The icebox moment of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, a few thoughts on the recent Netflix hit Enola Holmes, and how the two intertwine a little.
This article contains a major spoiler for Vertigo and minor spoilers for Enola Holmes.
Despite many, many hours of Alfred Hitchcock proselytizing on the record, some of his more famous quotes actually seem to be apocryphal. For instance, there’s a popular quote about one infamous cheat in Vertigo, a kind of minor loophole in the plotting that Hitchcock allegedly framed as an “icebox moment.”
The scene in question features an apparently impossible escape: Scottie sees Judy (or Madeleine, take your pick) through the window of a boarding house; he enters the building, is told she’s absolutely not there, goes up to her room anyway; she’s not there, but Scottie looks outside and sees that her car has been driven away – though there’s no way she could have left without passing him on the stairs.
The quote that’s passed around sees Hitchcock allegedly noting the illogical structure of this scene, saying it only “hits you after you’ve gone home and start pulling cold chicken out of the icebox.”
Whether or not Hitch ever said this is hard to determine – all I can find are secondary, even tertiary sources – but Ted Tally, screenwriter of Silence of the Lambs, has directly attributed a very similar observation to Jonathan Demme.
“You’ve just come home from a movie, you had a great time, you go to the refrigerator to get a beer, you open the door, and you say ‘Wait a minute…’”
Demme explained that he doesn’t much care about these logical skips and hops, considering them to be irrelevant as long the audience remain emotionally engaged. Demme was definitely a student of Hitchcock – he praised him in several interviews and Last Embrace often feels like an obvious tribute – so maybe he was quoting the master here, or perhaps Demme was the actual source of the quote in the first place.
Personally, I don’t think all icebox moments are quite equal. Consider the puzzle of Judy-Madeleine’s disappearance in Vertigo. In the moment, the scene implies some sort of spectral powers on her part, and that’s very useful to the film as it goes along. A realisation later that, actually, this character was a whole lot more corporeal than a viewer had maybe assumed only takes us so far.
The big, ‘Galaxy Brain’ revelation could be that Scottie’s perception shouldn’t be trusted. Isn’t this a film about him seeing Madeleine where she might not ever be? A sequence where maybe Madeleine/Judy exists only in his imagination is quite compelling, I think – and the ending’s twisted reveal doesn’t necessarily mean Scottie’s perception is flawless and trustworthy.
There’s a similarly impossible-looking escape enacted in the recently-released family Netflix hit Enola Holmes. Somewhere around the 90 minute mark, Enola is hiding in a basket to avoid detection by Miss Harrison. We see this basket carried into an office, with Enola shown to be inside it, and then Miss Harrison enters the room, opens the basket and Enola has gone.
The first time I saw the scene I half expected a Silence Of The Lambs style switch, in fact – in which we’d learn that the shots of the inside of a basket and the outside of a basket were of two different baskets. But the sequence pretty clearly indicates this is not the case. Then, thanks to the staging of the actors and who can see whose faces and when, there’s a perfect opportunity for Enola to make her escape in plain sight – but again, this possibility is not carried off, however delightful that might have been.
Instead, we’re left with no trustworthy indication as to how Enola made her cunning escape. It feels to me a little too much like certain cliffhanger-riddled Saturday Morning serials – or even some episodes of the 1960s Batman TV show! – in which certain death is cheated away off camera, and without explanation.
I can roll with this kind of silliness, and sometimes it’s the ideal choice, but it’s frankly not very Holmesian. The pleasure of Conan Doyle’s original stories is in the clever feeling that comes from ‘penny dropping’ moments, where the seemingly impossible is rationalised – and the answer of how the magic trick is done becomes more impressive than the trick itself. Lots of Enola Holmes has been crafted to work on this basis too, at least to some extent.
But Enola’s basket escape is more like watching an illusionist without either knowing how the trick is done, or even having a fair, open view of the trick all the way through. Had the escape been executed in a single take, say, or the impossibility of the get-away accented in the staging and editing, it would have felt very different. As it is, Enola’s cunning escape plan seems to just be hidden in the cuts, off frame, around the back of the movie, as it were. It’s like being told a trick is going on behind a curtain and then being asked to take its impressiveness in good faith.
There’s a similar ‘Enola icebox cheat’ in the scene with a life-saving armour breastplate, only a few minutes later. It’s the sort of scene that would benefit massively from its sleights of hand being discreetly but clearly portrayed on screen, ready to be picked out on repeat viewing. As it stands, it’s less like watching a great magician, more like watching a CG recreation of a great magician – the principle of the effect is good, but we don’t believe that what we’re seeing was ‘done for real’.
There’s an awful lot to like about Enola Holmes, and I’m positively rooting for Netflix to get the ball moving on at least a couple more films in this series, but I’d argue this first instalment does seem to miss one or two targets with its twists and surprise reveals. I’d have love those scenes nudged just a little, so that they worked absolutely beautifully both in the moment and in retrospect.
It’s still a really enjoyable film, and it’s lovely to see it doing so well. Fingers crossed that the sequel gets the go-ahead…
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