Vertigo: seeing is not believing

I watched Vertigo again recently – perhaps for the third or fourth time. It reminded me of being puzzled by the film when I first saw it years ago – it is, on the surface, a trashy movie adapted from a trashy French thriller called ‘Between Two Deaths’ – a barely credible shaggy dog story that is saturated with cod psychology about agoraphobia. Nowadays James Stewart’s Scotty would probably have been diagnosed with PTSD given his unfortunate association with violent deaths.
I probably first watched a mediocre, dilapidated print that would have inevitably blurred the astonishing visual genius of Hitchcock’s work which is exhibited in this film more than any other in his very uneven catalogue – and the work of the picture and sound restorers has to be recognized as truly remarkable.
But it is paradoxical.
The impact of the clean up is to expose Hitchcock’s remarkably stylised and anti naturalist design that makes full use of resplendent colour symbolism and recurrent visual leitmotifs that are deepened and echoed with thrilling brilliance in Bernard Hermann’s score. Hermann, who wrote the score of ‘Citizen Kane’, perfectly understood I suspect the intention of the film, which I believe is to dramatize how the human gaze becomes the locus of obsessive passion and deception. We are what we see but what we see is deceptive and dangerous. So the music is as seductive as the tale spun in the story for Scotty and of course for us.
Although the story and its realisation on screen are both highly stylised and clearly take a perverse pleasure in patterns and rhymes, Hermann underscores a powerful emotional flow that does not in any way contradict the formality of the work. Form is passion. I wonder if Hermann was also thinking of the relation between his harmonies and Hitchcock’s obsessive use of greens and reds which structure the flow of images. Few movies conjure such an intricate weave of colours and shapes.
But if ‘Vertigo’ is on the surface trash what is it about and what gives the film such mysterious power. How does it transcend its story?
It’s tempting to say that ‘Vertigo’ is ‘really’ about cinema. James Stewart’s character – plot spoiler alert- is seduced by a narrative spun by his old friend Gavin Elster with all the accoutrements of a melodramatic thriller. In the first truly astonishing sequence, Scotty visits a restaurant, with blood red walls, where he is presented with Elster’s supposed wife Madeleine, dressed in green, who presents him with the perfect close up as she leaves the restaurant. Scotty then follows Madeleine in a succession of exquisite sequences as she appears to pursue the mystery of her ancestor Carlotta Valdes. These sequences have the delirious quality of a dream – as well they might. We could say that the style is supernatural, not because the film appears fascinated by the dead and their hold on the present but because the world Scotty moves through is so heightened. So yes, perhaps the film is about the obsession with story and the conjuring up of character on screen. The second half of the film, in which Hitchcock all too swiftly gives away the dastardly plot Elster has hatched, shows Scotty reconstructing the woman he thinks he has loved and lost. In a very disturbing series of scenes, he compels Judy to remake herself as Madeleine through make up, hair style and costume – just like a director does. And we now know that this particular director really did have a very obsessive relationship with his actresses which are mirrored in Scotty’s truly unpleasant manipulation. So ‘Vertigo’ can perhaps be seen as a reflection on story telling and cinema – and while we cannot know how the audiences who first saw the film understood the design and style, Hitchcock truly disdains naturalism. This reaches an astonishing climax in one of the most unsettling and beautiful scenes where Judy re-becomes Madeleine in a haze of milky green light. It’s one of the great moments of cinema – and a rejection of mimesis. But I think we can go deeper, beyond a mere reflection on story and cinema. The beautiful credit sequence designed by Saul Bass starts by tracking laterally across the face of Kim Novak then dives into her right eye. This depicts, of course, the real ‘vertigo’ of Hitchcock’s deeper story – a dizzying fall into the organ of sight. Throughout the movie, every sequence is structured around the look and anxieties of seeing and representing. Whenever the camera focuses on Scotty’s look, he and we are drawn ever deeper into a dangerous obsession.
Looking in ‘Vertigo’ is not a quest for truth through examining the world around him – it is a lure, an obsession, a madness. Returning then to the emotional tug of the film, so wonderfully drawn out by the score, the loss we experience is not so much Scotty’s loss and finally destruction of Madeleine/Judy – but our own loss of innocence about seeing – and the truth promised by humanist rationalism. To see is not know and understand, but to be seduced and psychically destroyed. We plunge into the eye just as the two women do who fall from the tower in front of Scotty’s appalled gaze.

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