The basic premise of Alfred Hitchcock's 'Vertigo' is a man who has fallen in love with a woman that never existed, then attempts to remake the woman that impersonated her in the imaginary girl's image. A creepy plot at first glance, but there is so much more to this film than initially meets the eye. It's interlaced with large, juicy amounts of subtext and seamless, sometimes surreal editing that evokes many emotions within the viewer. The story also does this to an extent, like with Hitchcock's choice of women as Roger Ebert states in his online review of the movie:
“The female characters in his films reflected the same qualities over and over again: They were blond. They were icy and remote. They were imprisoned in costumes that subtly combined fashion with fetishism. They mesmerized the men, who often had physical or psychological handicaps.” (Ebert, 1996)
Lets take our imaginary woman, firstly. Throughout Alfred Hitchcock's films, there seems to be a constant fascination with stark, ghostly blonde women (Fig 1). We can see examples of this in his past films, 'The Birds', 'Rear Window' and 'Mr and Mrs Smith' being but a few examples of one of the central characters being an icy blonde actress.
Madeleine Elster , our blonde character within this film, is thought to be possessed by a spirit and her husband, Gavin Elster, asks a cop in retirement after suffering from an accident revolving around his acrophobia, John Ferguson also known as 'Scottie'. Madeleine is a somewhat mysterious woman at first, visiting strange locations: a museum and a graveyard, both of which relate back to Carlotta Valdes who is later revealed to be Madeleine's great grandmother. She committed suicide. Later, Madeleine attempts to commit suicide by dropping into San Francisco Bay. The acquaintance they make after Scottie takes her home to look after her sparks a romance that would slowly spiral down into chaos and obsession after she throws herself off of a church tower. This obsession and romance with a girl that has already passed on gives Vertigo a strong, suggested theme of necrophilia and psycho-sexual frustration. At the time this film was made, these were risky and highly controversial subjects.
Scottie falls into a depression, guilt tearing his heart in two until he meets with the woman that impersonated Madeleine during their relationship, Judy (Fig 2). He begins to take her out to various shops in order to buy her the same clothes, style her hair the same way and essentially try to remake her in Madeleine's image. Bill Weber mentions this in his online review when talking about the scene when Judy returns home from the salon to remake her hair like Madeleine's:
“...the scene, echoing the Orpheus myth (plus a hint of Frankenstein) in its imagery of a man trying to revivify the dead, helps to qualify this morbid romance...“ (Weber, 2011)
Weber says that We see his zealous fixation upon the image of his dead lover in his eyes and a realization comes to Judy that Scottie did not love her the way she was, but is in fact indifferent to her as a person. He loves her for what she has become and what he has made her into.
Eventually, he finds out that Gavin Eister set up the murder of his similar-looking wife to look like a suicide cued by one of the stranger scenes from the movie. His flashback to the sequence that caused his madness reveals Gavin's plot. The use of flashing, florescent colours in a movie that is mostly desaturated causes the audience a feeling of discomfort and outlandishness; something which does not necessarily belong. It's uncanny.
The flashback (Fig 3) also has a scene where the bouquet of roses, one of the main symbols of the film, explodes over the screen in a flash of animated coloured petals which are a symbol for Madeleine's violent death. The initial perfection and fragility of the flowers is almost reminiscent of how perfect and fragile Madeleine is or how she seems to be to Scottie. The scene before she jumps into the bay shows her picking away at the petals, similar to how her deteriorating mind is slowly driving her towards her own destruction at the bell tower. Scottie, when forced to climb the stairs in a vain attempt to save Madeleine from herself, is subject back to his fear of heights as he looks down the staircase, only for the viewer to feel queasy from the unique camera effect used here.
The use of camera within the bell tower scenes is unique to 'Vertigo' and has since then sparked its use throughout the film industry. When talking about the scene in which the use of camera I defined a significant scene within Vertigo. Roger Ebert writes:
“Hitchcock shows the walls approaching and receding at the same time; the space has the logic of a nightmare.” (Ebert, 1996)
The camera is pulled back while the lens is zoomed into the focal point and visa-versa in order to make the corridor, staircase or any other elongated piece of architecture its commonly used with to either stretch or shorten. In turn, this makes the sequence almost dreamy as if it were the stuff of nightmares. This technique can also be used on the face of an actor or actress to portray a feeling of dread, panic or urgency.
Overall, this film is one of Hitchcock's most revered pieces and makes use of inventive camera techniques and nightmarish sequences to make a psycho-thriller that is tailor-made to keep the audience on the edge of their seats and irk us when needed.