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Vertigo: A Study of Obsession, Manipulation, and Power. By Artemus Ward Department of Political Science Northern Illinois University. Cinema 101. Vertigo is a master class in film technique.

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A Study of Obsession, Manipulation, and Power

By Artemus Ward

Department of Political Science

Northern Illinois University

cinema 101
Cinema 101
  • Vertigo is a master class in film technique.
  • For example, the first half of the film alternates scenes that are silent vs. those that involve dialogue. The silent scenes are composed primarily of subjective point-of-view (POV) shots, while the dialogue scenes tend to isolate the participants in separate shots.
  • The first half of the film is largely from Scottie’s POV. Beginning with Judy’s flashback, her POV is used to shift our focus from Scottie to her.
  • Scottie's mental breakdown, caused by "acute melancholy combined with a guilt complex," as well as his continuing love for Madeleine, serves a plot function in allowing a year to pass before the story resumes with the appearance of Judy.
  • The "Vertigo shot" was created by simultaneously zooming in and tracking backward; the result is that the foreground remains stable while the background expands backwards. The shot was done using a model of the tower stairs laid horizontally on its side. The Vertigo shot has been widely imitated, including in Jaws, Goodfellas, and the first Lord of the Rings movie.
  • Hitch pays careful attention to colors throughout the film including Madeleine/Judy’s primary color (green) and Scottie’s (red) – swapping them and changing colors to suit the narrative when needed.
  • This is a film about obsession and control by manipulation and fabrication of reality:
  • Scottie (Stewart) is manipulated by his friend Gavin, who also manipulates the woman (Kim Novak, brilliant in a dual role) who in turn manipulates Scottie.
  • Indeed, three times in the film Scottie attempts to leave a room to escape the manipulation but each time he returns only to get more deeply involved in the plot: In Midge’s apartment just before he tries to “lick” his acrophobia, in Elster’s office when he tries to get out of the job, and finally in Judy’s apartment when he asks her to dinner.
  • When the deception is complete and Scottie believes that the woman he loves has died, he is lost until he sees a girl who resembles her. (She is her, but not her, at the same time.) He then does to her what had been done to him – he manipulates her, denies her her own identity and makes her over until she is the simulacrum of a woman who never was. When he discovers how he had been fooled by a theatrical illusion, he hisses, “Did he train you? Did he rehearse you? Did he tell you what to do and what to say?” – apparently not realizing that he is furious and indignant about the very behavior he has been exhibiting.
  • Hitch uses mirrors and mirror images to reinforce the idea of manipulation and confusion over what is real and what is not.
    • Madeleine: It's as though I were walking down a long corridor that once was mirrored, and fragments of that mirror still hang there. . . .Scottie: The small scenes, the fragments of the mirror. . . . Do you remember those?
the image of a woman i
The Image of a Woman I
  • On one level the film is about men manipulating/shaping the image of a woman.
  • Many have argued that Hitchcock was portraying his own failed attempts to re-create Grace Kelly in other actresses.
  • Kelly was Hitchcock’s favorite actress and the two worked together in three successive films: Dial M for Murder (1954), Rear Window (1954), and To Catch a Thief (1955). He made her a star.
  • But Kelly married Prince Rainier of Monaco and by becoming Princess Grace, she gave up her career. For the rest of her life, she was to remain in the news with her marriage and her three children. She missed Hollywood and even planned to return to make Marnie for Hitchcock. But the people of Monaco were incensed and she withdrew. On September 14, 1982, she was killed in an automobile accident, on a cliff road she had known so well since her first visit to the Riviera. The spot is said to be the same spot where the picnic scene from To Catch a Thief (1955) was filmed in 1954. She was just 52 years old.
the image of a woman ii
The Image of a Woman II
  • In the years that followed, Hitchcock’s leading ladies were all cool, platinum blondes in the mold of Kelly including Vera Miles in The Wrong Man (1956) and Psycho (1960), Doris Day in The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), Kim Novak in Vertigo (1958), Eve Marie Saint in North by Northwest (1959), Janet Leigh in Psycho (1960), and Tippi Hedren in The Birds (1963) and Marnie (1964).
james stewart as scottie
James Stewart as Scottie
  • Hitchcock was one of the few filmmakers who recognized that Stewart had a complex, even dark side and wanted to explore that in Vertigo.
  • Morality, decency, kindness, intelligence, wisdom—all the qualities that we think heroes are supposed to possess and that we have seen Stewart exhibit in film after film—desert him little by little in Vertigo until he has nothing left.
  • Stewart once said: “I look for a man…whose judgment is not always too good and who makes mistakes. I think human frailty is a very nice thing to portray.”
kim novak as madeleine and judy
Kim Novak as Madeleine and Judy
  • Novak commented on her role: “When I read the lines, ‘I want you to love me for me,’ I just identified with it so much. It was what I felt when I came to Hollywood as a young girl. You know, they want to make you over completely. They do your hair and makeup and it was always like I was fighting to show some of my real self. So I related to the resentment of being made over and to the need for approval and the desire to be loved. I really identified with the story because it was me saying, Please, see who I am. Fall in love with me, not a fantasy.”
  • Hitch deftly softens the sobering abuse of his female protagonist, Madeleine/Judy, by focusing on the passion and torment of her lover, Scottie (and by casting the likeable Stewart).
  • Consider the scenario, though, from Judy’s perspective:
    • She’s picked up by one significantly older man, Elster, who gives her a new persona (Madeleine) and then involves her in the original Madeleine’s murder.
    • Elster promises her a deeper attachment, only to dump her unceremoniously after the deed is done.
    • Then Judy finds the process repeated with Scottie—yet, despite his earnestness, his behavior is doubly humiliating, as it carries an implicit rejection of Judy’s own self in favor of the fantasy of Madeleine.
    • Judy, like so many of us, is so desperate for approval and love that she allows all of this to happen, ultimately leading to her death.
barbara bel geddes as midge
Barbara Bel Geddes as Midge
  • As he does in so many of his films. Hitchcock casts a strong, domineering motherly figure for the leading man. In this case, his former fiancé and best friend Midge.
  • Midge reinforces Scottie’s helplessness. He has been overwhelmed by the events of the past and looks to a female figure to comfort him. During his first attempt to cure himself of acrophobia, he collapses on Midge’s shoulder in a position that suggests maternal comfort.
  • She takes charge of his care at the hospital after Madeleine’s death – just as a mother should.
  • Though she is Madeleine/Judy’s rival for Scottie’s affections, she has no scenes with Madeleine/Judy.
  • One of Hitchcock’s major themes—particularly in his 1950’s works—is voyeurism.
  • The film Rear Window, which also stars Stewart, is the master study of the subject.
  • Yet Vertigo can be seen as a long romantic poem to voyeurism that leads the viewer through lengthy specific sequences of silent pursuit, and through a much darker and broader story of one man’s pursuit—to unthinkable extremes—of his chosen romantic ideal. Scottie watches Madeleine and we watch Scottie watch Madeleine.
  • Indeed one way Hitch establishes his voyeurism theme is through the use of eyes and swirls—from the opening sequence, to Madeleine’s hairstyle, to the expressive eyes of the main characters…
the wrong man or woman
The Wrong Man…Or Woman
  • Perhaps Hitchcock’s most famous recurring theme in many of his films is the innocent wrongly pursued. And it is not the pursuer whom the pursued has to fear as much as the circumstances into which he or she must run to escape.
  • Though not one of his classic “wrong man” films, Vertigo is still a variation on this theme. In Vertigo, Hitchcock chose a woman as the party to be pursued and, eventually degraded.
law power and freedom i
Law: Power and Freedom I
  • How is the law portrayed in the film? Through the lens of “power and freedom”
  • Midge says to Scottie: “You were the bright, young lawyer who decided... ...he was going to be chief of police someday.” What does this tell us about Scottie? He is a do-gooder who sacrifices wealth and a life of comfort (power and freedom) for the gritty reality of police work such as chasing suspects across rooftops. He wants to change things from the ground up rather than from the top down.
  • Elster dominates Scottie and uses Scottie’s do-gooder mentality, obsessive personality, and vertigo to commit the perfect crime: murdering his wife for money and getting away with it. He says: “"The things that spell San Francisco to me are disappearing fast. . . . I should have liked to live here then. Color, excitement, power, freedom. . . .“
  • Pop Liebel: "The beautiful Carlotta, the sad Carlotta. . . . A rich man, a powerful man. It is not an unusual story. He took her. . . . Then he threw her away. . . . You know, men could do that in those days. They had the power and the freedom."
  • At the end of the film Scottie says: “"I need you to be Madeleine for a while, then when it's over we'll both be free…. And then what did he do? 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. . . . He made you over, didn't he? He made you over just like I made you over, only better. . . . Not only the clothes and the hair, but the looks and the manner and the words. . . . Oh Judy, with all of his wife's money and all that freedom and power, he ditched you. …”
law power and freedom ii
Law: Power and Freedom II
  • In most cases, an inquest is judicial investigation by a group of court-appointed people (a jury) into a cause of death. How is the coroner’s inquest into Madeleine’s death portrayed?
  • The coroner knows it is a routine proceeding and a formality because Scottie is a former Detective and will be cleared by his friends in the prosecutor’s office. Hence the coroner resents that he powerless and his skeptical, cynical tone imparts blame on Scottie, who is also powerless: “It is a pity that, knowing her suicidal tendencies... ...he did not make a greater effort…. But we are not here to pass judgment on Mr. Ferguson's lack of initiative. He did nothing... ...and the law has little to say on the subject of things left undone. Nor does his strange behavior after he saw the body fall... ...have any bearing on your verdict. He did not remain at the scene of the death. He left. He claims he suffered a mental blackout and knew nothing more... ...until he found himself back in his own apartment in San Francisco hours later. You may accept that, or not.”
  • The jury of course finds that Madeleine committed suicide by reason of insanity – just as Elster had planned. They also clear Elster of responsibility for not reporting his wife's mental instability.
  • The scene demonstrates how the law is about power and manipulation as both the coroner and Scottie are dominated by more powerful adversaries.
  • The scene also parallels the opening scene where the police officer stops his pursuit of the accused in order to go back to help his colleague. The result is that the accused gets away, the officer dies, and the detective has to quit the force because of vertigo. The inquest similarly shows that when the judicial process “protects its own” – by exonerating Scottie – the real criminal goes free and Scottie is further damaged.
is it all a dream
Is It All a Dream?
  • How does Scottie get down from his dangling position at the start of the story? One critical theory is that he doesn't, that the entire movie is a hallucination, an oneiric narrative. Vertigo ends as it begins, with Scottie staring down helplessly from a great height--though with his vertigo cured.
deleted scene
Deleted Scene
  • Hitchcock shot an additional scene following the climax at the tower. In a single shot lasting 75 seconds with no dialog, it shows Scottie returning to Midge's apartment, where she is listening to a radio report about the impending arrest of Gavin Elster in Europe. This scene apparently was intended as insurance against objections from the Production Code either in the U.S. or in other countries. It may have been shown in some places, but was not part of Hitchcock's final cut of Vertigo.
  • Does it make a difference whether Elster was caught or not?
  • Hitchcock wants us to consider how desire for power and freedom can lead to obsession, manipulation, and ultimately immoral and illegal behavior.
  • Like everything in life, both law and morality are subject to manipulation, thereby blurring the line between what is real and what is unreal.
  • Auiler, Dan. 1998. Vertigo: The Making of a Hitchcock Classic. New York, NY: St.Martin’s Griffin.
  • Dirks, Tim. Undated. Vertigo (1958).
  • Spotto, Donald. 1992. The Art of Alfred Hitchcock, 2nd ed. New York, NY: Doubleday.