Into the Vortex: ‘Vertigo’ (1958)

Lary Wallace
Jan 17, 2019 · 11 min read
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Being a film about obsession, it’s only appropriate that Vertigo would elicit so much obsession from its admirers, pulling us into the same swirling, inescapable thought patterns that Scottie Ferguson (James Stewart) gets pulled into in his quest to reconstruct a woman he believes to be dead. Just writing that last line makes one realize how ridiculous the premise of Vertigo is, but that ridiculousness is part of what gives it its pull, part of how it seduces us into the fever dream of its preposterous premise. It creates a mood unlike that of any other film, and in exploring how that mood was created, one can glimpse a rare and rarefied realm of the filmmaker’s art.

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The filmmaker of course is Alfred Hitchcock — or at least he’s the director. Vertigo, somehow, manages simultaneously to both challenge and support the auteur theory, sort of like the camera that zooms and dollys simultaneously to convey Scotty’s dizziness as he stares down the abyss of the bell tower. Although you can’t imagine Vertigo being made by anyone other than Hitchcock, you also can’t imagine Hitchcock making it on his own. Too much is reliant on the tone achieved by the score, the primary actors, the set design, the title and animated sequences. Vertigo really is, for all this, a supreme example of total film, and the more we stare at it, the more it seems to pull us into its vortex.

Although not even Hitchcock’s most fervent admirers would make any claim to the plausibility of his plots, Vertigo manages to challenge even these standards of credulity. Many of the film’s acolytes have developed a nifty workaround for this, insisting that the whole thing — or the whole thing following Scottie’s accident in the beginning — is a dream. That’s one way of looking at it, as good as any other, but I prefer instead to embrace the ridiculousness of its scenario, for Vertigo is that rare film that transcends such concerns.

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But the movie certainly does have a dream-like quality, and it achieves this quality from the very beginning, with designer Saul Bass’s hypnotic opening-title sequence. Bernard Herrmann’s score — derived from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde — plays ominously as a close-up on Kim Novak’s face moves from her lower-left quarter to her lips to her upper-right eye. The entire frame becomes red-tinted as the movie’s title emerges from her pupil, growing larger and then disappearing. Then, from her pupil comes a spinning spiral, purple and animated. This too becomes large and disappears, before the whole thing gives way to the opening credits, which appear on a black background flanked by another animated spiral. Eventually we’re back to the eye, into which the spiral returns. The director’s credit emerges from Novak’s eye just as the title recently has, and the movie proper begins.

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It’s hard to know quite what Vertigo’s original audience must have made of this eerie, baroque opening. Certainly it signals that something strange is about to occupy the cinema screen — something romantic and psychological, to be sure, but also something murder-mysterious. Vertigo is of course all of that. Much later in the film is another animated sequence, this one truly trippy and bizarre, a fever-dream phantasmagoria in which Scottie begins to piece together some of the plot that’s been constructed at his expense. Coming two-thirds of the way into the movie, it’s an incredibly brazen decision on the part of Hitchcock. To say it’s unconventional is to say nothing at all. After Scottie dreams this dream, we see him in the very next scene committed to a mental hospital.

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The dream sequence wouldn’t be half what it is without Herrmann’s score. You could say the same about the entire movie, for the way it’s able to convey so much interiority, so much of that psychological suspense without which a movie this psychological in nature can simply never come off.

This ability to take the psychological and make it cinematic is a trait shared by all of Hitchcock’s collaborators on Vertigo. You can start with Kim Novak, the film’s leading lady, who played the parts of both Judy and Madeleine, who of course turn out to be the same woman. It’s precisely Novak’s limitations as an actor, many involved with the film believed, that allowed her to pull off this dual role so cleanly. “If we’d had a brilliant actress who really created two distinctly different people,” said Samuel Taylor, one of the film’s screenwriters, “it would not have been as good. She seemed so naive in the part, and that was good. She was always believable. There was no ‘art’ about it, and that’s why it worked so very well.”

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Stewart brought a specialness of his own to a role at least as tricky as Novak’s. “I myself had known fear like that,” said Stewart, a bomber in World War II, recipient of two Distinguished Crosses, “and I’d known people paralyzed by fear. It’s a very powerful thing to be almost engulfed by that kind of fear.” You can see it all over his face — the way he’s able to convey fright and desperation and jealousy. As his infatuation with Judy builds, so does his frenzy, and by the end, when he at last comes to realize it’s all been a setup — that he’s fallen in love with a woman who never even existed — he’s frantic to the point of insanity. That famous golly-gee voice of Stewart’s, normally so endearing, has become wobbly with rage as he interrogates her with his suspicions — now more than suspicions — about her and Gavin Elster: “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. And those beautiful phony trances!”

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This determination of Scottie’s to remodel, -fashion, -shape, and -store Judy according to his very own specifications is what makes Vertigo such a powerful metaphor for the filmmaker’s process, particularly Hitchcock’s. And it’s this metaphor, in turn, that’s done so much to secure Vertigo in the hearts of cineastes as the supreme example of Pure Cinema. “Like James Stewart in Vertigo,” Donald Spoto writes in his Hitchcock biography The Dark Side of Genius, “Hitchcock chose fantasy over reality, and he could not respond to a woman until she was refashioned to correspond with his dream.” Spoto keeps it coming, calling Vertigo a “disclosure…of the attraction-repulsion he felt about the object of [his romantic] impulses: the idealized blond he thought he desired but really believed to be a fraud.”

What do people mean when they say that San Francisco is a character in Vertigo? Just because they apply a facile shorthand doesn’t mean they’re not talking about something substantial and identifiable. The truth is that the city — its history, its geography, its architecture, even its geology — really does substantively figure throughout the movie: Scottie and Midge go old-bookshop-archival to sniff out the local legend of Carlotta Valdez; the city’s famously sloping streets accommodate Scottie’s spiraling prowl in search of his fantasy (mysteriously, every turn manages to take him downhill); there is the Golden Gate Bridge where Judy jumps (cantilevered like the bras that Midge designs and that Judy, rather conspicuously, seems to be wearing); there is the redwoods forest and the large, cross-sectioned round of redwood that, where it hangs displaying the geological ages of its rings, resembles nothing so much as a spiral as Scottie and Judy gaze into the enigma of its sphere.

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This is the kind of thing Hitchcock was talking about when he said, “The story called for a sophisticated metropolitan setting, and of all those in America, San Francisco fits that — especially in terms of the surrounding country and its architecture.”

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A fascinating essay could be written on Vertigo’s spiral motif alone. I’d read that essay. It would start with the eye — “the first circle,” according to Emerson — of Kim Novak that we see in the opening titles, and from there whirl outward to encompass the spirals that represent Scottie’s vertigo; the bun in the hair of Judy and Carlotta Valdez; the rings of time in the redwood round; the stairwell Scottie gazes down as Hitchcock’s camera, vertiginously, zooms and dollys at the same time. It would loop and lasso all of that and more.

But the most fascinating symbolism to be found in Vertigo is in its color scheme. I don’t mind confessing my indebtedness here to a wonderful essay on the YouTube channel Neo. There are plenty of analyses out there on what the colors in Vertigo just might mean — what they do mean, in the eye of the beholder — but this is to my mind the most compelling and cogent.

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Green represents fantasy — the perversion of reality that occurs when Scottie believes that Judy and Madeleine are two different people, and moreover — paradoxically, impossibly — that they could ever really be the same person. It’s the color that illuminates Judy (ostensibly from the neon sign outside the hotel room) when she emerges from the bathroom done up for the first time as Madeleine. Even though these two women (Scottie will soon learn) are indeed the same person, they could never, for that very reason, ever be the same to Scottie. You’ll recall that Madeleine also, for instance, drives a green car and is surrounded by green in the cemetery to which Scottie follows that green car. When Madeleine is recovering in Scottie’s apartment from her jump into San Francisco Bay, green is the color Scottie wears as he nurtures her back to wellness. When Scottie sees her for the first time since her presumed death — sees her for the first time as Judy — she is again wearing green.

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Blue represents reality. It’s the color of the inquest where Scottie is found negligent. It’s also the color of the mental hospital where we see him following his breakdown. The color pallette in the hospital is blue not because Scottie is — not because he’s depressed, although he’s certainly that — but because, consistent with the color’s use throughout the film, this is one of those moments when reality is beginning to dawn on him. He’s clear-eyed and sober-minded, no longer susceptible to the enchanting fantasies represented by green.

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Red represents passion. It’s very conspicuously the color of the door to Scottie’s apartment where he’s caring for Madeleine, and, we’re made to understand, falling in love with her. Red is the color of the robe Scottie gives to Madeleine when she awakes from her recuperative slumber. (Her blue dress, like Scottie’s sense of reality, has been hung up to dry.)

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Yellow is the color we come to associate with Scottie’s platonic friend Midge, and, hence, with a kind of comfortable but passionless warmth. Yellow is the color of Midge’s apartment walls and of her sweater. Later, when she tries to pique Scottie’s passion by painting herself into a portrait of Carlotta Valdez, the sweater she’s wearing is red.

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One color that Neo’s analysis doesn’t really address is gray, which, as the color of the suit Madeleine wears early in the film, represents vagueness — the misty cloud of uncertainty. This is the suit Scottie will later make Judy wear to better resemble Madeleine, and as such it’s very important to the story Hitchcock wanted to tell. Novak chafed at the idea of wearing the gray suit, believing it a far-from-flattering color for a blond to wear, and registered her protest with fashion designer Edith Head. Head relayed the message to Hitchcock, from whom word came back: Tell her she can wear any color she wants, as long as it’s gray.

Vertigo is easy to ridicule, if you’re not prepared to fall under its oneiric spell, its ambient allure. Orson Welles, for one, could be vicious on the subject — and this was before it replaced Citizen Kane as the number-one movie of all time according to the Sight & Sound poll. That happened in 2012, and it’s always struck me as simple fatigue — among the filmmakers and critics who comprise the poll’s voters — with the idea of Citizen Kane as the undisputed greatest. It was an expression of the urge for something new. But Citizen Kane had held its position for so many years for a reason. It probably really is the greatest film ever made, for those who even believe in such a concept, and whether it’s fashionable to say so anymore or not. But if you’re willing to nestle down deep into Vertigo, indulging its implausibilities, submitting to its silliness, there are plenty of rewards to be found in this sui generis masterpiece in which every element seems to have been refined to its purest embodiment.

One thing about Vertigo that doesn’t get mentioned nearly enough (if I’ve seen it mentioned at all, I’ve forgotten where) is the way the character of Scottie brings something totally new to the identity of the private investigator. Even all these years later, it strikes one as entirely fresh. He doesn’t possess the switchblade cool of the Bogie archetype, the uniformly aloof and imperturbable figure from out of film noir. He’s vulnerable, and, moreover, he can’t help but make his vulnerability show. He’s also kind of goofy, particularly when speaking in full-Stewart mode. Let’s not forget that he’s also the dupe, all the way up until he’s not, but by then he’s a man undone, no better off for his newly earned knowledge. He’s wiser, though — he’s got that — and as he stands on the rooftop where Judy has at last fallen to her death — her real death this time — he’s someone who’s conquered his fears. Cured of his vertigo at last, he’s allowed to become a new kind of existential detective-hero, pursuant of a mystery that’s psychological rather than criminal in nature, and is therefore never really solved.

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