The Dark Galleries

EARLY IN HITCHCOCK’S VERTIGO, we follow the hapless former detective Scottie as he trails his mark, Madeleine. He’s driven, in part, by a half-baked tale of reincarnation: She’s a dead ringer for the deceased Carlotta Valdes. The tension and suspense build as Hitch uses every trick in the cat-and-mouse book of filmmaking. The sequence reaches its discordant crescendo, though, when Madeleine enters the California Palace of the Legion of Honor and contemplates a portrait of the mysterious Carlotta, which . . . really does look a lot like her. Beyond the passing resemblance, the portrait possesses a strange power as a work of art and as a character in the film. Carlotta is doll-like yet somehow severe, with a long neck held at an uncomfortable angle and piercing, enigmatic eyes, all rendered in a kind of cut-rate Dutch-master style. It’s not the only painting that appears in the film: Later, Scottie’s lovelorn friend Midge, ignored by the gumshoe as he spends more and more time pursuing Madeleine, reveals an even creepier portrait, one of herself as Carlotta, sexed up with frisky “career girl” glasses, a candy-colored satin gown with a plunging neckline, and a come-hither smile. When Scottie sees the painting, he is aghast (“That’s not funny, Midge”). After he leaves, she slashes at the canvas like an unhinged Franz Kline.

Portrait of Carlotta Valdes painted by John Ferren, from Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, 1958.

In The Dark Galleries, Steven Jacobs and Lisa Colpaert catalogue these two paintings along with nearly one hundred other artworks that were created for films, which are grouped into six categories in a kind of imaginary gallery: “Dying Portraits,” “Patriarchs,” “Matriarchs and Female Ancestors,” “Ghosts” (Carlotta fits in here), “Fatal Portraits,” and “Modern Portraits.” In addition, there are sections on fictional artists, museums, and collectors; “Paintings Concealing Safes”; and “Modern Art in the Homes of Criminals,” showing how Picasso’s work, to take one often-used artist, figures into movies by Hitchcock, John Huston, and Robert Aldrich, usually as a way to layer a scene with a Cubist air of unease, making the bad guys’ dens seem urbanely sinister. An informative opening essay details the various ways that art and artists are used in midcentury American and British cinema. What’s striking about these “dark galleries” is how often the paintings—both the tacky avuncular portraits (what one scholar here terms “failed classicism”) and the work of masters such as Degas, van Gogh, and Picasso—are used as rough signifiers of chaos and menace, disordered minds, and, as in the most emblematic case, The Portrait of Dorian Gray, very sick souls.