This post contains spoilers of Laura, Vertigo, and Gone Girl.
A coincidental weekend binge of three movies produced an unintended similarity: a woman who is presumed dead returns halfway through the film. The women of Laura, Vertigo, and Gone Girl have their distinct traits, but each serves a unique purpose that reflects the era in which the film was made (and their directors).
Gene Tierney, Kim Novak, and Rosamund Pike played their roles in movies released in 1944, 1958, and 2014. Their projects were helmed by a group of distinguished filmmakers: Otto Preminger, Alfred Hitchcock, and David Fincher.
The common thread between each film is their character’s reemergence. The reveal in all three is antithetical to the concept of a climatic finish. Instead of ending with a bang, each movie opts to reintroduce its presumptive absentee in ways that torment the film’s male leads. The idealization, obsession, and psychopathic stories surrounding each character warrants a look at their commonalities and differences.
Director: Otto Preminger
Cast: Dana Andrews, Gene Tierney, Clifton Webb, Vincent Price
Laura is the unraveling of a Manhattan advertising executive’s homicide. Dana Andrews plays Mark McPherson, a tough detective who becomes obsessed with the portrait of the murder victim. As he investigates the murder in her apartment, the alleged victim Laura Hunt (Gene Tierney) appears. The investigation is unexpectedly realigned and Hunt becomes a suspect as the plot unravels.
Her re-appearance midway through the film only alters two aspects of the story: the identity of the victim and the retooled love interest with McPherson. When the perpetrator is revealed to be Waldo Lydecker, her return merely becomes a red herring. In the end, the detective’s infatuation with her portrait is more interesting than the murder itself.
Laura Hunt is not the complex femme fatale of film noir. She is a rising star on Madison Avenue and a virtuous darling of New York’s social elite. Six decades before Mad Men, Laura is a cross between Peggy Olson and Joan Holloway. Unlike her compatriots in Gone Girl and Vertigo, she is completely innocent of a crime. The lead is only guilty of whirlwind courtships.
Otto Preminger’s recurring dalliance with taboo subjects in his movies is underdeveloped in Laura. The unique tension of a homicide detective obsessed with the image of a victim is introduced with little buildup. It is only through Waldo Lydecker’s knowledge of Mark McPherson’s bid for that picture that the sleuth’s infatuation is confirmed.
In a 2012 piece on Laura, writer Ben Parker observes,
“It’s hard not to get caught up in the same enchantment as the detective while he gazes at Laura’s portrait over the fireplace. Falling in love, the movies tell us, is only having someone framed for you, reflected for you, staged with the proper lighting. Love is like a trompe l’oeil where the viewer is required to stand on a certain X marked on the floor to achieve the full effect of the image. If there is one lesson of film, it is not that ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder,’ but that beauty is in the camera lens.”
The soft lighting and cinematic presentation of Laura Hunt’s aura bolsters the essence of her character. She is a pinup model who stumbles into the film’s main twist. Laura does have exceptional career growth for her time, but in the end she is an attractive woman whose screen relevance is as an object of male obsession.
Fixation over an idealized woman may not have been common for murder victims, but the movie was released during the heyday of pinup photography. A man staring at a picture of a beautiful woman was not unusual when Tierney and her fellow Hollywood stars decorated countless G.I. bunks in World War II. Laura is the ultimate male fantasy: the image and obsession comes to life and is everything you want it to be.
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Cast: Jimmy Stewart, Kim Novak, Barbara Bel Geddes
Vertigo is often hailed as one of Alfred Hitchcock’s greatest movies. The film ranked ninth in the American Film Institute’s AFI’s 100 Years… 100 Movies 2007 poll. Vertigo was the first movie to use the dolly zoom to distort the camera, giving a perception of disorientation.
This effect was critical to the film, which stars Jimmy Stewart as a retired police detective who suffers from acrophobia. Stewart’s character is employed by a friend to follow his wife (Kim Novak) as she experiences the early stages of mental illness. After they fall in love, Novak’s Madeline Elster falls victim to her wavering mental health and jumps from a tower.
Hitchcock’s twist comes when Novak returns as Judy Barton. She essentially breaks the fourth wall to indicate she was hired to impersonate Madeline during a murder plot. After the reveal, Stewart’s Scottie Ferguson re-builds her into becoming the woman he lost.
Without the nagging doubt of Madeline/Judy’s identity, the suspense fades from Vertigo. Unlike Laura, she does not exercise control over her career. Further examination of her character shows an uninteresting, bland woman who is subservient to her much older male lover.
Unlike the pinup fantasy of Laura, the male obsession over Judy comes through Scottie’s molding of her to become a dead woman. The wardrobe and makeover decisions are chalked up by store personnel as a man knowing what he wants. His mania is unchecked as he becomes more obsessive with the resurrection of his lost love.
Hitchcock was a notoriously tough collaborator for women, but not every actress was cast in such a bland role. His most prominent female character, Lisa Fremont in Rear Window (1954), was an independent career woman and a risk taker. Four years later, Stewart was paired with a character who he forced to conform.
This reflects an era of women returning from their wartime careers to being a happy homemaker or object of pleasure. In Vertigo, Madeline/Judy is a woman who congeals to the decade’s ideals. Despite the trappings of a murder scheme, the essence of her character typifies men dictating how women should look and behave. In a 2018 piece on Vertigo, Associated Press critic Jake Coyle wrote,
“Novak’s performance in ‘Vertigo’ is exceptional not only because it’s two-fold — she plays both the mysterious, suicidal Madeleine and Judy, whose similar appearance to Madeleine mystifies Scottie (Stewart), the obsessed detective who had trailed Madeleine before her apparent death — but because it’s so representative of how male fantasies are projected onto women.”
In the same piece, Novak herself discussed how relatable the role was.
“I identify so very completely with the role because it was exactly what Harry Cohn and what Hollywood was trying to do to me, which was to make me over into something I was not…. You feel: There must have been something in you that they liked, and yet they wanted to change you.”
The perversity of the character is the unlikely greater horror of Vertigo. Based on a Boileau-Narcejac novel whose title translates to From Among the Dead, making the audience believe that the crux of the film is about Stewart’s fear of heights is Hitchock’s great ruse. The murder does not age as well as other evils in Hitchcock films, but the forced conformity of Novak’s character after her return is the lasting conversation piece.
Gone Girl (2014)
Director: David Fincher
Cast: Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike, Tyler Perry, Neil Patrick Harris
Set in Missouri, Gone Girl begins as Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) discovers that his wife Amy (Rosamund Pike) disappeared on their wedding anniversary. As evidence stacks against him, Nick correctly deduces that Amy is still alive and that she set him up for the crime.
Before she returns home, it is revealed that Amy invented rumors about pregnancy and spousal abuse. She went to gruesome measures and inflicted serious bodily harm to enact revenge for his affair. Nick also learns that she concocted abuse by a former boyfriend. After encountering another ex-boyfriend who takes a dominant position in their relationship, Amy kills him in order to come home and toy with Nick even more.
Her return heightens the tension. She represents danger more than either of her counterparts, especially when only a handful of people suspect her true nature. There are no bridges she won’t burn without carefully covering her tracks.
Amy Dunne is a femme fatale on steroids. The woman is not self-made like Laura Hunt. She is a trust fund baby whose parents profited off her image. The villain is also not Madeline/Judy. David Fincher’s antagonist is cunning and is the willful instigator of her crimes. She is the furthest thing from a bystander.
Fincher asserts himself less into this character than Hitchcock or Preminger. Amy Dunne is only idealized by media keen to publicize her status as a victim. She is fully in control of the people in her inner circle. Even a husband who is keenly aware that he is married to a psychopath submits to her at the end of the film. Her pregnancy is the final act of revenge to keep him in check.
Amy Dunne is not the poster child for the 21st Century woman, but she is certainly not a pinup gal or a bland aspiring housewife. The third tier of the reappearing woman is more evolved than her predecessors. She is not only independent, but the master of her own fate.
One critical aspect of her return is that love is not a part of the equation. Some of this is due to an evolution in storytelling (not every story has to hinge on romance). Her reign of terror is sufficiently interesting without having to make her an object of desire. When she engages in a liaison, it is only to manipulate a man and she is far from being the victim.
In a video essay for Vanity Fair where she indicated Amy Dunne may have Munchausen syndrome, former FBI profiler Candice DeLong referred to the character as one of the “most disturbing female villains in movie history.”
From Pinup To Femme Fatale
DeLong also indicated that the Gone Girl character went to extremes to injure herself and implicate men who were not giving her the appropriate amount of attention. This simple instigator of Amy’s actions, especially after her return, makes her frightening. Despite her icy exterior, this master manipulator is one of the more dynamic femme fatales in cinema.
She is not a pawn or attractive artwork like Madeline Elster and Laura Hunt. The third iteration of the disappearing woman is the most violent and evolved character, but the film is as reflective of its time as Laura and Vertigo.
In each instance, the most riveting scenes were after the three women return. How each movie handled their reappearance made a statement on how women were perceived at the time of the film. Idealization, manipulation, and independence all remain relevant well after the film’s release. While their return midway through movies may have taken the edge of the movie’s climax, the time spent following their comeback has kept them among the more iconic characters of their respective eras.