The Last of Sheila (1973)

This review has no spoilers.  I wouldn’t dare.

The Last of Sheila is a closed-universe mystery, one in which all the suspects can be gathered together in one room, which they typically are at one point in the movie.  It is one of the best such movies ever made.  I put it right up there with Mystery on the Orient Express (the 1974 version, of course) and Ten Little Indians (1965).  Of this latter movie, it has been made several times, but I think this one is the best, slightly better even that the first version, And Then There Were None (1945).

As for The Last of Sheila, this one is limited to seven people on a yacht, the crew aside.  Now, I confess that with such movies, I really don’t try to solve the mystery as I watch it.  Not that I would likely be successful if I did.  In the television series Ellery Queen (1975-1976), the title detective, played by Jim Hutton, would suddenly realize the solution to the mystery he was trying to solve just before the end of the show.  He would then break the fourth wall, bring our attention to several clues, after which there would be a commercial break, giving us a chance to answer the question, “Who done it?”  Even with all that, I never solved a single mystery.  But I did appreciate the fact that the show played fair, that the clues should have pointed me in the right direction.

As with most movies of this sort, we become fully aware of all the clues that have been presented to us at the dénouement.  In the case of The Last of Sheila, however, while some of the clues are indeed made explicit by the end of the movie, there are others that are not, some of which I did not notice until a second or third viewing.  And this movie is worth a second or third viewing.

My favorite clue is one that I thought was a goof.  I said to myself, “Oh no, they forgot that ….”  But they didn’t forget.  And there is another in-your-face clue that I just missed.  And, of course, there are a few red herrings.

At the beginning of the movie, Clinton (James Coburn) and his wife Sheila, who is a gossip columnist, are at a party having a bitter argument.  She becomes so angry that she leaves, deciding she will walk home.  Then we see a car speeding down the road, weaving around and striking some garbage cans.  Then it hits Sheila, killing her.  The driver of the car stops, backs up, looks at the body, and then drives off.

A year passes, and we see Clinton on his yacht, which he has named “SHEILA.”  Being a game enthusiast, he has decided to host a game aboard his yacht in honor of Sheila.  He invites the following people:  Tom (Richard Benjamin) and his wife Lee (Joan Hackett); Christine (Dyan Cannon); Philip (James Mason); and Alice (Raquel Welch) and her husband Anthony (Ian McShane).

Clinton is a movie producer, and everyone he has invited connected to the movie business in some way.  Tom is a screenwriter, who keeps hoping Clinton will produce a movie based on his favorite script; Lee has grown up in the film industry since she was a child; Christine is an agent; Philip is a director, presently reduced to directing commercials; Alice is an actress; and Anthony would like to be an assistant producer.  Christine refers to them all as the “B-Team,” probably including herself.  As part of the lure to get them aboard his yacht, Clinton says he intends to make a movie based on Sheila’s life, and they will all be a part of it.  And because they are desperate for work, they suffer his abuse, as when he refers to all of them as has-beens to their face.  As a result, a lot of them harbor ill feelings toward Clinton.

Each person is given a card with a pretend secret on it.  Each night, at a different port, they will be given a clue allowing them to find the evidence that establishes the identity of the person with that night’s secret.  Everyone who solves the mystery, gets a point.  If the person who has the secret solves it, the game ends, and those that have not yet solved it don’t score.  The better the score by the end of the week, the better billing he or she will get in the credits of the movie.  And so, on the first night, they go ashore and try to establish who is the shoplifter, which is Philip’s pretend secret.  Tom solves it, and so does Lee.  When Philip solves it, that ends the game for the night.

It sounds like a lot of fun at first.  But then Alice becomes suspicious.  She had once been arrested for shoplifting, and she begins to wonder if all the pretend secrets are real secrets, each pretend secret being assigned to someone with a different real secret, just as Philip’s pretend secret was Alice’s real secret.  Furthermore, Alice holds the homosexual card, and she knows that one of the guests on the cruise is a homosexual.  And yes, there are both clues and red herrings as to who the homosexual is.

And then something unexpected happens, bringing us to a second mystery, a real one this time, where Alice’s suspicions are confirmed and made explicit by Tom, who has had similar suspicions as to what the game was really all about.  This one involves the death of Sheila.  After much analysis, with contributions from everyone, they solve this real mystery.

Or do they?  I knew a guy once who said he got up and left the theater at this point, figuring the movie had to be over.  I had to tell him that there was a third mystery, which he might take the trouble to watch some time when he is not in so much of a hurry.

And at this point, I cannot help but express my astonishment at the not insignificant portion of the human race that will go out for what should be an enjoyable night at the movies, and then feel compelled to leave before it is over, in order to have the satisfaction of being able to drive out of the parking lot before anyone else does.  I estimate that by doing so, they manage to get home about five minutes earlier than they would have had they stayed until the movie was completely over.

I remember one night in particular.  I was watching There Was a Crooked Man (1970) at the movie theater.  The movie has a twist ending:  you think it’s going to end one way, and then something completely unexpected happens, leading to a totally different ending.

It was Saturday night, and the movie, which had started at 7:00, was completely over a few minutes past 9:00.  In other words, it was not likely to be way past anyone’s bedtime.  And yet, just before the movie got to that twist ending, about a third of the audience had already gotten up out of their seats and were heading for the exit.  A few went through the door, and they were undoubtedly pleased that they beat everyone else in the race to get home before 9:20 that evening.  The rest of them began to realize that the movie was really not over.  They milled around up front, shuffling slowly toward that all-important exit, heads turned to the left so they could see what was happening, but without giving up their place in line to get out the door.  One man was halfway through that exit, holding the door open with his left hand, craning his head back in to see what was going on, neither moving forward nor moving out of the way.

Anyway, for those that have the patience to wait until a movie is completely over, The Last of Sheila is a three-part mystery, the last of which is actually worth the extra time it takes to see how it unfolds.

Inasmuch as this movie is almost fifty years old, and it does not show up on your typical list of must-see movies, I figured it was worth bringing to the attention of those that might be completely unaware of its existence.

Rope (1948), Compulsion (1959), and Swoon (1992)

Early in the twentieth century, there were several crimes that shocked the nation.  There was the assassination of President William McKinley, shot to death by anarchist Leon Czolgosz.  There was the case of “Fatty” Arbuckle, who was charged with the rape and accidental death of actress Virginia Rappe by means too sordid to be repeated here.  And there was the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, ordered by Al Capone, which resulted in the machine-gun deaths of seven members of Bugs Moran’s North Side Gang.  In each case, the crime involved someone well-known to the public:  a president of the United States, a movie actor, a notorious gangster.  And each of the crimes had a motive that people could understand:  ideology, sex, power.  But there was another crime involving people no one had ever heard of for a motive that didn’t make sense.

What was shocking about the crime in question was that it was a thrill-killing of a fourteen-year-old boy by two young men of exceptional intelligence from wealthy families.  The boy was Bobby Franks.  The killers were Richard Loeb and Nathan Leopold.  As if this were not enough to capture the nation’s attention, they were represented by Clarence Darrow, famous defense attorney, soon to become even more famous for his role in the Scopes Monkey Trial, which became the basis for the movie Inherit the Wind (1960).  The fact that Loeb and Leopold were both Jews may have contributed to the fascination people had with this crime, in that it could feed off attitudes of antisemitism.  Added to that was the fact that they were homosexuals, regarded as a perversion in those days, one that Darrow himself said contributed to their act of murder.

Rope (1948)

The first movie based on these events was Rope, directed by Alfred Hitchcock, which in turn was based on a play by Patrick Hamilton.  It distills the story down to its essence.  Two characters, Brandon (John Dall) and Phillip (Farley Granger), correspond to Loeb and Leopold.  They murder a friend of theirs, David, to prove that they are Nietzschean supermen, men with superior intellects, unfettered by moral fictions of right and wrong.  Brandon revels in what they have done.  Phillip, on the other hand, immediately starts feeling guilty.  As Nietzsche would say, his character wasn’t equal to the deed.

Those who are alert to such things can tell that these two men are homosexuals.  As for me, I wouldn’t know that to this day if I hadn’t read it somewhere.  I thought they were just friends.  And there is even a reference to the fact that Brandon once dated Janet, David’s girlfriend, put in the movie just to fool people like me, I suppose.  As another hint, the actors Dall and Granger were either homosexual or bisexual, but I would never have figured that out on my own either.  Just one more proof of my heterosexual blind spot.

But while the suppression of their homosexuality might be regarded as an unfortunate requirement by the Hays Office, its full expression in this movie would have had the effect of displacing the influence of Nietzsche on these two men, and suggesting instead that it was their homosexuality that was the real reason for their crime.  What was then regarded as a sexual perversion might in turn have been taken as an explanation for their perverted understanding of Nietzsche’s philosophy.  Or maybe that was the point, and I’m just being naïve again.

Anyway, the two men stuff David’s body in a chest, and then throw a party with food and drink set on the chest for the guests, consisting of David’s father, David’s aunt, Janet, Janet’s previous boyfriend, and Rupert, a college professor from whom Brandon and Phillip first learned about Friedrich Nietzsche and his concept of the superman.  Rupert is played by Jimmy Stewart.

Jimmy Stewart?  You mean George Macready or Otto Kruger wasn’t available for this role, and Hitchcock had to pick an actor whose persona absolutely precluded the possibility that he was anything but a paragon of moral rectitude?  As a result, when Rupert holds forth on his view that those who are superior have the right to kill those who are inferior, we never take him seriously for a moment.  And as if Stewart’s persona were not enough for us to see through his discourse on murder, Rupert’s flippant words and frivolous manner would have made it clear that he was being facetious even if Macready or Kruger had played this role.

But when Brandon takes over the ideas being advanced by Rupert, he is quite serious.  David’s father remarks that Hitler also agreed with Nietzsche’s theory of the superman, to which Brandon replies that he would have hanged all the Nazis, not because they were evil, but because they were stupid and incompetent.  I guess he was contemptuous of them because they lost the war.

Little by little, Rupert begins to suspect that a real murder has taken place, eventually leading him to lift the lid of the chest to see David’s body.  When he does so, his philosophy flips like a Necker cube.  Suddenly announcing that he is now ashamed of his belief that the superior few have the privilege of killing those who are inferior, he starts talking about morality, love, and God.  And then he makes reference to the fact that society will punish Brandon and Phillip for the murder they have committed.

So, he goes to the telephone to call the police, right?  Wrong!  Having taken possession of Brandon’s revolver, Rupert goes to the window, opens it, and fires three shots in the air.  That way when someone on the street below hears the shots, he will go to a telephone and call the police.  And why would that person on the street use a telephone to call the police?  Because he doesn’t have a gun to fire three shots in the air.

Compulsion (1959)

Of the movies that have been based on the Leopold-Loeb murder, the best by far is Compulsion.  The names were changed to allow some latitude for the sake of storytelling.  Richard Loeb is Arthur “Artie” Straus (Bradford Dillman); Nathan Leopold is Judd Steiner (Dean Stockwell); and Clarence Darrow is Jonathan Wilk (Orson Welles).

Because this movie was made in 1959, there is no indication of a homosexual relationship between Artie and Judd as there was between Loeb and Leopold.  (At least, there is no indication that I’m aware of, but I suppose to others it is as obvious as in the movie Rope.)  Furthermore, there is no reference to Judd’s being sexually molested by his governess when he was twelve, as was the case with Leopold.  But aside from a few liberties taken here and there, the movie does a pretty good job of sticking to the facts.

When the movie begins, we see Artie and Judd in the act of burglarizing a fraternity house, in which they steal some money and a typewriter.  As they drive away from the house, Judd says, somewhat lightheartedly, “The perfect crime,” although Artie is contemptuous of the small amount of money they stole.  He is also irritated with Judd’s bungling and timidity.  It is clear that Artie is the dominant character, and Judd likes it when Artie commands him to do things so that he can submit.  As they drive down the road, Artie tries to run over a drunk, to kill him, because, as he explains to Judd, “I damn well felt like it.”

In a small way, this opening scene and the one that follows give us their motivation for what is to come.  Artie wants to commit the perfect crime, something really dangerous, one that everyone will be talking about, but which the police will not be able to solve.  Judd wants to commit a great crime as the true test of the superior intellect, to prove that they are Nietzschean supermen.  Whatever Friedrich Nietzsche wanted us to understand by his concept of the superman, anytime someone in a movie is an admirer of this philosopher, he typically believes he is free to act in a way that ordinary people would regard as immoral, as in the movie Baby Face (1933).

Artie is thinking of the thrill of committing such a crime.  As Nietzsche would say, he wants the “bliss of the knife.”  But Judd wants to do it “as an experiment, detached, with no emotional involvement,” he tells Artie, “and no reason for it except to show that we can do it.”

The next day, Sid Brooks (Martin Milner), who is a friend of Judd, is late for class.  While the professor is lecturing on the tribal laws of ancient civilizations, he signals Judd, who is already in the lecture room, to create a distraction so that he can slip into class unnoticed.  Judd does so by challenging the professor on whether the leaders he is discussing, such as Hammurabi, Solon, and Pericles, felt obligated to obey the very laws they laid down for others.  Citing Nietzsche, Judd argues that they did not.  When the professor asks about Moses as an example, Judd responds, while looking at his watch, somewhat bored with having to school the professor on the matter, “He had a motley crew on his hands, and he had to get them through the desert somehow.”

The professor asks if Judd can cite a single example of any of these ancient leaders that did not feel obligated to obey their own laws, if Nietzsche can explain that.  “Oh, I think so, sir,” Judd replies, “if you’ve read him, sir” (the professor flinches), “you remember that he conceives the superman as being detached from such emotions as anger and greed and lust and the will to power.”

The professor concedes, with just a touch of sarcasm, that this modern way of thinking is beyond his comprehension, though not, apparently, Judd’s or Nietzsche’s.  Still, he says, even if we evolved into a race of superior intellects, we would still establish our own code of laws.  “Superlaws, sir,” Sid wisecracks, having slipped into class while this was going on, though not unnoticed by the professor.  After class, Sid asks Judd if he really believes there are superior intellects.  Judd answers that he does, which is not surprising, since he has himself as proof of such.  Along with Sid, Judd joins Artie, who is talking to some friends, but soon they excuse themselves, for there is something they had planned on doing.  But they all agree to meet that night at a speakeasy, where we see young people dancing the Charleston.  The Jazz Age is the perfect setting for this story, with its connotations of bootleg gin and loose morals.

Sid works as a cub reporter and finds himself helping out on a kidnapping case, to see if there is any connection to a dead boy found in a culvert, supposedly drowned, but the coroner he interviews makes it clear that the boy was murdered, hit several times in the head with a blunt instrument.  Some glasses fall to the floor, which the coroner thinks belonged to the boy, but Sid figures out that they really belong to the murderer.

Because he had to work, Sid knew he would be late meeting the gang at the speakeasy, so he agreed with Artie’s suggestion to let Judd bring Sid’s girlfriend Ruth (Diane Varsi).  While the others are dancing, we see Judd explaining to Ruth some of the ideas put forward by Plato in his Republic.  In particular, he is talking about the part where Plato thought that the state should decide who mated with whom.  The children would be separated from their parents and raised by the state, so no one would know who gave birth to whom.  Children born by parents not approved of by the state would be put to death.  At first, it seems strange that Judd would be talking to Ruth about Plato instead of Nietzsche.  However, as we know, fairly or unfairly, Nietzsche’s philosophy was appropriated by the Nazis, though long after the Leopold-Loeb murder took place.  Therefore, the fascist elements of Plato’s Republic are being implicitly connected in this movie with the subsequent fascist interpretation of Nietzsche during the Third Reich.

As Judd and Ruth begin to form a friendship, he invites her to go to the park with him where they can observe the birds, for Judd is an amateur ornithologist of some note.  When Artie finds out, he tells Judd this is his opportunity to have the experience of raping a woman, detached and without emotion.  Artie cynically observes that girls never want to talk about it afterwards.  Judd is reluctant.  But then, just as at one point in the beginning of the movie, when Artie commanded Judd to run over the drunk, so too does Artie have to command Judd to rape Ruth.  It might seem strange that someone like Judd, who is all into Nietzsche and his will-to-power philosophy, would want to be the one to obey rather than command.  But commanding and obeying are just two sides of the fascist soul.  What the fascist cannot abide is democracy, equality, cooperation, and compromise.  However, just as he failed to run over the drunk, Judd fails in his attempt to rape Ruth, because she cares more about what Judd will be doing to himself than what he does to her, and such sympathy and understanding is more than he can bear.

One of the great ironies of the Leopold-Loeb murder is the way these two geniuses planned their perfect crime for seven months, and yet they made one stupid mistake after another, so many, in fact, that not all of them could be depicted in this movie.  One that was not included was where they drive the car they rented for the murder to Leopold’s garage in order to clean out the blood.  The chauffeur sees them cleaning out some red stuff, which Loeb says is wine.  (This event was depicted in the movie Swoon (q.v.)).  The most damning piece of evidence was the glasses that Sid discovered.  It had a special hinge that only three people in the area had purchased, and the other two were easily eliminated as suspects.  But the final flaw in their plan comes when the chauffeur says that Judd’s car, the one Judd said that he and Artie had used the day of the murder to pick up a couple of girls, was in the garage all day while he worked on the brakes.  Confronted with all the evidence against them by District Attorney Harold Horn (E.G. Marshall), Artie confesses first, admitting that they rented a car for the kidnapping and murder, after which Judd accuses him of being a “weakling.”

Wilk is hired as their lawyer, with much reluctance on the part of their parents, however, because he is an “atheist.”  Actually, the real Clarence Darrow considered himself an agnostic, as does Wilk in the movie, but one suspects that people who did not like Clarence Darrow preferred the more pejorative term “atheist,” refusing to mince words on the matter.  Given the enormity of the crime committed by Artie and Judd, along with a full confession from both of them, a trial would seem to be pointless, at least from a dramatic standpoint.  And yet, such is the screen presence of Orson Welles that as soon as he walks through the door as Jonathan Wilk, we experience a reversal of attitude, reinforced by the following scene in which we see the Ku Klux Klan burning a cross outside of Wilk’s residence.

Artie and Judd never characterize themselves as either agnostic or atheist, but it would be hard to believe that they were anything but atheists, given their admiration of Nietzsche and their willingness to commit a horrible murder just to prove that they were superior.  Regardless of what the final words actually were between Darrow, on the one hand, and Loeb and Leopold, on the other, it was still necessary in the late 1950s for movie agnostics and atheists to make amends.  The agnostic had to indicate that he still regarded the existence of God as a genuine possibility.  Traditionally, the atheist had to admit that he was wrong, that God really did exist, but by the time this movie was made, it was enough for the atheist either to show signs of doubt or to be miserable.  A similar formula was employed in the above-referenced movie Inherit the Wind (1960).

We see both in the final scene.  After the judge rules that Artie and Judd will not be hanged for their crime, but will spend the rest of their lives in prison, which was the only outcome Wilk could reasonably hope for, the following dialogue takes place:

Artie:  So, we sweat through three months of misery just to hear that.  I wish they’d have hung us right off the bat.

Wilk:  I wasn’t expecting you to fall down on your knees and thank God for deliverance.

Judd:  God?  That sounds rather strange coming from you, Mr. Wilk.

Wilk:  A lifetime of doubt and questioning doesn’t necessarily mean I’ve reached any final conclusions.

Judd:  Well, I have, and God has nothing to do with it.

Wilk:  Are you sure, Judd? In those years to come you might find yourself asking, if it wasn’t the hand of God dropped those glasses.  And if he didn’t, who did?

To that question Judd hesitates, and then has a look of fear and bewilderment.

In the trial of Loeb and Leopold, it was actually the State’s Attorney Robert Crowe, corresponding to District Attorney Harold Horn in the movie, who saw Divine Justice in Leopold’s eyeglasses.  Speaking to him directly, he says:

I wonder now, Nathan, whether you think there is a God or not. I wonder whether you think it is pure accident that this disciple of Nietzschean philosophy dropped his glasses, or whether it was an act of Divine Providence to visit upon your miserable carcasses the wrath of God in the enforcement of the laws of the State of Illinois….  I think that when the glasses, that Leopold had not worn for three months, glasses that he no longer needed, dropped from his pocket at night, the hand of God was at work in this case.

This speculation about the hand of God doesn’t make any sense.  If God was going to get involved, why didn’t he protect the little boy and keep him from being murdered in the first place?  But some people would say that that way of thinking is typical of an atheist like me, who just doesn’t understand that God works in mysterious ways.  So, even if I think Crowe’s (Wilk’s) suggestion presupposes a dilatory deity, most people reading about this case in 1924, or watching this movie in 1959, would have found it perfectly reasonable.

Alternatively, one might go all Freudian and say that Judd had an unconscious desire to be caught.  That would seem to be the significance of Wilk’s last question, “And if he didn’t, who did?”

I think it was just an accident.  We don’t need God or Freud to explain that.  But the main thing is that for those in the audience who needed to see the atheist realize that there might actually be a God, Wilk’s first hypothesis about the hand of God dropping the glasses would have been the preferred interpretation.

Swoon (1992)

Now imagine that the story of Loeb and Leopold is made into a weird foreign film of the sort produced back in the 1950s and 1960s, full of symbolism and anachronisms.  It would be in black and white with subtitles.

Now imagine that the movie is made in 1992 by a weird foreign-film director wannabe right here in America.  In this case, there would be no subtitles.  This the movie Swoon.

Even if you like weird foreign-films, that style completely undermines our ability to accept anything we see in this movie as being a faithful depiction of what actually happened.  With Compulsion, we know we have to make allowances for the Production Code and the liberties that must be taken to turn any true story into a movie, but we believe that most of what we are seeing is true.  With Swoon, we are presented with so much that is absurd, such as Loeb using a touchtone telephone or Loeb and Leopold in bed together in the middle of the courtroom during their trial, that the movie loses all credibility.  We only believe what we already know to be true from other sources.  For example, there is a scene in this movie in which the chauffeur sees Loeb and Leopold cleaning blood out of their rented automobile.  If I hadn’t already known about this from what I had read elsewhere, I wouldn’t know if this actually happened, or whether it was just something dreamt up by the director.

While the homosexuality of the two killers in Rope and Compulsion was only hinted at, and so subtly that it went right over my head, here it gets enough emphasis for all three movies.  And while this might seem to be the movie’s strongpoint, finally depicting on the screen the real nature of the relationship between Loeb and Leopold, it might have the opposite effect from what was intended.  While proudly displaying an honesty and openness about homosexuality that wasn’t possible before, this movie might well have the effect of justifying attitudes of homophobia, leading the audience to conclude that their homosexuality was the ultimate cause of the murder of Bobby Franks, with Nietzsche’s philosophy being nothing but a superficial way to dress up a murder.  Maybe not even that.  Nietzsche is just barely referenced in this movie.

Lone Star (1996)

Lone Star is two-thirds of a really good movie.  Unfortunately, one-third of it is mediocre melodrama.  The two-thirds of the movie that is worth watching is set in a border town in Texas over a period of several decades told through flashbacks.  It concerns a corrupt, racist, white sheriff, Charlie Wade (Kris Kristofferson), who murders anyone who does not cut him in on business activities, legal or illegal.  One night, after his deputy, Buddy Deeds (Matthew McConaughey), confronts him and lets him know that his days of extorting the community are over, the sheriff disappears along with $10,000 of county funds.

Years later, some human remains are found in the desert.  The present sheriff, Sam Deeds (Chris Cooper), the son of Buddy, begins investigating.  Little by little, the evidence begins to indicate that the bones are those of Sheriff Wade, that he was shot, and that the person who killed him was Buddy.  This occurs just as the town prepares for a dedication, The Buddy Deeds Memorial Courthouse, because Buddy is regarded as a hero in that town.  Sam never got along too well with his father, and so he is more than willing to let the truth come out, while Mayor Hollis Pogue, former deputy to Wade and then to Buddy, is opposed to Sam’s efforts.  Hollis does not have much respect for Sam, who he thinks will never measure up to what his father was.

Another person sponsoring the dedication is Mercedes Cruz, a respected businesswoman who runs a popular café.  She is the mother of Pilar, who used to be Sam’s friend in grade school and his girlfriend in high school.  However, Buddy did not want Sam dating her, and he kept them apart, which is a major reason Sam resents his father.  Mercedes also disapproved of Pilar and Sam going together.

As Sam continues his investigation, he finds that Sheriff Wade murdered Eladio Cruz one day because he was smuggling Mexicans across the border without giving Wade his usual bribe.  Cruz was fixing a flat tire on his truck, with the illegals in the back, when Wade and Deputy Hollis stopped on the road beside them.  Wade asks Cruz if he has a gun in his truck, and when Cruz says he has a shotgun, he tells him to get it.  When Cruz reaches for the shotgun, Wade shoots and kills him.  This way Wade can claim self-defense.  Hollis, however, knows it was murder, and he is horrified.  It later turns out that Eladio Cruz was Mercedes’ husband.  In other words, Mercedes also had a motive to kill Sheriff Wade.

A third person with a strong motive for killing Wade is a black man named Otis, who owns a bar catering to black people.  Wade used to shakedown the former owner of the bar, Roderick, and one night when Otis was a young man, who just started working for Roderick, Wade humiliated him.

It finally turns out that the night Buddy told Wade he should turn in his badge and leave town, Wade, along with Hollis, drove over to the black bar to get his usual kickback for letting Roderick stay in business.  When Wade discovered that Otis was running a poker game without giving Wade a cut, he beat Otis up.  Then he told him to hand him the revolver that Roderick kept in a cigar box, obviously intending to set him up just as he did Eladio Cruz.  But just as Buddy walked through the door, Hollis pulled out his own gun and killed Wade.  The three of them decided to cover up the killing.  They took the $10,000 in county funds and gave it to Mercedes, who had been struggling ever since her husband was murdered.  She used the money to start the café.

The night Sam learns about this from Otis and Hollis, he learns something else.  Up till then, Sam believed that the reason his father did not want him and Pilar to date was that he did not want his son dating a Mexican.  It turns out Buddy had no problem with Anglos and Mexicans crossing racial lines.  In fact, he and Mercedes were having an affair.  The problem was the opposite of miscegenation.  It was incest.  Pilar and Sam were brother and sister, at least insofar as Buddy was the father of both.  Pilar and Sam had already become lovers again by this time.  Since Pilar cannot have children anymore, they decide the incestuous nature of their relationship is not a problem and plan to marry.

That is the good two-thirds of the movie.  Unfortunately, John Sayles, who wrote and directed this movie, wanted it to be about the three races of this border town, Anglos, Mexicans, and blacks (as this movie terms them), and he wanted the three races to be represented in equal measure.  That is to say, he wanted just as much time spent on African Americans as spent on Caucasians and Latinos (as we would now term them).  This desire on Sayles’ part led him to intersperse the story described above with a story about Otis’s son, Colonel Delmore Payne, who is the commanding officer of a local army base.

In many ways, this third of the movie that concerns Colonel Payne and the army base parallels features in the main part of the story:  Payne has conflicts with his father, Otis, much as Sam had conflicts with his father, Buddy.  There is also a subplot of miscegenation, in which a white male soldier and a black female soldier talk about getting married.  But it all falls flat.  It is just routine melodrama.  Again and again, just as we are really getting into the main part of the movie, it all grinds to a halt so that the subplot surrounding Colonel Payne can be advanced.  Considering that the movie is two hours and fifteen minutes long, a version of the movie that left out this part would have been a shorter but much better movie.  This is an example of how art can be spoiled by a preconceived idea, in this case, the idea that the three races of this movie must each be given equal time, instead of allowing as much time as needed to tell a good story.

Laura (1944)

“I shall never forget the weekend Laura died.”  Thus begins Waldo Lydecker’s (Clifton Webb) narration, telling us how devastated he is by the horrible death of Laura, and how he is beginning to write her biography. Then he informs us that another one of those police detectives is waiting to talk to him.  That detective is Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews).  He is wearing a fedora and has a cigarette dangling from his mouth.  The two men could not be more different.  Lydecker is soaking in his deluxe bathtub, fixed up so that he can type while he so indulges himself in luxury.  McPherson is the kind of guy who takes nothing but showers.  He smirks as he looks at all the expensive artwork that adorns Lydecker’s house, probably regarding it all as a bunch of knickknacks for the maid to have to dust.  Lydecker was making him wait, to put him in his place, but becomes alarmed when McPherson cavalierly picks up an item that Lydecker regards as priceless, telling McPherson to be careful.

After that, Lydecker invites McPherson into the bathroom, at which point we see his old, scrawny body, which stands in contrast to what we imagine is McPherson’s young, muscular build.  As Lydecker rises out of the tub, we see another smirk on McPherson’s face, as he notes Lydecker’s member, which we can’t help but imagine as being little and wrinkled, as opposed to the big, swinging dick that McPherson lugs around.  McPherson asks Lydecker a few questions and then prepares to leave.  As he gets dressed, Lydecker ask if he can accompany him, saying that murder is one of his favorite subjects to write about, and McPherson consents.

As they leave, we see that both men wear fedoras, but here too there is a difference.  McPherson creases his hat in the teardrop style, characteristic of detectives, reporters, and gangsters; Lydecker’s fedora is in the center-dent style, with a crease down the middle, worn by businessmen and politicians.  As cynical as Lydecker is, he is therefore not hardboiled like McPherson, but just an effete intellectual with an acid tongue.

Later in the movie, Lydecker’s narration is addressed to McPherson, instead of to us in the audience, as Lydecker tells him about how he met Laura and how they became good friends.  It takes the form of a flashback, as Lydecker tells how he became instrumental in advancing her career in advertising.  And he tells of the men in Laura’s life.  These men made him jealous.  First, she started seeing Jacoby, the artist that painted her picture.  Lydecker says he never liked the man, saying, “He was so obviously conscious of looking more like an athlete than an artist.”  Lydecker wrote a scathing column ridiculing the man and his art.  Laura had no respect for Jacoby after that.  There were other men, but her own discretion soon eliminated them.  But then she met Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Price) at a party thrown by Ann Treadwell (Judith Anderson), a rich woman upon whom Shelby was financially dependent.  Eventually, Laura became engaged to Shelby.  Determined to put an end to their plans to be married, Lydecker proves to Laura that Shelby has been unfaithful to her, fooling around with a model named Diane Redfern and continuing his relationship with Ann as a kept man.  She becomes so upset that she decides to go to her house in the country for a few days to think things over.  But that was the night she was murdered.

All this can be thought of as a narration within a narration, so there is no logical difficulty with that.  Eventually, the movie becomes detached completely from Lydecker’s narration, either to us or to McPherson, for we see events unfold without Lydecker’s presence and without hearing his words.  Even this is not problematic, for we can suppose that Lydecker is still narrating, after a fashion, telling us about events he only learned about secondhand or filled in with his imagination.

One night, McPherson is alone in Laura’s apartment, going through her letters, trying to figure out who murdered her.  McPherson gazes at a portrait of Laura that is hanging on the wall.  He falls asleep in his chair.  Suddenly, Laura walks in through the door.  This exemplifies the principle that if someone in a movie falls asleep in a chair, there is a good chance that what follows is a dream.  Falling asleep in a bed doesn’t count, because that is too ordinary.  Furthermore, when a person falls asleep in a chair, he is fully dressed.  As a result, we cannot be sure whether he has awakened from his catnap, or whether he is dreaming.  It would be a stretch for someone to fall asleep in bed, and then have a dream that begins with his getting out of bed, taking off his pajamas, putting on his clothes, talking to people or doing stuff, after which he puts his pajamas back on, and then gets back in bed, so that when he wakes in the morning, we are not supposed to know whether he was dreaming or not.  However, there is one movie in which that sort of happens, The Night Walker (1964), in which Barbara Stanwyck keeps being awakened in the middle of the night, when she is in bed, and she is not sure whether these events really happened, or she merely dreamt them.

Originally, McPherson’s dream was to have been made explicit in a final scene that was filmed but eventually cut.  That was a wise decision. People tend to feel cheated if they find out at the end of a movie that most of it was a dream. We never minded when Alice in Wonderland turned out to be a dream at the end, because the events after Alice goes down the rabbit hole are too fantastic to take seriously, and we are charmed by the idea that it was the dream of a little girl with an active imagination. It is for the same reason that we do not mind that most of The Wizard of Oz (1939) was just a dream.

But when it happens in a movie in which we are taking things seriously, we are irked by a dream ending. In the movie Woman in the Window (1944), a married man falls asleep in a chair.  After he supposedly wakes up, he meets a beautiful woman.  They go to her apartment, where he ends up having to kill her jealous boyfriend in self-defense.  This is followed by a coverup, blackmail, and finally suicide.  But instead of dying from the poison he consumed, he wakes up to find out it was all a dream, and he is still sitting in that chair.   Presumably, those who made this movie thought a dream ending would be better than an ending in which the protagonist commits suicide, but the movie is weaker for it.  In The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947), a woman falls asleep in a chair, and so for the rest of the movie, we don’t know whether she was actually visited by a ghost and only dreamed him.  The movie never makes it obvious that she is only dreaming, allowing us to enjoy the fantasy as though it really happened.  Either way, when a character in a movie falls asleep in a chair, what we see from then on is probably a dream, whether this is made explicit or not.

Because Lydecker dies in the end, his narration, which began at the beginning of the movie, is problematic. How can he be telling us a story in which he dies in the end? It has been done, of course, notably in Sunset Blvd. (1950), but we are supposed to be amused by the absurdity of listening to William Holden tell us his story as he floats drowned in a swimming pool. In Laura, on the other hand, we just might think it was a goof to have the narrator begin a story in which he ends up dead. But if the second half of the film is only a dream, then Lydecker never dies, and his narration only applies to the first half of the film, the half that is real. He is not responsible for whatever McPherson dreams after that.

In his early discussion with Lydecker, McPherson says that Laura was killed with a shotgun loaded with buckshot, but no mention is made of what part of her body was shot. Even the second time the shotgun murder is mentioned, when McPherson is interviewing Ann, who identified the body, nothing is said in that regard. In fact, Ann is so casual about her ability to identify Laura that we would assume Laura was shot in the chest, if we thought about that at all.  It is not until almost the end of the movie, when McPherson has discovered the shotgun hidden in the clock, and he realizes that Lydecker tried to kill Laura out of jealousy over Shelby, that he mentions that the woman Lydecker thought was Laura, Diane Redfern, was shot in the face with both barrels.  (She and Shelby were using Laura’s apartment to have sex while Laura was out of town.)

This raises the question as to exactly how Ann could have identified the body in that case.  Normally, when someone is murdered, the police take the body to the morgue.  So, I figured that Ann was brought to the morgue, and she identified the body there.  But how could she have known whose body it was, when it had its face blown off?  Then Ann says of Bessie, Laura’s maid, “I’ll never forget her scream when she saw Laura lying there.”  Does that mean they were both in the morgue at the same time?  No, that doesn’t sound right.  Perhaps the idea is that the police, contrary to what is usual, brought Ann over to the apartment where Diane’s body was still lying on the floor, and that’s where she identified it as Laura.  In that case, her identification was more inferred:  the body was of a young woman, wearing Laura’s negligee, and lying on the floor in Laura’s apartment.  And then Bessie came walking in, saw what she thought was Laura’s body, and screamed.

That would be fine, except that it was Bessie that found the body in first place.  She tells McPherson that she found the body the next day.  To protect Laura from any scandal, she hid a bottle of cheap scotch and wiped the fingerprints off the glasses before the police arrived.  That means she was already there when Ann was brought to the apartment to identify the body that Bessie had presumably already said was that of Laura.  But in that case, Ann would not have heard Bessie scream, her initial shock having long since passed.

In any event, this delay in giving us this crucial piece of information about a shotgun blast to the face is to keep us from becoming suspicious, because whenever someone in a movie supposedly dies, but either the corpse is never found, or it has been disfigured beyond recognition, then you can give long odds that the person in question is not really dead.  For example, in Mr. Lucky (1943), Cary Grant is thought to be dead because the ship he was on was torpedoed during the war, and his body was never found.  Naturally, it turns out that he survived.  In Once Upon a Time in America (1984), the face of James Woods has supposedly been severely burned, so we suspect right off that he is not really dead.  Therefore, if McPherson had said early on that Laura’s face had been blown off, we would have guessed right away that the woman was really someone else. Of course, once Laura returns, right after McPherson has fallen asleep, and we realize that it was another woman who had been shot, we infer that the blast must have disfigured her face.

Just before McPherson falls asleep in Laura’s apartment, he gets a visit from Lydecker, who has found out that the detective put in a bid for Laura’s portrait, and thus realizes that McPherson has fallen in love with her.  “You better watch out, McPherson,” Lydecker says to him, “or you’ll end up in a psychiatric ward. I don’t think they’ve ever had a patient who fell in love with a corpse.”

More than a few movie critics have referred to McPherson as being a necrophiliac.  To me, a necrophiliac is someone who is aroused by a corpse and wants to have sex with it, like those characters in Maniac (1934) that work in the morgue, and seem delighted when the corpse of a good-looking woman is brought in.  Just being aroused by a painting of a beautiful woman who happens to be dead doesn’t qualify.  And yet, I have encountered this elsewhere.  On one occasion, when I commented on how sexy I thought Maureen O’Sullivan was playing Jane in Tarzan and His Mate (1934), going about all scantily clad in her loin cloth, the guy I was talking to said, “Ew!  But she’s so old!”  A few years later, I made a similar comment, and the woman I was talking to recoiled, saying, “But she’s dead!”  They think I’m weird.  The feeling is mutual.

Anyway, Lydecker is not only amused by the idea of a McPherson’s falling in love with someone who is dead, but also by the incongruous notion that someone as refined as Laura could fall for the likes of McPherson, who is low class and crude. He contemptuously asks McPherson if he has ever dreamed that Laura was his wife, indicating how ill-matched they would have been.

This is not the first reference to dreaming, nor is it the last. Some references are minor:  Lydecker refers to Shelby’s dreams, and Laura talks about her dreams of a career when she was growing up.  More significantly, after McPherson figures out that Lydecker is the killer, he tells Laura to forget the whole thing like a bad dream. And during Lydecker’s radio broadcast, he quotes the poet Ernest Dowson, who speaks of life as emerging out of a dream and then closing within a dream.  The theme song to this movie later had lyrics written for it by Johnny Mercer, the last line of which says that Laura is only a dream.

Because McPherson has fallen in love with Laura, his dream is the fulfillment of a wish, the wish that Laura were still alive so that he could possess her.  But there might be another wish-fulfillment aspect to this dream:  homophobia.  When I first saw this movie in the late 1960s, back when I was in college, I never suspected that half the movie was a dream.  But another thing I never suspected was that anyone in the movie was a homosexual.  As far as I could see, Lydecker was in love with Laura, Shelby was engaged to marry Laura, and Ann was in love with Shelby—all heterosexual relationships.

I knew there was such a thing as homosexuality, of course, but I figured it was rare.  And what there was of it was informally segregated.  My fraternity brothers, as part of my education as a pledge, told me about a diner and a nightclub that was strictly for homosexuals.  They didn’t call them “gay bars,” of course.  For that matter, they didn’t use the word “homosexual” either.  But the point seemed to be that the homosexuals had their world and we had ours.

As a result, I never suspected that anyone I knew was a homosexual, unless I heard a rumor to that effect, and even then I didn’t half believe it.  More to the point, though I had seen lots of old movies on the late show, yet I never saw one where I thought to myself that one of the characters was a homosexual.  It would not be until I saw The Boys in the Band (1970) that I was aware of homosexual characters in a movie.  In that movie, a straight character is educated about the various forms of homosexuality, and I was almost as ignorant on the subject as he was.  Even now, I mostly know that old movies featured queer flashes and homosexual themes because I read about it.  In particular, I have read that Clifton Webb was a homosexual and that Vincent Price was bisexual.  As for Judith Anderson, though I have not read anywhere that she was a lesbian, yet her iconic role in Rebecca (1940) would apparently forever leave her with homosexual connotations.  Of course, just because an actor is a homosexual, that does not mean he is playing one in a movie.  But many critics seem to believe that the subtext of homosexuality in Laura is present through the characters portrayed by these three actors.

The point of all this is that I still do not see the any homosexuality in this movie, and on my own, I would never suspect any.  But always endeavoring to have an open mind, I am willing to consider that the movie is rife with homosexual undercurrents.  So, let us assume as much and see where it takes us.

To a homophobe like McPherson, it must have seemed to him that Laura lived in a world of homosexuals, something he detested.  At one point during the dream phase of the movie, Shelby puts his hand on Mcpherson’s shoulder as he starts to walk away, and McPherson turns and punches him in the gut.  The first few times I saw this movie, I thought he disliked Shelby because he was something of a gigolo, being kept by Ann, who regularly gave him money.  But if we assume that McPherson is seething with contempt and hatred for Shelby because he is a homosexual, then his brutality makes sense that way too.  When this movie was remade for television in 1968, Shelby was played by Farley Granger, another actor known for having homosexual relationships, and who played a homosexual in Rope (1948), although I would never have guessed that about him or the role he played either.  Just something else that I read.

Needless to say, McPherson has Lydecker killed off in his dream for the same reason.  It must have been maddening to him that Laura seemed to have an affinity for homosexuals, and his dream allows him to give vent to his violent impulses.  Ann is let off easy, however, for the simple reason that heterosexual men, even those that are homophobic, never really mind lesbians, as long as they are lipstick lesbians, of course.  In fact, your typical pornographic movie, intended for male heterosexuals, will usually have at least one scene in which two lesbians have sex.  That way the men in the audience get to see two naked women instead of just one.  But such a movie will never have a scene in which two men have sex.  Those scenes belong strictly in the homosexual subgenre of pornography.

Furthermore, we might interpret Lydecker’s motive as heterophobia, disgust at the thought of men and women having sex.  We never have the impression that Lydecker wants to have sex with Laura, which is consistent with his being a homosexual.  Rather, he seems to regard her as part of his expensive collection of beautiful art objects, the epitome of which is a pendulum clock, of which there are only two in existence.  He gave Laura the other one, symbolic of the bond between them.  While McPherson is snooping around in Lydecker’s apartment, it occurs to him that the clock might have a secret compartment, one in which a shotgun might be hidden.  He can’t figure out how to unlock it, however, so he kicks it in, shattering the glass door.  I always cringe when I see him do that.

This crude treatment of something beautiful is just what Lydecker imagines McPherson’s treatment of Laura will be.  When it becomes clear that Laura is in love with McPherson, he says to her, “With you, a lean, strong body is the measure of a man, and you always get hurt.”  Shortly thereafter, he says, “If McPherson weren’t muscular and handsome in a cheap sort of way, you’d see through him in a second.”  When Laura expresses her determination to marry McPherson, he says, “I hope you’ll never regret what promises to be a disgustingly earthy relationship.”

Having failed to kill Laura to keep her from marrying Shelby, Lydecker decides to kill her now to keep her from marrying McPherson.  In explaining to Laura why he is going to kill her and then himself, while holding the shotgun on her, he says:  “The best part of myself—that’s what you are.  Do you think I’m going to leave it to the vulgar pawing of a second-rate detective that thinks you’re a dame?  Do you think I could bear the thought of him holding you in his arms, kissing you, loving you?”  She manages to push the shotgun away and run for the door, just as McPherson and the other detectives have broken in.  One of the detectives shoots Lydecker, the shotgun blast destroying the other clock.

Because the explicit dream ending was cut from the film, the movie presents itself to us as a story about things that actually happen, and that is the way most people experience this movie, at least the first time. But even if we did not know about the original intention of making part of this movie be a dream, we might still come to the conclusion on subsequent viewings that it was indeed a dream, for the reasons given above. In this way we get to enjoy the movie both ways. More importantly, we can regard the second half of the movie as a dream without feeling cheated.

And we can also enjoy the movie even if we think everyone is heterosexual, which is still the way I experience it.

Vertigo (1958)

Unless a movie is a fantasy, like The Wizard of Oz (1939), people tend to feel they have been deceived if they find out that most of a movie has just been a dream.  To keep the audience from feeling cheated in this way, some movies will be ambiguous as to whether what we are seeing is reality or a dream, and this is the case with Vertigo.

The movie begins with a close-up of a woman’s face. The camera moves in even closer on her eye, in which we begin to see swirling animation along with the opening credits. Moving into her eye suggests that we have moved into her subjective state, allowing us to see what she is imagining or remembering. And the animation is a further indication that what we are seeing is not real. One might be justified, even at this early stage, in wondering if the movie that follows is a woman’s dream.

After the credits, the movie jumps right into a chase sequence on the rooftops of tall buildings, when police detective John “Scottie” Ferguson (James Stewart) slips and finds himself hanging from the gutter above the city street below, which causes him to have vertigo. A uniformed policeman tries to pull him to safety, but slips and falls to his death. When the scene ends, Ferguson is still hanging there, and we do not see him being rescued, nor is there any reference to his being rescued afterward, leading some critics to argue that the rest of the movie is his hallucinatory dream while he remains suspended.  However, my preferred point at which this movie becomes a dream is in neither of these two scenes, but comes somewhat later.

Presumably, then, Ferguson is rescued, but he is forced to retire on account of the acrophobia resulting from the incident on the rooftop.  In a subsequent scene, we meet Midge. In her conversation with Ferguson, whom she calls “Johnny” or “Johnny O,” we find out that they were engaged for three weeks while they were in college, but that she broke off the engagement, even though she says that she never married because he is the only man for her. From the surreptitious glances she gives him as they talk, we suspect there is more to the story than Ferguson is aware of. Barbara Bel Geddes, who plays Midge, is a nice looking woman, but she has no sex appeal. We can easily believe that she broke off the engagement when she realized that he had no passion for her. Platonic relationships are often characterized by saying that the man and woman are like brother and sister, but several remarks suggest that she is more like a mother to him. This implies that there is something naïve and inexperienced about Ferguson, as when they talk about braziers, and she says, “You know about those things. You’re a big boy now.”  Ferguson is a middle-aged bachelor. Today, a man who has been a lifelong bachelor would be assumed to have had sexual relationships along the way. But in 1958, when this movie was made, it was not uncommon for bachelors to be virgins, and that is probably the case with Ferguson.  This makes it easy to believe that he might become madly and obsessively in love with Madeleine (Kim Novak) later on in the movie.

This Madeleine with whom he eventually falls in love is the wife of an old friend, Gavin Elster, who asks Ferguson to follow her around. He is worried about her because she goes into dream-like trances, which he believes have something to do with her obsession with her great-grandmother, Carlotta Valdes, who committed suicide.  Ferguson reluctantly agrees to follow her.  When Madeleine tries to drown herself in the bay, he rescues her.  Eventually, however, she manages to kill herself by leaping from a bell tower.  Ferguson was unable to stop her because his vertigo prevented him from keeping up with her as she ascended the stairs.  He feels responsible, and he ends up having nightmares, in which he sees himself falling the way Madeleine did. As a result, he winds up in a mental institution, in a catatonic state.

Supposedly, he gets out of the mental institution, discovers a woman named Judy, who looks like Madeleine, and begins trying to make the resemblance even greater by getting her to dye her hair and wear it like Madeleine, to dress like Madeleine, until he eventually discovers she really is Madeleine. Or rather, that the real Madeleine was murdered by her husband, and that Judy helped him do it by pretending to be Madeleine. When Judy got to the top of the bell tower, Elster was already there with his dead wife, whom he threw off the tower.  In the process of discovering that this is what really happened, Ferguson forces Judy to go back to the mission with him and once again ascend the stairs of the bell tower.  This leads to a climactic scene in which Judy accidentally falls to her death, which apparently cures Ferguson of his vertigo.

Though the movie can be understood realistically in this way, there is a good reason to suspect that the second half is just a dream. In any movie you have ever seen in which someone is in a hospital, there is almost always a getting-out-of-the-hospital scene, as in The Glass Key (1942), Kiss Me Deadly (1955), and The Godfather (1972). But there is no such scene in this movie. And considering that Ferguson was in a psychotic state, the need for a getting-out-of-the-hospital scene would be even greater than in the examples just given, where only physical conditions were involved.

Instead, we get a discontinuous transition.  We see Midge in Ferguson’s hospital room, where he is staring off into space, oblivious to her presence.  She leaves the room and stops by the psychiatrist’s office, where she tells him that she does not think Ferguson is ever coming back.  Then she walks away, down the hall, where darkness slowly closes in around her, almost as if this were the end of the movie.  Suddenly, we see Ferguson outside the building where Madeleine once lived, and the fact that he had once been under the care of psychiatrists is never even referred to during the rest of the movie.

Alfred Hitchcock, who directed this movie, could have made it explicit that what follows is a dream by the well-known method of closing in on James Stewart’s eyes, allowing the image of his eyes to be slowly replaced by an overlapping image of Stewart standing outside Madeleine’s apartment.  But, as noted above, the audience would have lost its patience having to watch the entire second half of the movie while knowing it was just a dream.  Instead, Hitchcock allows us to watch the movie under the assumption that the entire movie depicts events that are actually happening, while at the same time giving us hints that at least some of the movie is a dream:  the closeup on the eye of a woman (Madeleine? Judy?) during the opening credits; Ferguson’s hanging from the gutter without being rescued; Madeleine’s dream-like trances; Ferguson’s nightmares; and the absence of any scene showing us that he has recovered from his catatonic trance and is being released from the hospital.

Other than Vertigo, there is one other movie in which there is no getting-out-of-the-hospital scene.  In the movie Four Daughters (1938), John Garfield plays a character who dies in a hospital.  But in the remake, Young at Heart (1954), Frank Sinatra, who played the corresponding character, Barney Sloan, did not like the unhappy ending, and so he insisted that Barney live instead.  The result is a tacked-on happy ending, in which Barney goes from dying in the hospital to suddenly being home and in great health.  Whether intended or not, one cannot help but interpret this final scene as Barney’s wishful dream in the hospital in the last moments of his life.  And considering that Barney had been gloomy and miserable throughout the movie, the fact that the final scene shows him playing the piano, happy and content, even further invites the dream interpretation.

In any event, by regarding the second half of Vertigo as a dream, the movie as a whole becomes more realistic. The murder plot revealed in the second half is far-fetched and would have been extremely difficult to arrange. Elster would have had to get his wife to wear the same clothes that Judy was wearing that night, find some reason to get her up to the bell tower, break her neck, and then wait for Judy to arrive before throwing the real Madeleine out of the tower.  And then he would have to hope that Ferguson would not look at the body and discover that it was a different woman.  There are easier ways for a man to get rid of his wife than that. The idea that Madeleine was mentally unbalanced, had found out about her great-grandmother and become obsessed with her story, leading her to commit suicide, is much easier to believe.

Furthermore, the Judy of the second half of the movie appears to be lower class, whereas the Madeleine of the first half strikes us as middle class.  We would have to believe that Elster was like Professor Higgins to Judy’s Eliza Doolittle of My Fair Lady (1964), but that once the murder was accomplished and Judy was abandoned by him, she lapsed back into her lower-class mannerisms.

Finally, Midge is not seen in the second half of the movie. She represents rationality and common sense, as well as being the woman Ferguson should have married. Her absence in the second half of the movie is an indication that only irrational forces are at work in his wish-fulfilling dream. By dreaming that the woman he loved really did not die that night, that she was involved in a murder plot to kill the real Madeleine, he absolves himself of any responsibility for her death.