About two years ago, I wrote an analysis of Hitchcock’s Vertigo for school, got a 96% and was very proud of it. Today, I’ve decided to translate it and publish it on my blog so I could share it with you. Of course, this is only my own interpretation of the film and we can all find a different meaning in it. Anyway, I think it’s really one of the most interesting films to analyze. There’s so much to say!
This article contains many spoilers [in other words, don’t read it if you haven’t seen the film].
Vertigo is an American movie directed by the great Alfred Hitchcock and it was released in 1958. Even if he was recognized for his talent before, it’s from 1954 that Hitchcock started to be known as “The Master of Suspense”. If the cinema of the 40’s was marked by the golden age of Film Noir, this genre will still be present in the 50’s, but in a less important way. The cinema of the 50’s is mainly marked by some superproductions, especially due of the invention of Cinemascope. This is, sometimes, unprofitable for the studios, due to the expensive cost of these new technologies. Can we talk of Vertigo as a super production? This Technicolor film entirely shot in VistaVision was not a success, nor a commercial failure. As Hitchcock says in his interview with François Truffaut (Hitchcock/Truffaut), the film “couvrira ses frais” (covered its cost. Free translation by the author).
Alfred Hitchcock was born in London on August 13, 1899. During his career as a movie maker, this kind of reserved man directed more than 50 films. Some of them will become quite important in the history of cinema: according to the BFI, The 39 Steps is the fourth best British film of all times; Rear Window is often considered to be his best film; we hesitate between Citizen Kane (Orson Welles) and Vertigo as the best film of all times. However, Psycho and The Birds remain his most well-known ones. Nominated five times at the Oscars for Best Director (Rebecca, Lifeboat, Spellbound, Rear Window, Psycho), Alfred Hitchcock was snubbed by the AMPAS and unfortunately never won one of those golden statuettes. This cold blondes lover die on April 29, 1980.
Before we’ll explore Vertigo more deeply, let’s now see what it is about. After an incident that happened during a nocturne police chase, Scottie (James Stewart), a policeman subject to acrophobia, retires from the profession. However, a relation, Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore), has a project for him: follow his wife, Madeleine (Kim Novak), who seems to be possessed by her ancestor Carlota Valdes’s spirit. After saving her from drowning, Scottie falls in love with Madeleine. However, she later commits suicide by jumping from a church window (important to notice that Carlotta Valdes had also killed herself). Scottie, aghast, is comforted by the truly good person in this story: his friend Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes). Later, Scottie meets Judy, who shares a troubling resemblance with Madeleine. Becoming fascinated by her, he transforms her as the Madeleine he had once loved so deeply. We later learn that Judy IS Madeleine (or, well, a false Madeleine) and that all this story was created to hide the murder of the real Madeleine (committed by Galvin) in a suicide.
Let’s now explore the notion of aesthetic genre. Vertigo is first known as a film noir. Why? This film takes place in a western city (San Francisco). However, it doesn’t include a Humphrey Bogart look-alike private detective, but a retired policeman. Scottie still remains a very complex and ambiguous character. This is especially due to his acrophobia, which will be an obstacle for him all along the film. Scottie is also ambiguous because of his “behaviour”: even if Gavin is the evil one in the story, do we consider Scottie as a good or bad man? Of course, he is a hero when he saves Madeleine from drowning, but we seize a certain monstrosity in him during the second part of the film, when he reshapes Judy in the image of a dead person.
This film is also considered to be a film noir as it includes a femme fatale. Here, we are talking about Madeleine (or Judy as Madeleine). Judy will only have one signification for the protagonist when she’ll be Madeleine again. The femme fatale causes the loss of the private detective in the film noir. Manipulative, but in love, Judy/Madeleine will provoke Scottie’s emotive loss, but also her own loss (her death). There is also a fantastic and mysterious side in Vertigo due to its ghostly style: Carlota Valdes (a dead one) seems to possess Madeleine’s spirit. When Judy comes out of the bathroom transformed as Madeleine, there is a sort of ghostly halo around her. We’ll come back to that later. Of course, we understand, in the end, that this ghost story was invented by Gavin to enforce a sinisterly diabolic project. However, the illusion of fantastic is given to us during the entire film, even at the end when the nun suddenly appears at the top of the stairs like a ghost.
What can we say about the meaning, the sense of Vertigo? If we explore the concrete and real dimension of this film, its sense is, according to me, the failure of manipulations: manipulations with bad intentions that, if we think about it, are finally unworthy if we analyze the film well. First, Gavin and Judy/false-Madeleine manipulate Scottie to conceal the murder of Galvin’s wife (the real Madeleine) with a suicide, but, ultimately, Gavin will have to run away from the country and Judy will finally really die. The other manipulation would be the one proceeded by Scottie on Judy: he recreates on her the image of a dead one, so he can really love her. We can notice that, before Judy becomes Madeleine, Scottie doesn’t really seem to be in love with her. But this will only lead Judy to her loss and Scottie to his. Even after Madeleine’s death, Judy continues to manipulate Scottie by playing the game. Substantially, everybody is wrong in this situation (except Midge, but we’ll come back to her). Those thoughtless manipulations will bring Scottie to his mental loss, Madeleine and Judy to their physical loss and to the loss of confidence in Gavin.
To understand better the meaning of Vertigo, we will now analyse some important elements of the film. We’ll start by analyzing the places. If we begin with Gavin’s office, we can notice that this one has a classic look. The wooden furniture and its order give it an important and prestigious look. If we observe this office in a superficial way, it gives us the following message: Gavin is an ordinary and respected man, and nobody would have any suspicion about him. This allows Gavin to have the perfect image to manipulate Scottie. But the order in this office, that’s the key point: a man who is able to keep is office as clean, would be able to make a clean murder. What I mean by that is that, when Gavin kills his wife, everything is perfectly done. Even Judy writes it in her letter that she will finally never give to Scottie. A perfect murder, until a jewel spoils everything…
Ernie’s would be another interesting location to analyze. It is the story’s fetish restaurant. When Scottie first goes there, it’s to observe Madeleine for the first time. We are then only at the beginning of the film and Scottie doesn’t have any doubts about anything. The ambiance seems good, the ladies’ dresses fit with the restaurant’s red tapestry. It’s a very colourful moment. On the other side, when Scottie returns at Ernie’s after Madeleine’s death, the ambiance is much more sad, much more grey. This introduces us to the most dramatic part of the film, the one where everything is revealed.
Next, in the film, Madeleine visits many places to put Scottie on the wrong track: in the flower market, she buys a bouquet that looks like Carlotta Valdes’s one; at the cemetery, she pays a visit to Carlotta’s grave; at the museum, she observes a portrait of Carlotta Valdes; she goes to the hotel and Scottie learns that this hotel was Carlotta’s old house; the Golden Gate and the Spanish mission would be Madeleine’s suicide’s points. Carlotta possesses her and orders her to die. All those places will eventually lead Scottie into a trap and give him the illusion that Madeleine is really possessed by her ancestor.
We often see roads in this film. These can represent the path traced in advance for the characters: Scottie will ride on it until he loses his mind and Judy will ride on it until she dies. If Scottie and Judy know how to drive, it’s because they are in perfect control of the car, but there is always a chance for a bad maneuver and an accident. That’s what happens with all those characters’ manipulations.
Let’s conclude this analysis of the places by focusing on Midge’s house. On one hand, her office is quite messy, but, on the other hand, her kitchen is not. If her kitchen is well-organized, it’s because Judy knows how to “cook” her mind. She is the most reasoned one in this story. She is the first one not to believe Madeleine and Carlotta’s story. However, when the time comes to act, she can do it in a reckless way (we can think of the painting scene): that’s why her working place is in a mess.
We can now analyse some of Vertigo‘s camera shots. During the introduction, we see a close up of a woman’s face, but it’s impossible to say exactly who it is: Madeleine? Judy? Carlotta Valdes? This confusion is the same one in Scottie’s head: Is he really with Madeleine or with Carlotta? Is he with Judy or Madeleine?
At the museum, we see a close up of Madeleine’s flower bouquet and then of Carlotta’s bouquet; a close-up of Madeleine’s bun and then one of Carlotta’s. Those elements are identical and create an association between Madeleine and Carlotta. The camera accentuates their importance by making close-ups. The situation is the same when we see this close-up of Carlotta’s necklace on Judy’s neck: this object is important because it reveals the truth to Scottie.
When Scottie does this “stepladder challenge”, we see him in a low angle shot. This gives him importance and he seems to control the situation. But, not long after, a subjective shot (Scottie’s point of view) shows us a high angle shot of the street. Scottie gets dizzy and collapses. We’ll later see a similar shot in the church at the Spanish mission. Those shots can symbolize Scottie’s fall: by having been manipulated by both Gavin and Judy, but also by having himself manipulated Judy to recreate Madeleine’s image on her.
Another significant shot would be the close-up of Madeleine and Scottie’s faces when they are in the car just after he saved her from the waters. They are face to face for the first time. Madeleine is unconscious and Scottie tries to wake her up. This is how a real relation between them starts. This, in a way, will make it easier for Judy to manipulate Scottie, because she will be in direct contact with him, but, in another way, this will become an obstacle for her because she will fall in love with Scottie and vice versa (that wasn’t planned in Gavin’s perfect murder plan).
We’ll end this part with the last shot. It is a full shot of Scottie coming out of the church’s window and looking down the roof where Judy fell. This shot focuses on the fact that the fear of heights, which has always been a barrier for Scottie, is now gone. This acrophobia was also a form of manipulation because it prevented Scottie to go further. Once more, this manipulation is a failure because Scottie, shaken by the events, manages to defeat it.
We’ll continue this analysis by mentioning some significant camera movements. One of the most important in Vertigo is the dolly zoom (also known as “Vertigo effect”), this movement where we have the feeling that the image moves away and gets closer at the same time. In the film, it is used to express Scottie’s giddiness. Just like gags in burlesque comedies, those movements are included in the film in a way to stop the story. Once more, we’re back to the idea of Scottie being manipulated by his dizziness. It first prevents him to climb on the footstool, but, more dramatically, to save Madeleine, the REAL Madeleine.
Another interesting camera movement happens when Scottie kisses “for the first” time Judy transformed as Madeleine under his desires. We could describe this movement as a “rotational traveling”. Indeed, Scottie kisses Judy, and the camera revolves around them, and then a new setting appears (the stable at the mission where Madeleine gave the clue to Scottie that she was going to kill herself). This camera shot, mixed with the music, adds a lot of deep emotions to the situation. Couldn’t this rotation also symbolise the turning point in those characters’ lives? It is, indeed, not a long time after this scene, that Scottie sees Carlotta’s famous necklace on Judy’s neck. It is also an emotional turn because Scottie wasn’t in love with Judy, but with Madeleine.
Let’s continue with some interesting lightnings used in Vertigo. The lighting in this film adds a lot of meaning, a lot of signification to the situation. Here are some examples: when Scottie goes to the cemetery, the natural light seems fuzzy, foggy and ghostly. The same lighting is used in a more important way when Judy comes out of the bathroom completely transformed as Madeleine. From Scottie’s perspective, she comes from the dead. At the cemetery, this fuzzy lighting adds some mystery to Madeleine, who seems to be more and more unreal, possessed by a ghost. This is, once more, a manipulation tool, because this lighting gives a false illusion about Madeleine’s (or Judy) real identity. It doesn’t only fool Scottie, but also the spectators.
In the film’s introduction, the lighting is sort of red, and that’s also the case in Scottie’s dream. What does it mean? Red is the color of love, but in Vertigo‘s case, it can be more deeply associated with “passion”: the crazy love passion Scottie has for Madeleine. This color also symbolizes the present. This is a clue concerning the conspiracy (Madeleine is not really possessed by Carlotta), but it also is a way to warn for Scottie: wouldn’t that be better if he’ll learn to live in the present time? It’s by being haunted by his past that he’ll get mad and take possession of Judy.
The music would be another interesting element to explore. This one was brilliantly composed by Hitchcock’s fetish composer: Bernard Herrmann. The music is mainly here to point out the film’s atmosphere: the one felt by Scottie, but also the one felt by us. What we generally hear in this film is a mysterious and worrisome music, proper to Hitchcockian cinema. This one is here to accentuate the suspense in the situation. What will happen to Madeleine? How will all this end? This music takes more importance when Scottie follows Madeleine to those diverse places associated to Carlotta Valdes (the cemetery, the museum, the flower market, etc.). During the more dramatic moments, the music becomes more vigorous and more orchestral. We can think of Madeleine’s suicide attempt (next to the Golden Gate), to the chase in the church’s stairs, to the kiss next to the rough sea, etc. Finally, let’s remember that Scottie doesn’t like music or, at least, classical music. A the beginning of the film, when he is at Midge’s place, he asks her to stop the music. After Madeleine’s death, the doctor suggests him to start music-therapy, but, according to Midge, this doesn’t really seem to work. After leaving all these great emotions, Scottie probably needs some silent peace.
Let’s continue with some elements/items that are important to make us understand the sense of Vertigo. First of all, the color green appears many times in the film: Madeleine’s green dress, Judy’s green clothes, the green neons in the Empire Hotel, the green tapestry in the hotel, etc. Even if it is a calming color, green can be associated to death, to the mildew (that’s what happen to a dead body after a certain time): Madeleine is possessed by a dead lady. Green is also a symbol of infidelity: Gavin’s infidelity towards his wife, but also towards Scottie; Scottie’s infidelity towards himself (will he be happy with Madeleine? Is he doing the right thing by recreating Madeleine’s image on Judy?). Green confuses the situations.
Then, many items and situations make us do a connection with the notion of death, which is one of the main themes of Vertigo. We can think of those mortuary items having purposes of falseness (the objects associated to Carlotta): the grave, the bouquet, the necklace, Madeleine’s suicide attempt, Madeleine’s dream, etc. We can also associate this notion of death to something that haunts Scottie and the film’s atmosphere: Scottie’s dream, Judy’s black dress at the end of the film (black is a symbol of death), the church at the mission, the nun who looks like a ghost, Scottie’s necrophilia.
Another element that is proper to many of Hitchcock’s films (Psycho, The Man Who Knew Too Much, Shadow of a Doubt) are the stairs. In Vertigo, those stairs are an obstacle for Scottie. Scottie’s dizziness created by the church’s stairs prevents him to reach his goal. Gavin then takes the occasion to kill the real Madeleine without being seen (only by Judy).
Finally, two objects give us the truth about Gavin’s diabolic conspiracy: first, Judy’s letter, which only she and the spectators know the existence of (we then wonder what will be Scottie’s reaction) and Carlotta’s necklace (that Judy will imprudently wear). It’s this last element that will reveal the truth to Scottie. So, Scottie understands that he has been manipulated, but the spectators also were, because, during the entire film, we thought Madeleine was really possessed, just like Scottie thought so.
We’ll conclude this part by analyzing the characters and their importance in the story. John “Scottie” Ferguson is the protagonist. He suffers from vertigo (here, the title “Vertigo” becomes isotopic), but he also suffers from a big naivety. It’s because of those two elements that he will be a victim of Gavin’s setup. After Madeleine’s death, Scottie becomes sort of necrophile and, a manipulator too, if we consider his influence on Judy. Scottie succeeds to control his dizziness at the end of the film when he climbs all the stairs in the church. We could associate Scottie to the color blue (blue eyes, blue pyjamas, blue car…). This color is a symbol of fidelity. Scottie, faithful to his feelings for Madeleine, will resurrect her. He is also loyal to his desire to overcome his acrophobia and will succeed at the end of the film.
As she writes in her letter, Judy Barton (or the false Madeleine) is the tool in Gavin’s plan. She’s the one who will lead Scottie in a world of deceits: she manipulates him, especially when she pretends that she didn’t go to certain places during her day. We can notice that the brunette Judy often looks at herself in a mirror. What does it mean? Maybe she’s trying to find her real identity, this identity she’s losing by playing a role. Those last moments of observation happen before she takes Madeleine’s appearance one more time (for Scottie): Judy will die as Madeleine. The real Judy is forgotten at the end of the film, especially by Scottie.
In this story, Marjorie Wood (Midge), an underclothes designer, is the only truly good person. She’s a friend and a confidante for Scottie, but also a mother. Many clues in the film give us this impression, first by this quote: “It’s a brassiere! You know about those things, you’re a big boy now.” when Scottie observes the aeronautical bra. She talks to him just like a mother talks to her little boy to teach him new things. She’s the only character who really takes care about Scottie and who know him well. For example, after Madeleine’s death, the doctor suggests him to do music-therapy, but Midge knows it won’t work because Scottie is not really a music lover. Finally, she’s the only character who doesn’t manipulate another one and, as a result, she’s the only character who remains rational in this situation.
Lastly, Gavin Elster is the ultimate manipulator in this story. He gives a false impression of friendship to Scottie, a false impression of being a man we can trust. Gavin is a shipbuilder and we can make a connection with his evil project: build, with Judy, a lie that Scottie’s naivety will unfortunately believe.
Sooner in the text, I mentioned that Vertigo was generally associated with the film noir genre, but that it also included a part of fantastic. How does that contribute to the atmosphere and the film’s meaning? Let’s start with the film noir dimension. This one adds tension to the film, particularly in the relations between the characters. As for the meaning of the film (the failure of manipulations), this film noir dimension is much more evident in the second part of the film, after Madeleine’s death, when the spectator understands that the “femme fatale” (Judy or “false Madeleine”) will provoke the loss of a policeman (Scottie) by manipulating him. We also discover a certain ambiguity concerning Scottie, especially when he’s trying to recreate Madeleine’s image on Judy. Is he good or bad? Well, he is, for sure, a victim. Concerning the fantastic dimension of Vertigo (or we should say this “illusion of fantastic”), this one creates an atmosphere of confusion and anxiety. Carlotta Valdes’s story grabs our attention and we want to know what will happen to Madeleine/Judy, but also to Scottie. Of course, this illusion is created by Gavin and Judy, who create a FALSE impression of madness around Madeleine, which provokes Scottie’s REAL madness.
We will continue this Vertigo analysis by understanding how the film is presented to us. Here, the objective of this film is not only to show us something in a static way, but also to tell us a story, thanks to a variety of camera movements and camera shots. It’s an ideological editing that contributes to the evolution of the story and its characters. For instance, after Madeleine has run away to the church, it’s with the help of only three camera shots that we understand that she’s about to kill herself: a long shot of Madeleine running to the church, a low angle shot of the bell tower (where she will kill herself) and a medium close-up of a terrified Scottie looking at the bell tower. The offscreen dimension becomes important here.
Finally, what can we say about Vertigo‘s narrator? The film is mainly seen from Scottie’s point of view. Many subjective camera shots make us understand that: the subjective shots of Scottie following Madeleine in his car, the shot of Madeleine’s dead body on the church’s roof (we previously saw Scottie looking at the window, so we know he’s the one looking at her), a close-up of Carlotta’s necklace in Judy’s neck (that’s when Scottie understands the real meaning of this adventure), the Vertigo zooms expressing Scottie’s dizziness, etc. This allows us to explore the character’s psychology and then try to understand the reasons that encourage Scottie to be a “manipulated manipulator”.
Of course, there’s also a mega-narration in this film, which gives us a more objective vision of Scottie and the other characters. This one is expressed at some moments in the film but is stronger in the parts with Midge, when we are in a not too dramatic atmosphere, closer to reality. We can think of this long shot, at the beginning of the film, when we see Scottie and Midge discussing in her apartment or this shot of Midge trying to console Scottie at the hospital. We can finally say that Midge and Gavin Elster are not seen from Scottie’s point of view, because they don’t upset his journey. Of course, Gavin’s false kindness is only an illusion and Scottie will guess it, but too late. Madeleine/Judy creates Scottie’s greatest feelings, and she’s the one who will be seen from a subjective point of view (Scottie’s one).
- Truffaut, François. Hitchcock/Truffaut. Gallimard. 1993.