Three ways Robert Downey Jr’s Vertigo might not be Hollywood’s stupidest ever idea
You need chutzpah to be successful in Hollywood; you’ve got to have brash moves and audacious ideas, sometimes ones belonging to other people. Robert Downey Jr’s plan to remake Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo – one of the greatest films of all time – is aiming very very high, like planning to tightrope-walk between the two towers of San Francisco’s Golden Gate bridge. Don’t look down.
Downey Jr reportedly intends to produce and star himself in the role that James Stewart made iconic: ex-cop Scottie, traumatised by his fear of heights and a recent psychological breakdown, who falls in love from afar with the beautiful, mysterious woman, played by Kim Novak, who he’s been asked to trail by her husband. And then, after a traumatic episode, he becomes obsessed with another woman who eerily appears to be her exact double.
The screenplay will reportedly be written by Steven Knight, currently receiving mixed notices for his new BBC adaptation of Dickens’s Great Expectations, a looser version taking such revisionist liberties with the original that it could itself be considered a kind of remake. But who is going to play the Kim Novak role? And – perhaps even trickier – who will play Scottie’s ex-girlfriend Midge (originally played by Barbara Bel Geddes) whose glasses are an integral part of understanding Vertigo’s role in the critical discourse around the male – and female – gaze? It’s a scene-stealer of a role.
There shouldn’t be too much pearl-clutching at the idea of remaking Vertigo, or any classic. Vertigo has had a remake already – a Tamil film in 1965 called Kalangarai Vilakkam – while much of Brian De Palma’s career could be considered a sort of Vertigo retread, particularly his Hitchcockian films Obsession and Body Double. Steven Soderbergh remade Tarkovsky’s Solaris and the result was a deeply intelligent, worthwhile film. Hitchcock himself remade his own films. Gus Van Sant’s shot-for-shot Psycho remake was initially derided but then came to have its own connoisseur fanbase – though his decision to stick so respectfully to the original could be part of why cinephiles came to cut him some slack.
So option A is for Downey Jr and Knight to do the same thing: an eerily precise duplication that would also be a droll meta-joke about the body double; the Hitchcock original and its Downey Jr remake being Novak-type twins. Perhaps 90-year-old Novak can have a cameo. Option B is going back to the literary source material: the 1954 French novel D’Entre Les Morts (or The Living and the Dead) by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac (and of course Downey Jr may high-mindedly announce that his film is not a remake but a new version of this novel). It was set in occupied France in 1940; Downey Jr and Knight could set their movie in that place and at that time, or they could stick to a late-50s, early-60s San Francisco.
Either way, it will probably have to be set before the era of Google Image searching and digital tech, which would ruin the plot. But there is another big question for anyone wanting to do this and one with which Hitchcock himself grappled. Do you save the big reveal for the end, as in the novel? Or do you reveal it two-thirds in – Hitchcock’s own bold change – in order to explain the heroine’s tormented emotional state? It could be that Knight and Downey Jr will revert to the original and create a new “flashback” segment to preserve that twist.
Then there is casting the Novak role of Madeleine. Anya Taylor-Joy? Lily James? Elle Fanning? Or perhaps get away from stifling Anglo-patriarchal waspy blondness and go for Janelle Monáe or Zendaya? Or if modern-day Hollywood is squeamish about age-gap issues (Stewart was 50 to Novak’s 25) you could give the Madeleine role to someone like Cate Blanchett. But perhaps it is precisely the age gap that gives it the creepiness.
But it’s time to consider option C: the nuclear option, and don’t tell me Knight hasn’t thought about it. Gender-flipping the movie means Downey Jr surrendering the lead but keeping his producer credit. It’s been done with films as varied Ghostbusters and The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant. So the Stewart role goes to tough-yet-troubled San Francisco ex-cop … Patricia Arquette? She has to tail the exquisitely beautiful Timothée Chalamet, as he goes shopping, then she becomes mad about the boy, and falls in love with his exact double. It’s a dizzying thought.