Lights, Camera, Vertigo: How Hitchcock Explains the Madness and Fallacy of Filmmaking

Vertigo-alfred-hitchcock-865414_1024_768In Vertigo, Alfred Hitchcock goes beyond the psychoanalysis that defined a majority of his work, throws out the twisted mother and son relationships, and looks inward at his own experiences with filmmaking. Using the tools at his disposal, the director exposes the inherit lie of filmmaking, and how we fall for it. Hitchcock puts his relationship with his film and his audience on display in Vertigo. Through his overt use of editing, character doubles, and kinetic camera work, the director makes note of all the cinematic things we take for granted. The steady flow of disruptions throughout the plot and the film’s construction makes things people want, like relatable characters and logic, almost impossible to obtain.

The film aims to repel and attract in almost every frame. In the iconic opening credits, Hitchcock delivers an extreme closeup that’s too extreme to keep in the frame. He moves across a woman’s face, before stopping on her eye, and in her eye, he treats us to endless spirals within spirals, probably devised by Saul Bass and Dr. Spirograph in an abandoned warehouse two towns over. He draws us in and confuses us with the circles, but ultimately, he’s showing the film’s structure. Unlike Stranger’s on a Train, Vertigo‘s characters circle the plot, going through the motions time and time again, and leaving us in places we’re sure we’ve seen before. He pushes this notion even further with the editing, cutting between time periods with long fades, calling attention to our time traveling and making sure that things don’t entirely add up. The confusion that Hitchcock creates makes Jimmy Stewart’s Scottie the perfect audience surrogate.

Written as a direct, but psychologically unstable detective, Scottie’s perspective further mires things. Both persistent and obsessive—add to that a crippling fear of heights—, Scottie can’t seem to make heads or tails of anything that’s happening to Madeline, the supposedly possessed girl he’s hired to follow. As one piece of the puzzle locks together, another seems to be missing. He’ll follow her to her grandmother’s grave and to the art museum where she’ll gaze for hours at same portrait of her suicidal grandmother, but when he follows her into a motel, she suddenly vanishes. Scottie tries to write it off as mental instability, and his obsession with Madeline’s beauty and mystery gives the film energy, offering Hitchcock a vehicle with which to drive the intrigue. But Scottie’s perspective is unreliable.

Obsession takes on many roles in the film, but Hitchcock makes his interests in our and his own relationships with screen actors known. Madeline’s obsession with the portrait signals our own with people on the screen. Like us, she sits and stares, admiring the many qualities of what she sees.

Scottie, in turn, falls in love with the woman who is very clearly putting on an act. He knows she thinks she’s the woman in the portrait, but loves her anyway. Things complicate further when Scottie, after the facade is broken, forces her back into the dead woman’s clothes.

After Madeline’s supposed suicide, Scottie meets Judy, a woman who not only reminds him of Madeline, but also is Madeline. Kim Novak’s performance—coupled by a pair of eyebrows that would make Eugene Levy salivate—throws Scottie off her scent. Hitchcock shows the woman behind the performance, and then forces Scotty to dress her back up.

The final act of Vertigo plays with two notions: celebrity and directors. Hitchcock puts a bit of himself in Scottie, who makes Judy up to look like Madeline, buying her Madeline’s old clothes and sternly suggesting she put her hair in a bun.

Scottie acts in a way that is very much akin to a man that once said, “Actors are cattle.” Simultaneously, we can see a bit of our own celebrity-obsessed culture in Scottie, who demands Judy play her old role, the role that defined her in his mind. This place between viewer and director, actor and character, drives Scottie crazy. By the end, his vertigo goes away, allowing him see clearer, but by revealing and the re-enforcing the facade, it costs Judy and Madeline their lives.

Hitchcock gives us cinematic vertigo with a film that goes in circles. The film, deceitful in acting and editing, imposes the Scottie’s psychological state on us, leaving us dizzy and confused. By tapping into the many layers of our relationship with the screen, Hitchcock shows how bizarre that relationship can be, asking us: Why trust what we see on the screen, when our main character can’t see straight?

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