By Tan Ming Hua:
“Here I was born, and there I died.
It was only a moment for you;
you took no notice.
Vertigo is directed by Alfred Hitchcock based on the novel D’entre les morts by Boileau-Narcejac. Alfred Hitchcock uses linear simplicity and symmetry in his films, with suspense and strong sexual undertones. (Jasmine Jouhoul) Alfred Hitchcock hints at cunning personalities behind the high-profile façade about his plots.
It is within this movie, with shots taken from straight down buildings, that Hictchcock popularized the dolly shot, which can also be known as “the vertigo effect”.
Vertigo talks about a man’s obsession with creating his ideal woman. Hitchcock ditched his usual elaborate underhand methods. Voyeurism, suspense and a beautiful cool blonde is prevalent in Vertigo, as well as many of his other films. (Laurie Boeder)
The opening credits depicts a woman’s face being analysed in great detail, which shows how the main character, John “Scottie” Ferguson studies a woman till the finest details and tries to create a woman from his ideal of a perfect woman. The spiral in the woman’s face to further enhance the Scottie’s imagination, and when Scottie is in the state of vertigo.
Scottie retires from being in the police force when his back problems and fear of heights got in the way of his line of duty, causing one of his fellow colleagues to die. He became a private investigator at his old friend, Galvin Elster’s request to follow the latter’s wife around, claiming she’s possessed. In the scene where Scottie is talking with Galvin, he is overlooking a construction site behind Galvin. This implies that Galvin is slowly building up his story and sinister plot, developing it to get out of trouble. Scottie’s body language illustrates how hesitant he is in helping Galvin, but eventually complies.
The colour green appears frequently within the film, often associated with eeriness or life and rebirth.
When Scottie goes to find “Madeleine” in a restaurant, the restaurant is decorated in lush red, and Madeleine stands out with her green dress. The contrast of green against red leaves a strong impression on Scottie and he is captivated by her ethereal beauty. As Madeleine leaves the restaurant, she passes through a door and it makes her look as though she’s walking out of a frame, as though she is a fairy descended from heaven – a woman of perfection straight out of a dream. In another scene where Scottie follows Madeleine to a museum to stare at a painting, she looks like she’s in a frame again, which further enhances the impression of how Scottie views her.
When Scottie first sees Judy, she is seen wearing a bright green dress, suggesting that she has a brand new identity.
When Judy walks out of the washroom in her flat after the “transformation”, she appears to be a mirage, with the green lights coming in from the neon lights outside. This creates an illusion and she looks ghostly. Scottie tries to control and use women, to change and mold a woman into his dream woman. Just that in this case, both Judy and Madeleine are the same person, and he’s just trying to change Judy into somebody she grew out of.
During a scene when Madeleine and Scottie wander around and end up visiting a forest, as they are bathed in its light, Scottie tells Madeleine that sequoia trees’ scientific name means “evergreen, everliving”, a statement that tells us the trees are a symbol of life in the film. Therefore, green can be interpreted as life, or life after death, associated with the ghosts, or the uncanny.
He gradually breaks away from spending time with Midge, his ex-fiancee, who he always approach for a chat. This can be implied from shots of the both of them, whatever they are doing, where there will always be something (a pole or a faraway yacht) separating and further dividing them.
After realising that Judy is indeed Madeleine, and that she collaborated with Galvin in an elaborate murder plot to kill his real wife, Madeleine. His anger could not be contained. Outraged at his stupidity of molding a woman into something she once was, he screams at her:
Did he train you?
Did he rehearse you?
Did he tell you exactly what to do, what to say?
You were a very apt pupil too, weren’t you? You were a very apt pupil!
Each sentence is spoken in such devastation that one just can’t bear to hear it anymore.
The repetition in the film very much echoes the spiral motifs that plague the film, symbolizing circularity. Plot-wise, we also see a cycle of events; Scottie falls in love with Madeleine, loses her at the tower, he falls in love with Judy and loses her again to the same disastrous fate. In the opening credits, the close up of an eye also features a spiral emerging from it.
At the end of the film, Scottie is seen to have conquered his fear of heights and he doesn’t experience vertigo again when he looks down from the clock tower. This is in contrast to the start where he was hanging off a roof and he experienced vertigo. It shows that the cycle of events might just be over, he has finally conquered his fear and broke out of this vicious chain of events.
One key thing about the cinematography in Vertigo is Hitchcock’s camera movement, in particular, the three set pieces of camera movement that are interrelated in their structure and meaning. For example, the scene at Ernie’s restaurant that initiates Scottie’s pursuit of Madeleine, the famous zoom in and track out point of view shot evokes Scottie’s acrophobia and the celebrated 360-degree pan that encircle Scottie’s embrace of Judy re-transformed into Madeleine.
The scene begins with a camera movement towards a doorway of radiant red glass, which acts as a barrier and a lure. The next shot consist of a languid, fluid camera movement that tracks back from Scottie at the bar through a partition that connects and separates the bar with the dining area, as he glances screen-left to the back of the restaurant.
Many critics have pointed out that much of the film is structured as an alteration between a forward-tracking shot and a backward-tracking reaction shot.
“Only one is a wanderer;
two together are always going somewhere.
Boeder, L. 1958. Vertigo – Hitchcock’s Tale of Obsession. [online] Available at: http://classicfilm.about.com/od/mysteryandsuspense/fr/Vertigo.htm [Accessed: 23 Jun 2013].
Borgus.com. 1930. Film Techniques of Alfred Hitchcock – suspense, camera angles, style, editing, basics. [online] Available at: http://borgus.com/hitch/hitch2011.htm [Accessed: 23 Jun 2013].
Jasmine Jouhal, Media, Year 13. 2012. Director’s Style: Alfred Hitchcock. [online] Available at: http://jasminejouhalhorror.wordpress.com/2012/09/25/directors-style-analysis-alfred-hitchcock/ [Accessed: 24 Jun 2013].
Medical News Today. 2009. What Is Vertigo? What Causes Vertigo?. [online] Available at: http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/160900.php [Accessed: 23 Jun 2013].
Robey, T. 2012. Is Alfred Hitchcock’s thriller Vertigo really the best film ever made? – Telegraph. [online] Available at: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/film/9446844/Is-Alfred-Hitchcocks-thriller-Vertigo-really-the-best-film-ever-made.html [Accessed: 23 Jun 2013].
the Guardian. 2012. My favourite Hitchcock: Vertigo. [online] Available at: http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/filmblog/2012/aug/10/my-favourite-hitchcock-vertigo [Accessed: 23 Jun 2013].
YouTube. 2013. Vertigo (1958) – Film Analysis. [online] Available at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=js_EnZkXT_k [Accessed: 24 Jun 2013].
Ming Hua lives life crossing over the lines she drew.