Final part of my Vertigo analysis
Much has been made of Hitchcock’s penchant for remaking his leading ladies very specifically. Vertigo references this in the way Scottie himself remakes Judy into his idealized woman, Madeleine. In that way, it’s a very interesting self-reflection of Hitchcock’s own tendencies, perhaps an examination of why he’s so particular about his female leads. Even Hitchcock himself has called Vertigo his most personal film.
Power and Freedom
The three male characters with the most lines (though Pop might have slightly less than the Coroner) all utter this phrase and with the same intended meaning even as they do so in totally removed contexts. This is so subtle I didn’t notice the repetition for a long time, but once I did I couldn’t ignore it. This is Gavin’s motive for killing his wife. Pop implies that there are many stories of men doing likewise in one way or another, and speaks almost wistfully about it, as if they were some grand old days to be looked back on with reverence. Scottie says it derisively to Judy, as if Gavin could never be free with her, and dumping his female accomplice was just as important as offing his wife.
Aside from Gavin, nobody in this film is powerful and free at the same time. Scottie is free to do as he pleases, being “a man of independent means as the saying goes.” But he’s not powerful considering his crippling disorder, how he’s just given up on his life’s ambition of being chief of police, and he’s having debilitating nightmares. Pretty soon Scottie won’t be free either, as his attraction to Madeleine clouds his judgment and enslaves him to his own desire. Midge and Judy similarly torture themselves because of their attractions to Scottie. Midge and Judy are stuck in unfulfilling jobs they clearly don’t really enjoy as well.
Looking at it more generally, women have power over men; being ensnared by attraction diminishes a man’s freedom. Men can provide for women and give them freedom, but assert their own power economically and sexually over the objects of their attraction. The film seems to be asking us if these two attributes are attainable, especially together, in the modern world. And the answer seems to be that, no, they’re not. The only possible solution comes at the end, where Scottie promises to Judy that they’ll both be free after they climb the tower. In doing so, Judy dies and it’s implied Scottie will too. The only way to escape the devastating co-dependent interplay of the sexes, and the modern civilized world with all its trappings, is through the eternal release of death.
The Power of Narrative
In many ways, Vertigo is like a film within a film, and Scottie is like an audience member who becomes engrossed in a movie crafted specially for him. As ridiculous as the entire story Gavin gives us may be, we accept it without question…because it’s a movie and that’s how they work. The concept would not be introduced if it served no narrative purpose, or else it’s just wasted screen-time. Scottie seems to follow our lead, becoming completely sucked in by the narrative he’s been given by his second meeting with Gavin, rather than look for holes in the plot or search for the common sense truth.
As other reviewers have said, the movie could roughly be divided into segments of Scottie going from passive observer, to inserting himself into the movie he’s watching, to directing his own movie by the end. That’s an interesting thought, but with regards to the theme of narrative I think the point is more that, as crazy as the entire plot of the film is it doesn’t matter. The journey, the characters, the emotion…all the elements of film-making working together can manipulate us so that we willfully ignore the inconsistencies. Just like Scottie we are completely duped by the most insane murder plot ever conceived, and somehow we don’t care because the journey was so satisfying. That’s the power of a great story. By the end of the film, even Judy has been so bewitched by the Madeleine/Carlotta narrative she helped create that she believes a ghost is emerging from the shadows rather than a more logical explanation.
Deconstructing Film Tropes
So much of Vertigo is almost an anti-movie. It’s the crossroads between Citizen Kane (a well-done straightforward story, the teacher’s guide to how it’s done) and 2001 (an abstract art film that intentionally breaks all those rules). It’s a mystery where the conclusion is revealed with 40 minutes to go. It’s a romance where the love interest doesn’t talk until 40 minutes in. It’s a talkie with multiple long stretches of silence. Instead of feeling “real” it almost plays out like a dream—the nonsensical plot, hazy graveyard, unexplainable darkening of the bookstore, Madeleine’s unearthly entrance from the bathroom, flashing back to the horse carriages, as well as the trippy nightmare and title sequences all create that aesthetic. We’re not sure what we can trust and every detail seems exaggerated to provoke an emotion. In doing so, Hitchcock is taking full advantage of the medium of motion pictures beyond just filming a stage play as many of his predecessors opted to do.
In particular, Vertigo is an evolution of film noir. It’s in color, first of all. It begins with a death, but rather than set up the mystery as is tradition, it sets up the protagonist’s physical and psychological vulnerabilities. The detective is completely hapless and duped by the antagonist from the beginning, blinded by his emotions, and only discovers the truth at the very end when his mark slips up. This is in stark contrast to Sam Spade or the dozens of other hard-boiled detectives of the genre, all of whom are supposed to be one step ahead of everybody else. The femme fatale is really just a plain, simple country girl with no ulterior motive, who breaks convention by submitting to the man. Instead of the detective ultimately coming to his senses and rejecting her, she has manipulated him so well even she can’t control him anymore. Rather than leave us with some cynical message of how corrupt the system is, Vertigo leaves us ruminating over how dysfunctional our own daily emotions can be.
There are plenty of sections of the film that would be perfect dumping grounds for narration, (and one or two are written in the script) another staple of many noirs, but Hitchcock opted to let the visuals and music speak for themselves while our imaginations did the rest. It’s an anti-noir and an anti-film in many ways, while retaining and honoring (even mastering) the techniques of both at the same time. Hitchcock knew enough about the rules to understand which ones he could break.
Looks are Deceiving
Even outside their archetypes in the medium of film, nobody in Vertigo is exactly as they seem. Scottie is a sexually frustrated, disturbed creep beyond his nice guy exterior. Madeleine is really just Judy. The kindly Gavin is really a vicious murderer. The ghost of Carlotta that scares Judy is really just a nun. All Madeleine’s supposed fits of apparition were really just carefully planned acting. Nothing and no one are as they seem. Even the innocuous Midge harbors unspoken romantic feelings.
Slaves to Our Emotions
Vertigo sheds light on how overpowering, and therefore terrifying, our emotions can be. How we can unexplainably fall in love with someone bad for us when there are other options available. How we strive to win over the aloof Scottie when it’s clear he’ll never be interested in the real you. How trauma can stay with us for years after the fact and influence how we live. The only character who gets what he wants out of the story is Gavin, who has no emotions, at least none for others.
Love is not the Answer to All Life’s troubles
In almost all movies, then and now, the story ends when someone gets the girl. Love is the answer to all life’s problems, and once the hero is set with his love interest we can assume it all worked out fine from there. Vertigo subverts this expectation as well. As described above, it’s a story about what happens when love goes wrong, when relationships are abusive and toxic. We see how love can be one-sided (Midge) and people can be unhappy in their marriages (Gavin). We see how love can sometimes be dependent on imprinting and fixation rather than compatibility and genuine bonding (Scottie). We see how guilt, pity and insecurity can taint how we think we feel about someone (Judy). We hurt the ones we love, sometimes intentionally and sometimes not, and often we act differently than our true selves to attract the people we want (Madeleine). Carlotta’s story repeats itself in Madeleine and Judy, as if men hurting women (and vice versa) is the true source of possession haunting humanity. An offhand comment from Pop implies that such circumstances are all too common throughout history. The film pairs love with the titular condition of vertigo, a feeling of dizziness, spinning and disorientation. It’s a fitting metaphor.
Vertigo explores the human psyche, how prone to damage it is based on our surroundings, and how hard it can be to pull back from psychosis. Scottie suffers from debilitating nightmares and PTSD both after his police partner died in the beginning and after Madeleine’s passing. He’s never truly the same man again in the film, and he had to be institutionalized for an entire year to even get set loose. Madeleine suggests in an emotional outburst that her behavior only makes sense if she were mad—and assuming she wasn’t an actress leading Scottie on, she’s probably right. It doesn’t make for a good story, but if these characters were real they’d all need serious therapy. Vertigo also blurs the line between love and madness, the crazy things we do to ourselves and others for the sake of it, how irrational it makes us. None of Scottie’s actions, at least in the second half, and none of Judy’s in the whole film, make any rational sense. Were it not for the convenient excuse of love, we would say they are mad.
There are a lot of prominent vertical and (less frequently) horizontal bars, lines and ridges throughout the movie. More often than not, Scottie wears a tie with stripes on it. He notably switches from a blue checkered tie to a red striped one when he goes to Ernie’s and sees Madeleine for the first time, even though these events happen in the same day. There are bars on the outside windows when Madeleine goes to get her flowers. The outside of the art gallery and McKittrick hotel have prominent pillars (mirroring the one seen in the Carlotta portrait) and a metal fence all creating the same barred “texture” on screen. Its more of a stretch, but the banisters in the McKittrick hotel and pillars (plus the wires) of Goldengate Bridge could be part of the same aesthetic. Nearly every surface in Scottie’s apartment, at least the living room area where he and Madeleine talk, has noticeable ridges or stripes on it. From the fabric pattern on the back of the chair to the ruffles in the curtains and lampshades, to his blinds pulled down and the brick texture of his fireplace as well as the metal grating there. The sequoia trees might also qualify. And at the Spanish mission, there are the stone pillars outside and then when we cut into the stable, the camera holds on the exterior, where Scottie and Madeleine stand haloed by the vertical stripes on the doors and horizontal wooden beams from the ceiling. There’s a noticeable metal fence outside Scottie’s hospital room when he’s unresponsive. When he watches Judy go up to her hotel room, the building behind him has a prominent horizontal striped pattern.
This one might be a coincidence if there were just a couple fewer instances of it. But as is, it’s far too often and noticeable in the film not to have been deliberate, especially when considering Hitchcock’s attention to detail in all other aspects of this production. I think the idea is pretty clear as well—it’s supposed to look like a cage or evoke the feeling of confinement. And it represents how, for nearly the entire film, Scottie is trapped. He’s ensnared by Gavin into this dream world, and he’s unable to escape his emotional longing for Madeleine. He’s not a man in control of the situation nor acting of his own rational free will. Tying this into the theme of power and freedom, it’s showing that Scottie lacks both in his pursuit of a woman. Considering the pillar in Carlotta’s painting, the bars—at least the pillars—in the movie might also be a callback to her and her influence, or the legacy of the story and how men and women prevent each other from having both power and freedom.
A notable visual cue in the film is circles and (occasionally,) spirals. The red nightgown Madeleine wears when she first meets Scottie, the collar and sleeves of Judy’s green dress when she meets him again, and Scottie’s tie when he’s finally living happily with his new Madeleine all have notable polka dots on them, as does the one he wears as they first kiss. Madeleine and Carlotta both have a distinct “swirly” hair style. Circles become a lot more common in the second half of the film, with the chair in Scottie’s bedroom before the nightmare, and the chairs in Ernie’s are all circular in addition to the pictures on the walls there. When Madeleine emerges from Scottie’s bedroom and they exchange their first words, there’s also a notable circular wall ornament in the frame. When Judy is getting new shoes, there’s a spirally case perfectly behind her in the frame. In the hair salon when she’s getting her hair dyed, there’s a brilliant circular white light in the other room. Most famously, the opening credits are full of iconic neon spirals rotating in and out of existence.
These circular shapes all represent those obsessive singular moments—points suspended in time—that Scottie seeks to return to and relive forever. Spirals represent constantly coming back to those memories again and again, unable to escape their orbit. Madeleine has become Scottie’s center of gravity, the sun to his world(view).
Fire is Scottie’s element.
Fire is fragile and fleeting yet all-consuming and dangerous. It’s typically associated in our culture with passion and attractiveness. Fire produces light and warmth, as Scottie tries to shine light on this dark mystery (and keep Carlotta, represented by shadows, in check) and is initially caring to those around him. Scottie has a fire going each time Madeleine/Judy appears in his apartment, and on the first and last of these three occasions he prompts her to sit by it. Initially it’s a comforting and a thoughtful gesture, but the second time it’s creepy and just the latest example of Judy getting burned by his singular passion. There’s a great shot of Madeleine with the fire behind her, symbolizing Scottie’s blossoming passion and lust (or, perhaps, how dangerous that passion is). The fire escape sign outside Judy’s apartment tries to warn both of them to run away before they get burned by this passion. Too much fire, or just getting too close, is deadly. Like lust, a small controlled sample can be nice but it can quickly become a raging inferno if left unchecked.
Plants are Judy/Madeleine’s element.
Plants need water and light/warmth to live, but an excess of either is deadly, as Gavin and Scottie kill Madeleine and Judy respectively, after appearing to be supportive of them. (Remember from the analysis of Gavin that his element is the ocean.) Scottie throwing logs on the fire could be subtle visual foreshadowing of how he will harm Judy. Madeleine falling into the bay might be another, especially when paired with the image of the flowers submerged in the blue-black water with her. Plants are passive, helpless and used in homes for aesthetic purposes. They’re green, like Madeleine’s color and we see a ton of plants throughout the film, especially in conjunction with her. Her first stop is to a flower store, the cemetery she goes to next is also filled with plants and flowers. There are flowers in the portrait of Carlotta and even a picture of flowers next to it. There are plants in Gavin’s office and the gentleman’s club when he and Scottie discuss Madeleine. The McKittrick hotel’s caretaker is surrounded by plants. There are pictures of flowers in Judy’s apartment and her room in the McKittrick hotel. Scottie pins a flower on Judy and there are flowers at the hair salon as she becomes Madeleine. Midge unwisely brings red flowers to Scottie as he’s recuperating in the hospital, and the wall behind him is consumed by ivy—representing the fact that Madeleine still fresh on his mind.
Most famously are the Sequoia trees Scottie and Madeleine go to on their first “date” where he utters one of the key lines of the movie “always green, ever-living,” forever tying her to the color and the plants that come with it. The tree rings and flowers can also join in with the circular motif at the same time. Flowers are circular objects within plants, which serve both purposes, representing Madeleine herself and for Scottie those “perfect moments” he wants to return to and relive forever.
With the exception of the one at Ernie’s, there are no mirrors in the film until Judy comes into the picture. Then we have several scenes of her in front of a mirror. This is because she is a reflection of Madeleine—the same, but slightly off. Alternatively, it’s because she forces Scottie to see and confront his own reflection, his own dark side. With Scottie and Madeleine the intrigue was more on her mind and how in control of it she was. With Judy, the focus is entirely on her looks, objectifying and controlling her through them, like a woman doing hair and makeup in front of the mirror.
I believe these are associated with Gavin somehow. We first see one in his office, above him at Ernie’s and then again in the McKittrick Hotel (where he has presumably paid off the landlady), in the gentleman’s club where he and Scottie converse again and finally in the hall where Scottie and Judy dance as well as the clothing store. Less decorative variations can be seen outside the mission where Madeleine dies and in the building where the inquest takes place. The two instances where they occur during Madeleine and Judy’s dates don’t seem to fit with the rest, however. Up to that point, they neatly paired with Gavin’s presence or influence in a scene. It’s possible Gavin’s presence in the latter two scenes are supposed to show that this is what Gavin did to Judy to woo her in the first place—take her out to fancy dancing parties and buying her expensive new clothes—before he turned exploitative just as Scottie is now doing to her again, similar to how Carlotta’s lover bought her a fancy house before throwing her away. So it’s suggesting that Scottie has turned into Gavin and his mirroring his steps, while for Judy it’s deja vu. But I admit this is a more speculative analysis. Still, when there are notable chandeliers in every single scene where Gavin appears, I think it’s significant somehow. The camera even pans up as if from Scottie’s POV and singles in on the chandelier at the McKittrick hotel, as if drawing our attention to it—subtly telling the viewer that his influence is here, that the landlady is under his control.
The chase in the beginning matches the chase of Madeleine up the tower, with the vertigo and music cues being the link, as well as what it means for Scottie—failing due to his vertigo yet again.
Midge listening to Mozart while talking to Scottie is mirrored in her apartment and hospital.
Scottie says “hey! Wait a minute!” to Midge before they visit Pop and she repeats the same phrase to him after the next scene.
Scottie admiring Madeleine at Ernie’s, the art gallery and outside her apartment will be mirrored after Scottie searches for the dead Madeleine in vain later. The famous profile shot at Ernie’s will be mirrored when he sees Judy for the first time and again in Judy’s apartment after their first date.
Madeleine opening the window of the McKittrick hotel to check for Scottie will be repeated by Judy at the Hotel Empire.
Scottie prompting Madeleine to sit in front of the fire of his apartment will be repeated with Judy. As will him prompting her to drink to alleviate pain—the second instance however, the pain is caused by his own actions.
Madeleine/Judy and Scottie kiss only four times in the whole film—the beach, the horse carriages, and twice in Judy’s apartment. The blue, then black then green backgrounds in each represent the external forces that created yet doom their pairing, those being Gavin/deception, Carlotta/domination, Madeleine/obsession. The first kiss is genuinely touching and romantic. The second is desperate and strained. The third is tragic and upsetting. The fourth might not even count to be honest—it’s a few shorter pecks on the lips as opposed to one sustained smooch, they’re further away from the camera and the music is quieter. But regardless, it’s an interesting role reversal of the second in front of the carriages. This time Judy is the one trying to enjoy the moment while Scottie is preoccupied with the tower when before it was the other way around.
Similarly, the two times they drive to the mission are mirrors of each other. In each, Scottie is smiling while Judy/Madeleine is apprehensive. Of course, the second time around Scottie is smiling with sinister intentions.
Three times we see Scottie, then Scottie and Judy, then Judy walking through the hallway of her hotel building in front of the fire escape sign, representing their many opportunities to walk away from this toxic delusional relationship.
Scottie asks Madeleine where she is twice, at the forest and in the stable. Both times she responds “here with you.”
Most subtly, there is a large fan on the wall of Ernie’s where Scottie first sees Madeleine, and a very small fan on the wall of Judy’s apartment when he first sees her. A small visual cue that they’re the same, and yet another example of Judy being a diminished Madeleine.
Most obviously, Scottie takes Judy/Madeleine to the Mission twice, where they climb the tower together. Each instance has three vertigo shots each from his POV.
OVERALL these repeated scenes/actions/visuals make the film feel self-contained, as if we are trapped in a cycle we can never break free from. Again, it’s similar to the thought processes of a person with obsession, constantly cycling back to the same memories endlessly. Along with the score doing the same, the background info on Carlotta (a legacy Madeleine is predicted to repeat and Judy unwittingly fulfills) as well as the visual motifs of the bars and spirals, this repetition creates a feeling that we are trapped by destiny. Touching on the theme of madness, the definition of insanity is repeating the same actions yet expecting a different outcome. Regarding the theme of possession, it furthers the idea of a puppet repeating the actions and tragedy of the malevolent apparition.
Another good article Cassandra. I’m glad I had the opportunity to watch this movie with you! Good to see you found time to do some writing. But I miss being with you!
Impressively thorough and cogent analysis of Vertigo! Could easily be a monograph in book form like the ones I’ve been reading on Vertigo lately. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.
To step back from the analysis of Vertigo to the process of creation and analysis, I sometimes wonder if creators put all the thought in that analysts do, or if much of the elements and connections arise intuitively. For example, the bars reflecting power and freedom; did Hitchcock actually say to himself, this story is about power and freedom and I’ll have many vertical stripes and bars to reflect that, or did they arise from his subconscious as he assembled elements. Or do serious viewers read things into works that were never consciously or subconsciously intended? I’ve never created something of anywhere near the magnitude of a film, so I can’t speak from personal experience, but I know that the small things I do create usually arise without much intense thought. Probably the answer is all of the above!