Vertigo: Color/Lighting and its Meaning

Source for the header image is the fantastic blog, Moviebarcode. I highly recommend checking out their work.

Vertigo has been described as a “film noir in technicolor.” I believe that’s fitting. There’s a lot of darkness in the film’s palette and story, but also some vibrant colors which carry important symbolic connections. Unlike a traditional black and white noir, which focuses on the crime and cynicism, Vertigo focuses on the emotion and psychology. Color allows a better visual examination of such complicated push and pull, where the stark, shadowy black and white of noir serve better to exemplify the dreariness of their own subject matter. In my opinion, Vertigo uses its palette more effectively than any other movie I have yet to see, associating specific hues with corresponding characters and emotions.

Red/Brown—Associated with Scottie. Represents passion, obsession, masculinity, emotional attachment.

Scottie wears a reddish brown suit for most of the film, and a red tie for a good portion as well. We first see red during the opening credits when the woman’s face turns bright crimson before revealing the title card. As scarlet is known to catch the eye more than any other pigment, this visual cue establishes early on, before any context within the film itself, that we should be paying attention to the female form, and to eyes (appearances). It might also be interpreted as foreshadowing the bloody/violent fate of Madeleine and Judy in the ensuing story.

Once the film proper begins, we see Scottie in brownish red, and everything he interacts with in Midge’s apartment mirrors that. This detail will fly over the heads of first time viewers, but on repeated viewings it becomes an unmistakable cue that the color and Scottie are linked. After the first scene in Midge’s apartment establishes this connection, we get a new connotation in the next two scenes where Madeleine is described and then introduced. Gavin’s office has a bright red floor as he provides the foundation of Scottie’s eventual obsessive love. Then at Ernie’s that foundation has grown to become all-encompassing as the entire walls are now bright red. This culminates in the famous image of Madeleine in profile with a bright red haze behind her—the object of Scottie’s obsession.

Green—Associated with Madeleine/Judy. Represents passivity, desirability, femininity, helplessness.

By far, the most obvious color cue in Vertigo is green. Even after my first viewing I’d realized how often it appears in the film, and how it’s associated with Madeleine. Her car, Judy’s dress and skirt, the sash when we first see Madeleine at Ernie’s, and of course the light at Judy’s apartment were unmissable. For awhile I’d assumed Hitchcock was using that emerald hue to represent greed and longing. Green is traditionally associated with money, the “green eyed monster” and possessions, and Scottie wants Madeleine. Made sense. It took me more viewings than I’d care to admit to piece together the importance of the Sequoia forest scene and that all important line “always green, ever-living” with Madeleine’s color. Green is, in many ways, the color of ghosts in the movie—the metaphorical ghost of Madeleine hanging over the last half of the film, and her association with ghostly possession in the first half.

Both of those interpretations are valid. But I think there’s another which I’ve never seen anyone else make note of. Green is the color of plants, which are passive living things we treat as objects. They look pretty and are procured, moved around and groomed for that purpose. Seems similar to the objectification of women to me. And I don’t think this is a stretch since Vertigo undeniably explores female submission / objectification in male fantasies and there are plants everywhere in the movie—including the Sequoias. In Gavin’s office we have a lone plant in the background as he introduces Scottie to his mission. Madeleine’s first stop is a flower store. There are plants and flowers all over the cemetery, a picture of flowers next to the portrait of Carlotta holding her own flowers, and pictures of flowers in both Judy and Madeleine’s apartments. The landlady of the McKittrick hotel is taking care of her plants when Scottie comes in. Scottie pins a flower on Judy. The list goes on.

With this in mind, I propose that the color green in Vertigo represents feminine submission / objectification and desirability. When Judy becomes Madeleine, bathed in green light, that is the ultimate expression of complete submission and helplessness. She’s literally thrown away her whole identity to be subservient to Scottie’s fantasies.

Black/Shadow—Associated with Carlotta. Represents possession, history repeating, inescapable fate, death.

For what a beautiful film it is, with breathtaking use of color, it can be easy to forget how much black is in the movie. It begins with colorful spirals on a black background—that rotating obsession and vertigo surrounded by the ever-present threat of death, which is the simplest most abstract way the story could be broken down into. The first scene is late at night on the rooftops where a man dies and Scottie first starts to unravel. This is Scottie’s worst moment, what he struggles to escape from yet will relive twice in the movie.

The next few scenes are bright and colorful until Scottie starts following Madeleine. She goes to the flower shop through a shadowy backroom. She goes to a sunny, green graveyard through a dark church. There are shadows in the foreground of the art museum where Scottie watches Madeleine. The McKittrick hotel is dark and dreary. Finally and most famously, Pop Leibel’s store becomes increasingly dark as he tells the story of Carlotta. It’s always the places associated with Carlotta, or when we find out more about Madeleine’s possession by her (the dark Sequoia forest and dark establishing shot before Madeleine explains her dream in Scottie’s apartment). In the scene on the beach, Madeleine tells us about being pulled into darkness at the end of her dream. When we begin seeing shadows again more prominently, like Judy’s silhouetted profile against the green window in her blacked-out apartment, it corresponds to the possession beginning again via Scottie’s first acts of control.

When Scottie takes Judy back to his apartment after going clothes shopping, shadows of his face saying the words “It can’t matter to you” and leading Judy toward the fireplace appear overhead on his curtains. I always interpreted this as a subtle clue that those words, and similar manipulative actions, have occurred before. It’s almost a given Carlotta’s lover said the same thing, alleviated her worries with shallow gestures of concern.

Much of the famous 360 degree kiss in Judy’s apartment (after she becomes Madeleine) has a dark background (since Scottie has a “flashback” to his last time with Madeleine at the stables), representing that phantasmal legacy come alive as Scottie unwittingly reenacts the tragedy of Carlotta’s story. And, of course, when they return to the mission it’s night, much of those final tower shots are almost pitch black. As Scottie says Judy is his second chance, his head appears as a black silhouette. A shadowy figure—whom Judy perceives to be the ghost of Madeleine or Carlotta—unwittingly fulfills her own prophecy of death.

Blue—Associated with Gavin. Represents deception, manipulation, plus the guilt and trauma he created

We almost always see Gavin wearing blue. We know he’s a shipbuilder and therefore associated with the ocean, so Madeleine’s first suicide attempt in the bay and confession of her dreams on the beach could be seen as expressions of his plan playing out, or his influence on these characters’ actions. These are circumstances he manufactured like so many ships.

When Scottie confesses the details of the case he’s working on to Midge, the scene is dark and blue, and the ocean is in the background as the dialogue pertains to Gavin and his story. The landlady at the McKittrick hotel wears a blue shirt, implying she’s on Gavin’s payroll or otherwise some kind of accomplice. Carlotta also wears blue in her portrait, as Gavin has co-opted her life story for his plan. When Scottie first meets Gavin, he (Scottie) wears a blue tie as the seed of deception is planted—especially significant considering he changes it for a red one in the next scene when he actually sees Madeleine (which as you know, represents his passion for her). At the coroner’s inquest, Scottie wears a blue suit and tie because he is unknowingly fulfilling exactly the role Gavin intended for him—the witness to a suicide. When he’s traumatized at the hospital he also wears a blue sweater to emphasize that this is what Gavin brought him to. It could also be an expression of Scottie’s guilt and trauma that were caused by Gavin. Most of the others in the jury box do likewise.

We don’t see too much if any prominent blue after that except at the park where Scottie courts Judy (presumably mirroring how Gavin did so before, to win her over). There’s that, and arguably in the end of the kiss at Judy’s. I always thought the very end of that sequence was a blue light, no longer an unmistakable green, as if implying that this twisted moment is born out of guilt and their shared trauma due to Gavin’s crime. Or perhaps it could signify that Scottie has, in a sense, become Gavin by forcing Judy into the exact same role. At the end sequence in the tower, there’s as much blue in the scene as black once the sky comes into frame. The guilt, trauma, and manipulation all born from Gavin’s deception has come to a head. If you notice, that blue sky isn’t visible until Gavin himself is brought up.

Yellow—Associated with Midge. Represents reality, stability, comfort, boredom.

Bright yellow, tans, whites and cream colors are associated with the average, everyday real world. Midge’s apartment is the sanctuary away from the narrative that engrosses everyone else. (She was literally created to be that anchor to stability so the story would not come off as too far-fetched or ridiculous.) Yellow is the perfect contrasting color to the dark blacks and blues which represent the Carlotta myth and its use in a deceptive plot. It’s the feminine element of green, minus the blue of Gavin’s manipulative fiction. We see whites and creams on the walls when Scottie is forced to confront reality in the Coroner’s inquest and doctor’s office.

Lavender/Purple/Pink–Possibly Associated with Judy. Represents average beauty?

Only seen extremely briefly and not definitively associated with anything or anyone in particular. Taking the meanings of red and white described above, pink/lavender could represent passion blunted by reality. Judy wears a lavender dress when purposefully asserting her own identity with Scottie in their first few dates. The bra Scottie shows no erotic interest in at Midge’s apartment is a similar shade of lavender/pink. Notice that both represent traditional, natural if unremarkable feminine beauty and Scottie shows no interest until Madeleine (and green) returns.

Despite its scant use in the film, these shades leave an impression nonetheless. One of the best scenes, especially color-wise, is when Judy strolls in after their first date and sits by the window. In that moment, her lavender dress, by extension her identity, is completely obscured by the overpowering green light (the memory of Madeleine haunting her, and the standard Scottie holds her to) on one side, and the shadows (representing possession and the fate that awaits her) on the other. Purple also flashes during Scottie’s dream, in the beginning between blue and red and at the end when his face rushes towards the screen. If I were to force an interpretation there, I would speculate that perhaps Scottie’s identity (red) has now been irrevocably changed by Gavin’s influence (blue).

The Interplay of Red and Green

More than anything else, the film is an exercise in how to express green and red on the screen at once in as many different ways as possible. It’s a dance between those colors which contrast so well (and are the hardest for the eye to see together at once) plus what they represent. Obviously it’s a story about Scottie and Madeleine/Judy’s screwed up relationship, the passion, the obsession, the submission and domination that it all stems from. The pigments associated with these feelings frequently appear together for this reason. Perhaps the most notable examples are Madeleine wearing her green sash against the red walls of Ernie’s, and when Scottie and Madeleine wear each others’ colors when they first speak together in his apartment. (Midge also wears red when she makes her move on Scottie and shows her painting).


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