the maze-like church garden, at least somewhat reminiscent of the graveyard at the Mission Dolores in Vertigo, the prior meets Francisco, who asks him if the visitors have left. He says he saw them and asks if it was “the engineer” and his wife, and if that was their son. He is told it was indeed. In a perfect Buñuelian ironic gesture, Francisco claims ultimate vindication: “then I wasn't as mixed up as they claimed. Time has proven my point!” He winds his way down a garden path towards a black hole in an ivy covered wall, veering wildly from side to side, like one of the statues from his garden come to life, totally obliterated in identity and unable to keep anything straight, including his own path.
Gloria and her husband had asked if he was going to be admitted into the order, and were assured by the prior that he was not suitable material. Francisco is no longer Francisco, and not even a Franciscan. He is reduced to nothing. He continues to veer wildly towards oblivion, and the music includes very loud and striking bell tones, much like the final passages in Bernard Herrmann's score of Vertigo. The film fades to black. (Several pieces of music in El echo Herrmann's magnificent score. There is a swirling passage in the otherwise unremarkable opening credits of El with its bell tower backdrop that sounds very reminiscent of a recurring motif in Vertigo. The piano music that is being played towards the end of Francisco's first dinner party in which he tries to win over Gloria as he walks over to the piano near where she is standing is also extremely reminiscent of the Wagnerian Liebestod quotations in the theme for the "love" sequences in Vertigo.)
Much like Scotty at the end of Vertigo, Francisco is staring into oblivion. He has lost his identity. His worst fears, self-created and self-inflicted, have come to life. He can claim vindication, but at what cost? His neuroses were a cover for a much deeper psychosis. His male hysteria, which seemed to be aimed at female targets, emerges as more of a self-directed, self-inflicted self-destruction. There is nothing of the old Francisco left, just as at the end of Vertigo, Scotty looks down from the edge of the bell tower into the abyss, into oblivion. Both films end abruptly with the male hysteric heading towards a black hole of nothingness, having lost their identity, and having consumed themselves in mania.
With a few exceptions, Buñuel's Mexican melodramas during his exile from fascist Spain are greatly underappreciated globally, and especially in the United States. The proto-feminist classic Susanna; his Mexican version of Wuthering Heights, Abismos de pasión, by far the best film adaptation of that novel (not even available on DVD in our own Region One at present, which is a scandal); and, of course, El, among many others are, in effect, forgotten masterpieces. But I think it highly unlikely that as attentive and obsessive a student of cinema as Hitchcock was disinterested in the great films Buñuel was producing in Mexico in the 1950s. While I can't demonstrate with any certainty that Hitchcock watched El before constructing Vertigo I find it almost impossible to believe that he didn't. The parallels are overwhelming, and if it is coincidental, it falls in the category of uncanny synchronistic phenomena, more than anything else.
There's no doubt at all that the differences in the films are more striking than the similarities. In no way could it be argued that Hitchcock “ripped off” Buñuel in Vertigo. Hitchcock's film could not have been more personal, idiosyncratic or unique. And, there is a difference in quality. Vertigo is one of the greatest pieces of 20th century art in any medium. El is in every sense superb and masterful, but it does not rise to that level. What I'm arguing, however, is that the parallels between El and Vertigo are powerful and not coincidental. In particular, it seems almost impossible to me that the bell tower scenes are utterly disconnected. Enormous work has been done in attempting to catalog the antecedents to Vertigo. I think there's little doubt that El surpasses all non-Hitchcock candidates as a direct predecessor, and indeed a direct influence, on that masterpiece.
Moreover, Buñuel's classic, like his entire Mexican quasi-surrealist melodrama ouvre has been grossly underrated, ignored and devalued. Like El, many of these superb films, while posing as potboilers, are cinematic art of the highest order, and had a considerable impact on other directors. It is, after all, implausible to think that Buñuel began as one of the most important pioneers of avant-garde cinema and cinematic art, and surrealism generally, but was simply wasting his time in Mexico (or perhaps producing the occasional noteworthy minor achievement), and then suddenly sprang back to life in Spain and France in the late 60s and early 70s producing the acknowledged masterpieces of the end of his career. In fact, I haven't seen any Buñuel Mexican surrealist melodrama that doesn't qualify as cinema art of the first order, the great bulk of them being masterpieces of the highest rank. And I think I've made my case that it's not really possible to talk about influences on Vertigo outside of Hitchcock's own work without putting El at the very forefront of the conversation.