WARNING: This analysis contains Spoilers for ‘Vertigo.’
Vertigo (1958) is a psychological thriller directed by Alfred Hitchcock and is considered one of the greatest movies of all-time. The release was underwhelming at the time for Hitchcock’s standards, reviews were mixed and many felt the film was too long and complicated. It is ironic, then, that Hitchcock’s most personal movie would prove to be his most divisive.
Despite the initial reaction, history has been kind. It is featured on almost every best film of all time list, from AFI’s ‘100 years… 100 Movies’ list (ranked #9) to British Film Institute’s Sight & Sound Polls (ranked #2). How is it that this once forgotten Hitchcock gem went on to become one of the greatest movies of all time?
An American Obsession
From the opening credits title sequence, which features vivid and kaleidoscopic spirals, the visuals let us know that this is going to be a film that takes us down a strange-obsessive-rabbit-hole. The film stars James Stewart as Scottie, a detective suffering from acrophobia, who becomes obsessed with Madeleine, the wife of an old friend who hired him to investigate her erratic behavior. Hitchcock’s visual storytelling is stellar, on almost every level, from his use of color for wardrobes and set design to his precise camera moves used to emphasize pivotal emotional moments.
Obsession is embodied in every aspect of this movie. As Scottie’s investigation progresses, Madeleine’s increasingly erratic behavior serves as a catalyst for Scottie’s growing delusional-obsession for her, the breaking-point being the moment Madeleine commits suicide at the Mission church. Scottie then goes on to obsessively search for her, which reveals a more sinister plot where Madeleine never existed, she was instead played by another woman hired by his friend Gavin, a device he used to get away with murdering his wife. Vertigo explores Scottie’s obsession for Madeleine, but is Scottie really any more obsessive than the everyday American in pursuit of their version of the American Dream?
As Jim Cullen explains in his acclaimed book The American Dream, the foundation of the American Dream can be found in opening clause of the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.” (38).
In other words, the American Dream stands for granting people the freedom to pursue their happiness, but of course, this doesn’t guarantee that you will get what you want. These words from the Declaration of Independence may have “…structured the minutiae of everyday existence” (38), but it doesn’t mean the American Dream is free of having a darker side, where the harsh reality of blind idealism and unrealistic goals face the harsh realities of upward mobility.
Vertigo appears to be a movie simply about one man’s obsession. However; closer examination reveals a cautionary tale about the pursuit of the American Dream with blind idealism, caused by the anxiety and uncertainty prevalent in 1950s America. When viewing Vertigo with this in mind, one can easily see Scottie resembling the American citizen obsessively pursuing their dream, and Madeleine representing their unique dream for their life.
The Age of Anxiety
Vertigo was made in what many historians consider the “Age of Anxiety”. From the escalating tension with Russia, and of course the red scare, where anyone could be a communist in disguise, it seems like the foundation of that anxiety was ever-present uncertainty. Also, the threat of nuclear war was another source of major anxiety, at any moment the world could end and this kind of threat was a first for Humanity. This anxiety in the 1950s had a major impact on the American Dream and the motives to pursue it. What is the purpose of chasing the Dream when Nuclear War, which ultimately is out of the average citizen’s hands, could eviscerate the world in minutes?
This collective uncertainty is embodied in the plot of Vertigo in a multitude of ways, a common thread being from Scottie’s perspective no one is actually who they say they are. A major example is when Madeleine is revealed to be an actress merely playing her. Considering the specificity Alfred Hitchcock applied to visually design his movies, Vertigo’s opening credits provide the keys to understanding the films overall deeper meaning on a multitude of levels.
The Opening Credits: The Key to Vertigo’s Deeper Meaning
Vertigo’s opening credits feature Bernard Hermann’s haunting score, which helps establish an uncertain and anxious tone for the story. Madeleine is Scottie’s object of obsession in the story, and since he never actually meets the real Madeleine, she is technically just an idea, which was being performed by Judy. A key aspect of this title sequence is the fact that Madeleine is shot in black in white, she has no color, and this further reflects that she is just an idea and has no life to her.
It also foreshadows her death, later on, Hitchcock literally takes the life out of her initially. Madeleine exists in his mind, and the low key lighting isolates her in dark abyss, visually reflecting her as an idea and object of obsession. We are introduced to her with an extreme close up shot of only half her face then the camera movement pans left in a very methodical controlled fashion to an ECU of her lips, then both her eyes, and then to her eye where the color red fills saturates the screen, this color and the color green are major recurring colors throughout the story. This camera movement foreshadows the part in the story when Scottie is putting Madeleine back together, piece by piece with Judy, his obsession with the details of her appearance. All of this happens in one take and it seems like this part is Scottie’s perspective of Judy when finally transforming back into Madeleine towards the end. The close up of Madeleine’s eye saturated in red fades into the spiral sequence.
These spirals at first resemble the iris on an eye, opening, and closing, and by the end of the sequence, they have become contorted and skewed and static. As far as the narrative goes, the progression of this spiral sequence mirrors the overall plot structure, how everything spirals out of control and is skewed in the end. This also reflects Scottie’s blind idealism, his romantic delusion for Madeleine, which he ends up costing him everything in the end. In addition, a key here is Scottie’s inability to see the bigger picture in the story, he is blind to the fact that Gavin is using him as a pawn. If these spirals are metaphorical to what Scottie perceives in the story, they also reflect his vantage point becoming more and more skewed as the story progresses.
Also, the color of these spirals is primarily Red and Green, which recur throughout the story, representing different aspects of Scottie’s obsession. When this sequence is viewed as what was going on in 1958 historically, and the anxiety of the 1950s in general, it’s clear that visually the darkness reflects the overall uncertainty of that time period. If we look at Madeleine as a metaphor for the American Dream, something that we as Americans almost obsessively pursue, perhaps her being engulfed in darkness reflected the darkness looming around the American Dream during the 1950s
Scottie’s fear of heights is a key element when looking at the film from the context of moving up in status and success in society. If height is seen as a certain level of desirable success, and Scottie is terrified of heights, is he afraid of success? A pivotal scene is when Scottie and Madeleine go to the Old Mission and she tells him she wants to be alone in the church. She ran ahead of him inside, and Scottie starts to chase her upstairs. As he runs up the stairs, climbing higher and higher, he stops to look down and the horns on the soundtrack screen as he experiences Vertigo.
The Vertigo shot externalises his fear, by pulling the camera back and zooming forward at the same time. Scottie’s fear is getting the best of him and Madeleine eludes him and then all of a sudden she jumped off the building. On his way down the stairs afterward, a wide shot reveals the spiralling of the stairway, which connects to the spiral sequence during the opening credits.
When looking at this scene with upward mobility in mind, did his dream just come out of reach caused by letting fear get the best of him? Ironically the Madeleine he was chasing isn’t the real Madeleine since the real Madeleine is dead unbeknownst to him. Could this mean he is chasing a dream that is really dead? Is the American Dream as we imagine it really dead? If the stairway in this scene represents the ladder of success in upward social mobility, then perhaps having the courage to overcome our fears is the biggest hurdle in achieving the American Dream.
Judy, or Madeline?
The majority of Vertigo features Scottie trying to turn Judy into Madeleine. He meets Judy one day in the streets of San Francisco, who has an uncanny resemblance to Madeleine. She is introduced wearing an all green dress, which contrasts with the black dress and green scarf “Madeleine” was wearing when Scottie first saw her in the red restaurant.
Judy and Madeleine represent different types of American Dreams, Judy the more realistic and attainable and Madeleine representing the unrealistic fantasy that is unattainable. When Scottie saved Madeleine after she jumped into the bay, he gave her all red pajamas to wear, which is how she is introduced when he is first getting to know her intimately. The colors red and green are the key signifiers here. Also, if a traffic signal metaphor is applied here, red meaning to stop, and green to go, the combination of both seem to create a stasis, a stalemate. This is precisely how the green spiral shapes ending the opening credits are after starting with movement.
Scottie eventually learns that Judy was hired to play Madeleine by Gavin, and she never existed in the first place. Scottie recreates the day Madeleine jumped to her death, which leads to him overcoming his fear of heights in the stairway. The tragedy is that Judy reveals she loved Scottie all-along, that is why she never ran away. Scottie feels betrayed and can’t see the truth that both Judy and Madeleine are the same. Suddenly, a shadowy figure (revealed to be a nun) startles Judy resulting in her falling to her death, dying exactly as Madeleine supposedly died.
In the blind idealistic pursuit of the idea of Madeleine, Scottie literally has his object of desire but cannot see it. How many Americans in pursuit of the American Dream have it but are blind to that fact? Is Scottie any more obsessive than the everyday American in pursuit of their version of the American Dream? It’s pretty evident that everyone is entitled to their own version of the dream, of course achieving that isn’t guaranteed but ones opportunity to have a dream is. America provides a platform for its citizens to dream as big as they want, no matter how unrealistic, and despite the fact that not every dream is attainable, it is our collective obsession to continue dreaming.