The Testament Of Judith Barton – Book Review

film reviews | movies | features | BRWC The Testament Of Judith Barton

Vertigo is one of the most beloved films from the 20th century, considered by some to be Hitchcock’s masterpiece, it is an undeniably complex and dizzying marvel. So then, what could (or needs to) be added to this movie’s story? One answer comes in the form of The Testament of Judith Barton, a book by Wendy Powers and Robin McLeod that expands upon the character of Judy Barton, shifting to her perspective and in the retelling flesh’s out the character who remained, until now, a tragic mystery.

Judy Barton is often a little overlooked in Vertigo; the obvious assumption is that she’s damaged goods and possibly a mistress of Gavin Elster, used by him and then discarded. Her story is tragic yes, but largely the audience feels for the more manipulated victim Scottie, played fantastically by James Stewart, or even the unwittingly doomed Madeleine Elster. Until now I’d given very little thought to Judy’s backstory or motive and perhaps what is most successful about this book is how easily it alters your perception of Hitchcock’s film by cleverly highlighting the misfortune and folly of her character.

Top: Kim Novak as Judy in Vertigo. Above: The fantastically Hitchcockian book cover design..

Going right back to the beginning of her life, The Testament of Judith Barton tells the story of Judy’s childhood in small town Salina Kansas, her growing up and moving to San Francisco, and then to her untimely demise tumbling from the San Juan Bautista clock tower. In the process of doing so it slowly layers up the motivational keys that help to explain how Judy ended up where she did: her fondness of jewels – in particular emeralds, a love of acting, the thrill of taking centre stage and becoming a character, the love and loss of her father, a weakness for older men, and the more obvious need for money. Suddenly there’s a greater picture of who she was and how she ended up being led to impersonate Elster’s wife to begin with.



This is not to say she isn’t culpable in the deceit of Scottie and the murder of Madeleine Elster – she makes some very stupid decisions, some of them out of desperation and a need for money, others perhaps from not questioning things enough – but the backstory creates a sympathy for Judy that perhaps wasn’t so readily present before. Her death is only more tragic in the knowledge of the loss of her father, her brush with success and the loss of another father figure in San Francisco, her loathsome treatment at the hands of Gavin Elster, and then the troubling transformation forced upon her by Scottie.

The Testament of Judith Barton is a welcome addition to the story created in Vertigo, it adds depth to a character that was not present before. Whilst this is true though, the story is more heavily weighted in the events that took place before the film’s timeframe, and when it does get into covering old ground it seems to proceed through the narrative events of the movie very quickly, perhaps too much so. It does manage to add a few extra tidbits to that storyline, thoughts and feelings of Judy’s, but very little in comparison to its earlier descriptions – arguably the film says enough so the book’s focus is elsewhere. Another thing it does succeed in doing is to push forward Gavin Elster who, whilst the instigator of the whole plot, is somewhat ancillary in Vertigo. This is not the case here; Elster is slimy, cruel, frightening, and a true villain through the eyes of Judy.

Since we know what’s going to happen (if you’ve not seen Vertigo why are you reading this, and more importantly what have you been doing with your life?) The Testament of Judith Barton has a sense of inevitability, but it’s the mystery of how we end up at that conclusion that makes the twists and turns of the story ever more compelling. This book is tightly written with an obvious reverence for the source material and for anyone who has seen Vertigo and perhaps wondered who Judy Barton really was this book is a must read.


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