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Vertigo is a 1958 suspense thriller directed by Alfred Hitchcock, written by Alec Coppel and Samuel Taylor and based upon the 1954 novel ‘D’entre Les Morts’ by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac. Starring James Stewart, Kim Novak and co-starring Barbara Bel Geddes.
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James Stewart plays the part of detective John Ferguson or ‘Scottie’ as he is known throughout the film, who develops a fear of heights, acrophobia, after he watches a policeman fall to his death during a police chase over the San Francisco rooftops. Following the incident, Scottie retires from the police force, but old friend Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore) hires him as a private detective to follow his wife, Madeleine Elster (Kim Novak) as she has been behaving strangely. Elster believes that she is possessed by the ghost of a dead relative, Carlotta Valdez. It is not long before Scottie starts to find himself becoming obsessed with the beautiful but troubled Madeleine and falls in love with her.
As the introductions roll onto the screen, we are confronted by a close up of a black and white woman’s face, first her lips, her nose, her eyes, then onto one eye, where we can see a tear… Her gaze only briefly meets ours, when we first see her eyes, but then they are skirting from left to right. The music gets more intense and the scene turns red, as the eye we are focused on widens in what we can only assume as shock or horror. We then see coloured patterns, starting first in the pupil, then swirling round on the black screen, gradually becoming larger and enveloping the screen and the audience. This setting of emotion and involvement of the audience in what is to be classed as misé-en-scene; the creation of emotion through visuals and audio.
Fig. 9 – Introductory scenes
The opening scene underpins the whole of Scotties acrophobia, and as an audience, we also get to experience what it is he’s feeling. The music is tense, we can see the skyline, we see them jumping from roof to roof, then we see Scottie slip, he’s clinging on to the gutter by his fingertips to stop himself from plunging to a certain death. The other policeman turns to help him, asks him for his hand, but he falls from the roof, to the ground hundreds of feet below. The distance and acrophobia is highlighted by the view on the ground below panning in and out toward us. People who suffer with vertigo “…feel as if they or their surroundings are moving. These false sensations are often accompanied by a feeling of spinning…” (Smith et al, 2000: 603). It has also to be noted that psychologists believe there is tension from the feeling of vertigo, whereby there is a desire to fall yet there is a dread of falling. The audience is made to feel the fear and terror that Scottie is experiencing, the feeling that death is so close, could be so easy. To survive he has to desperately cling to the gutter, his arms and body stretched to their capacity, his mind full of terror, whereas to die, he only has to let go. Within this scene, the audience is given minimal information. We see three men in sequence climb over the top rung of a ladder, the second being a policeman, so we assume the first is a suspect? Thirdly, there is Scottie, but he is in plain clothes, so he could be anybody, but he must be connected to the policeman as he is pursuing him. This is shown as three close up shots, then we have panned out to reveal all three men running across the roof. In turn, they jump to another roof. This is when we see Scottie slip. This can be related to Freud’s theory of the Id, Ego and Superego. The Id is the first man; he wants his urges satisfied regardless of society, his focus solely on his pleasure, relative to criminality. The second man, being the policeman, can be shown as the Superego, with strict and rigid morals, relatable to the father. It is also in this scene that we can take into account the Oedipus Complex, the ‘son’, Scottie, is responsible for the ‘fathers’, the policeman’s, death as he tries to save him from falling, whilst the Id has got free into the darkness. Scottie is left hanging from the gutter; we never see how it is he escapes this situation, leaving him metaphorically stuck there for the remainder of the film. Wood also mentions this theory in his book when he revisits Hitchcock’s films.
Fig. 10 – Hanging and falling
Another thing to take into account here is Freud’s relation between events and birth trauma and the separation between mother and child. Although he said that a child couldn’t recall these memories, they were still instilled within our subconscious. So the idea of falling is, in a way, a re-enactment of birth trauma and separation. This was thought to be at the forefront of anxiety.
In the next scene, we are placed within Midge’s apartment. It is constructed on separate shots between Scottie and Midge and the male/female space in which they inhabit throughout the conversation. They are defined by definite objects, such as Scotties cane and the bra that Midge is sketching. Scottie is re-affirming that he will be ‘free’ of the corset that is binding him tomorrow, taking back him masculinity and power within the situation. It is only at three points throughout the scene that Midge and Scottie are shown together. Firstly, when Scottie approaches Midge to talk about the bra she is drawing-she speaks of it in a very matter of fact way, telling Scottie that he is a ‘big boy’ and knows of such things. Next, Scottie talks of curing his acrophobia a small step at a time, he stands on a stool, Midge takes over the situation by bringing him a set of steps to climb, which she encourages him to do so. He sees out of the window between the buildings, like the scene he saw when hanging from the gutter at the start of the film, but we are still held in reality by the flowers on the windowsill, but his vertigo grips him again. Even the security of Midge’s home is not enough, that becomes the vision and the drop becomes real. Next, we see Scottie clutched to Midge’s breast, whilst she holds him and soothes ‘oh Johnny, Johnny’. The common theme throughout is the presentation of Midge as the mother figure. In the scenes where they are shown together depict the mother/child relationship that they have. This is a reason why Scottie wouldn’t be attracted to her like he is to Madeleine. She is too independent, whereas Madeleine is helpless and mysterious as we find out as the film continues.
Fig. 11 – Motherly love
It is this scene that particularly also states Scotties condition as feminine. When he approaches Midge to ask her what the bra on a wire frame is, she relates the design is based on that on a bridge, the latest in ‘revolutionary uplift’ made by an aircraft engineer. Not only is the relation of a bridge, which is a high place with regard to Scotties acrophobia, linked with the femininity of a woman’s undergarment, but the design of it has also been constructed by a man, thus saying that femininity is exactly that. Scottie cannot fulfil his role in society as a police man because of the fear, like Jefferies couldn’t in Rear Window because of his injuries.
Next we are presented with the exterior of Gavin Elster’s office, then straight to Scottie and Elster having a conversation inside. Elster is asking Scottie to follow his wife for him. Around the office, there are mentions of ships, suggesting escape, and also references of the ‘old’ San Francisco, relating to the power and freedom you gained then, as a man, again, this is mentioned later on whilst Scottie and Midge are talking to Pop Leibel in his bookstore. This relates to the conversation they are having about Elster wife, she is the object in the conversation between the two men, an intensifier of the taboo desire that we often see within films; one woman and two men who both lust after her. The position of power is also shifting between Scottie and Elster. When we first enter the room, Elster is sitting behind his desk, whilst Scottie is wandering around the office, looking at things, he then gets up and explains what he wants Scottie to do, taking power by positioning himself higher than him.
Fig. 12 – Stances of power
Next the viewer is positioned inside the restaurant and is introduced to Madeleine with Scottie. The camera pans across the restaurant and comes to rest upon Madeleine’s back, her bare shoulders showing. She is shown as an object of desire; a close-up allows us to see her features as a still portrait, like that of the painting of Carlotta Valdez as she gracefully glides through the restaurant in a dream like manner. From this instance she is a mysterious object of desire that we must know more about. She has no idea that our gaze is upon her, she is helpless to it; we are an accomplice to Scottie, if not already him, and what it is in turn we are going to discover about Madeline’s secret life.
When Scottie follows Madeleine in his car, it is downhill, to an alleyway. He follows her inside, through the back door in which she enters, where she is buying flowers. We are seeing from Scotties point of view. When he spies in through a crack in the door, this is how we see her also. When she turns, we see her reflection on the mirrored door that Scottie gazing through the door, completely unbeknown to her. She is surrounded by flowers, bathed in a soft light, enhancing her subtle beauty and femininity accompanied by a haunting music. Is she somehow a mirrored image of Scottie/the viewer? Koftman (1985 cited in Modelski 1989) stated that “men’s fascination with [the] eternal feminine is nothing but fascination with their own double, and the feeling of uncanniness, Unheimlichkeit, that men experience is the same as what one feels in the face of any double, and ghost, in the face of the abrupt reappearance of what one thought had been overcome or lost forever”. This links back to Freud’s castration complex. The view of the camera is very much from Scotties point of view, subjective, only further reiterating the point that the feminine is seen as ‘lacking’ and the masculine is to look.
Fig. 13 – The perfect and unobtainable
Within this scene, another thing to note is the recurrent theme of the oil painting, with the surround of flowers, but also the mirror, not only relating to the Koftman quote above, but also briefly I would like to touch upon John Berger. Within his essays, ‘Ways of Seeing’, he talks of the relevance of mirrors, that they reflect the judgemental gaze of others, as well as her own. They are also a symbol of vanity. If a woman is seen surveying herself in the mirror, it is for the benefit of the male, showing her subservience and willingness to become pleasing to the eye, but also her vanity. This in turn can is relatable to Freud’s theory of the Electra Complex and Penis Envy. Her affections are transferred from her father to other men to give her what she ultimately wants, due to her lack of a penis, which is a child.
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This is turn leads onto a point made by Jacques Lacan, whereby he states that the mirror stage of a child’s development is crucial so it can place itself within the world and relate to others. Much like Freud stated within the Oedipus and Castration complex, whereby the son relates to his father, wanting to be like him and grow into a man so he can have a woman of his own, like his father has his mother. The screen within the cinema frames its actors much like the mirror frames the self. As Mulvey states;
“…It is the birth of the long love affair/despair between image and self-image which has found such intensity of expression in film and such joyous recognition in the cinema audience.” (Mulvey, 2009: 18)
When Madeleine falls into San Francisco bay, Scottie rescues her and takes her back to his house, undresses her and puts her to bed. Once again, he is the hero and she is the helpless woman who, without Scottie, would be dead. His obsession is becoming more and more with her. Whilst in his apartment, her near first concern is of the pins from her hair and her handbag, so she can find a mirror and put her hair up, making herself presentable for Scottie. The relation of power is also clear in this scene; Madeleine is sitting on the floor, whilst Scottie takes the higher position of the sofa arm to question her, to watch her. She is the object of desire; of his desire, as well as the male viewers’ object of desire.
From here we can see the relation to any stereotypical fairytale; the hero rescues the helpless princess from the evil man/woman, although there is more to fairytale, for the use of this essay, I am outlining it in this very simplified manner. Take, for example, Cinderella, she is a servant to her stepmother and step sisters, but she goes to the ball, meets the prince, who does everything in his power to find his princess and rescue her. Freud also made this point, highlighting the lengths a man will go to, to ‘rescue’ the woman they love, even if, as Freud (1910 cited in Perron 2005) stated, “…another man can claim right of possession”, Madeleine being Elsters wife. This in turn, can be linked closely with the Oedipus complex. Freud (1910 cited in Berman 1997) also stated “A man rescuing a woman from water in a dream means that he makes her… his own mother”.
In the bell tower scene where Scottie is chasing Madeleine, it is where his masculinity is compromised once more because of his acrophobia. He should have taken his role as a man and stopped her from falling, he should have rescued her, but he failed and she fell to his death. Elster had hired Scottie to follow his wife, but once again, he failed at his job, like he did as a policeman. Scottie is plagued by nightmares of the tragic event. He is falling, like Madeleine, haunted by Carlotta Valdez, colours flash red, signifying not only Scotties vertigo but also his fantasies.
Fig. 14 – Re-occurring fall
When Scottie is back in San Francisco, every woman he sees bears a resemblance to Madeleine. Women on the street, in restaurants…He seems like a broken man, not the strong counterpart that the audience want to relate to. He follows a woman, Judy, to her apartment and asks her out to dinner. Slowly, we can see Scottie becoming more and more obsessed with Judy, asserting his masculinity by offering to take care of her, but her flowers, clothes. Judy is becoming “an ideal passive counterpart to Scottie’s active sadistic voyeurism. She knows her part is to perform, and only by playing it through and then replaying it can she keep Scottie’s erotic interest” (Mulvey, 2009: 25).
We, as an audience, have already made the discovery that Judy really is Madeleine, that she played a part for Elster. It is an uncomfortable discovery as Scottie doesn’t know. We almost feel as though we are cheating him, he’s falling into a trap and we can’t warn him. We are only watchers to the scenes playing out before us, regardless of us; things will still happen and go forth. “The essential fact is to get real suspense you must let the audience have information” (Hitchcock cited in Bays, 2004).
Scottie is trying his hardest to change Judy to Madeleine, and she is letting him. The roles of passive female and the active male are mirrored in the re-enactment of a scene that happened between Scottie and Madeleine. She is a visually objectified other, confirmed by her dress, make up and style. Also, this, again, can be linked back to the Oedipus/Castration complex, when the sole object of the boy’s desire was his mother. In his eyes, she was the perfect woman and satisfied all his needs. It is only when Scottie is happy that Judy looks enough like Madeleine that he begins to become sexually attracted and interested in her. He has successfully turned her into a fetish; he has eliminated the threat of castration. The tower in which Madeleine and Judy both fell off are very symbolically phallic, re-asserting the masculinity of the situation.
The film makes the audience confront their own lives and past.
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