Review by C.J. Bunce
Acclaimed horror filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock′s first attempt at developing a film from the professional partnership of French writers Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac was for their 1952 novel She Was No More. He got passed up, but he wouldn’t miss acquiring the rights to their next novel published in 1954–another murder mystery–called D’Entre Les Morts, translated as From Among the Dead, or The Living and the Dead. H.G. Clouzot would direct She Was No More and release it as the film Diabolique, but Hitchcock would go on to be known best for his adaptation of their work–the film classic Vertigo, labeled for decades by critics as his masterpiece, and even the best movie ever made by anyone. As readers will learn upon returning to the original Boileau and Marcejac novel, later renamed Sueurs froides or Cold Sweat (the French title of Hitchcock’s film), and finally Vertigo in light of the film’s success, screenplay writers Samuel A. Taylor and Alec Coppel significantly modified the novel for the screen.
The novel is a masterful, gritty look at five years in the life of a Frenchman in 1940 Paris, a lawyer traumatized by acrophobia and vertigo after watching a man die falling from a building, later suffering from depression and psychosis after a bundle of life experiences results in a sort of post traumatic stress disorder. As the war comes closer, Flavières is asked by an old college friend to keep tabs on his wife, Madeleine, who he claims has developed a strange fixation on her dead great-grandmother who killed herself at Madeleine’s current age. Flavières does as asked, but soon falls in love with Madeleine. His love turns to obsession, which only gets worse as the story goes on, and he becomes a voyeur, and eventually controlling, possessive, and manipulative. It would be nearly impossible for anyone to imagine actor James “Jimmy” Stewart playing the role of the novel’s protagonist Roger Flavières, so different from Stewart’s character in the film, Scottie Ferguson, a likeable San Francisco lawyer-turned cop.
Flavières follows Madeleine everywhere she goes. As she sits and stares blankly at the gravestone of her great-grandmother, as she visits the dead woman’s apartment, as she drifts about the city in a trance state. Is she possessed by her ancestor’s ghost? This is the lingering question of the husband, of Flavières, and the mystery for the reader until the very end of the story. While observing Madeleine from afar, Flavières watches her dive into the river Seine, and he rescues her, revealing himself, but not disclosing his work for her husband. Her mysterious nature continues until he accompanies her to a church with a bell tower. She runs up the steps, but his vertigo keeps him from following. She screams, and falls to her death. To this point–the midpoint of the novel–the movie is a close adaptation of the novel, except for the setting. But the second half of the novel becomes a different journey for the protagonist than what the movie audience has seen.
I first saw Hitchcock’s Vertigo in the theater as a kid, and as much as I was mesmerized by the haunting story, Bernard Herrmann’s stunning musical score, and leads Jimmy Stewart and Kim Novak, I could not understand how Hitchcock’s ending made sense. I still am not sure it’s the best possible finish for the story. But that ending won’t be found in the original story. Is it better? It’s better for the original story, but wouldn’t fit the film.
Instead of notifying the police after witnessing Madeleine’s suicide, Flavières hides. He contacts the husband saying he hadn’t seen Madeleine that day, that she was missing. The once by-the-book lawyer becomes a cagey, dwindling man. The husband is shot during the invasion of war, and Flavières is sent off to become a soldier for four years. Back in France he drinks and he broods and he revisits his past. Until he sees a woman at a restaurant with a man. Is it Madeleine? The hair is different, her entire demeanor is different. Is it her? This is where the medium of the novel beats the film–the reader doesn’t know if she is just in Flavières’s adled mind, a doppelganger, or a changed Madeleine, somehow back from the grave, or someone altogether different.
This Vertigo is a novel about obsession, the impact of violence on humans, the impact of war, and what it all can do to tear someone down. It’s also a supernatural tale, a ghost story, a mystery, a thriller, and a horror story. Or it’s one of those things, or bits of them all. This tale has more in common with the obsession in Vera Caspary’s Laura–think Dana Andrew’s detective Mark McPherson and his fixation on the portrait of the murdered socialite–here we find our protagonist completely consumed by Madeleine, and later the woman he believes to be possessed by her. The ending is a surprise–equally creepy, but less cryptic than where Hitchcock arrived, and even darker than the film.
Fans of the film will note that Barbara Bel Geddes’s character Midge has no counterpart in the novel. She was obviously created to allow Stewart’s “Johnny-O” to explain necessary bits of the backstory and develop his new persona.
Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac’s novel is intriguing and brilliant, a surprise for fans of the film, who will never know where these original characters will end up. Despite the iconic status of Hitchcock’s masterpiece adaptation, the novelists’ From Among the Dead aka The Living and the Dead aka Cold Sweat aka Vertigo is the kind of story so different from its cinema counterpart that it could stand to have a closer adaptation. It would be familiar, but something interesting in the right filmmaker’s hands.