Vertigo (5/10) Gavin Elster Analysis

In my estimation, the most monstrous yet thoroughly understated villain in any film I’ve seen yet. He may not be as iconic as Darth Vader, or as menacing as Hannibal Lector, but when you consider that Gavin murders Madeleine, indirectly kills Judy, drives Scottie into a psychotic meltdown and indirectly breaks Midge’s heart you realize how evil he is in his own right. He does all this while remaining cool, classy, in control and above suspicion the whole time. We never doubt for a second his concerned husband act, and even on rewatches I find myself getting sucked in by his polite manner of speech—I want to trust him all over again. Gavin’s ploy is ultimately discovered by the protagonist, but it won’t matter; he’s already far away, Scottie’s mental history and compromising position will destroy his credibility and the only proof that would implicate Gavin just fell off the tower. He’s the rare (sole?) example in golden age Hollywood of the antagonist who gets off scot-free.

Overall, Gavin is the only main character in the entire film who thinks with his head rather than his emotions, and he succeeds for it while everyone else suffers. He serves as an examination of how crime hurts far more people than the immediate victim. Just like Madeleine herself, and Scottie, he proves the theme of looks as deceiving in this movie. (More on this later.) He’s a contrast to Scottie in that he would prefer to be “a man of independent means” while one gets the sense that deep down Scottie would like to have a beautiful wife like Gavin.

If Scottie and Judy are the male and female perspectives on romances (and all the ways they can go wrong) then Gavin is the POV of someone who’s experienced it too and made the decision to leave it all behind while he still could. He is played very well by Tom Helmore. Worth noting as well is that, similar to Midge, there’s never any Bernard Herrman music played when he appears onscreen with the exceptions of Judy’s flashback and Scottie’s nightmare (which are still in those two characters’ heads rather than in the real world, and the music is therefore only playing because of Madeleine/Judy’s presence.)

The Silent Killer

Despite his actions drastically affecting everyone else and casting a shadow over the entire picture, Gavin himself appears in only 5 scenes, one of which is only a nightmare and only three have dialogue. He gives Scottie the assignment/dines at Ernie’s (I count these as one), checks up on the progress of the case (and gives more information), then says his goodbye to Scottie at the funeral. We also see him toss the body in Judy’s flashback and reappear in Scottie’s nightmare.

With the benefit of hindsight, we can gleam some hidden clues from these scenes. When we first meet Gavin, we learn his motive for the murder—he finds his wife’s business dull and longs for power and freedom. He sizes Scottie up (“is it a permanent physical disability?”) and then nods slyly when Scottie explains the debilitation as he (Gavin) determines it will suit his needs. In the second scene, he fills in the gaps Scottie missed, and then throws a monkey wrench into Scottie’s attempt to offer a logical explanation so that he (Scottie) will remain invested. At this point, Scottie has completed his assignment and is well within his rights to tell Gavin it’s not his problem anymore; Madeleine clearly needs a psychologist, not a detective. However, Scottie’s become too ensnared in solving the mystery and the excuse to gaze at Madeleine’s beauty all day, which is just the way Gavin planned it. Finally at the inquest, we see him genuinely try to comfort Scottie after the harsh words of the coroner while also leaving him with the veiled jape “You and I know who killed Madeleine.” This false-camaraderie is his last line in the movie.

It may just be his charm and calming demeanor, but I like to believe Gavin was being sincere in some places. I speculate that the lies in his first scene did not begin until he stood up from the desk. He did tell the truth about his wife owning Carlotta’s necklace, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the real Madeleine or her mother actually told him about the story as he claims. I also desperately want to believe that Gavin was truly upset on Scottie’s behalf for how he was talked to at the inquest. However, the coy little tease he throws in seems to cast doubt on that hope. I always wondered what Gavin would feel if (when?) he heard of Scottie and Judy’s ultimate fate. Would he be saddened, guilt-ridden, sadistically amused, or completely unfazed?

Mark of the Beast

Since his introduction as a shipbuilder, with the cranes of the harbor behind him and a model boat in his office, Gavin becomes connected to the ocean and the color blue. Like the sea, he’s initially calm and soothing to behold, but the deeper one ventures in the more dangerous it becomes, and ultimately its presence is subtly corrosive. It’s a slow disintegration in contrast to an inferno, but the end result is still destruction. Madeleine’s first suicide attempt is in the dark blue bay, and when Scottie jumps in to save Madeleine he is now completely surrounded in the fantasy Gavin has created. Pop Leibel’s bookstore has a picture of a boat on the wall, as if Gavin intended Scottie to meet him (or, at least, learn all this information Leibel relays about Carlotta in some way.) And if that were not enough, “Argosy” (the name of the bookstore) means “boat.” As Scottie confesses the nature of his work to Midge after meeting Pop, the bay is in the background and you can hear a boat whistle (since he’s describing Gavin’s false narrative.) When we next see the ocean after the first suicide attempt, it crashes violently into the beach behind Madeleine and Scottie. I always interpreted this as his plan hitting a snag, about to blow up in unforeseen ways because of this kiss and the obsessive love it sparks.


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