Vertigo (Hitchcock, 1958)

 

“Vertigo seems to me of all Hitchcock’s films the one nearest to perfection. Indeed, its profundity is inseparable from the perfection of form: it is a perfect organism.”

                                                                            – Robin Wood, noted Film Studies critic, scholar & author of Hitchcock’s Films (1965)

Introduction

 

Vertigo is often cited as Hitchcock’s masterpiece. It is, arguably, Hitchcock’s most complex film and is subject to more critical and academic scrutiny and analysis than any of his other films. However, Vertigo is far from perfect. It is flawed in many respects, particularly when one starts to picks holes in the plot. For example; how is it possible that Elster was able to get the real Madeleine up the bell tower at The Old Mission of San Juan Bautista and is able to escape with Judy without being seen? How is Scottie saved from almost certain death at the beginning of the film? Is it really feasible to expect that Scottie, the diligent, rational ex-detective never questions the fact that he never sees a picture of the real Madeleine?

Vertigo somehow seems to transcend these concerns and instead offers a compelling psycho-drama that has complex layers of meaning and employs carefully crafted film language to present a narrative that aligns the audience so completely with the protagonist.

Some critics have explained that Vertigo can be read as a metaphor for the relationship between the spectator and the cinematic image. Perhaps the simplest application of this idea is to suggest that Scottie represents us, the audience, the spectator and the constructed version of Madeleine represents the cinematic image. She is created to be alluring and seductive, but she is a façade. She is not even a reflection of the ‘real’ Madeleine, but a creation of Elster (the director, who controls the action from off screen) designed to enchant and enthral Scottie.  The scenes which see ‘Madeleine’ viewing the painting of Carlotta, with Scottie watching from the shadows provide a visual representation of this idea. Vertigo has metatextuality meaning that it places emphasis on its status as a film text, and asks the audience to consider their relationship with it and with cinema more generally.

Narrative

Restricted / Unrestricted: Vertigo employs a restricted narrative for the majority of acts one and two. It is restricted as we only discover ‘truths’ as Scottie does. This helps position the audience with Scottie. The suggested subjective camera work also feeds into our alignment with Scottie.

The narrative becomes unrestricted as Judy’s part in the plot is revealed. This is done to create dramatic irony, and actually serves to allow us to connect with and sympathise with Judy. This creates a tension for the events that follow. Scottie pursues the image of ‘Madeleine’ and attempts to recreate her. The poignancy for the audience is that we know that Judy knows what Scottie is trying to do. As a result, Hitchcock uses this device to position us away from Scottie in the final act and feel fear for Judy as he drives her out to the Mission to confront her with her deceit.  

A Film Noir Narrative: Overall, the narrative contains many of the conventions of Film Noir. There is a private detective (or at least a retired police detective working freelance) who is drawn into a plot, that ultimately destroys him, by a femme fatale. The femme fatale is also punished for her part in the protagonist’s downfall.

Narrative Form – Three Acts, Two Halves & Spiral: Although we can breakdown Vertigo in terms of Syd Field’s three acts, it is also helpful to think of the film in two halves, with Madeleine’s ‘suicide’ as the middle point.

Academics have also argued that the narrative of Vertigo is shaped like a spiral. This complex explanation can be broken down like this: the film starts with Scottie being unable to save his fellow police officer from falling to his death. The film’s midpoint is marked by Scottie failing to save Madeleine. Saving her would have helped him complete a narrative circle, by achieving something he failed to do in the past. He fails, and so ‘spirals’ into a psychological breakdown. He is given another opportunity in act three, an opportunity to save Judy as she falls from the bell tower. However, he fails again, and thus the circle does not complete once more, and instead the spiral continues and we understand that he is lost to the psychological depths of his grief and loss.

Plot Points: “A plot point is a juncture in a film narrative where the action takes a different direction. Things rapidly shift, and the audience is put to new interpretive tasks. Films require two plot points and can tolerate up to four, but more than two requires some in-flight re-fuelling.”  (Kunze, 2010)Theorist Syd Field suggested that the plot points should occur around the act breaks, however, Vertigo doesn’t adhere to Field’s idea.

As Vertigo has a complex narrative, there are four main plot points. They are:

  1. The first meeting Scottie has with Elster where Madeleine’s curious behaviour is first outlined and Scottie is tasked with observing her;
  2. The scene in Scottie’s apartment following his rescue of Madeleine. This is the first scene where they directly interact and a personal relationship is established;
  3. Scottie’s failure to stop Madeleine’s apparent suicide;
  4. The scene where Judy reveals the truth in writing a letter to Scottie and explaining her part in his deception and the real Madeleine’s murder.

Characterisation

John ‘Scottie’ Ferguson: The protagonist, known for the most part as ‘Scottie’ is a man characterised by his bravery, determination and rational mind. We discover early on that he was a lawyer and decided to become a police detective with aspirations of becoming chief of police. In the aftermath of the event that leaves him with acrophobia and vertigo, Scottie chooses retirement over a life sat behind a desk. This gives the audience the impression of a man who needs to be out in the world. His confirmed bachelor status is challenged by the events in the narrative, and the reawakening of his sexual desire by ‘Madeleine’ contributes to his downfall.

‘Madeleine’ Elster: Obviously, we never meet the real Madeleine Elster. However ‘Madeleine’ is characterised deliberately to entice and seduce Scottie (and so, us). The characterisation begins with Elster expressing his concerns to Scottie. He relates that his wife seems distracted and haunted. Hitchcock deliberately withholds her image from us in order to increase the significance of her reveal. When we first see Madeleine, she is presented as a desirable, ornate female wrapped in spectacular gown of green and black. The camera allows us a moment to savour her desirability as she leaves Ernie’s restaurant. She is presented as the iconic ‘Hitchcock blonde’. It’s worth noting that we do not hear ‘Madeleine’ speak until after Scottie has rescued her from the Bay. Up until this point, aside from what Elster relates, we only have her image and actions to give us any clue about her character.  In the sequence in which Scottie follows Madeleine through San Francisco for the first time, she is dressed in a grey suit which has the effect of making her seem ghost-like. At other times, we see her in either white or black, both colours that have connotations of death.

Judy Barton: Judy is a very different type of women from the romanticised ideal presented in the creation of ‘Madeleine’. She’s brassier, less refined and more ‘available’. We learn that she is a country girl who has been drawn to the big city of San Francisco with dreams of success. She is characterised as a girl from a less well-off back ground. There is also the hint of previous abuse from men. Judy does love Scotty, and fell in love with him whilst deceiving him with the ideal of Madeleine. She is ultimately, a passive character who is manipulated by older, more powerful men. Elster uses her to create an idealised reflection of his wife, designed to ensnare Scottie. Similarly, Scottie uses her to re-create ‘Madeleine’; a reflection of the reflection. Her demise is accepted by the audience because of her role in the deceit, but we find it nonetheless tragic.

Both ‘Madeleine’ and Judy are played by Kim Novak. Novak’s performances are skilful and nuanced; remember when we see her as ‘Madeleine’, she’s playing Judy, playing Madeleine. However, the strength in her performance is recognised in a knowing second viewing when we are aware of the deceit in advance and her performance still seems convincing.

Midge: The character of Midge was created for two reasons. Firstly she is the only other significant female character, once we take into account the idea that ‘Madeleine’ and Judy are the same person. Midge exists for us to compare and contrast her with ‘Madeleine’. She is not presented as alluringly ‘feminine’. Her hair is short and she wears glasses that make her seem mumsy and bookish. Even her nickname ‘Midge’ is deliberately unsexy. She is the available choice for Scottie; Midge clearly cares for him but he is not interested. Secondly, she gives voice to our shared concerns about where Scottie is being led through the narrative. Midge, instinctively, understands that the story will not end well.

Gavin Elster: Although Elster appears in only four scenes, he is ultimately revealed to be the antagonist. We understand that Elster has used Scottie to be the perfect witness to his wife’s apparent ‘suicide’, thus allowing Elster to murder his wife and claim her fortune. When we first meet Elster, we are presented with a character who is educated, and now through his marriage, has wealth and power. The setting for his first meeting with Scottie in his office relates this information quickly to the audience. We also understand through the mise-en-scene, which contains numerous paintings of San Francisco’s past, that his wife’s family are deeply rooted in this city. The setting of Scottie’s subsequent meeting with Elster, a gentlemen’s club, also feeds into the representation of character with wealth and status that is rooted in tradition and the past. The key element of Elster’s characterisation is that he is presented, on the whole, as a respectable and trustworthy figure. We, like Scottie, do not suspect him as the orchestrator of events in the narrative. This reveal is an enjoyable twist.

Carlotta Valdes: Since Carlotta is dead, the principal information the audience receives about her is through Pop Leibel, the owner of Argosy bookshop. Midge takes Scottie to him to get more information on Carlotta’s life. He tells Scottie (and the audience) “…Carlotta, beautiful Carlotta, sad…It (the McKittrick Hotel) was hers. It was built for her many years ago…by…the name I do not remember, a rich man, powerful man…It is not an unusual story. She came from somewhere small to the south of the city. Some say from a mission settlement. Young, yes, very young. And she was found dancing and singing in cabaret by that man. And he took her and built for her the great house in the Western Addition. And, uh, there was, there was a child, yes, that’s it, a child, a child. I cannot tell you exactly how much time passed or how much happiness there was, but then he threw her away. He had no other children. His wife had no children. So, he kept the child and threw her away. You know, a man could do that in those days. They had the power and the freedom. And she became the sad Carlotta, alone in the great house, walking the streets alone, her clothes becoming old and patched and dirty. And the mad Carlotta, stopping people in the streets to ask, ‘Where is my child?’ ‘Have you seen my child?’ …She died…by her own hand. There are many such stories.” Clearly, Carlotta’s tragic story feeds into Scottie’s understanding of what may be happening to Madeleine, and Carlotta’s story foreshadows Madeleine’s apparent suicide.

However, in terms of the narrative, Carlotta Valdes is the MacGuffin. The MacGuffin, a device favoured by Hitchcock, is an element of the narrative that initially seems important and motivates character action, but is ultimately proven to be irrelevant or inconsequential. At the end of the film, when Elster’s plan is fully exposed, we understand that the Carlotta story was used as a way to explain the suicide and remove suspicion of something more sinister.

Themes in Vertigo

As highlighted further on, Hitchcock was influenced by the ideas of the founder of Psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud. Therefore, many of the themes in Vertigo reflect Freud’s ideas.

 

Obsession: The principal manifestations of this theme are evident in Scottie’s obsession with Madeleine and desire to ‘cure’ her of her delusions. However, the theme of obsession escalates when Scottie meets Judy and becomes set on recreating the ‘Madeleine’ he lost.

Madness: There are several examples of this. Firstly, Scottie suggests that Elster should take his wife to see a psychiatrist when Elster first relates his wife’s strange behaviour. Secondly, we hear the story of Carlotta who was driven into madness by grief. After witnessing Madeleine’s apparent suicide, Scottie is also driven to a psychological breaking point (as conveyed through his nightmare). Although he recovers and is discharged from medical supervision, his behaviour, especially after meeting Judy, can hardly be described as rational or balanced.

Voyeurism: At its simplest, voyeurism refers to the idea of watching. It has associations with watching someone, often without their knowledge and for sexual pleasure. Scottie is employed to follow Madeleine, he is a professional observer, as Elster has employed him to do just this. However, we quickly understand that his interest in her becomes more than just professional. Hitchcock often shows Scottie following Madeleine at a distance, with barriers separating them. In the case of the scenes in the gallery, Hitchcock places Scottie in the shadows and has Madeleine illuminated, further emphasising the relationship of observer and the observed, as well as providing more evidence for the reading of the film as a metaphor for the relationship between cinematic spectator and cinematic image.

Love: The romantic strand of the narrative is a strong one. We are positioned to understand why Scottie would fall in love with such a beautiful woman, although because of the initial distance between the Scottie and ‘Madeleine’ and with the knowledge of the deceit, Hitchcock asks us to view his attachment to her as a product of manipulation. Hitchcock paints a picture of a protagonist who is initially cold and rational; his bachelor status and no-nonsense character lets us know that this is a man who has not recently been in a loving relationship. However, the effect of meeting ‘Madeleine’ re-awakens his sexuality and effectively warms him up. The fire he lights after rescuing ‘Madeleine’ from the waters underneath the Golden Gate Bridge is a visual representation of the romantic and sexual fire that has been lit within him.

Perhaps, the purest form of love demonstrated in the film comes from Judy, who knowing discovery is possible, chooses not to flee from Scottie, and instead willingly submits to his requests to mould her into the vision of ‘Madeleine’.

The Uncanny: German psychologist, Ernst Jentsch provided the most relevant definition of the uncanny for this film. In 1906, he described the uncanny as being “…most present…in cases where a living person or being seems to contain some kernel of the dead, or death.” (Kunze, 2010). Jentsch also described the reverse (a dead being containing some element of life) as being a secondary application of the term. With these definitions in mind, we obviously apply them to Vertigo.

In the film, ‘Madeleine’ is presented as a character who maybe possessed by the ghost of her great grandmother. Think about Hitchcock’s use of costume and make up for ‘Madeleine’ when she is ‘possessed’; the grey suit, pale make up and white blonde hair serve to make her seem ghostly. Similarly, the character of the great grandmother Carlotta, who we know to be dead, starts to take on qualities of life through the actions of ‘Madeleine’. The scene in Muir Woods where ‘Madeleine’ seems to be suddenly to be overcome by the spirit of Carlotta demonstrates this idea.

However, the idea can be applied in other ways. Some have stated that Vertigo can be read as a ‘death narrative’. Perhaps everything we see after Scottie is left hanging from the side of a building at the beginning of the film could be viewed of what happens in Scottie’s mind on his decent to the ground and inevitable death. Although, this reading doesn’t change our enjoyment of the narrative, we could argue that this idea gives us another application of the uncanny.

If again we consider the cinematic metaphor, we can consider the way in which cinematic spectators undertake the characteristics of the dead in watching a film. Kunze (2010) explains that the audience is “Immobile, silent, watchful – they fantasize with the help of a mechanised eye that floats from place to place and is able to move back and forth through time. Their first death is quite literal: sitting down and staying quiet. The second death is the end of the story, the discovery of a truth or key to a puzzle.”

The creation of the ‘female’ for male pleasure: In the first scene at Midge’s apartment, Hitchcock litters the mise-en-scene with designers’ drawings of women’s fashion. In the same scene he pointedly has both Midge and Scottie discuss and examine a bra; one that has been designed by a male engineer. Hitchcock intends us to access the symbolic meaning of the bra and to make connections between it and the information that is given. The bra is a symbol of female sexuality, but also connotes parts of the female body that men find most alluring. The fact that the underwear has been designed by a male engineer foregrounds the idea that it is men who often actively construct female identity, particularly as women are encouraged to make themselves attractive to men through their wardrobe and personal grooming.

Within the narrative this idea is important. It’s not until towards the end of the second act that we realise that the woman that Scottie fell in love with and then lost was a construction, an idealised and romanticised version of the real Madeleine. Elster constructed the ‘Madeleine’ that we thought was real. Building on this idea, in meeting Judy, Scottie sees a woman who reminds him of his lost love (with good reason) and sets about re-constructing Judy to satisfy his desires.

Of course, we can extend this theme out of the narrative. Hitchcock, as a director, was also actively engaged with construction of female identity, so much so that his leading actresses became unified through the label of the ‘Hitchcock blonde’, a term that suggested his predisposition towards a certain type of woman. Apparently Kim Novak was unhappy with some of the choices of wardrobe that Hitchcock insisted on, further demonstrating the idea of his influence over the creation of her image in the film.

Style

“Every piece of film that you put in a picture should have a purpose. You cannot put it together indiscriminately. It’s like notes of music. They must make their point. I put first and foremost cinematic style before content…I don’t care what a film is about…Content is quite secondary to me.”

Alfred Hitchcock

The title sequence: Although they are now less fashionable, title sequences were often an important part of a film’s identity and would often be used to foreshadow narrative events and establish themes. Noted graphic designer and film maker Saul Bass created the title sequences for many of Hitchcock’s most famous films including North by Northwest (1959), Psycho (1960) and Vertigo. He also created the poster for Vertigo.

The title sequence begins with extreme close ups of a woman’s lips, suggesting the idea of feminine sexuality. The camera moves to her eyes. The eyes move from across the screen, foregrounding the idea of watching and looking.

The fact that our view is restricted to tight close ups mean that we never see her whole face. She is deindividualised; she is a symbol for all women. We can tie this representation to the concept of scopophila; It refers to “…the predominantly male gaze of Hollywood cinema, which enjoys objectifying women into mere objects to be looked at (rather than subjects with their own voice and subjectivity). The term, as used in feminist film criticism, is heavily influenced by both Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalysis.” (source)

The spinning spiral patters in the title sequence establish the visual motifs that are carried through into the narrative. The variations of them allow the audience to think about their symbolic meaning as well as interpreting each spiral similar to Rorschach inkblot images. These spirals remind us of flowers, galaxies, fishes consuming one another, an eye and female genitalia. These associations can be related back to ideas presented in the narrative.

Pure cinema: As a film maker who made films both before and after the advent of sound, Hitchcock recognised advantages and disadvantages being able to record diegetic sound and dialogue. He coined the term ‘pure cinema’, which he used to refer to his inclusion of extended sequences of sound cinema without dialogue in order to convey the story visually, and build tension for the audience. The longest example in Vertigo is the sequence in which Scottie follows Madeleine from her home and around the city. There is an interval of around eleven minutes between lines of dialogue.

Visual motifs: The most significant visual motif used in this film is that of the spiral. Hitchcock builds it into the mise-en-scene and emphasises its significance. Most notably, we see the spiral in the aerial view of the staircases, in Madeleine’s hair and in the painting of Carlotta. The spiral is an emblem for obsession and madness, but particularly the conflicting desires for self-preservation (pulling away) and being drawn towards something that calls out to us.  Simply put, the spirals are used to represent feelings of both repulsion (hate) and attraction (love). This same idea is conveyed through the use of the ‘Vertigo’ shot. However, there are some more subtle inclusions of the spiral motif, for example the use of spiralling camerawork (see section on camera movement for more).

Cinematography & colour: Despite its narrative similarities with Film Noir, Vertigo is a film filled with light and colour. Conforming to the classical cinematographic style, Vertigo is lit using high-key lighting. There is very little use of darkness and chiaroscuro, and when it is used Hitchcock uses it pointedly, for example the scene where Scottie watches Madeleine in the gallery and the final scene in which Judy falls to her death. Perhaps this high key approach suggests that Hitchcock is rejecting a world where the conspiracies happen in dark shadowy alleys. The deception in Vertigo is part of the well-lit world, in fact, Elster’s manipulation of Scottie is so complete that we don’t realise that it was in front of us all along. Elster doesn’t direct the action from the shadows, he directs it from off-screen.

Red and Green are significant elements of the colour palette that Hitchcock employs. There are many symbolic connotations with these two colours. Red signifies a set of complementary but sometimes conflicting meanings; love, passion, lust, danger, warmth, death, blood, fire, the devil etc. Similarly green can be used to signify life, health, growth, prosperity, luck but also sickness and envy.  Together these colours work as binary opposites commonly associated with stop (red) and go (green).  The first scene where these two colours are present in the mise-en-scene is the scene at Ernie’s, when Madeleine is first presented.

Green is established as Madeleine’s colour. Her dress at Ernie’s, her car, her placement in the Mission Delores and in Muir Woods all builds this association. Following her rescue, Scottie is costumed in a green jumper; this is the first bit of colour we’ve seen him in and it clearly is used to reinforce the effect that Madeleine has on him. Judy is wearing green when Scottie first spots her, again suggesting her connection with Madeleine. Green is used as a key colour once Judy’s transformation into a vision of Scottie’s lost Madeleine is complete. The pronounced use of green anchors the completion of the make over for Scottie.

 In Vertigo red is used to reinforce with Scottie’s romantic fantasies (he gives Madeleine his red robe at his apartment, reinforcing her position as the subject of these fantasies). It is also connected with his vertigo and it therefore has associations with danger. This is evident in the title sequence and in Scottie’s nightmare.

Setting: Hitchcock filmed Vertigo in San Francisco. He attempted to elevate the setting beyond the normal sense of place and time. Indeed, San Francisco feels like a significant character in the film, as Hitchcock uses notable places to set some of the film’s most important scenes.

The setting of the film in California; a former Spanish territory, is also significant. Elements like the importance of Carlotta Valdes, and the use of The Mission Delores and The Old Mission of San Juan Bautista as the settings for critical sequences draw on California’s cultural identity. The ‘exoticness’ of the Spanish cultural influences in the narrative serves to alienate John ‘Scottie’ Ferguson (whose name tells us his Scottish heritage) from fully understanding the events that are related to him or that he witnesses. That is to say, he is an outsider to this part of San Francisco.

Subjective Camerawork: There are a great deal of point of view shots used in Vertigo. The employment of this element of film language helps to position the audience to identify with the protagonist. Hitchcock uses the camera to replicate Scottie’s view (e.g. the connection he makes between the flowers Madeleine has taken to the gallery and those in the portrait of Carlotta and the connection between the spiral in Carlotta’s hair and the spiral in Madeleine’s through the use of tilts). However, even when the camerawork isn’t directly a point of view shot, Hitchcock uses the camera in a way that suggests Scottie’s perspective. For example, although we know that Scottie doesn’t see Madeleine closely in Ernie’s, we are presented with a view of her that emphasises Scottie’s romantic reaction to her.

Camera movement

“…Brilliantly, Hitchcock contrives the movement of the camera as a spiral with Judy and Scottie together within its eye, as if the gap between self and other has been transcended, in contrast to the implosion of self and other created by the vertigo shot itself. We should note that in the shot/reverse-shot that precedes this camera movement, Scottie looks at Madeleine bathed in ghostly jade light and we see that jade light reflected back in the look of his eyes, as if the eye of the beholder has become or merged with the object of his gaze.

 As Scottie kisses Judy as Madeleine in close-up, the camera starts to track around them to the right but pans left as if being drawn into them – then continues to track right and is again drawn in. Suddenly, the background of the shot begins to transform into the environment of the Mission San Juan Batista stable, the historical place of Scottie’s last encounter with “Madeleine” and the place associated with Carlotta Valdes. As Scottie senses the background changing – that’s to say, as his historical memory is triggered – the camera slows its movement and begins to pull back to medium shot. Simultaneously, the background itself begins to move from left to right, creating a sense that the spiral is being opened out by centrifugal forces. Then, as the hint of a memory recedes, the camera again begins tracking and panning to conclude the shot in the tightest close up of the sequence, set against a background of ethereal timeless jade green light (nominally motivated by the presence of the neon sign outside the hotel room).  It’s an idealized image of romantic embrace, as if the contradiction between present and past has been “dialectically” overcome in a moment of sublime transcendence.”

Richard Allen  on the kiss between Scottie and Judy after her transformation

The Vertigo shot: The Vertigo shot is actually called a dolly zoom, or sometimes a push in/zoom out, or a pull out/zoom in. It is an effect that is achieved in camera and the effect created subverts normal visual perception. Like the use of spirals, this shot is used to replicate the simultaneous conflicting sensations of repulsion and attraction. It is used exclusively as a point of view shot to allow the audience to experience the effects of Scottie’s vertigo.

The Score: Bernard Hermann’s score is an integral part of Vertigo, in the same way that the score is integral to Metropolis. Musical motifs and themes are employed in a way that complements and mirrors the narrative and aesthetics. “Vertigo is a highly structured score in a modern sense, utilizing its thematic and rhythmic ideas in ways that were largely beyond their time. And while he does this, Herrmann also offers several trademark horror techniques in his instrumentation that fans would come to adore in future projects. In short, Vertigo is the complete package.” (source)

The Male Gaze

In her essay, ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ (1975) Laura Mulvey outlines the concept of the Male Gaze; the objectification of women in mainstream cinema for the visual pleasure of male audiences. She said that as films were created largely by men, the images of women are encoded with ‘to-be-looked-at-ness’. She pointed at Hitchcock as a director who often did this. Although Rear Window (1954) is a film that deals with the idea of voyeurism in a more prominent manner, Vertigo contains a more significant element of the Male Gaze. Hitchcock presents Novak as an idealised woman and practically challenges the audience not to fall in love with her too.

In the scene at Ernie’s Madeleine walks into the bar, lighting is used to highlight her in the frame and there is a push in on her face. The camera pushes in tighter onto her face. Hitchcock is actively drawing all eyes to her; your gaze is directed by him. This mirrors the way that Scottie’s eye is drawn to her as well. However, he must avert his gaze in an effort to remain covert.  We get the unrestricted view that Scottie craves, presented like a jewel on sumptuous red velvet, we are positioned to revel in this moment of pause in front of the camera, as she is presented in profile with the climactic moment in the musical score and the increased intensity in the background.  We are positioned to view her as Scottie views her, to understand his motivation to investigate her actions has been lifted out of the mundane.

Hitchcock as an auteur

The idea of the filmmaker as an artist with a recognisable style was originally identified by Andre Bazin in 1954. Bazin, along with director and critic François Truffaut argued that some directors could be called ‘auteur’ directors as their body of work was definably and identifiably theirs. By comparing certain directors to artists working in other, more traditional art forms, Bazin and Truffaut helped popularise the notion that film can be seen as art.

One of the directors that they initially identified could legitimately be labelled an auteur was Hitchcock.  They argued that his body of work shared commonalities of aesthetics, narrative, technique and theme that give a unified personal vision. Although many of Hitchcock’s tropes have been identified, perhaps some of the most important for Vertigo are listed below.

The Hitchcock Blonde: This term is used to refer to Hitchcock’s frequently used feminine archetype. The Hitchcock Blonde was the fair-haired female who was often either the protagonist (Tippi Hedren in The Birds [1963] or Janet Leigh in Psycho [1960]) or central to the plot, like Eva Marie Saint in North by Northwest (1959), Grace Kelly in Rear Window (1954) and Kim Novak in Vertigo. These characters were always beautiful and alluring. Often they were also smart and sophisticated.  However, they commonly presented as being cold, strong and fearless. Hitchcock’s treatment of these characters has led to accusations of misogyny. The Hitchcock Blondes regularly suffer in Hitchcock’s narratives, although it can be argued that their suffering is normally part of the moral code of classical Hollywood. Marion in Psycho is punished for her theft and Judy is punished in Vertigo for her part in the facilitation of a murder.

Mistaken/False Identity: Many of Hitchcock’s films contain elements of mistaken, assumed or false identities. In Spellbound (1945) Gregory Peck’s character is an amnesiac, in North by Northwest the narrative is propelled by a case of mistaken identity. In Vertigo, the identity is not mistaken, but false. Madeleine is not Madeleine. Judy has assumed the identity of Madeleine Elster as instructed by Elster.

Influences of Psychoanalysis: Hitchcock was influenced by the psychological approach of Psychoanalysis, founded by Sigmund Freud in the late 19th century. The most sensational elements of the thinking that came out of this approach concern the importance of the self, sex, death and dreams. Influenced by Freud and Psychoanalysis, Hitchcock’s films often feature characters who experience psychological problems, the most obvious examples are Psycho, Spellbound and Vertigo. Often the responses to the psychological maladies presented in the narrative are informed by a Psychoanalytical approach. In Vertigo Midge states that her doctor has told her that the only way to cure Scottie of his fear of heights is for him to experience another emotional shock.

The idea of the potential of unlocking problems in the unconscious mind is also a key element of Psychoanalysis. In Vertigo, Hitchcock draws on this approach, particularly in Scottie’s nightmare sequence where the images used give the audience information that can unlock the secret of the narrative. Hitchcock used the same idea but in a more prominent manner in Spellbound, which famously features a dream sequence designed by noted surrealist Salvador Dali.

 

Further Reading

VERTIGO BOOKLET A2 FILM SINGLE FILM STUDY Camera Movement in Vertigo by Richard Allen  

VERTIGO: THE MOMENTUM OF THE EYE PAST DEATH by Donald Kunze

 

Costume and Identity in Hitchcock’s Vertigo

Hitchcock’s Vertigo: One Viewer’s Viewing

Vertigo: Colour Symbolism

Vertigo: Love, Desire, The Image, and the Grave by Robert Baird

Vertigo: Editorial Review (an article on music in the film)

Hitchcock Fabrics by Sam Rohdie

There are a couple of very useful audio lectures available through iTunes U. They are:

Jean-Pierre Dupuy, Marilyn Fabe & Roland Green, Celebration of the 50th Anniversary of Hitchcock’s Vertigo (2008) 

Richard Allen, Vertigo: Perfection of Form (2008) Stanford Humanities Centre, Sanford University

 

 

 

 

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