Sunday, November 16, 2014


(A version of this post first appeared on the Bryn Mawr Film Institute Blog)

My father was a big Alfred Hitchcock fan because he was the “Master of Suspense.” But, there is so much more going on in his art. He addresses voyeurism often, which is fitting, since his audience lives vicariously through the characters he presents on the screen. However, he goes further, making the audience, from the perspective of the camera lens, an unseen presence stepping into the stories themselves. We become a Peeping Tom, like Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window; we observe Janet Leigh through the hole in the wall, in Psycho; we are accused directly in the diner scene of causing the coming apocalypse, in The Birds.

In Vertigo, Jimmy Stewart's weird obsession with Kim Novak takes this voyeurism to the point of obsession. The voyeur has no respect for the individual, who is only a means to satisfy the voyeur's fantasy. In the opening credits we see a woman's face and then her eye. We then look into that eye, and there is a spinning pinwheel. Right from the beginning, Hitchcock is saying that a man can become unbalanced with obsession over a woman.

Stewart's detective Scottie discovers that he has acrophobia while hanging from a gutter after chasing a criminal. He is then traumatized by witnessing a fellow policeman fall off the roof trying to save him. Falling becomes a motif in the film. The story takes place in hilly San Francisco, which symbolizes the precariousness of Scottie's predicament. (Scottie lives right near Coit Tower.)  Probably because he feels guilty about the dead police officer, he dives into the bay to save Novak's character. But the jump also shows how dangerous his obsession can become. Of course, there are the falling deaths from the tower, and Scottie has dreams of falling off the tower. After the death of his fantasy woman, he drops into a state of catatonia, unable to be in the real world. The falling theme also refers to the danger of falling in love with the wrong person, for both Scottie and Novak's Judy. One could push it and say, for Scottie, the towers are phallic symbols, and the fear of falling could symbolize the fear of impotence in real life, thus encouraging the escape into fantasy.

The acrophobia is not only a plot device so that Scottie can't witness Thomas Helmore's Gavin throwing his wife off the tower. It also symbolizes Stewart's inability to see the big picture from a height. He can only see as far as his version of a dream woman lets him. The first scene deals with beauty and sex, as Scottie’s ex-fiancĂ©e, Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes) draws fashion pictures and discusses a newly designed bra. She is not the Hitchcock ice-goddess, since she just draws beauty and clinically describes the bra's engineering. When she draws a picture of Novak as Gavin's wife Madeleine and substitutes her own face, Scottie quickly departs the room, showing how she does not fit his sexual requirements. She is real and can't compete with a dream girl. Gavin is an old friend, who knows of Scottie's disability, and wants Stewart to find out where his wife is going on her mysterious trips. At first Scottie is the voyeur spying on her beauty at the restaurant. Hitchcock places the audience in the car seat, following Novak, joining the detective in his fantasy. When he follows her through a dark walkway and opens the door, the scene lights up with the beautiful colors of flowers which the equally beautiful Novak is buying. It reminds one of Dorothy opening the door to her drab house to witness the awe of Oz, which, of course is a fantasy land, and which can be dangerous, just like Scottie's obsession.

The husband says a dead woman is possessing his wife. She goes into spells, visits her grave, and looks at the dead woman's painting on the wall of the gallery. Scottie observes that the curl in Novak's hair mirrors the curl of the dead woman in the painting. We realize that the circular curls also echo the theme of spinning wheels, leading to actual and symbolic vertigo. The story of the ghost plays into the whole unreal, fantasy theme of the film. Scottie sees Madeleine check into a hotel, but the concierge says she was not there that day, and there is no evidence of her in the hotel room. After Scottie rescues Madeleine from the bay, the camera shows her clothes hung up and drying in his home, and Novak naked under the covers in his bed. This is kind of creepy, knowing that she has been undressed by a stranger. It is as if Stewart's character presumptuously has actually taken possession of her (in contrast to her pretending to have become possessed) as an object in his fantasy world. When they are in the sequoia forest, Madeleine seems to disappear for a while, like an unearthly spirit. After his release from the mental institution, Scottie looks for Madeleine wherever he goes, like a morbid ghost hunter. It is ironic that he becomes haunted by the ghost of a woman who pretended to be haunted by another dead woman. Of course, when Scottie accidently sees Judy, thinking she is only a Madeleine look-a-like and not part of the murder conspiracy, he wants to resurrect the dead Madeleine, forcing the now-in-love Judy to again play the same part. When Scottie finally recreates her with make-up, hair styling, and clothes, Hitchcock makes Novak look like she is a ghost, as she materializes out of the hotel room's wall in a neon sign induced mist.

Scottie's obsession is a kind of madness. Gavin says there is madness in Madeleine's family, which sets the stage for the belief that she would commit suicide (her name has the word "mad" in it).  And, Scottie's madness leads to a sort of personality suicide as he realizes at the end, as Roger Ebert says in his book, The Great Movies, that another man (Gavin) created the woman he wanted to forge. Thus, Scottie's dream was not even his own. First he lost the person he wrongly thought was his ideal woman incarnate, and then he loses the woman he thought he created to be his perfect reproduction of his ideal.  For Hitchcock, the desire to possess one's dream person is an impossible act and can only turn life into a nightmare.

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