US (1959): Thriller
Alfred Hitchcock's VERTIGO is a film which functions on multiple levels simultaneously. On a literal level it is a mystery-suspense story of a man hoodwinked into acting as an accomplice in a murder, his discovery of the hoax, and the unraveling of the threads of the murder plot. On a psychological level the film traces the twisted, circuitous routes of a psyche burdened down with guilt, desperately searching for an object on which to concentrate its repressed energy. Finally, on an allegorical or figurative level, it is a retelling of the immemorial tale of a man who has lost his love to death and in hope of redeeming her descends into the underworld, the most famous of these stories being that of Orpheus and Eurydice in Greek Mythology. VERTIGO's complexity, however, does not end with this multilevel approach to its tale; the film also succeeds in blurring the already fine line between objectivity and subjectivity. It takes the viewer so far into the mind of the main character (Scottie, played by Hitchcock veteran James Stewart) that the audience's own objectivity, at least initially, is lost and replaced by complete identification with Scottie's fantasies and obsessions.
Scottie is a San Francisco police detective who, during a rooftop chase, nearly plunges to his death. The psychological scars left by this incident and, probably more significantly, by the guilt of having been responsible for the death of a fellow officer who tried to rescue him, induce in Scottie a phobia--vertigo, or fear of high places, the phobia which initially caused his accident.
Throughout the rest of the film Scottie remains psychologically and symbolically suspended from that rooftop. He takes on a job as a private detective for an old college friend named Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore) who is worried about the strange behavior of his wife, Madeleine (Kim Novak), whom Scottie has never met. Madeleine is a wanderer, and in trailing her, Scottie becomes one too. As he follows her through museums, graveyards, and forest haunts he becomes obsessed with this phantom woman who apparently believes herself to be the reincarnation of a turn-of-the-century belle named Carlotta. Visually Hitchcock reinforces this loss of objectivity and descent into obsession by photographing Scottie's wanderings in soft-focus and at a gliding, dreamlike pace. In the scenes of Scottie tailing Madeleine by car through the streets of San Francisco, the vehicle seems to be floating above the pavement. This feeling is enhanced even more by the lilting, musical background of master film composer Bernard Herrmann. With the growth of Scottie's obsession comes an equal and concurrent increase in the credibility of Madeleine's claims. Her appearance, her strange visits to places which Carlotta frequented, and her speech all seem to confirm her belief that she is the reincarnated Carlotta. As noted before, however, Scottie is no longer a logical, detached observer, and because the viewer is given no more information than Scottie, neither is he.
The romance which develops between this obsessive searcher and this half-phantom, half-woman magnificently exploits San Francisco and its environs as a backdrop. Hitchcock's use of landscape and geography is most revealing. The locations chosen are all connected with the past and with time: the Palace of the Legion of Honor Museum, the Portals of the Past, the ancient redwoods. Even the details within scenes are keyed as symbols for the timeless state Scottie has entered: the mirrors (traditional passageways into the underworld) in the flower shop at which Madeleine stops and the elegant restaurant, Ernie's, in which he first sees her, and the fog-enshrouded graveyard of the Mission Dolores.
The central symbol for the film is, however, the mission at San Juan Batista. It is here that Scottie searches for Carlotta's past in hopes of finding verification for Madeleine's claims. Steeped in history, the mission is safely isolated from the everyday world. It is a museum of California's past, a place of religious ritual and retreat. It is to these ancestral roots that Madeleine returns, and it is here that Scottie is forced to confront not only his obsession with her but also his phobia. Madeleine, driven to the site of Carlotta's suicide by some force, ascends the bell tower of the mission, pursued by Scottie. In an agonizingly painful scene, Madeleine jumps from the tower as Scottie, frozen by his acrophobia and unable to climb the staircase, is forced to watch, for a second time, someone fall to his death.
The second half of the film traces Scottie's nervous breakdown and his feeble attempts at recovery, which are halted abruptly with the discovery of a woman named Judy who resembles the lost Madeleine. The confusion of dream and reality is now almost total. The viewer is as perplexed as Scottie as he proceeds to take advantage of this second chance fate has apparently handed him. It is at this moment in the film that Hitchcock makes his most daring move. For the first time he gives the audience access to more information than what is known to Scottie. Judy confesses, in a letter she destroys before sending, that she posed as Elster's wife and that her supposed derangement and suicide were hoaxes concocted by Elster to cover the murder of his wealthy wife.
The tone of the film now changes drastically as the viewer is given back, at least partially, his distance and his objectivity. The mood becomes much more ironic as the audience watches Scottie transform Judy in clothes, makeup, hairstyle, and speech into his image of Madeleine. Perhaps the most powerful visual moment in the film occurs when Judy/Madeleine emerges from the bathroom of her apartment after Scottie has put the final touches on his Galatea. Bathed in an ethereal green light, she embraces Scottie, who is now completely lost in the dream, and the camera begins a series of dizzying 360 degrees tracking shots around the couple. Scottie looks up from the embrace and the apartment has become the mission stables in which he first passionately kissed Madeleine. The scene is a visual externalization of the interior state of Scottie's mind, the dizziness (another form of vertigo), overlapping of fantasy and reality, and obsession becoming madness.
The denouement of the film details Scottie's discovery of the hoax and his painful movement toward a cure. Discovering a piece of Madeleine's jewelry in Judy's dresser, Scottie decides that he must relive the traumatic incident which caused his breakdown. He takes Judy to the mission bell tower and, dragging her behind him, ascends the staircase to the parapet. Elated by his victory, he turns to Judy as if to embrace her. At the moment of his triumph, however, a figure in black appears (a nun literally, figuratively the image of death or moral retribution), and a terrified Judy falls to her death. Scottie walks to the edge of the tower and stares down disconsolately. Instead of breaking the pattern as he intended, he has only succeeded in repeating it. His vertigo has been conquered, but at the price of a second love.
VERTIGO is probably one of the most potent influences on a whole generation of filmmakers, particularly the French New Wave, which paid homage to the film again and again. Alain Resnais' LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD (1962) can be seen as an elliptical reworking of the plot of VERTIGO as well as being filled with details from the film, even down to the musical score. Francois Truffaut has included an allusion to VERTIGO in almost all of his own films, but most notably in THE MISSISSIPPI MERMAID (1970), in which a deceptive Catherine Deneuve (in two personae, one named Marion, one Julie) leads a maddened Jean-Paul Belmondo on a chase through the corridors of "amour fou."
After years of litigation VERTIGO--which many cinema historians, such as Donald Spots, feel is Hitchcock's masterpiece, as well as one of the greatest films of all time--was made available on vedio in the 1980's for public screenings in the United States. This is also the case for another masterful Hitchcock/Stewart film, REAR WINDOW (1954). There is so much in VERTIGO, that a single showing barely opens the door to its understanding. Fortunately, filmgoers now have the great opportunity to view it again and again.
Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
Death as Both Attractive and Frightening
In the opening scene of Vertigo, Scottie is moments away from death as he dangles from the roof of a tall building. His fear is palpable, and while he is overcome with terror watching his comrade fall, letting go seems to be the only way out of the situation. Madeleine is the embodiment of this fear of and attraction to death. Supposedly possessed by a woman who took her own life, Madeleine wanders San Francisco, drawn to the idea of suicide and yet fearing death. One day after attempting to drown herself in the San Francisco Bay, she and Scottie wander among the ancient Sequoia trees and she expresses a dread of death. “I don’t like it, knowing I have to die,” she tells him, and she pleads with him to take her into the light.
This confusion of impulses manifests itself on a more figurative level when Scottie attempts to mold Judy in Madeleine’s image. While Judy initially fights the annihilation of her real self—a kind of death—she eventually embraces it as a way to claim Scottie’s love, saying, “I don’t care anymore about me.” Scottie enacts these contradictory impulses when he drags Judy to the top of the bell tower with the apparent desire to kill her, and then reacts with horror and despair when she plummets to her death.
The Impenetrable Nature of Appearances
The mask-like qualities of appearance are suggested during the opening credits of the film, which feature a woman’s expressionless face and a shot first of her lips and then of her nervously darting eyes. The depths of emotion and experience in this woman are unknowable to us. In the scene in Midge’s apartment, Scottie appears to be a balanced man on the mend from a traumatizing experience, but it does not take long to realize that his healthy exterior masks a burgeoning madness. And while Midge is pragmatic, unromantic, and controlled in her responses, her exterior hides the soul of a passionate person. After her failed attempt to break into Scottie’s dream-world by painting her own head on Carlotta’s portrait, she flies into a surprising rage, flinging paintbrushes at her own reflection in the window—an attempt to shatter the mask that Scottie sees and mistakes for her whole identity.
Madeleine’s character is nothing but appearance. She is a fabrication loosely based on the legend of a dead woman, and Scottie’s attempt to understand and penetrate that appearance is what leads to his downfall and the downfall of Judy/Madeleine. After assuming Madeleine’s appearance at Scottie’s insistence, Judy has difficulty penetrating her own mask. By the time Scottie drags her up the steps of the bell tower, she no longer has a firm grasp on her true identity and alternates between speaking as Judy and as Madeleine.
The Folly of Romantic Delusion
While Scottie’s acrophobia is his most apparent Achilles’ heel, his true tragic flaw is his penchant for romantic delusion. He fools himself, and is easily fooled by others, into believing in illusions that are romantically gratifying to him. Hitchcock presents Midge as a highly sympathetic character and prompts viewers to root for her in her vain attempts to woo Scottie. Midge is the antithesis of romantic delusion, firmly grounded in the real world and able to offer Scottie a mature kind of love. But this is the kind of love that Scottie rejects in favor of the illusive, dreamlike love he finds with Madeleine. And it is his decisive submission to delusion that ensures the film’s tragic ending. Judy pleads with Scottie to accept her as she is, to try to move beyond the dead Madeleine, but this is something he cannot do. Judy’s startled fall from the bell tower is the film’s final example of the folly and danger of romantic delusion. When the shadowy figure of a nun appears behind Judy and Scottie in the tower, Judy seems to be overtaken by the romantic notion that it may be the ghost of the real Madeleine returning to the scene of the crime.
Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
Power and Freedom
Power and freedom are held up as privileges men had in the past, but presumably do not have in the present. While discussing his nostalgia for the San Francisco of the past, Gavin Elster tells Scottie that he misses the days when men had “power [and] freedom.” Later, when Scottie is researching the story of Carlotta Valdes, the bookshop owner and historian Pop Leibel tells him that the wealthy man who abandoned Carlotta and kept her child was able to do so with impunity because men in those days had “the freedom and the power” to do such things. Scottie yearns for the time when he felt he was the master of his own destiny, before his brush with death on the rooftop. The words freedom and power again are spoken by Scottie as he drags Judy up the stairs of the bell tower.
Tunnels and Corridors
Tunnels and corridors repeatedly represent the passage to death. The first tunnel image appears when the camera reveals Scottie’s perspective as he clings to the rooftop gutter. The camera shoots straight down the side of the building, creating a tunnel effect. While visiting the sequoia forest, Madeleine shares a recurring dream in which she walks “. . . down a long corridor.” Nothing but darkness and death await her at the end of the corridor. She also dreams of a room in which there is a corridor-like open grave. When Midge walks away from Scottie for the last time, it is down a long sanatorium corridor that darkens around her. This passage marks a kind of death for Midge as she loses hope of rekindling her romance with Scottie.
Hitchcock turns the tunnel-to-death motif on its head in the corridor outside Judy’s apartment. Judy emerges at the end of the hallway after her transformative trip to the beauty salon. Rather than retreat down the corridor, she comes forward as Madeleine in a kind of resurrection scene. The next tunnel Judy travels through is in Scottie’s car, when he takes her back to San Juan Bautista to retrace the steps of her crime. As they drive toward the mission, tall trees on either side of the road combine with dusky lighting to give the impression of a tunnel.
Bouquets of Flowers
In one scene, Scottie follows Madeleine to a flower shop, where she purchases a small nosegay. Its fragile perfection is an ideal representation of Madeleine herself. The bouquet appears again several times, most notably when Madeleine stands at the edge of San Francisco Bay, plucking petals from the flowers and tossing them into the water. The destruction of the bouquet mirrors Madeleine’s fixation on self-destruction as she prepares to drown herself in the bay. After Madeleine’s death, Hitchcock provides a graphic depiction of Scottie’s nightmare in which a brightly animated bouquet swirls about and then violently disintegrates—a symbolic representation of Madeleine’s death. When Scottie spends the day with Judy before her transformation into Madeleine, he buys her a single flower to wear as a corsage, not a replica of Madeleine’s signature bouquet as we might expect. It is a visual reminder that Judy does not possess the ideal perfection of Madeleine, but merely a small seed of it.
Spirals evoke the literal and figurative feelings of vertigo that hound Scottie and Madeleine/Judy. The opening credits feature a spiral emerging from a woman’s eye. When Scottie looks down from the roof at his fallen colleague, the dead man’s limbs are splayed in the shape of a spiral, indicating that events have spiraled out of control.
As Scottie observes Madeleine in the museum sitting in front of Carlotta Valdes’s portrait, the camera zooms in on the back of her head to reveal a tightly wound spiraling bun, an exact replica of the style worn by Carlotta. The spiral foreshadows the dizzying chaos into which Madeleine will lead Scottie. The most physically jarring spiral is the one formed by the winding stairs of the bell tower as revealed from Scottie’s perspective. As he chases Madeleine up the stairs attempting to halt her apparent suicide, his acrophobia takes over and the camera shoots straight down the stairwell. His vertigo has made him powerless to save the woman he loves. The very structure of the film suggests a spiraling circularity: Scottie falls in love with Madeleine, loses her to death, then falls in love with Judy/Madeleine again, only to lose her to death as well.
Symbols are objects, characters, figures, or colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
Scottie and Madeleine’s visit to the forest of sequoia trees is one of Scottie’s last attempts to return to a healthy worldview. He tells Madeleine that the tree’s scientific name means “always green, ever living,” making explicit the idea that sequoia trees symbolize life in the film. However, the trees remind Madeleine of her own mortality. In response to this immense life force, she says, “I don’t like it, knowing I have to die.” The couple looks at the cross-section of a felled tree, which shows how old the tree was when it was chopped down and suggests that the tree would have gone on living forever had it not been for human intervention. Madeleine’s response to the trees is complex. She appears simultaneously to be afraid of dying and afraid to embrace life. Ultimately, she runs away from the forest, feeling alienated from life and wanting to die.
The color green appears frequently throughout the film, typically in association with eerie or uncanny images. For example, when Scottie first sees Madeleine in Ernie’s Restaurant, she stands out vividly from everyone else in the room because of her dramatic green stole, giving her a startling and somewhat unsettling appearance. In his apartment, as he becomes more withdrawn from the outside world and immersed in a dream world, Scottie wears a green sweater. Judy, who seems to be the ghost of Madeleine, first appears wearing a green dress. Her room is illuminated at night by the building’s green neon sign, and when she emerges into Scottie’s view as the fully transformed Madeleine, she is bathed in the green light, making her look even more like the specter of the dead Madeleine. Thus, while green sometimes symbolizes life, as in the sequoia forest, it also symbolizes the ghostly or uncanny. Both associations with the color green are traditional and can be seen in the earliest folktales. For example, because green can represent the spring and the rebirth of nature, it is also associated with the life after death embodied by ghosts and spirits, as in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.
More main ideas from Vertigo