If Alfred Hitchcock had died in 1957, at the age of 58, he would still rank as one of the greatest directors of all time. At this point he would have given the world such masterpieces as The 39 Steps (1935), Rebecca (1940), Shadow of a Doubt (1943), Notorious (1946), Strangers on a Train (1951), Rear Window (1954), and The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956). Lucky for us Hitchcock did not die, and in 1958 he began a six year period that marks the greatest single set of works by any director in cinema history. The Master of Suspense produced four indisputable masterpieces in Vertigo (1958), North by Northwest (1959), Psycho (1960), and the Birds (1963).
Vertigo was based on the French novel D’Entre les Morts by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac. Like a number of previous Hitchcock works Vertigo is an example of turning pulp fiction into art. It took four writers, in addition to Hitchcock himself, 15 months to get the script green lit by Paramount.
It is said that truly great art comes truly great suffering. During pre-production Alfred Hitchcock was diagnosed with a hernia and spent the first night of his life in hospital. Two months later he was back in hospital, this time having surgery for kidney stones. It is also said that behind every great man is an even greater woman. In Hitchcock’s case this woman was his wife, Alma Hitchcock. Near the completion of the film Alma, his soul mate and muse, was diagnosed with cancer; this sent Hitchcock into a spell of hysteria. A man who so famously feared losing control had found the person he loved the most in a position he was powerless to help.
The film stars Jimmy Stewart (although Hitchcock first wanted Cary Grant having felt that Stewart was too old, too thin and not neurotic enough) and Kim Novak (though Vera Miles was originally cast but had to drop out when she became pregnant). Upon its release the film, budgeted at $2.5 million, grossed a moderate 3.2 million. Although it garnered two Oscar nominations it faired only so-so critically. Over the years though the film has become a cultural icon and has been 'remade' numerous times. Elements of the film can be seen in films such as High Anxiety (1978), Basic Instinct (1992), The Age of Innocence (1993), Twelve Monkeys (1995), and practically every Brain DePalma film.
Vertigo is a genre hybrid mixing the genres of the Detective Mystery Thriller, Romance
Melodrama and Horror. Some would say it is also autobiographical as Scotty essentially
plays god, remaking Judy into Madeleine. It is also, like every Hitchcock film, self
reflexive. The film embodies little of the trademark Hitchcock humor though it does contain
great horror. It deals with the failure and exploitation of the instinct to love and heal
in which the recovery of innocence depends. In addition to this the film deals with such
dark themes as scopophilia, voyeurism necrophilia and the effect of the past on the
present - a common Hitchcock trait.
Hitchcock pioneered the use of morally ambiguous characters in cinema. Vertigo is no
exception and marks an important step in the reversal of roles that Hitchcock ultimately
achieves in Frenzy (1972). In Frenzy the hero is despicable while the villain is likeable;
this has become common place today - Darth Vadar, Dirty Harry, Hans Gruber, Jules and
Vincent are only a few examples. In Vertigo Hitchcock creates a film filled with moral
ambiguous characters that are more negative than positive. For instance Jimmy Stewart's
character, Scottie, has abandoned the world of law to become a policeman, which he then
abandons to become a detective. He falls in love with the object of detection, a women who
he believes is his friends wife; he therefore breaks both the professional and friendship
codes. He is not a good detective - he fails in following Madeleine, discovering the truth
about Gavin, and the about Judy. He doesn't remain objective as a detective and instead
becomes part of the story. He is tricked twice. he is responsible for three deaths. He
molds Judy into Madeleine in a manner that denotes lust and obsession not love. He has
vertigo. He is a scopophilic and a voyeur. He has a nervous breakdown where he is in a
state of suspension, this relates to his identity crisis (which is why he has so many
names in the film - a Hitchcock trait). He is not honest with Midge. He is naive, gullible,
full of self doubt and he wears a corset. On the positive side he does solve the mystery,
faces himself and is ultimately refashioned by women. Kim Novak's character is also loaded
on the negative, she is a masochist.
She allows herself to be molded by both Scottie and
Gavin. She is the object of gaze and allows it. She is the mistress of a married man. She
too has a crisis of identity (again a number of names). She tricks the detective Scottie by
hiding in plain sight. She lies (this is way she is usually standing in front of a open
doorway, with a lot happening behind it. This reprsents the secret shes hiding). On the
positive side she confesses in a letter but then doesn't send it which is again negative.
Midge too is negative, she is not sexually attractive, paints a joke painting to hurt
Scottie, is jealous and a voyeur. She is smart and professional though. Gavin Elster,
the old college buddy, yearns for the past, has a mistress and tempts both Scottie and
Judy; he is therefore the devil. He is however good looking, and a cultured business man.
The four above characters are all ambivelous in some way, most clearly seen with
Madeleine/Judy. This creates a perception problem for the audience. The audience therefore
The opening of a film is conventionally the first method of structuring a work. Hitchcock
uses it spectacularly himself in Rear Window; The camera glides into an apartment, past
various visual indicators, such as ornaments and photographs that expose aspects of the
occupants' life. The camera finally comes to rest on a sleeping James Stewart, constricted
by a leg cast and confined to a wheelchair. This opening scene provides the viewer with all
the necessary information about the protagonist, his character, his career, his
environment, and his current predicament. The opening/title sequence of Vertigo however
does none of this. We first see a a women we don't know who she is or where we are. This
woman isn't Kim Novak and in fact we never see her again This type of filmmaking is
extremely, it disoriegntates the audience. We fall into her eye and then into a series of
spirals. The representational turns into graphics. There is no direction or stability here;
The colors don't match. Only the motif of the spiral is constant. The films opening begins
with a white screen - this is self reflexive as it represents an empty frame onto with
things are put. We are then introduced to Scottie, he fails in an attempt to catch somebody
because of his own inability to jump. He is responsible for the death of a police officer.
He is not in control. Again we see the spiral, here with the use of the tracking in, dolly
out 'vertigo' shot. The spiral motif connects the opening with the title sequence. We leave
Scottie hanging for his life and pick him up at Midge's; we have no idea how he get off?
This happens a number of times throughout the film, though the two most pronounced stops
are after the two main deaths. Some people have complained that because of this the film is
unbelievable or that it makes no sense. Although Hitchcock didn't explain everything that
happened in his films they were never unbelievable. For instance he often relayed on chance
happenings to begin the plot, most clearly in Strangers on a Train. Here I think Hitchcock
creates a dreamlike feel. We've all had dreams where things move forward even thought they
aren't explained. You wake up and think hang on a minute that doesn't work. This is further
emphasized by the look of the film. Hitchcock used a number of different lens, diffusions,
green hues, fogs, filters, various densities to achieve Vertigo's look.
Hitchcock was an innovator of film, he pioneered the classical Hollywood style and then
reinvented. He was a modernist filmmaker decades before thier was a modernist movement.
He used a number of techniques here that were anti classical, for instance scenes end where
they begin; Hitchcock also used this to emphisis the sprial motiff and dream like
atmosphere. The last shot with the nun leaves the audiece with no reassurances. Thier is
more music than dialouge, agian emphaising the dream. The audience identifys with no
character. Judy looks into the camera when we first meet her, characters never do this
because it breaks the audiences disbelief. Thier is no final explanation given, only clues
and not enough at that. Thier is no closure. These are all anti classical.
The structuring motiff of the film, the key, is the spiral. We see it in the titles, the
way the policeman falls, the twist of hair, the tower, the steps, the journey in the car,
even the music. The music is endless It consits of chords that are never resolved or
melodic. The are repeated broken chords. Why the spiral? It is thematcially important, but
why? The sprial is an unstable alternative to the circle, as if the center won't hold. The
film has no center.
This occurs seven times throughout the film and is also a structuring motiff. It is the
visual approximation of the mind and body of Scotty and shows a preception problem. It was
a new type of point of view shot. It was accomplished by zooming in and pulling out. It
represents ambigous feelings of attraction and repulsion, which are our feelings towards
the characters. And the feelings of Judy and Scotty; Madeleine and the grave; Madeleine and
Scotty; Carlata and her child; and Elster and Madeleine. Scottys literal vertigo represents
his metaphorical falling back in time ie to the spanish time.
As well as the above other thematics relate to the dreamlike atmosphere. Scotty is always
in a state of transition - his job, love etc. San Fransico is stragely empty, this makes it
seem not real. No one is having sex in the film, this too is not real and dream like - some
say that the famous in/out vertigo shot is an analogy to sex. The nightmare scene by painter
John Farren. The car following car scenes. dissolves, fades, soft focus. Unexplained things.
Mistaking people for Madeleine. etc.
What is the nun doing there? Is it gods justice? Hitchcocks theme of 'accidents in life'?
She is in black and white, no colour. She is in absolutes while everyone else is in shades,
The colour green is seen many times throughout Vertigo, this is a technique. On the stage
green represents ghosts. Madeleine is a ghost and is often scene in green, so is the car,
dresses, stones etc. The are other important color. click here for an astounding article on
colour in Vertigo.
Music is very important in Vertigo. It never ends, repeating forever. During the love scene
we hear slow violins, this is the first time an orchestra is heard in the film. Music is
unique here because there is more of it than of the dialougue. It too is a character in
Vertigo. There is more emotion in music than in dialouge as music is more primal.
For more read Truffaut's book on Hitchcock.
I give it 10/10 stars.
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