Released in 1958 Vertigo was Alfred Hitchcock’s 45th film. Based on the French mystery novel D’ entre les morts by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac but to say it was an adaptation, however, would be overly generous as Hitchcock took very little from the book other than the basic plotline. He even went so far as to give away the surprise ending of the book two-thirds of the way through the movie. Hitchcock was not in the habit of making mysteries (a “who done it?” as he would call it) and so from the bare bones of the book he forged his magnum opus, a uniquely layered story of loss (the loss of identity, love and sanity) coupled with the themes of wandering, nostalgia, desire and obsession.
Organised as a detective story (a Hitchcokian one at that) that follows the Hollywood narrative style typical of the time in that there is a single protagonist, the narrative is structured around an enigma, a quest and a resolution. However, Hitchcock wielded this, otherwise typical, method of storytelling masterfully through the use of technical choices available to him to form a complex love story that gives an in-sight into the psyche of the protagonist, the fragility of sanity and the darkness of obsession with each scene structured to subtly release information to the viewer and which alters in meaning with repeated viewing.
Vertigo opens on an extreme close up of a woman’s face – an oddly characterless face, a blank slate upon which we may paint our desires – taking up the left half of the frame. The camera moves left to frame her lips, then up to her eyes and finally left again to a tight shot of her right eye. Multi-coloured spirals emerge as the camera appears to enter the woman’s pupil. As typical of Hitchcock Saul Bass’s opening credits are more than just innovative and captivating they offer the “basic image upon which the entire structure and basic design of the picture are based” (Spoto 1992, p. 275). The movement of the camera from right to left is predominantly featured throughout the first half of the movie (till the death of Madeleine) after which it is reversed; the movement from the face to inside the eye is replicated in the movement from exterior shots to interior shots; and the spirals resemble not only the dizziness of vertigo but the spiral staircase of the bell tower, the spiralling hair of both Carlotta and Madeline, the twists and turns of the cemetery walk, and the camera circling Scottie and Judy as they kiss after the latter’s metamorphosis.
Following the credits the opening scene is that of a chase which sets up the premise for the entire movie. The camera pulls back from a single horizontal bar and a man appears, then a police officer and finally Scottie. The chase is then shown in extreme long shot with the entire city in the background, dark with a few red and green lights blinking in the distance – colours which will recur throughout the movie (the city will feature in the mise-en-scene of future scenes as well; seen in the background of interior shots through windows in Scottie’s apartment and Midge’s apartment; as Scottie tails Madeline for Elster; and rightfully so being the most vertical city in America). The camera pans left (right to left movement again) at the end of the movement we cut to the man being pursued making a broad jump across rooftops followed by the police officer but Scottie fails this and hangs from a rain gutter. He looks down and we instantly get the intense feeling of vertigo, first conveyed through his eyes as the camera frames him in a close up and then through Hitchcock’s ingenious combination of a forward zoom and reverse-tracking in a point of view shot. This particular point of view shot occurs again at Midge’s apartment as Scottie tests his theory of a cure and in the bell tower at the time of Madeline’s death (noticeably it is absent when Scottie takes Judy up the bell tower to re-enact the events that lead to Madeline’s staged suicide thus visually showing he is cured of his acrophobia). The policeman trying to help a paralysed Scottie falls to his death. This would be the first of three falls Scottie would be helpless to prevent. We of course never see how Scottie gets down from the rooftop before the fade to black just as we never see what he does after Judy falls to her death, we simply leave him standing at the precipice arms open wide as if wanting to reach out to her. By patterning the first scene in this manner Hitchcock has transformed a simple exposition of Scottie’s acrophobia into a synecdoche of the entire movie thus preparing the audience for everything that is to follow.
To introduce Madeline Hitchcock uses an elegant camera move which is never repeated again in the movie. After an exterior establishing shot of Ernie’s in which the camera tracks towards the door quickly and dissolves to the interior (reminiscent of the opening credits) framing Scottie in a medium shot at the bar looking off camera. The camera tracks back quickly and pans leisurely left along the red walls of the dining room stops and slowly tracks toward a blond woman in a long black dress draped in a green stole, her back to us, seated at a table with Elster. Then in a subjective shot from Scottie’s viewpoint (which becomes the first time we see her face and so establishes how we are to perceive her for the rest of the film; always as he does) we see her walk, almost glide, towards us. The camera then frames her profile in a close up and the background is put out of focus there is nothing else only she exists to us now. A shot/reverse-shot of Scottie, also framed in a close up of his profile, connecting the two (Shakespeare’s star crossed lovers). She is beautiful and we (and Scottie) are captivated by her. There is no dialogue, only Bernard Hermann’s seductive score, and the scene plays out like a dream. The dream continues in the next scene (Hermann’s score still playing through the dissolve) as Scottie follows Madeline through her wanderings in the city. “Just as the film opened with a chase, there now begins the first long, fluid, slow and silent pursuit of Madeleine by Scottie around the city as his work of “detecting” takes on another dimension” (Spoto 1992, p. 283). Hitchcock uses several subjective shots from Scottie’s viewpoint to place the audience in his place and so identify us with him. We are pursuing Madeleine, we are becoming obsessed with her. There is something intimate about it as if Scottie and Madeleine are sharing a romantic dance through the city. This long pursuit also visually links to the theme of wandering and nostalgia established in the expository scene in Elster’s office and which will be picked up again verbally by Scottie as he describes his profession to Madeleine and then by both Madeleine and Scottie just before the scene in the forest – they are also metaphorical wanderers she drifting aimlessly through life allowing men to use her and him “still available”. Nostalgia is brought out in the places she “takes” him: a cemetery, an art museum to view the portrait of a dead lady, the house of said lady – always to the past. These places also associate her with death (a point Hitchcock makes when first introducing her draped in a green stole. Green being in stage tradition the colour for the appearance of ghosts which later makes Judy’s first appearance in a green sweater quite apt). In the cemetery the lighting is glaringly bright (probably through overexposure of the image) starkly different from anything else that has preceded it and increases the feel of being in a dream; in a fantasy world.
Of course this dream like state could not last and eventually Madeleine falls to her death and Scottie, unable to save her, loses his sanity. A broken man he roams the city – a wanderer – looking for Madeleine in all the old places and seeing her every time. By accident he comes across Judy, follows her, woos her and convinces her to allow him to change her. Through a flashback Hitchcock reveals Elster’s plan to kill his wife and the part Judy played in it. We know now that Judy played Madeleine and it was this Madeleine Scottie fell in love but when Judy stands before him, removed of her costume, he is unable to see anything but the ghost. After Scottie transforms Judy he waits for her return from the salon (where Hermann’s score from the opening credits is heard during her metamorphosis). He moves to the window, the green neon light sign in the background, and his eyes seem to follow something, he pauses, his countenance alters and he moves goes to the door. When Judy appears in the hall she is wearing Madeline’s clothes, her hair colour and Scottie almost smiles but stops himself. As she gets closer his expression turns to disapproval. Something is wrong. Her hairstyle is not Madeleine’s. “Here’s Hitchcock’s audience manipulation at its most effective, for we, too, want her hair just right, we give ourselves up to the recreation of the dream with him – even though we know what Scottie does not, that this is all a fraud” (Spoto 1992, p. 295). When Judy steps out of the bathroom, with Madeleine’s hairstyle, the green light is more prominent in the room and she appears in a haze of light like in the dream of the cemetery (or a ghost). As she walks towards Scottie she becomes clearer as if stepping from the dream into reality. When they kiss the camera circles them and, suddenly, (through rear projection) we’re taken back to the Spanish mission. Is Scottie getting suspicious? Is Judy too perfect a Madeleine? We know she is but when and how will Scottie find out this is the suspense we are filled with that Hitchcock has instilled in us.
Hitchcock’s use of costume throughout the film is significant as It is through costumes Judy loses her identity; first to Elster for money and then to Scottie for love. These same costumes make Scottie lose his sanity as he sees his beloved Madeline in anyone that appears to wear similar clothes as she did and then later in his insane obsession of changing Judy into Madeline in the hope of resurrecting a lost love.
This dream – this fantasy world was carefully constructed by Hitchcock, providing subtle hints to the audience and tying our obsession of Madeleine with Scottie’s. In the end when we leave him standing at the precipice, arms open wide, with Judy dead below are we leaving our obsession with him or will we be taking it right to the start to begin all over again?