[INT: Elster’s Office (DAY)]

Gabriel Blackwell



Tom Helmore, the English actor who plays Gavin Elster in Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, had been in two previous Hitchcock movies, 1927’s The Ring and 1936’s Secret Agent. He appears in the credits for neither one.



Rewatching the sequence in which Scottie visits Elster in his office, I am struck by Elster’s apparent unease; he seems, in his stiff-armed posture and impatient swiveling in the chair, like a child in his father’s office, placed there out of the way and told not to move, not to touch anything. What does it mean? There is already something awkward and exceptional in Helmore’s performance: his (British) accent, which stands out in this scene between a (American) man and his old college chum (also, one would have supposed, an American). The effect is to make one suspicious of Elster from his introduction—has he ever even been in this office that he says is his? Is he in fact or has he ever been a friend of Scottie’s? Is he even Gavin Elster? And on the other side of the desk and in contrast to the man across from him, in contrast also to the awkward pose that he himself has affected in Midge’s apartment at the beginning of the previous scene (which, even in the timeline of the movie, immediately precedes this scene in Elster’s office (where, then, is Scottie’s cane?)), Scottie seems perfectly at ease. It is Scottie’s milieu, it seems, if not his office. Already, even before he has begun to control the characters around him, he is in control (even while he is out of control in attempting to control them). And Elster is not in control, or wants to appear so.



The West presented many opportunities to become what is commonly called a self-made man, a man of wealth, but it offered more profoundly an opportunity to make oneself up, as a fiction, a character, a hero, unburdened by the past. “Oh, what was your name in the States?” went one California song. “Was it Thompson, or Johnson, or Bates? Did you murder your wife and fly for your life? Say, what was your name in the States?” In those days, San Francisco was the capital not only of California but of the West, and the West was for Yankees a place without a past, both a gritty terrain of bare earth and long rivers and a fiction of masculinity and possibilities. . . . For those who came from the East, the West was a place without a past, and amnesia felt like freedom.

(Rebecca Solnit, River of Shadows)



There is something else to note in the office scene: Helmore was apparently much shorter than Stewart, and the fact that there are no wide shots or full shots showing both actors standing up, the very careful staging of two-shots, and the frequent use of medium shots (and the camera’s avoidance of any angle or framing that would show the two actors’ feet together), are all attempts to hide the disparity in height. The low-angle medium shots of Helmore, made necessary by Helmore’s height, place the camera—and thus the viewer—in a subservient, even awed position. This gives the viewer the illusion that Helmore is in control of the scene; he looms over the much-taller, seated Stewart, and he returns to the side-area with the long table several times, presumably because its floor was raised and he could be made to look taller simply by standing on it. Stewart is quickly ushered over to the chair and remains sitting for most of the scene while Helmore walks around, leaving only the shots with Stewart and Helmore near the door to be contended with. These are made to work through imaginative framing. Or perhaps through set-dressing: I’m left wondering whether Helmore was, in those shots, standing on a block, or on a raised mark, or if Stewart was standing slightly underneath the set in a cut-out.

Regardless of how it was achieved, these tricks (tricks common in Hollywood, where most actors are quite short and appearance is all-important) make it seem as though the two actors occupy two different sets—the camera looks up at Helmore, but straight on at Stewart; Helmore stands on the stairs or in the raised portion of the set; Stewart sits, or stands in a cutout a foot lower than the rest of the set. Helmore is on stage, and Stewart is in the orchestra, or even in the audience. For Helmore, as for any actor playing to an audience, Stewart would be at best a ghost, a wager worthy of Pascal. In the scene, in the movie, Stewart does not rise to the level of even a prop in Helmore’s play—Scottie’s suggestions and reservations, remember, are all cast aside without consideration—but he is nonetheless the reason the performance is given. This is the position Stewart’s character will play for the remainder of the first half of the film: He exists not as an actor but as a witness.



Was it a ghost?




Especially note the two-shot of Helmore and Stewart just after Helmore has delivered his line, “Someone dead.” The camera cuts to Stewart and his perplexed, even angry reaction, then pans back to fit Helmore into the frame. It is obvious that Helmore, who has just descended the stairs (it looks like two risers from the way he moves), has still not come to rest flat, on the same plane as Stewart, even though he is leaning against the desk Stewart is sitting in front of. Were there two sets? Or two levels to this one set?



Helmore’s previous film was 1957’s Designing Woman.


Robert Boyle, set designer for Vertigo, subsequently helped Hitchcock recreate Elster’s office in his own home. Hitchcock, of course, so famous for his profile that he made it part of his signature, was, in addition to being quite stout, also quite short. One wonders how much time Hitch spent in that raised portion, looking down on his visitors, how comfortable he was in the chair behind his desk.



Do you believe that someone out of the past, someone dead, can enter and take possession of a living being?




So there was no “I” anymore. . . . It was strange to have no self—to be like a little boy left alone in a big house, who knew that now he could do anything he wanted to do, but found that there was nothing that he wanted to do.

(F. Scott Fitzgerald, “Pasting It Together”)



When I like people immensely, I never tell their names to any one. It is like surrendering a part of them. I have grown to love secrecy. It seems to be the one thing that can make modern life mysterious or marvelous to us. The commonest thing is delightful if one only hides it. When I leave town now I never tell my people where I am going. If I did, I would lose all my pleasure.

(Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray)



In his essay, “Family Romances,” Freud says, “There are all too many occasions when a child is slighted, or at least feels that he has been slighted, that he does not have the whole of his parents’ love, and when above all he regrets having to share it with brothers and sisters. The feeling that his affection is not fully reciprocated then finds expression in the idea, often consciously recollected from early childhood, that he is a stepchild or an adopted child.” Vertigo seems to illustrate an allied mechanism: Madeleine, split in her affections between her husband and Scottie, is revealed to have adopted her persona from a long-dead ancestor, and then subsequently revealed to have adopted that adopting persona from another already-dead woman, the real Madeleine Elster. But whose fantasy is it, really? Is it Scottie’s? He would have reason to want to believe that Madeleine isn’t Madeleine—as Madeleine, she is a married woman, unavailable to him; as Judy, she is Judy, single, “playing a role” as a wife, and thus available.

Or is it Elster’s fantasy? Had Madeleine strayed? Was that the reason for her murder? The affections he once had all to himself had been adulterated, and he found himself wishing his wife was not his wife, was anyone else, so he made her into anyone else?

Or is it Judy’s fantasy? Her employer, Elster, finished with her when her role as a woman playing the role of another woman has served its purpose, no longer her husband (he never was), no longer her employer, no longer serving any purpose to her, and she without a role, first adopted and now cast aside?

Or is it our fantasy?



Imagine Judy Barton during the period she is supposed to be playing Madeleine, how careful she must have been, how careful she must have been required to have been. She cannot be seen by any of Elster’s friends or her relationship with Elster will be revealed (“Gavin, you scamp! How long have you been keeping this one from us?”). And she cannot be seen by Scottie, perhaps a much easier task (there is only one of Scottie), but one that is easier said than done because, after all, she is being followed by Scottie. We can assume that this period is relatively short, but it is longer than a day or two, and life goes on, doesn’t it? She must eat, sleep, wash up. Where? Judy cannot be seen at Elster’s house (except outside of it), because she is not his wife—presumably, at least the staff and her neighbors will know what the real Madeleine Elster looks like—but neither can she be seen at her own apartment. If Scottie caught her there, he would know she was not Madeleine Elster. Where can she go when she is not being Madeleine Elster? Is it possible that, because she had no opportunity not to be Madeleine, she was Madeleine during those days or weeks, 24 hours a day (meaning, in effect, she was Madeleine)? Or did she simply disappear when no one is looking, somehow cease to exist?



A person may identify himself with another and so become unsure of his true self; or he may substitute the other’s self for his own. The self may thus be duplicated, divided, and interchanged.

(Sigmund Freud, “The Uncanny”)



For our second anniversary, my wife’s sister bought us a baby name book. It was supposed to be a joke. I read part of the introduction—stupid writing that tried too hard to seem “fun”—and then I turned to my name, to find out what it “meant.” There was never any thought of using the book to name a baby. My name was listed under the heading “Unusual Names.” Of course I knew about the angel (though I didn’t know that angels were neither male nor female, but (possibly) both; there are gendered versions of my name, Gabriel/Gabrielle, but maybe they aren’t necessary?). There was also this encouraging sentence: “There is no reason to think that unusual or unattractive names are associated with deficits in academic or social functioning.” This came under a subheading, “Unusual names make for unusual people?” The idea seemed to be that, in naming your child, you were helping to create them. Like my name itself, the idea is biblical. Adam, naming the animals. God, creating light.

I had never thought much about my name before; I mean, thought about what it really was. My parents had named me “Gabriel Blackwell” and put that name on my birth certificate, but I hadn’t really been born with that name, had I? It was not “mine” in the same way as my hair is mine or my hands are mine. It was just a name. (Do I really need to quote Shakespeare?) If I were to change my name, I wouldn’t become someone else. My memories wouldn’t change. If I renamed myself “O.J. Simpson,” I would not be O.J. Simpson. Or I would be, but in name only. I would simply be another O.J. Simpson. If, when I went to renew my license, I discovered that my parents or the state had misspelled my name on my birth certificate, nothing about my life would change except for the name on my driver’s license. But, the flipside of all of this was that my being “Gabriel Blackwell” was not really different from Jimmy Stewart being Scottie Ferguson. My name, I mean, was not a unique marker of my existence, not in the same way my body was—my body was me. My name wasn’t. When someone met me in person, they came to know me; when someone heard a story about me, I became a fiction.

No matter how badly a novice butchers the words of Shakespeare, she will still be Ophelia for whatever time she spends on stage. No matter how badly I act out “Gabriel Blackwell,” I cannot be any less Gabriel Blackwell.



The gothic horror and romantic terror of the Doppelgänger is the horror and the terror of a Siamesed bond: a life contravening yours, but its fate your fate.

(Hillel Schwartz, The Culture of the Copy)



But love and hate, he thought now, good and evil, lived side by side in the human heart, and not merely in differing proportions in one man and the next, but all good and all evil. One had merely to look for a little of either to find it all, and one had merely to scratch the surface. All things had opposites close by, every decision a reason against it, every animal an animal that destroys it. . . . Nothing could be without its opposite that was bound up with it. . . . Each was what the other had not chosen to be, the cast-off self, what he thought he hated but perhaps in reality loved . . . there was that duality permeating nature. . . . Two people in each person. There’s also a person exactly the opposite of you, like the unseen part of you, somewhere in the world, and he waits in ambush.

(Patricia Highsmith, Strangers on a Train)



“One shouldn’t live alone.”

“Some people prefer it.”

“It’s wrong.”




Chronology is not the same as causality.

(Jan Kjaerstad, The Seducer)



Let the cause follow the effect, not accompany it or precede it.

(Robert Bresson, Notes on the Cinematographer)



In Vertigo one learns as much about Alfred Hitchcock from the complex dualities of the Kim Novak character as from the tormented, doomed lover played by [Jimmy] Stewart.

(Donald Spoto, The Dark Side of Genius: The Life of Alfred Hitchcock)



Two facts are obvious: everybody knows Alfred Hitchcock, and nobody knows him.

(John Russell Taylor, Hitch: The Life and Times of Alfred Hitchcock)



Einstein seems to have said that if one went to the trouble (not to mention the expense) of devising an infinitely powerful telescope, a telescope that could also somehow penetrate any celestial body it met, and trained its sights straight out along the horizon, one would see the back of one’s own head. However, he later admitted that such an enterprise would be ridiculous; after all, the barber routinely offers us this view for free.



Searching for “Gabriel Blackwell” using Google returns ~10,000 results—the quotation marks are important, since, without them, you get pages where both those words appear but not in that order, i.e., pages with a Blackwell somewhere and a Gabriel somewhere else. It seems significant that, in order to get Google’s algorithm to register that you mean what you say, you have to put what you say in quotes, which is the opposite of what happens when you put something in quotes in print.

The exact number of results depends on the day. I noticed a probably imperceptible-to-anyone-but-me fluctuation of around one hundred results, +/-, like some distant star winking in the sky; still, over 10,000 iterations of me. I couldn’t think about them as I always had before. They no longer seemed so benign. Now, each one was a direct competitor, even the ones that were obviously me.



If two identical people meet, it’s only natural that they should want to know everything about each other, and the name is always the first thing we ask, because we imagine that this is the door through which one enters.

(Jose Saramago, The Double)



For Catholics, christening, a baptism, is meant to cleanse the child of original sin. The child must be given a name (i.e., “christened”) before the baptism, as that name is then used in the ceremony. The original sin is exorcised during the baptism—the child is born into a type of possession and, if it dies before this ceremony, it cannot be admitted into Heaven but will instead spend eternity in Purgatory. Without a name, there is no baptism. Without a baptism, there is no salvation. On the other hand, in sailing lore, to name a boat once she is already afloat is very bad luck, and there are many superstitions regarding the renaming of boats.



Hitchcock: “For me to take someone else’s script and merely photograph it in my own way simply isn’t enough. For better or for worse, I must do the whole thing myself. And yet, in a way, one has to be terribly careful that one doesn’t run out of story ideas. Like any artist who paints or writes, I suppose I’m limited to a certain field. Not that I’m comparing myself to him, but old Rouault was content with judges, clowns, a few women, and Christ on the Cross. That constituted his life’s work. Cézanne was content with a few still lifes and a few scenes in the forest. But how long can a filmmaker go on painting the same picture?”

(Francois Truffaut, Hitchcock)



Hitchcock said: “What I’ve tried to put in my films [is] what Edgar Allan Poe put in his novels: a completely unbelievable story told to the readers with such a spellbinding logic that you get the impression that the same thing could happen to you tomorrow. And that’s the key thing if you want the reader or viewer to substitute himself for the hero—since people are, after all, interested only in themselves or in stories which could happen to them.”

(Donald Spoto, The Dark Side of Genius)



Someone who spends his life drawing profiles will end up believing that man has one eye, Braque felt.

(Anne Carson, “Short Talks”)



Another way to think of Plato’s cave is as a condition in which people live entirely in representation and interior space, in a universe constructed by humans, ultimately inside the imaginations of those who came before, an operation that suggests nesting Russian dolls and a certain crampedness of the imagination after a few generations.

(Rebecca Solnit, River of Shadows)



Judy’s gray suit as worn by Novak was originally designed for a different actress, Vera Miles. A trebling (MilesàNovakàJudy(àMadeleine; a quadrupling?))? Novak objected to the dress because of the color—Edith Head recalled, “I remember her saying that she would wear any color except gray.” Might she also have objected because the suit was not hers?



An image must be transformed by contact with other images as is a color by contact with other colors. A blue is not the same blue beside a green, a yellow, a red. No art without transformation.

(Robert Bresson, Notes on the Cinematographer)



According to the website howmanyofme.com, which uses an algorithm that takes the population according to the 2010 census and the relative popularity of a person’s first and last names and determines the probable number of Americans with that name, as of 6/22/2012, there were probably 21 Gabriel Blackwells in the USA. I was able to find a handful of them without much effort at all.



Terror lurks not only in the dark shadows or in solitude . . . sometimes we can be most alone, most threatened, furthest beyond help, in the middle of a crowd of normal, friendly people.

(John Russell Taylor, Hitch)


What we need to know—what Scottie needs to know but doesn’t investigate—is not what we think we need to know: who Madeleine Elster was. Madeleine Elster is the film’s MacGuffin.

If Judy Barton sees her [staged] rescue—Scottie’s dive into the Bay—as a [real] gesture of devotion, then when she wakes in Scottie’s apartment, she’s already to some degree under his spell. “He kept the child and threw her away,” Pop Liebel’s line about the man who kept Carlotta, has already been twinned to Elster’s real story: Elster will throw Judy away once his plot is accomplished, and she has already realized this by the time she meets Scottie. Scottie, though, doesn’t throw her away, won’t, and it is that that she falls in love with. This explains her actions in the second half of the film, her acquiescence to Scottie’s increasingly disturbing demands—she can’t help herself any more than Scottie can. But one thing, the most important thing, will yet be left unexplained: why does she jump from the mission’s tower? What is she afraid of, held so tightly by Scottie, her tormentor and her protector? Whatever causes her conscience to jump at shadows is also the clue to her identity before Elster and his plot. What we need to know in the end isn’t who Madeleine Elster was, but who Judy Barton has been.



An incomplete double reading list:

“The Student of Prague,” H. H. Ewers.

“William Wilson,” Edgar Allan Poe.

The Devil’s Elixirs and “The Doubles,” ETA Hoffmann.

“The Double,” Fyodor Dostoyevsky.

“Love and Mr. Lewisham,” H. G. Wells

The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde.

“At the End of the Passage,” Rudyard Kipling.

“The Horla” and “Peter and John,” Guy de Maupassant.

“Borges and I,” Jorge Luis Borges.

Despair, Vladimir Nabokov.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, Philip K. Dick.

“The Secret-Sharer,” Joseph Conrad.

Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison.

“Goodbye, My Brother,” John Cheever.

The Double, Jose Saramago.

“The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” Robert Louis Stevenson.

The Invention of Morel, Adolfo Bioy Casares.

The Dark Half, Stephen King.

Twelfth Night, William Shakespeare.

The Affirmation, Christopher Priest.



There is the Gabriel Blackwell in South Carolina who was jailed for domestic abuse. His wife, so far as I can tell, was the victim. I don’t know what her name is; they don’t release those details sometimes.



There is the Gabriel Blackwell in Trinidad, a professional cricketer. The only information on that Blackwell was written in an arcane code I could not break, in match scores and the miscellaneous statistics of a sport I had never so much as pretended to understand.



There were three Midwestern Gabriel Blackwells—a chef, a student, and an intern at a political office. Their abandoned social media profiles, their inscrutable pictures, and the brief mentions of them on obscure “professional” blogs gave each one the weight of a fragrance.



Twenty-three hundred people go missing in America every single day. During the time it took you to read that sentence, another person has gone missing. At any given moment, the odds of any one of those estimated twenty-one American Gabriel Blackwells going missing are a little less than one in a billion. If you have a more common name, the chances that you will go missing in the next hour are much higher.



In art, to reduce is to perfect. Your disappearance bestowed a negative beauty on you.

(Edouard Levé, Suicide)



Changing your name is no guarantee that a sudden accident won’t befall you.



There is the same thrill of one-way glass . . . as in hearing the sound of your voice recorded. Or catching sight of yourself in the background of a photograph. Or passing yourself in an electronics storefront—a peep of a view as your image walks toward you. For you are always a secret to yourself. . . . But there are glimpses and hints and clues.

(Adam Ross, Mr. Peanut)



Man is not truly one, but truly two. I say two because the state of my own knowledge does not pass beyond that point. Others will follow; others will outstrip me on the same lines: and I hazard the guess that man will be ultimately known for a mere polity of multifarious incongruous and independent denizens.

(Robert Louis Stevenson, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde)



If Heraclitus is right, then every new sentence introduces a new character. The Gregor Samsa who awakens to find himself changed into a monstrous vermin is not the same Gregor Samsa who lifts his head to see his vaulted brown belly—that Gregor Samsa is already and will always have been a monstrous vermin. In literature, the period gives us a way to say that something has changed, a moment has passed. In life, what are the periods?



Each of us is several, is many, is a profusion of selves. So that the self who disdains his surroundings is not the same as the self who suffers or takes joy in them. In the vast colony of our being there are many species of people who think and feel in different ways.

(Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet)





Gabriel Blackwell is the author of three books, the most recent of which is The Natural Dissolution of Fleeting-Improvised-Men. His fiction and essays have appeared in Conjunctions, Tin House, DIAGRAM, the Kenyon Review Online, and elsewhere. With Matthew Olzmann, he edits The Collagist.