Dramatic irony or unnecessary exposition?

July 3, 2009

A debate is brewing–nay, raging violently–at chez moi. It revolves Charybdis-like around the film Vertigo, which one or two of you may have seen. If you have not seen this movie, do not continue reading because I am going to say things about it that may, inadvertently, spoil the experience. Or maybe they won’t! This is because the question at hand involves the use of dramatic irony in the aforementioned film.

Dramatic irony can be a tough trick in these spoiler-soaked times. When people are so deeply concerned with being surprised by movies, letting them in on the secrets can have the same effect as a magician showing where the rabbit comes from. At the same time, as one of my professors once said, if most of the audience is going to be smart enough to figure out your twist–to guess for themselves where that bunny is hiding–then failing to take control of the reveal leaves said audience thinking that the filmmaker is an idiot who believes they are equally stupid and gullible. Resentment surges! Ticket sales plunge! Armageddon is at hand! Use of exclamation points spirals out of control!

Vertigo is an interesting case in that, after what seems like the climax of the film, the narrative continues because the mystery has not truly been solved. Could it have ended there? Conceivably. The audience would likely have grudgingly accepted that supernatural forces were at work and poor Jimmy Stewart did his best but it wasn’t enough. Would it have been a disappointment? Almost certainly. But at that point, the movie is only half finished, and the second half involves a somewhat bizarre exploration of the psychology of grief, shame and guilt. But of course, it is also the half where the mystery is solved, with a suspenseful doubling of the end of the first half that may be one of the best uses of dramatic irony in a film, or at least in a Hitchcock film if you’re not feeling too generous.

Then again, maybe it isn’t. The scene that makes the difference between dramatic irony and mystery, that lets the audience in on the secret instead of leaving it hidden, is what I’ll call the letter-writing scene. After a stay in a psych ward and a lot of moody moping around, Scottie has managed to find a girl that he swears is a dead ringer for the dead one. The makeup artist for the film did her job well because Kim Novak as Judy Barton bears only the most passing resemblance to her role as Madeleine. As a side note (or not), Harvard is currently conducting a study on whether people can recognize certain notable celebrity figures just by their faces, without any hair, and apparently it is harder than one would think. So for Scottie to pick Judy off the street as a lookalike for Madeleine is, perhaps, stretching things a bit. Perhaps not, given how obsessed he is.

He follows her up to her apartment, where she does what I think is an amazing job of being nothing like the Madeleine character. I was fooled. I thought, Scottie has really gone off the deep end. He is being intensely creepy to this poor girl. Why is she tolerating it? Why hasn’t she kicked him out? Maybe I wouldn’t have kicked him out, either. I try to be nice to Jehovah’s Witnesses, and they aren’t grief-stricken men pleading with me, so who knows?

No one knows, and no one will ever know, because then we have the letter-writing scene. Scottie asks Judy out on a date and she says that she needs time to change. Instead, what she needs is time to write a letter that completely explains how the first half of the movie came to be, what went down and why. If you were expecting the big reveal to come at the end, too bad! Now you know, and knowing is half the battle.

Everything after this scene is rife with dramatic irony. It’s so thick, you could cut it with a butter knife and spread it on toast. Side note #2: allegedly, Hitchcock was once asked how long he would allow an onscreen kiss to last. He replied with a relatively high figure, something along the lines of three to five minutes. The questioner was shocked. So long? “Well,” Hitchcock said, “I’d put a bomb under the seat first.” Think Touch of Evil, which begins with just that, and then has the longest take of your life as the car with the bomb under the seat drives all over God’s creation before finally exploding. Vertigo is kind of like that after the letter-writing scene. You know what’s going on, but Scottie doesn’t know, until he does, and then it’s heart palpitations and bitten nails until the end.

But what if that letter-writing scene had never happened? What if Hitchcock let us keep thinking that Scottie was a nutjob and Judy was a slightly-too-nice girl humoring a nutjob? Would it have been more satisfying when Judy pulled the telltale necklace out of her jewelry box and Scottie recognized it? When Scottie laid out the whole nefarious tale as he climbed the steps of the bell tower? In short, would it have been more satisfying to be surprised than to be in on the secret?

The answer to that question perhaps hinges on whether or not the audience would have been surprised or whether they would have figured it out themselves long before the end. Hindsight is 20/20 and all that, so it’s difficult to pretend for the sake of argument that the scene didn’t happen and the rest of the movie played out as it did. You already know what happened, so is it possible to determine whether or not you would have known if it were different? All you can do is try to think back to the first time you watched it and remember whether the letter-writing scene surprised you. If it did, maybe you would have been happier without it.

The scene accomplishes another goal, I think, namely to endear Judy to the audience by showing that she really did have feelings for Scottie and wished they could be together. And then for her to consciously decide not to run, instead to stay and try to make a go of it, only to die in the end is perhaps more poignant than if she had been left an enigma until the scene with the necklace. Fortunately or unfortunately, we have the one movie and not the other, so unless someone wants to re-edit it and run some tests on unsuspecting viewers who have never seen the original, the question of which would be preferable is academic. Thank goodness for academia.

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