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A Warped Romance:
the Tragedy of Vertigo
February 4, 2000 | When Alfred Hitchcocks film Vertigo premiered in 1958, it originally received tepid critical and commercial response. However, Vertigo is now regarded as the most complex and self-revealing work of Hitchcocks oeuvre. The film focuses on John "Scottie" Ferguson, a former police detective who is recruited to investigate Madeleine, the wife of an old college friend. Scotties attraction to Madeleines cool, blond image causes his internal gulf between "aspiration and possibility" to widen to the point that it is impossible for Scottie to reconcile the division between "impulse and imperative" (Heilman 1). As a detective, Scotties aspiration is to find order in a confusing world by imposing a rigid set of rules on himself and those around him. However, the situations causing both Scotties vertigo and his romantic obsession make it clear that there is no possibility for anyone, including himself, to live up to that rigidity. As a tragic narrative, Vertigo probes the structure of Scotties impulsive rigidity, the situation that causes Scottie to choose this impulse over the human imperative of understanding and generosity, and the overdue understanding Scottie attains when it is clear that his inner division will never resolve.
In Scotties first film meeting with Midge, his internal rigidity, insensitivity to human frailty, daimonic drive to live by this unyielding internal structure, and hubris that his determinations will be accomplished hints of all of these qualities emerge in this early scene. In the first shot, we see a recuperating Scottie sitting next to a busily drawing Midge. Though their dialog makes it clear that Scottie and Midge are used to each others company, Hitchcock refuses to place both in the same shot as they begin to converse. Hitchcocks refusal reflects Scotties refusal to truly open up to Midge; instead, Scottie maintains a rigid emotional check that allows him to insensitively miss Midges romantic longing for him. Scotties subtle disregard for Midges lack of feminine mystique is also reflected in his smug, complacent body language and speech. Instead of being attentive to Midge, Scottie plays a balancing game with his cane, negligently leans back on the sofa, and prods his cane into Midges sunny yellow wall. The emotional distance forced by Hitchcocks shot composition is only broken when Scottie expresses annoyance with Midges choice of music: "Im kind of dizzy now!" Scotties rigidity then extends from his emotions to his professional principles. When Midge reveals that it would have been perfectly acceptable for Scottie to remain on the police force, Scottie says, "Behind a desk?" Midge answers, "Where you belong." Midge has a pointScotties aspiration to become the Chief of Police probably could have been attained, even through a desk job. Nevertheless, Scottie brushes Midges point aside, unable to admit that his acrophobia has made his internal rigidity a professional impracticality. Scotties daimonic drive to maintain his inflexible internal structure emerges when he and Midge discuss a cure for his acrophobia. Though Midge, having asked her doctor, says that only another emotional shock will possibly cure his phobia, Scottie replies: "I have a theoryI think I can lick it." This response shows Scotties emerging hubris in his own impulses.
The next day, Scottie meets with Gavin Elster, an old college friend. In this scene, Scotties shows his rigidity through his blunt, no-nonsense speech, his defensive body language, and his opinions on the occult. Scottie and Gavin make small talk until Scottie abruptly says, "Well, that just about covers everything... Now whats on your mind?" Gavin stands, physically subordinating the seated Scottie to his presence, and says he wants to put Scottie "back on the job." Scottie takes a defensive posture by crossing his legs, scowling, and hunching over, but he remains seated, unaware of the impending danger that Gavin represents. Hitchcock emphasizes Gavins dangerousness by placing him alone in a shot, metaphorically caged by the adjoining rooms doorframe and short set of stairs. (Steps are a Hitchcockian indication of danger.) Though Scottie moves to another chair in order to face Gavin, Scotties rigidity blinds him to any further understanding of the visual clues he is receiving. Gavin asks Scottie, "Do you believe that someone out of the pastsomeone deadcan enter and take possession of a living being?" To this, Scottie bursts out, "NO... Id take her to the psychiatrist or the psychologist or the plain family doctor. Id have him check on you, too!" Like with Midge in the preceding scene, Scottie insensitively brushes aside Gavins emotional subtleties. In this case, Scotties rigidity works to his advantage; it keeps him from falling to into Gavins trap. Gavin astutely realizes that his current tactic will not lead to success, so he refrains from pressing Scottie. However, Gavin lays a new trap when he invites Scottie to Ernies restaurant just to get a look at his wife. Scottie is still skeptical, but cannot find a reasonable way to dismiss this suggestion. As Scottie prepares to leave, Gavin makes an accurate observation of Scotties rigidity: "Youre still the hard-headed Scot. Always were."
Though his training as a detective has made him rigid, it has also made him curious, so Scottie goes to Ernies to see what Madeleine Elster looks like. In this case, Gavins trap works gloriously. Scotties rigidity made him impervious to Gavins first trap, but now, Scotties impulsive inflexibility makes him easy prey to the clean, cold lines of Madeleines beauty. Hitchcock increases Madeleines rigid appeal to Scottie by displaying her in vivid colors that contrast severely with her surroundings. (When it came to his "chilly" blond actresses, Hitchcock similarly demanded rigid control over wardrobe, hair, and make-up.) Among the red-walled interiors of Ernies, Madeleine stands out in green satin. By first shooting her starkly white back instead of her face, Hitchcock makes it clear that Scottie is viewing Madeleine as an objecta rigid, beautiful, blank slaterather than a person. Even when the camera lingers on her face, she is set up as an object. A close-up on her profile shuts out all color but the red of the walls and the white of her face and hair. This shot of Madeleine is reminiscent of an ivory cameo, a connection that Scottie does not miss. He intensely looks at Madeleine as much as he can without openly staring at her. His hooded eyes and pouting lips reveal the strength of his attraction to hershe has fit into an ideal Scottie did not know he had.
Scotties subsequent tailing of Madeleine can be rationalized as adherence to duty, but Scottie really uses this opportunity to feed his growing obsessive impulses. Scotties attraction to Madeleine keeps him from maintaining the objective stance of a detective, but at the same time, Scotties "detectives distance" from Madeleine keeps him from treating her as a complex person. The combination of Scotties attraction and distance allow him to ignore the human imperative for understanding and sensitivity. Instead, this combination leads him to rigidly depersonalize her as an obsessive object of beauty. The fact that Scottie has followed Madeleine for several days without hearing her speech only adds to his depersonalization. By the time he hears Madeleine speak for the first time, Scottie has intimately handled her, widening the division between his obsessive impulses and human imperatives. He rescues Madeleine from the San Francisco Bay, but carrying her inert body from the bay and nearly kissing her in her carall this proves too morally seductive to resist. Instead of following the path of decency and bringing her home, Scotties daimonic will leads him to bring Madeleine to his apartment. Here, Hitchcock slowly pans the interior to show the intimate setting Scottie has created. The camera moves from the roaring fire, to the casually-dressed Scottie, to Madeleines garments hanging in the kitchen, to the interior of the bedroom. From this shot, is clear that Scottie has undressed her and lain her in his bed. This handling of Madeleine has not only further objectified her, it subtly prepares Scottie for when he will truly attempt to sculpt Judy into his rigid ideal of beauty. When Madeleine emerges from the bedroom in Scotties robe (a sign of Scotties growing impulse to possess), Scotties eyes turn from cordial to lustful, showing pleasure in the mark he has made on the object of his obsession. "Youd better come over here by the fire where its warm," he says. At this, she speaks for the first time: "What am I doing here?" Her voice seems to fulfill Scotties rigid expectation for her beauty: it is cool, quiet, and cultured. An overhead close-up of Madeleine by the fire recalls an earlier overhead close-up of Midge, but while Midge was treated as a warm, somewhat uninteresting person (at least to Scottie), Madeleine is emphasized as a cool, mysterious object. The bespectacled Midge was frankly presented in studio lighting, but Madeleine is mysteriously lit by the fire. Scottie brusquely asks Madeleine a series of questions: "You dont remember?... Where?... Why do you go there?... Where were you before?" Madeleine notes his rigidity: "Youre terribly direct in your questions." This remark reminds the audience that Scottie is a detective, but it is clear that his questions are really motivated by impulsive obsession as much as they are by objective curiosity. Later, Scotties hand collides with Madeleines as both reach to lift her coffee cup. At the same time, Scotties phone begins to ring. For several rings, Scottie caresses Madeleines hand and stares at her, choosing his rigid, obsessive impulses over his imperative to retain a level of objectivity and understanding.
By the time Scottie and Madeleine travel to San Juan Batista, Madeleine has told Scottie her bewildering dreams and has kissed him. This has increased Scotties hubris in his ability to rid Madeleine of her demons and to romantically possess her. During the drive, Scotties hubris is revealed as he gives a smug smirk to Madeleine. Upon their arrival in San Juan Batista, Scotties actions are driven by parallel impulses of rigidity: the impulse to find a simple answer to Madeleines problem and the impulse to fit Madeleine into his simplistic romantic mold. When Scottie and Madeleine enter the livery, Madeleine begins to speak as though she is Carlotta Valdes, her long-dead great-grandmother. Scottie is convinced that Madeleines "Carlotta" memories are really her own obscure memories of an earlier visit to San Juan Batista. When Madeleine speaks of the horses that she used to play with as a child, Scottie walks to a cardboard horse standing behind them and says, "Look, heres your gray horse... You see, theres an answer for everything!" However, Scotties simple solutions seem to have no effect on Madeleines state of mind. Unable to exercise any rigid control on the track of reason, Scottie tries to use romantic control to convince Madeleine that her problems do not exist. "No one possesses youYoure safe with me!" he tells her, even though he is the one who aims to ultimately possess her. Twice, she tries to run from him; both times, he clamps his arms around her, holding her captive, and forces her into a kiss. However, the situation is spinning beyond Scotties rigid attempts to control it. In their final dialog, Hitchcock shows Scotties loss of control by focusing all but two shots on Madeleine. Just as he cannot keep his impulsive hold over Madeleine, Scottie soon loses his rigid control over himself. He tries to follow Madeleine up the church tower, but his vertigo keeps him from ascending the last few flights. Hitchcocks "vertigo" shots (a dolly-out, zoom-in overhead shot of the tower stairs) conveys to viewers a strong sense of Scotties powerlessness and desperation. When Scottie sees Madeleine falling from the bell tower, he presses himself to the tower wall, rigid with pain and shock. At the end of this scene, Hitchcock shows an overhead shot of Scottie clumsily descending the tower stairs, and metaphorically descending into mental illness. Scottie is a debilitated victim of Gavins deceit, but Scotties own impulses play a role in the depth of his confusion and despair. Scottie rigidly tried to control himself, the object of his obsession, and his world, but he failed on all three counts. However, it is not his failure that causes Madeleines death. At this point, Vertigo is a catastrophe, not a tragedy. Scotties tragic impulses have been developing, and if given the chance, he would choose to use his impulses to take possession of Madeleine and force her into his impossibly rigid sense of order and beauty. However, catastrophic circumstances have barred him from this choice, and from the knowledge that will come from executing it (Heilman 2).
Judy is Scotties new chance to choose between impulse and imperative. On the street, Scottie stares fixedly at Judy, making it clear what his choice will be. Scottie has been discharged from the mental hospital, but he has neither had enough time nor encountered a strong enough situation to realize the error and danger in following his impulses. After their first date, Scottie and Judy return to Judys room, where Scotties hubris begins to return. With the growing confidence that he will be able to sculpt Judy to adhere to his rigid, unrealistic, shallow standards, Scottie says, "Dont go to your job tomorrow. Let me take care of you, Judy." Judy is sitting by the window, lit noir-style from the back by the green neon sign of the hotel. With this lighting, Scottie sees Judys profile as black and empty. In using this silhouette close-up of Judy, Hitchcock counts on both Scottie and the audience to mentally fill the black blankness of Judys silhouette with the "ivory cameo" image of Madeleines profile (taken from Madeleines first close-up). This mental filling foreshadows the way that Scottie will attempt to reshape Judy into a replacement Madeleine. Scottie does not realize that Judy is the same woman he knew as Madeleine, but Judy can already foretell some of the pain that she and Scottie will cause each other as she says: "Because I remind you of her? Thats not very complimentary." Hitchcock cuts to a frontal view of Judys face, which is half-bathed in light, half cloaked in darkness. This bisection metaphorically conveys the two sides of Judy: the lit side that is the real Judy, and the darkened side that Gavin and Scottie shape into Madeleine.
Scotties daimonic drive leads him to force Judy into assuming Madeleines style of dress, hair, and makeup. During this process, Judy tries to persuade Scottie to heed the human imperative for understanding and sensitivity. First, she tries an appeal to reason: "What good will it do?" Scottie, whose rigidity once abided by clear-cut reason, has followed his impulses to the point that he can no longer use reason to explain them. He says, "I dont know. No good, I guess." Even as he says this, it is clear that he is past the point where he is able to give up his obsession. Judy then directly implores Scottie to forfeit his impulse to mold her: "Cant you just love me just for me?" However, Scottie is obsessed with turning Judy into his rigid perception of what Madeleine was. As Judy undergoes the final stages of this transformation, Scottie waits in her room. When Judy enters, she is wearing the same clothes, makeup, and hair color that Madeleine favored. However, in one final gesture to remain true to herself, Judys hair is unbound around her shouldersa style that distinctly sets Judy apart from Madeleine. Seeing that Judy looks like Madeleine in all ways but one, Scottie scolds her: "Your hairits supposed to be pinned back at the neckI told you!" Judy defiantly replies: "We tried it. It doesnt suit me." Scottie is too close to the realization of his obsession to accept what he sees as this final shortcoming. He says: "Please, Judy." Desperate for Scotties love, Judy closes herself in the bathroom to grant his wish. Scottie stands and walks to the window, staring at the green glow of the hotels neon sign. As the music crescendos towards climax, Scottie hears the bathroom door open. He turns, and the anxiety in his face turns to predatory satisfaction. Hitchcock cuts to a long shot of the woman, transformed and almost obscured by dreamy, hazy green light (supposedly from the window). Her aura of mystery leads both Scottie and the viewer to see the woman as Madeleine, not Judy. The surrounding verdant haze emphasizes Madeleines cool, otherworldly beauty, but its lack of realism (could the green light of the hotel sign really form such a dense, concentrated fog?) underscores the impossibility of Scottie ever truly realizing his idealistic impulses. Nevertheless, in this moment, Scottie sees the woman walking towards him as the full embodiment of his rigid standards. Where he was unable to fully kiss Judy dressed as herself, Scottie eagerly stumbles into a tight embrace with Judy as Madeleine. The dizzying ecstasy that both lovers feel is reflected as the camera seems to revolve around them (in reality, the actors stood on a turntable, contributing to a sense of dizziness). However, some of Scotties ecstasy dissolves into guilt as the hotel room expressionistically dissolves into the livery stable, one of the last places where Scottie and the "real" Madeleine kissed. Against his will, he has a moment of self-knowing, where he can guiltily feel his internal division and the pain it is causing. In his daimonic, impulsive attempt to rigidly force Judy into his rigid ideals, he is subverting the human imperative to understand Judy on her own terms. After a few moments, though, Scottie seems to rationalize his guilt, and returns to kissing Judy/Madeleine. The livery revolves back to the hotel, and Hitchcock zooms in on Scottie, who has once more surrendered to impulse and embraces Judy/Madeleine against the green sea of light.
Later, Scottie will finally see the futility of his rigid standards. He is sitting in the hotel room as Judy (who seems to have permanently taken on Madeleines style) finishes dressing for dinner. When Judy emerges from the bathroom, dressed in a low-necked dress that Scottie picked for her, Scottie gives a non-committal sound of approval. This sound, his casual body language, and his facial expression, show how Scotties hubris has been fully restored. He smugly thinks he has fully succeeded in re-sculpting Judy into Madeleine. When Judy then asks Scottie for help to fasten her necklace, he has trouble with the clasp: "How do you work this thing?" Judy replies: "Cant you see?" Scottie eventually fastens her necklace, but when he looks at Judy in the mirror, he really does see the extent of Judys deception. Hitchcock uses a series of expressionistic shots to convey Scotties thought process: A close-up of the ornate red pendant on Judys breast cuts to a similar close-up on a painting of the same pendant on another womans breast. From there, Hitchcock zooms out to show that this painting is the Carlotta Valdes portrait that Madeleine used to stare at for hours. The portrait briefly merges with a shot of Scotties eyes, cementing the extent of his realization. A close-up on Scottie shows how his eyes have gone from smug to cold. When Scottie first saw Madeleine at Ernies, he is first presented with Madeleines backthe white slate on which he would rework Judy into Madeleine. Now that Scottie sees the pendant, a sign of another mans power, so starkly claiming the white slate of Judys breast, his hubris takes a severe blow. Scottie is seized with the daimonic will to punish Judy, not for her complicity in murder, but for her violation of his hubris. On the drive to San Juan Batista, Judy, nervously alone in her shot, looks to Scottie for assurance. Hitchcock cuts to an unnerving, almost sinister profile shot of Scottie as trees rush past his head. When Judy asks, "Where are we going?" Scottie smiles smuglyhis impulsive plan has restored the facade of his hubrisand replies: "Theres one final thing I have to do, then Ill be free of the past." Scottie still refuses to acknowledge that he is the primary cause if his internal division. While Gavin and Judy caused his earlier victimization, Scottie rationalizes that their deceit is the main force behind his current inner turmoil. Scottie decides that by punishing Judy, he will somehow free them from his own past mistakes: "I need you to be Madeleine, then well both be free." He brutally forces Judy up the tower, not realizing that even if Judy had not been Gavins accomplice to murder, she still would have eventually fallen short of Scotties rigidly impossible standards. In his jealousy, Scottie screams that Gavin "made you over just like I made you over, only better... Did he train you? Did he rehearse you? Did he tell you exactly what to do, what to say?" Then Scottie sees that he has reached the top of the stairs, and his expression momentarily clears: "I made it, I made it." This brief pause allows Scottie to step back from his anger at Judy-- and he begins to see the severity of his own mistakes. He fights this dawning self-knowing by dragging Judy through the trap door to the top. He continues to accuse her, even though his accusations are quieter, more sarcastic, and less heated. But a tragic epiphany finally breaks through, an epiphany that is so painful that Scottie can barely utter: "You shouldnt keep souvenirs of a killing. You shouldnt have been that sentimental." Now Scottie is not only accusing Judy, he is accusing himself of surrendering to his rigid, emotional impulses. He tries one last time to rationalize his actions: "I loved you so, Madeleine!" Judy tries to make Scottie reaffirm his love for her, but by saying "Its too late, its too late," Scottie finally acknowledges the folly of his impulses. In impulsively creating a rigid ideal and dishonestly trying to force Judy into that ideal, Scottie sees that it is impossible to love the transformed Judy. However, when Judy continues to desperately plead for Scotties love, Scottie realizes that it may be possible to heed the imperative for understanding and love Judy for herself. With this hope, he kisses Judy. But even with hope of a new beginning, the consequences of Scotties mistakes persist in hurting both of them. Scottie has worked Judy into such an emotional frenzy that when the shadow of a nun falls on the room, Judy is incapable of seeing in a proper perspective. She is so tightly strung that she backs away to the towers edge, but she misjudges her distance from the ledge. Giving a blood-curdling, fearful scream, Judy falls to her death. Having lost her for the second time, Scottie stares down after Judy, his hands raised in shock and bewilderment, his vertigo gone. In some ways, his daimonic will is fulfilledhe has succeeding in punishing Judy. But now he faces an eternal punishment: the knowledge that in impulsively stripping Judy of her identity and driving her to her death, he has destroyed the hope of ever finding real love with her.
Like most Hitchcock films, Vertigo is a prime work of the suspense genre, but unlike any other Hitchcock film, Vertigo is a piercing romantic tragedy. One reason that this film continues to resonate among modern audiences is that its protagonist is such a believable "Everyman" (Heilman 1) that it is almost impossible to foretell his downfall. Scottie is integrally a decent man with a rigid code formed by his profession, but step by hypnotic step, Hitchcock shows how circumstance and impulse can warp this code into a spiraling obsession. By the films conclusion, Scottie has become a contemptible character who has shunned the imperative for human understanding and sensitivity. But because Scotties impulse for rigid control is an impulse that lives in all people, audiences retain a deep sympathy for him. Scottie may end as a tragically destroyed man, but both he and the audience come away with a greater understanding of the nature behind romantic obsession-- and despite all that has taken place, this understanding has true and lasting value.
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