I’ve watched the Alfred Hitchcock film Vertigo several times but never realised that this tale of mental disturbance and obsession was based on a French novel called D’Entre les Morts (translated into English as From Among the Dead).
The plot of the film is essentially the same as that of the novel though the characters’ names are different and Hitchcock makes far more about the vertigo suffered by the protagonist. Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac set From Among the Dead in Paris and Marseilles but Hitchcock went for San Franscisco, presumably because its relative proximity to Hollywood made it more economical.
More significantly the historical context is eradicated from the film version. From Among the Dead is set against a background of World War 2 and the ugliness of war deepens the sense of displacement created by the plot. The book opens in a period called ‘the phoney war’ when people in France wait uneasily for the hostilities that seem inevitable. Some in France, like the industrialist Paul Gevigné, stand to profit from the war but others, like his old university friend Roger Flavières feel they are living on the edge of an abyss. “The future was … a blank. Nothing had any real meaning except the spring leaves in the sunshine – and love.”
The pair haven’t seen each other for several years but Gevigné, now a prosperous shipbuilder, tracks down his old friend because he needs help. His wife Madeleine is behaving strangely, experiencing attacks which leave her in a frozen, trance-like state . She denies going out in the afternoons but Gévigne has evidence to the contrary. Is she lying (and if so, for what purpose) or is she suffering a mental disturbance affecting her memory? Doctors can’t find anything wrong with her but Gevigné isn’t convinced. Adding to his anxiety is the fact Madeleine’s great-grandmother, Pauline Lagerlac, suffered from a similar mysterious affliction and committed suicide when she was twenty-five, coincidentally Madeleine’s age now. His old friend Paul used to be a police detective so who better to help him by following Madeleine and solving the mystery?
Flavières is initially reluctant to help. But after just one sighting of Madeleine he’s dazzled. This is a woman whose beauty is as mysterious as that of the Mona Lisa, but with a sadness that he finds endearing. “It was no longer a question of watching her, but of helping her, protecting her,” he reflects after seeing her at the theatre one night. And so his fate is sealed. As he trails her through the streets of Paris, Flavières — who has never before been in love — becomes obsessed by his friend’s wife.
He was making a fool of himself of course. Torturing himself into the bargain, living in a constant tumult of painful impressions. Never mind! Beneath that tumult was a peace and a plenitude of joy such as he had never known. It swallowed up the frustrations of recent years, the fears, the regrets.
His delight is short-lived. On an excursion into the countryside, Madeleine throws herself off the tower of a church and dies. Her death brings part one of the book to an end, coinciding with the fall of France to the Nazi invaders.
Flash forward four years. The war is over and people in France are picking up the pieces of their lives. Paul Gevigné is dead and Roger Flavières is an alcoholic, tormented by the loss of Madeleine and his guilt that he couldn’t save her. His doctors tell him that for his own sanity he should get out of Paris. On his last night in the city he goes to the cinema and sees in a newsreel a girl who closely resembles Madeleine.
He persues her, courts her and takes her as his mistress but the relationship goes downhill because Flavières tries to remake her in the image of the dead woman, dictating what she wears and the style of her hair. Believing his mistress is really a reincarnation of his lost love, his hold on reality becomes ever more fragile. Flavières comes across as a bully at this stage, never letting up for moment in his determination to force his mistress to confess that yes, she is Madeleine.
Vertigo is a dark and stylish tale about a man in torment. A man who is destroyed by his infatuation for a woman and his search for the truth. Although we sense from the outset that things are not going to turn out well for Flavières, that feeling of inevitability doesn’t spoil the enjoyment of the novel. The first part is a little on the slow slide but the tension ratchets up significantly in the second part, coming to a satisfying twist in the final pages. But by then it is too late for Flavières. His life is in ruins.
D’Entre les Morts was published in 1954. Apparently Boileau and Narcejac wanted to move away from the conventions of Golden Age mysteries. They wanted to turn victims into conspirators and protagonists into perpetrators and operated to a rule that “the protagonist can never wake up from their nightmare”. The English version came out in 1956 and the film in 1958.
In 2015 Pushkin came out with a new edition as part of PUSHKIN VERTIGO, their new imprint for crime classics from around the world, focusing on works written between the 1920s and 1970s.