Vertigo by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac

vertigoFrom among the dead…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

As Paris waits uneasily for war to begin, Roger Flavières is approached by an old college friend, Gévigne, who puts an odd proposition to him. Gévigne is concerned about his wife, Madeleine. She has been lapsing into odd silences, almost trances, and seems bewildered when she comes out of them. Gévigne knows she’s been going out during the afternoons but she says she hasn’t – either she is lying, which Gévigne doesn’t believe, or she has forgotten. Gévigne wants Flavières to follow her, partly to find out what she’s doing and partly to make sure she is safe. Flavières assumes she is having an affair, but eventually agrees to Gévigne’s request. But a few days later, Madeleine steps quietly into the river and Flavières has to rescue her – a meeting that leads to him developing a strange obsession for her, which he calls love.

This is, of course, the book on which the famous Hitchcock film is based, a film I have always admired more than enjoyed, partly because I’m not a huge fan of Kim Novak. The plot is very similar to the book, though Hitchcock has changed the emphasis to make more of the vertigo aspect. Apparently the book was originally called D’entre les morts (From Among the Dead), and this is a much more apt title. Flavières does suffer from vertigo and this was the cause of him being indirectly responsible for the death of his partner when he worked for the police, and also provides a crucial plot point later on in the book. But the focus of the book is much more on the breakdown of Flavières’ hold on reality as he comes to believe that Madeleine has the ability to return, like Eurydice, from the dead.

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The book is set in wartime, with the first section taking place in Paris just as the war is beginning and the second part four years later in Marseilles as it is heading towards its end. This gives a feeling of disruption and displacement which is entirely missing from the film, set as it is in peacetime America. It is impossible for Flavières to track Madeleine’s past because records have been destroyed, and people are constantly on the move, both physically and socially, as black marketeers and weapons manufacturers grow wealthy and those who can leave the parts of France most affected by war. Flavières failed the medical for the army, for reasons left deliberately rather vague, and feels he is despised by strangers who see an apparently fit man avoiding service.

Another major difference is that in the book Flavières is a loner – or, at least, alone. He appears to have no friends and gets no fulfilment from his job as a lawyer. In the film, Scottie Ferguson (the Flavières character) has a devoted friend in Midge Wood, and is an all-round decent chap, although guilt-ridden. Flavières is not a decent chap! He is a weak man, pitiable almost, whose obsession with Madeleine seems like an extension of an already unstable mental state rather than the cause of it. As the book progresses, he steadily disintegrates, and his behaviour becomes ever more disturbing and crueller towards Madeleine for not admitting to being who he thinks she is.

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The book is very well written, and well translated for the most part, although with an annoying tendency to leave some phrases untranslated, such as names of paintings or institutions, meaning I had to resort to Google from time to time to catch a nuance that a translation would have made clear. Apparently, according to the notes in the book, Boileau and Narcejac wanted to create a new style of mystery, away from the standard fare of whodunnits and hard-boileds, putting the victim at the centre of the plot. Boileau was responsible for coming up with the plots while Narcejac created the characterisations. In my view, a partnership that worked brilliantly – the plot of this is fiendishly complex, and Flavières’ character is a wonderful study of the effect of obsession on a weak mind. Overall I thought it was much darker than the film, mainly because Flavières may be a victim but there is no attempt to make him out as a good guy – an example of how to write an unlikeable character in such a way as to make him fascinating. The beginning is somewhat slow but I suspect that may be because I knew the plot from the film. As it begins to diverge in the second half I found it completely riveting as it drove inexorably towards its darkly satisfying ending.

Narcejac and Boileau
Narcejac and Boileau

Unusually for a Hitchcock film, I think the book actually delves more deeply into the psychology and makes it more credible. Hitchcock’s decision to elevate the importance of the vertigo aspects somehow makes his Ferguson a less complex and intriguing character than Boileau-Narcejac’s Flavières. And the ending of the book is much more satisfying than that of the film. For once, despite my abiding love for Mr Hitchcock, on this occasion the victory goes to the book!

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Pushkin Press.

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59 thoughts on “Vertigo by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac

  1. Gévigne (you know, I have no idea how to say that name?!) was just being lazy! He should’ve followed her, if he was curious.

    Now, I think I’ve seen parts of the film or just the beginning. I think I remember someone falling in a lake or something. But it was rather dry, you know, you know.

    Hitchock…wat a stealer of ideas!

    • *laughs* I’m not totally sure myself! He couldn’t… he was… nope, that’d be a spoiler – you’ll just have to read it!

      It’s considered to be one of the best films of all time, but it’s not one of my favourite Hitchcocks really. Still good though, with some innovative camera techniques that look so ancient and out of date now…

      *gasps* How dare you! He doesn’t steal, he adapts!

        • *laughs lots* Do you know that over here ‘legless’ is slang for so drunk you can’t stand up? Well, he couldn’t follow her because he had an important job as Chief Snail Hunter for one of the Parisian restaurants…

          Well, you’re asking the right person, because we both know what an expert I am on cameras!! I don’t know!!! Something to do with dollies, I believe (though you’d think Hitch would’ve been too old to play with dollies really). It was something to do with how he filmed looking down vertically from the top of a spiral staircase, giving a sensation of vertigo, and then at one point he breaks into a sort of animated sequence to show how befuddled the vertigo had made Scottie. Or something.

          Would this be a bad time to mention… Olmes?!! *delicately sticks out tongue*

          • I didn’t know! But, then, maybe he was legless in the Scottish meaning of the word! Hmm… *suspicious eyes* You’re telling tales again!

            *laughs* That’s how they move cameras, can you believe. Dollying them around and such. Well, I think that all sounds very cool. I would like to be on such a set. Hitch and I would’ve gotten along nicely.

            *holds ears* A bird!

            • Who, me?? As if I’d do a thing like that…

              Really? Well, what an odd name for it! But now I know why dolly grips show up in the credits of movies – I’ve always been a little concerned about it, you know, you know…

              I won! *punches air*

            • You tell the truth in these matters as much as a kangaroo runs!

              I’ve got no idea what that means! Film and all that is so, so weird. But a work of art, really. I’m just a humble pirate.

              *slants eyebrows*

            • Kangaroos do run!!! *suddenly doubts* Don’t they?

              Tick will know! In fact… maybe Tick IS a dolly grip!!! *tries not to giggle*

              Ooh, that is sooo unfair!! *raises quizzical right eyebrow*

            • Really? *laughing* I thought not…but maybe they do? I thought they just hopped!

              You bad, Rhett. You really is bad.

              Do girls even have eyebrows? How odd. I’ve never thought on it before.

            • *laughs* I don’t know – but I know they can go pretty fast. We need to ask an Australian…

              *befuddled face* The only Rhett I know is Rhett Butler…

              Are you implying that girls look like fish, sir?!!

            • Google informs me that you are correct, sir! I submit! Now all I have to do is remember why we were arguing about it in the first place…

              *doubly befuddled face*

              “you humans”???? *laughs lots and lots* Has the truth finally been revealed???

            • Oh, that sounds potentially gruesome! Couldn’t you celebrate like Jo-Wilfried Tsonga now you’re such a keen dancer?

              Oooh! Are you a Woola?! That would be cool!

            • He’s gorgeous and speaks with a French accent! *swoons* And his little victory dance is lovely – pity he doesn’t win more often really. He should have a defeat dance…

              Ugh! You’re not nearly as pretty as Woola then!

  2. Oh, excellent review – but, for me, merely to say ‘Pushkin Press’ almost guaranteed my interest, they, like Persephone really do pick up interesting stuff. Intrigued. And perhaps my TBR has been raised a tad!

    • I prefer them to Persephone really – the stuff they do is more to my taste. And this seems to be a new imprint called Pushkin Vertigo so I’m hoping it might be all ‘books of the film’. I think you’d like this one… and it’s nice and short!

        • Ah, I’ve just checked – it was NG but it seems to have been archived now. It’s due out on Kindle tomorrow. That’s the problem – I’m running so late that a lot of what I’m reading now has already been archived – sorry!

          • Pouts, far from prettily. Thanks – all I can say is – keep up! At least those chaps flexing muscles as they scamper across a tennis court are now on a bit of a break before we lose you reviewing and reading for weeks and weeks…….

            • I have increased my reading intake by an hour a day till I catch up – why is it all beginning to feel like a job? I shall be demanding overtime rates soon… I shall tell you now that I think I’m probably going to be recommending the Rushdie to you when I finish it, just in case you’re interested and want to request it before it disappears. Jinns and philosophy with lots of humour – pretentious, I think, but fun…

  3. Terrific comparison between book and film, FictionFan. I’ve always found it fascinating how Hitchcock took those dark stories and used them to create something with his own inimitable stamp. He was always good with the theme of obsession in his films too. In this case, I think you make a well-taken point about moving the focus to the victim. I also find it interesting that in the novel, Flavière is painted as much less ‘the innocent victim,’ and more a character who allows himself to be drawn into darkness, if I may come so close to the melodramatic. Lots of fascinating psychology here…

    • Thanks, Margot! 😀 Yes, I’ve been reading a few ‘books of the films’ recently and enjoying seeing how they compare. Generally I think Hitch adds to the original, but in this one I really felt the book went more deeply into the whole obsession thing. I suspect Hitch wanted to try out his ideas for portraying the effects of vertigo on film, and so changed the emphasis of the story to suit. And doubtless budgetary restraints made him place it in contemporary America rather than wartime France. The book was excellent and I see they’re bringing out at least one more of Boileau-Narcejac’s soon, so I’ll be on the lookout for that one too…

  4. This was fascinating. I’ve just re-watched the film and not knowing anything about the book thought it felt very European in an undefinable way. I was very interested to discover the book is set in the war. Thank you.

    • You’re welcome! 🙂 It’s been a while since I watched the film – must re-watch it soon. Yes, I thought the wartime France setting worked much better for the story than contemporary America – it gave a real feeling of how easy it is to get ‘lost’ when everything around you is so disrupted.

  5. “Vertigo” is one of my very favorite films. It is surely Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece. The cinematography and use of color; the unforgettable Hermann score; the atmosphere throughout, makes it an unforgettable viewing experience. I have sometimes thought of reading “D’entres les Morts,” though I didn’t want to spoil in any way the overall effect of “Vertigo.”

    The differences you note between book and movie are interesting. I do see the film as darker than you might have perceived it.. James Stewart’s superb portrayal of Scotty Ferguson always has something unsettling about him, even in the early part of the movie. And the last scenes bring this to culmination. For me this was the classic evocation of a man looking for the maiden to rescue from the tower; the man who cannot love unless he can be the brave hero awakening the underlying passion of a beautiful and haunted woman. I think that most men, including me, are drawn to this sublime fantasy; and probably many women are as well. Stewart does a remarkable job of evoking the power and torment behind that fantasy. I have never seen any movie which captures this so brilliantly.

    I actually liked Kim Novak in this movie; considering she was so young, and she was essentially replacing Hitchcock’s original choice, Vera Miles, who I think could not do it because she was pregnant, I think that she is very convincing, and has a remarkable understanding of the characters she portrays. And the much underrated Barbara Bel Geddes is also superb and very memorable, as Midge.

    The books certainly sounds good, although my sense is that being a book, and a European one, it is likely colder than the movie, though clever in plot and effective in atmosphere. There were French mysteries of the period and a little later, which were very clever and dark. I believe that “Diabolique” was a novel before a movie; and there were several others, including one that I believe was titled, “The Praying Mantises,” which also had fiendish twists and turns, and is very good. I usually like books better than the movies which are based on them; but in the case of “Vertigo,” there is an extraordinary capturing of psychology and emotional content, along with the absolutely haunting story. There is a somewhat famous article, or maybe even a short book, called “Obsessed by Vertigo,” in which a woman recounts how she was so enraptured or haunted by the movie, that she saw it dozens of times, and undertook visits to all the locales shown in the film. And I would suggest that the actual vertigo that Stewart suffers in the film, could potentially be seen as a sort of objective metaphor for various fears, including falling in love, sexuality; or maybe just the vague and deep psychological darkness in him which he has always desperately tried to conquer. The book likely does not deal with such issues, as it lacks the visual correlative which the movie had at its disposal.

    • I enjoyed the film but for me there are others that I rate more highly – Rear Window, Strangers on a Train, Psycho… but I think in this one there’s a lot more innovative cinematic stuff going on which leads to its high standing, and I appeciate that, though I’m always more interested myself in the plot and acting than the filming and score. Probably why I’m not much of a movie buff, really.

      The book is darker in the sense that one doesn’t have much empathy really for any of the characters – in fact, while I agree about Barbara Bel Geddes, her appearance in the film softens Ferguson in some ways – makes him seem as if he’s a decent, likeable guy with problems. I didn’t feel that way about Flavières at all. The book is actually more open about the sexual aspects than the film was able to be, and concentrated far more on the death/resurrection aspects than the vertigo aspects. The basic plot is very similar, though it diverges as it nears the end, but the emphasis is very different, I felt. Worth reading – and I don’t think it’s one that would spoil the film in any way.

  6. Fascinating review! I have been curious to read this book for a while and after your review, definitely am going to. Vertigo fascinated me (I agree with you about the film being more interesting than enjoyable; it’s more fun to think about than watch). I’d heard that Hitchcock’s film was fairly close to the movie, but it actually sounds quite different and worth reading for its own merits.

    • Thank you! 😀 Definitely one where the book is as worth reading as the film is to watch. The plot is very similar though it diverges a bit in the second half, but it’s really the emphasis that I found very different. I suspect Hitch wanted to emphasise the vertigo aspects so he could do his cinematic stuff, but vertigo plays a less central role in the book. And I found the wartime France setting added a lot too to the feeling of disorientation of the whole thing. Hope you enjoy it as much as I did!

  7. As a fan of the film, I’m really looking forward to picking this up at some point. It’s good to hear about the differences between the novel and the screen adaptation as it means there’s plenty to look forward to here. Thanks for whetting my appetite!

    • Yes, it’s similar enough not to be frustrating, but different enough to be interesting. I’ve found that with a few of the books of Hitch films – he does change the emphasis and often the settings and characterisations, but he sticks fairly closely to the plots. If you get a chance to read it, I hope you enjoy it as much as I did! 🙂

  8. Sounds like two artists who know their art forms. Filmmakers should rarely if ever stay “true to the book.” Film and literature are different media, each with its own characteristic strengths and limitations, and directors ignore that at their peril. A film cannot compete with a novel on the novel’s own terms and vice versa. In this case, it might be that the “interiority” of fiction lends itself to psychological nuance, whereas “vertigo” is intrinsically cinematic, a concept-trigger for all sorts of visual possibilities and camera angles.

    • Yes, indeed! That’s why I rarely read the ‘book of’ unless it’s a film I know really well but haven’t watched in a while – because I expect differences and don’t want either form to spoil the other for me. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was the worst for me – loving the film and seeing it a million times and then trying too soon to read the book kinda spoiled both for me a bit. With this one, I felt that Hitch changed the emphasis to increase the importance of the vertigo aspects specifically so he could try out his cinematic techniques – and clearly he succeeded with that aspect. The book as you say is much more about the interior of Flavières’ mind. Both work excellently, I think, but quite differently. And while I usually find Hitch’s direction adds to the original, in this one I felt the book just had the edge.

  9. Interesting. I’ve never seen Vertigo or read this book. I recall Patricia Highsmith’s Talented Mr. Ripley as being an intense psychological portrait of a psychopath. The movie, less so. Your review makes me want to take a look. Oh, I am weak. So weak.

    • On the upside, this one is short! Almost long novella length in fact. Yes, I think these psychological portrait books are quite difficult to do on screen, because so much of it is about inside the head rather than action. Hitch does it better than most – anyone! – but in this one I felt his emphasis of the vertigo aspects was primarily so he could do innovative things with cameras – which works brilliantly but somewhat changes the tone. Both are great though – but I think I’d leave a gap between watching and reading or the differences would probably impact on the enjoyment…

  10. I may be the only person on earth who hasn’t seen the film, but has read the book! That was a LOT of years ago, when I was studying French by way of crime novels, for which I always had a weakness. It wasn’t called Vertigo when I read it, so I didn’t make the connection. Great review.

    • Did you read any of their other stuff? There’s another one been re-published – She Who Was No More – and I’m wondering whether it will be as good, or was this one their best?

      • “Les Diaboliques”, I think. If it’s the same book, I liked it better – If I remember rightly, it was the sort of Grandfather of Psycho, by way of a French film, which, of course, I haven’t seen!

  11. I don’t recall seeing the film, but since you say the book is better, well, that’s good enough for me! Sounds like a fascinating read, one I’ll have to put on my growing TBR!

    • I rewatched the film last night after talking about it all day, and it definitely confirms for me that in this case the book is better. Of course, 2 or 3 billion film fans probably disagree… 😉

      • Yes, well, opinions will differ, even among intelligent people with a keen aesthetic sense. 🙂 Of course, I’ve never read the book. And I like a clever pyschology mystery story. But in my opinion, the film “Vertigo” is unlike anything else, though some have tried to copy it in various ways. I don’t imagine you are going to see it again any time soon, but if you do, I would just say that the story itself, which obviously is very atmospheric and involving in the first half, is outdone by the emotional and psychological content which the actors, aided by cinematography and film score, so brilliantly convey. There is something ineffably hauntng about the movie, and I’m sure the book does not strive for that. I never pay much attention to film reviews or film buffs’ analyses. LIke you, I am not a knowledgeable devotee of films. But I was proud that “Vertigo” supplanted “Citizen Kane” in the once a decade ranking of films, I think done by American Film Institute. “Citizen Kane” had won every decade, but Vertigo, I thnk before ranked #3, got the top spot, to the consternation of some critics, and the applause of others. I would rank it as one of the top three or so films ever made. It is surely one of the most Romantic (as perhaps contrasted with “romantic”) films ever made; but there is a darkness, too.

        You might know that when the film came out, it was not well received. People concentrated too much on the actual plot, or didn’t understand it. They wanted another “Psycho,” or “North by Northwest,” perhaps. Hitchcock was so upset that he pulled the film from distribution, and it was not until 25 or so years later than he allowed it to be shown. At that point, the critical review was far different. It was probably ahead of its cultural time. I saw it for the first time in a special televison showing, and was stunned by how much better I thought it was than any of Hitchcock’s other movies.

        • Funnily enough I watched it last night, having spent the whole day talking about it! Yes, I agree it is a very good film, but I don’t like Novak’s performance, and as always I was a bit thrown by the way Midge is dropped entirely from the second half after playing such an important role in the early part. I fear we shall have to agree to disagree on this one! But even a less favourite Hitchcock is still often better than most other films. I must admit I was never much taken by his forays into cinematic experimentation – being pretty much uniterested in technique, I prefer him when he just tells a good story. I felt the same about Spellbound – too much concentration on the dream sequences for me, though I know that’s the very thing that film buffs like most about it.

  12. A great review but unfortunately I’m not really a person who watches films (I know I’ve missed out on lots of culture) but I have at least seen some of Hitchcock’s, but not this one! Sounds fascinating but I’m not really sure it is for me…

    • I don’t watch many these days though I used to when I was younger – which is why I know the old ones so much better than the new ones! The book is very short – did I mention that? 😉

  13. Wow! I had no idea the film was based on a book. I loved the film and now, after reading your fascinating review, I am going to buy that book! 🙂

    • I’ve only recently become aware of how many of Hitchcock’s films were based on books and have been reading one or two of them this year. I rewatched the film last night and enjoyed it again, but definitely think the book is darker and more complex this time… enjoy!

    • After talking about it all day I re-watched the film last night, and it definitely confirmed for me that in this case the book is darker and more complex – if you do get a chance to read it, I hope you enjoy it. But don’t read it to Pearl… 😉

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