Vertigo is controversially argued as, not only one of Hitchcock’s best films, but one of the greatest films ever. Vertigo is more than a movie; it’s a form of art exploring various themes through symbolism, camera work and sound. The story of Vertigo on the surface would seemingly be the story of a detective following a woman for his job but it is more than that. Vertigo is actually a deep film about mortality and the fear of death, blurring of illusion and reality.
The film starts very intensely with powerful non diegetic music and a close up on a ladder, it then proceeds to zoom out to a long shot of the ladder and the criminal and the two officers climb and follow. It then jumps to an establishing shot of the roof that tracks the chase; no dialogue only non-diegetic music and the sound of gun fire. It then jumps to a long shot of a leap to another part of the roof, to which both the cop and the criminal make it but James Stewart’s character ‘Scottie’ doesn’t and is left hanging. As he falls the camera cuts to a closer shot of him, as he hangs on Hitchcock cuts to a mid-shot of Scottie hanging, then jump cuts to a mid-shot of the police officer and Hitchcock cuts down to a close up of Scottie hanging looking down at the ground frightfully. Hitchcock then uses the famous ‘Vertigo’ shot by simultaneously zooming in and tracking backward which results that the foreground remains stable while the background expands backwards. This type of filmmaking is extremely experimenting and challenging as it disorientates the audience.
The scene ends with Scottie hanging and the next scene is Scottie sat with Midge. Hitchcock juxtaposes intense opening followed by domestic tranquillity. Hitchcock offers no explanation leaving the audience with enigma and mystery, raising the theme of illusion and reality. Was the opening scene Scottie’s illusion? Is Scottie psychologically unstable? Some believe the film is an entire hallucination of Scottie, as Vertigo ends as it began; Scottie staring down helplessly from a great height but his Vertigo cured at the end. Hitchcock uses a number of different lenses, green hues, fogs, filters and various densities to achieve Vertigo’s dreamlike look suggesting that this is perhaps all part of Scottie’s illusion. The opening sequence starts with a close up shot of a woman’s mouth then panning to her eye; the screen turns red as the music hits an eerie climax. The woman is wide eyed yet we don’t know what she is scared off, if you look at the mouth close up; you can see that she is trying to move her lips but cannot. This gives it a dreamlike feel as it’s like one of those dreams where you want to yell but cannot. The film sets a tone that it outside the realm of reality.
Hitchcock uses a theme of death and regularly questions the afterlife in Vertigo. There is often a feeling of ‘someone’ else watching Scottie and Kim Novak’s character Judy/Madeleine. The first time the two visit the Spanish mission the stable is introduced, rather than a standard continuity shot; the camera starts off across the stress then pans screen right and turns into a wide shot of the stable. Inside the chapel Scottie faces his fears but it’s too late and a woman falls to her death. This emphasises the theme of death as there is a continuous battle between life and the curiosity of afterlife that goes on in our minds, the closer we get to death; the closer to an answer we are. We are afraid to go over the edge to find the truth because of the unknown consequences, Scottie however disagrees as he states that ‘there’s an answer for everything’.
Bill Orme from IMDB states that there are ‘cardboard characters, weak script and poor acting’ to which I entirely disagree. Scottie is morally ambiguous as he’s a retired cop which suggests usually good meanings but he falls in love with his friend’s wife which breaks the professional and friendship codes. He’s not a good detective as he doesn’t remain objective and instead becomes part of the story. He is tricked twice and responsible for three deaths. Scottie is an anti-hero with a twist as he has qualities of a lost soul at times. Scottie manipulates Madeleine to be more like Judy ironically as Judy previously manipulated Scottie. Much like the roman myth of Pygmalion and Galatea, Pygmalion (Scottie) creates a sculpture of the perfect woman (Madeleine) and tragically falls in love with her. Scottie is a scopophilic as he moulds Judy into Madeleine in a manner that denotes lust and obsession not love. Scottie breaks the rules as he is a highly subversive detective and is vastly unconventional. Kim Novak’s character allows herself to be moulded by both Scottie and Gavin; she is a masochist. She is represented negatively in a sense as she is the mistress of a married man; she deceives Scottie and has a crisis of identity. The audience sympathise with her as she is a lost soul taken advantage by men who play with her emotions. Scottie uses her affection and love for him to his advantage to mould his ideal woman, Gavin uses her emotions to get rid of his wife. Gavin tempts both Scottie and Judy; therefore he is the devil archetype. Hitchcock’s characters are the furthest thing from cardboard; they have depth and are wonderfully played by the cast.
Throughout the theme there is a recurring theme of the colour green which is constant in each scene. The scene with the forest features a great deal of establishing shots in the forest showing Scottie and Madeleine as tiny insignificant people compared to the trees. Madeleine comments that she’s thinking ‘all the people who were born and have died while the trees went on living’ suggesting she wishes that she could experience this as trees never truly die as they live for hundreds of years and are reborn raising the question of death and immortality again. The film is about constant battle between fear of death and curiosity. Are we in the real world or are we only really there when we die. Plants are almost in every scene. They are similar to us as they grow up and eventually die but their death provides nutrition for the birth of more plant life, a kind of resurrection. Madeleine doesn’t like the tree because she is jealous, she doesn’t like the fact that she has to die and never be resurrected.
Hitchcock successfully explores all these themes and more through the medium of film, sound, symbolism and editing. He shows that love is a form of madness as ‘love’ or ‘lust’ as some sceptics may see drove him to madness and led him to be overly obsessive.