Saturday, November 17, 2012
The Carlotta Portrait
I'll give a little movie background first. Vertigo (1958) is one of Hitchcock's most famous and enduring films because it's a great thriller by any time's standards. Basically the plot centers around this former detective (Jimmy Stewart) who is hired to follow a client's wife. The wife (Kim Novak) is seemingly obsessed with a cursed dead ancestor who killed herself tragically, and the husband is worried that Kim Novak is going to repeat. Watch the movie because it's really entertaining and it's at true classic by any standards.
Now, in the film, one of Kim Novak's obsessions is this Portrait of Carlotta (the dead great-great-great grandmother or whatever). Here it is...
So, once again we have a pivotal prop, really, that's a key plot piece. The portrait represents obsession with Carlotta and will eventually represent obsession with Kim Novak in general.
Thematically, the portrait represents obsession more than love because two of the main characters almost become obsessed with another. The portrait also strongly represents the presence of Carlotta, her ghost, if you will. Her presence lingers, corrupts the Kim Novak character and later the the Jimmy Stewart character.
People come and go, but the portrait remains to corrupt. If you notice me using "obsessed" a lot because it's the most accurate word to describe what's going on with these characters.
Just as in Laura (and other films), the director uses the portrait to convey the presence of a missing (and subsequently dead) character. Hitchcock, you will find, loves using the "ghost-portrait" for the obsessed man. You'll see the motif repeated in other films. If you want titles you're going to have keep reading the blog...
Onto the portrait itself. As it is a key plot point, much work was put into it. For starters, the actress Vera Miles modeled for earlier models of it. I don't know if those models were used for the actual painting, but she did model for Hitch at first. It's painted in the style of 1840s-1850s San Francisco, when Carlotta was supposed to have lived. Her clothing represents a higher class and wealth, which is explained in the film.
It was actually painted by John Ferren. Now, he's an abstract expressionist, which (to me at least) explains some of the clumsiness I see in the painting. He was also a frequent Hitchcock art director. I know he contributed heavily to The Trouble with Harry. Actually, he also designed the "Nightmare Sequence" (which is really bizarre) in Vertigo. Still, it's a lovely portrait, art-wise at least. I feel it perfectly describes theh ghostly aura of Carlotta and I would also say it's one of the top movie paintings out there.
UPDATE: For more artist information on the Carlotta painting and a discussion of the "Midge Portrait" that appears later in the film (see above), CLICK HERE.