Temporary Passings/ Possessions: On Hitchcock’s Vertigo and Carlotta Valdes

Rosebud Ben-Oni
January 17, 2016
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German Actress Karin For Playing a Cuban Resistance Fighter in TOPAZ

German Actress Karin Dor as a Cuban Resistance Fighter in Topaz


“[The Hispanic] has this fear that she’s a dreamwork inside someone else’s skull . . .that if she digs into herself, she won’t find anyone. . . .”  

–from Gloria Anzaldúa’s Borderlands


Recently, I rewatched Vertigo; it’s my favorite Hitchcock film. I hadn’t seen it in some time, and given the 2016 Oscar nominations which nearly completely excluded POC (and brought back last year’s hashtag #OscarsSoWhite), I began to rethink the Hitchcockian obsession with the Cool Blondeand then I remembered the time Karin Dor played a “Cuban” mistress/widow/resistance fighter Juanita de Cordoba in Topaz. What I remember most is one, Dor was not actually Latina, and two, her dramatic death in a rather dull film was captured in a high shot from above, her falling to the chessboard-like floor, her long purple dress swirling around her. (In fact, it was the best scene in the entire film; if you’re a Hitchcock fan, Topaz is hard to watch.)

And then there’s the case of Carlotta Valdes in Vertigo. Her “character” is particularly problematic because she is both completely necessary and ornamental; she drives the plot forward by both appearing and not appearing. Even her last name, Valdes—once presumably Valdez,—tells a much larger tale than the one of patriarchy and greed, or that of a Mexican-American woman trying to pass for white to gain social acceptance; it is a testament to larger racial and historical erasure. Her story has never been her own. And when we “meet” her, she’s hanging as a painting in a museum, the complexities of her sadness nowhere evident, reflecting the very opposite of her actual gritty, tattered fate. (Here is a clip of when Jimmy Stewart’s Scottie first sees the painting; consider the rather ominous and supernatural introduction to her image.)

We never get to meet the “real” Carlotta; we only have an image rendered in the eyes of the very society that rejected her– and yet Vertigo would not be possible as a film without her.

* * *

Charles Ramírez-Berg’s essay “Stereotyping in Films in General and of the Hispanic in Particular” offers this framework: everyone psychologically arranges and groups the data presented in a given environment; that’s a given. But how categorization creates The Other depends upon the dominant group designing the categories: there is an ethnocentric method of emphasizing the differences rather than one “simply noting that differences exist,” or two, trying to focus on similarities that the marked group (minority) shares with the category-makers (representatives of the majority).

There are three parts to the process of stereotyping: first, a physical environment set in a given time—“the scene of the action”—serves as the foundation for the stereotype of the marked group. Then there is “the human picture of that scene,” the fabricated stereotype of the marked group created by the category-maker. Lastly, “the human response to that pictures working itself out upon the scene of action”: what individuals constituting the majority do with the stereotype, and how it affects their lives (287). At this point, the “human response” is limited to the majority, who are responding to the “human picture” which is actually a subjective portrayal of the marked group, produced by the category-makers.

What then is the stereotype but a representation created in words of the category-makers that replaces any human qualities of the marked group that previous existed. This representation doesn’t respond, but is only responded to, and remains stuck in an unchanging, dehumanized identity. This is exactly the case of Carlotta Valdes.

Ramírez-Berg acknowledges that while “in nonspecialized, everyday usage, a stereotype is a merely an oversimplification,” it is in “popular criticism” that the meaning of a stereotype is “negative . . . a cliché, not ‘rounded’” (288). Stereotyping in this context reveals the consequences of applying the practice of pattern-making and categorization to people: what is negative is denying modifications from the cliché, negating the stereotype’s ability to differ from its symbolism­—the marked group, then, is stuck in time, and subsequently born into the cliché. Their intrinsic and external characteristics are predetermined by someone outside their “negated” group. Hollywood films, then, fall into the realm of popular criticism that shapes a mass opinion within the culture of the United States, “slipping effortlessly into the existing hegemony, the subtle, naturalizing way the ruling class maintains its dominance over the subordinate groups” (292).

* * *

"Mission Settlement"-girl-turned-Mistress Carlotta Valdes

The Cool Blonde Effect: The Reinvented Carlotta Valdes

As I mentioned before, what’s so troubling about the character of Carlotta in Vertigo is she is as supplemental as she is necessary to the story. The whole plot relies on her story, but she is without her own agency. We learn from others—mostly men—that Carlotta Valdes was a young Mexican or Mexican-American (it’s never made clear) mistress of a wealthy and white San Francisco tycoon. Her story is first revealed by a bookstore owner/historian Pop Liebel (played by Konstantin Shayne), who explains she lived in a time in which men had “the power and the freedom” to do anything they wanted to:

“Carlotta, beautiful Carlotta, sad . . . she came from somewhere small to the south of the city. Some say from a mission settlement. Young, yes, very young. And she was found dancing and singing in cabaret by that man. And he took her and built for her the great house in the Western Addition. And, uh, there was, there was a child, yes, that’s it, a child, a child. I cannot tell you exactly how much time passed or how much happiness there was, but then he threw her away. He had no other children. His wife had no children. So, he kept the child and threw her away. You know, a man could do that in those days. They had the power and the freedom. And she became the sad Carlotta, alone in the great house, walking the streets alone, her clothes becoming old and patched and dirty. And the mad Carlotta, stopping people in the streets to ask, ‘Where is my child?’ ‘Have you seen my child? . . . She died . . . by her own hand. There are many such stories.”

And Pop Liebel is right: there are such stories, variations of such stories, all created to drive plots along, these women given no dimension or consciousness of their own. Carlotta is there to possess her great-grand-daughter Madeline (Kim Novak, one of those cool blondes), the wife of another powerful rich man named Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore) who married into the shipbuilding business. Madeline’s family is all gone, making her the sole heir, although Gavin runs everything, rather begrudgingly. He recruits Scottie, a retired, injured detective to follow his wife around as she’s being driven to madness and possibly an early death at twenty-six, just like Carlotta, and by her own hand.

In The Common Room, Javier D. Bermudez Garcia argues that Carlotta Valdes and her suicide represent “another ghost: the Spanish Imperialist past in America . . . Carlotta Valdes is definitively Spanish and interestingly enough evokes a real historical [namesake] figure: Born in 1840, she was the daughter of Leopold I, king of Belgium, and Louise of France.” (Read more about the parallels he draws here.)

While I agree with much of Bermudez Garcia’s assessment, the story of Carlotta also reminds me of another woman who lost her child: La Llorona, or The Weeping Woman. The story of La Llorona—at least in the version I grew up with—begins with a poor but arrogant and beautiful woman who marries a wealthy man and bears him two children. One day she catches him cheating on her, and drowns her children in a fit of jealousy; once she realizes her crime, she then drowns herself. Her ghost then wanders the streets, kidnapping children (especially those who misbehaved—or so I was told) in the dead of the night, taking possession of their souls. Yet La Llorona was never satisfied with those she took, and so she was cursed to continue roaming the earth, forever.

* * *

Vertigo, however, it is not the possession of a woman by her ancestor because Madeline isn’t really Madeline; she’s Judy, another mistress hired to play the role of the wife, so that Elster can kill his real wife, thereby disposing both the real and the fake Madelines while blaming Carlotta, and claim what else but “the power and the freedom” of those older times. After he is successful with his plan and he himself is cleared of any wrongdoing (Scottie, in fact, being the man who’s questioned as he was there when the “suicide” happened), Elster tells Scottie:

“I can’t stay here. I’m going to wind up her affairs, and mine, and get away as far as I can. Europe perhaps. I probably never will come back . . . There’s no way for them to understand. You and I know who killed Madeleine.”

Even in her death, in his deception, Carlotta is kept accountable, responsible, inaccessible; for both her lover and Elster, in both her life and death, she exists simply as male fantasy. Carlotta is a sexual, as well as cultural fetish; even as a ghost, her body is exploited, and for Hitchcock as a director, this body has European features and light skin, and is elegantly dressed in Western clothes and bears a signature large amulet, presumably given to her by her lover. She appears ladylike and with composure because she had been posed that way; she hints at a smile in the painting because she was told to smile this way. On the surface, she is passing—passing as white and accepted into an elite society—yet her representation in the painting reveals a form of solitary confinement, locked in an almost timeless place, devoid of true self-expression, and displayed in the present, romanticized as a museum piece, an artifact that entrances Madeleine/Judy, who comes to “visit” this representation.

Considering the time period of Carlotta’s life, when the Mexican-American was suspect of a defined national loyalty (and still is), rendering her image silent and only showing her “in the flesh” within the dream, Carlotta remains nothing more than a ghost, who now haunts Scottie. Did Carlotta first “reinvade” a post-Columbian world by first setting upon Madeleine, who embodies a construction of Westernization at its fullest (features, clothes, speech), and now Scottie, who simply embodies a form of that culture’s patriarchy? Her skeptical, stoical countenance in the dream, contrasting with her rather embellished dress of Western refinement, is a rather unsettling visual call and reintroduction to society, almost a century later, that still emulates the Mexican-American as an image of corruption. Her beauty doesn’t hide her so-called treachery; it enhances it. Both Elster’s and Scottie’s Carlotta is a selfish, murderous woman; her misery claims the life of a predecessor, and her silence in the dream can also be read as defiance: she will not speak to Scottie, she will not offer him answers or comfort.

Stepping out of the painting contests her old place within the painting (and hence, the social/racial hierarchy), but also reaffirms her place there by keeping her in same clothes, accompanied by Elster, the contemporary form of patriarchy. Furthermore, this form of resurrection grants Carlotta the power to further elevate her place in society and time (destruction of self as constructive), rather than simply entering into the same role as a still[ed]-life of the failed mother and ruined woman. Death becomes her own personal trophy, and her supposed possession of Madeleine and Scottie is a revolt against time that has made her into high art and an image subjected to further critiquing.

* * *

The Nun/Judy's Conscience

The Shadowy Figure at the Bell Tower

Was Carlotta really the great-grandmother of the real Madeline? Did the two women really have a link? While Elster provided Madeline/Judy with the idea of a matching hairstyle and bouquet of flowers that Carlotta held in the painting, the amulet was more significant, as both a source of recognition for Scottie and the piece of evidence that gives Judy away. While I’m still uncertain of the link between Carlotta and the real Madeline, Elster created one between Carlotta and Madeline/Judy as it both marks them and leads to their downfall.

While Madeleine/Judy starts off as a Hitchcockian Cool Blonde, after the real Madeline’s death, she reappears in Scottie’s dreams, looking directly at the camera, rather accusingly and with disdain, dressed in the same clothes of the real Madeline because this is the only way Scottie remembers her. In truth, Judy comes from a small town and unhappy home life, speaks in much less refined vernacular and lives in a hotel by herself. Scottie, who catches her as Judy one in the street, tracks her to this hotel, and persuades her to see him. He then tries to transform Judy back to into his vision of Madeline, and she resists until he wear her down.

But one cannot love an image. When Scottie learns the truth about the plot and who Judy really is, it destroys Madeleine the myth, and exposes her as Elster’s mistress. Mistress to mistress, then, Judy mirrors Carlotta’s tragedy—and lives it herself. By the end of the film, Scottie forces her to retrace their steps to the top of the bell tower of Mission San Juan Bautista, the original scene of the suicide/murder. Judy pleads with him to have mercy on her when a shadow appears like a foreboding apparition, one of judgment and virulence; frightened, Judy falls to her death. It happens off-screen so we don’t know she lost her footing or jumped herself; her death, like the deaths of “such stories” of women, is a mystery.

When the shadow proves to be a nun, the irony that a woman whose spiritual marriage replaces the need for carnal intimacy appears in the place of Carlotta—who has been presented as a vengeful, ruined woman—arguably reveals that while society determines what is justice and virtue, human nature cannot escape from its own fears. Judy, though repentant for her crime, still pays in the end; she had participated in the crime to kill the real Madeleine, and by aiding Elster, she participated in the justice system of patriarchy, the same one that years ago deemed Carlotta “disposable.” And as Judy finds out, though she assisted patriarchy, she cannot escape it, because she is a woman as well, and Elster just as readily disposed of her once the deed was finished.

The amulet, then, as a symbol of the patriarchy and not as a symbol of Carlotta herself leads the real Madeleine, Madeleine/Judy and Judy to her death. Judy sacrifices the life of another woman for money and greed, and rather than being possessed by Carlotta, Judy invokes the “kept woman “ that the amulet brings about within her own self. The relationship of Judy and Carlotta is not one of domination but symmetry: the unnamed gentleman who could never fully accept Carlotta as a racial and social equal is like Scottie, who cannot accept Judy as working-class (and dark-haired at that). Like the amulet, the real Madeleine also links Judy and Carlotta: we know nothing about her, and she is only shown to us, again, as a image of the dead, already killed by Elster, as recalled by Judy in a confession to Scottie.

* * *

While we see women challenging the patriarchy in other Hitchcock movies such as Notorious’s Alicia as a borderline-alcoholic playgirl, Marnie as a liar and a thief, and Melanie as a prankster in The Birds, Carlotta attempted to contest and redefines her place in her time: by having a a child, both physically and symbolically integrating class and social roles as well as bloodlines. In taking her child and abandoning her to the streets, her wealthy lover denies her of any possibility of a future; the story of her life is out of her control and even after death, it will continue to haunt her. She wears the clothes and modeled the pose of Western gentility, but she remains on the margins of society, the amulet not a gift but a marker of her misfortune.

Vertigo remains enjoyable, but upon rewatching, uncomfortably so. Jimmy Stewart’s Scottie, in his desire to possess and change Judy back into Madeline, was written to be maniac and controlling, just as Kim Novak’s Judy was written as both deceitful and a small-town girl wanting to be loved. And Carlotta was meant to pass for white and was punished for doing so, even when it wasn’t her own idea. The truth is, if Vertigo had been made today, it would have made me very angry, and when I shared this sentiment with a white male colleague, he brushed it off, saying most of the films of the past that deal with race and patriarchy could not possibly have been made today. But when I pointed to him that such films are being made and on big budgets like last year’s Aloha and No Escape, and these kinds of casting calls still exist, and such stories like A Fine Dessert are still being published to great acclaim, he couldn’t answer me.

He couldn’t answer me because while the story of Carlotta Valdes was Hitchcock’s invention, such stories of real women continue to be (re)told and controlled, in the way such stories are (re)told and controlled. Because everywhere those like Carlotta Valdes are rewritten in the language of others—still powerful, still wealthy—who hold these girls and women up to false and falser light, telling them to smile, promising them the world as long as they mind its boundaries. And such girls and women are still being handed amulets unworthy of them, in exchange for acquiescing to these rules.

If you still don’t believe me, read the widely-praised children’s book A Fine Dessert and then ask yourself just how much harm is done in making racism and genocide more palatable for the masses. Ask yourself the cost of that kind of erasure.

One thought on “Temporary Passings/ Possessions: On Hitchcock’s Vertigo and Carlotta Valdes

  1. I agree with your view that Vertigo is a case study of the exploitation of woman, but there’s absolutely no evidence that casting Carlotta as white is racist. Since Carlotta was most likely a middle-class mid 19th-century Mexican, it is likely that she will have been white, which would reflect Mexican demographics of the time. While it is unlikely, though by no means impossible, that she would have been blond, Carlotta’s (or Madeleine’s) blondness is not racist since there is absolutely no historical record of racial discrimination on the basis of blond hair colour (although blond hair has been discussed and framed in racist contexts). It is better, if not conclusively, explained by Hitchcock’s personal proclivity towards blonds (which you noted).

    I haven’t read “A Fine Dessert” in its entirety, but a perusal of the summary leaves me short of an answer to the question of how this work could be considered racist. That the mother and daughter protagonists, who are both slaves, should eat the scraps is a shocking image to the reader, however familiar they may be with history, and lends further sympathy to the protagonists . It also gave renewed impetus to my anger at this tragic aberration of history and, if anything, affirmed my commitment to civil rights.

    Very often reviewers underestimate the “common” reader’s ability to walk away with the right impression. To imply otherwise is your right (which I would fight for), however unfounded it may be. You may want to consider that those who are left cold by this story or are even affirmed in their racist or other classist views (which you are rightfully concerned about) would equally not be open to other, more directly educational treatments of this disturbing, hopefully never-to-be forgotten chapter of history.

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