The Psychological Precipice

Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock, 1958) is a transitional film bridging classic noir and neo/retro noir. It uses several elements of classic noir, but subverts them creating an atmosphere where the danger is no longer physical, but psychological. Technical elements–such as light, color, and the narrative structure–are blended seamlessly with the fears of a decade and a unique twist on the femme fatale.

The opening sequence shows two men, a uniformed police officer and a plainclothes officer named John “Scottie” Ferguson, chasing a third man across the rooftops. As Scottie leaps onto a nearby roof, his foot slips and he is left dangling by his fingertips. When the uniformed officer turns back to help, he falls to his death leaving Scottie with a guilt complex and intense vertigo caused by acrophobia. He has taken an early retirement when an old college acquaintance, Gavin Elster, looks him up to shadow his wife. Reluctant to get mixed up in the psychological haunting from a dead relative, Scottie only agrees to the case after seeing Elster’s beautiful wife and being drawn to her mysterious quality.

He follows Madeleine Elster to Carlotta’s old haunts, finding himself pulled into a world of confusing twists and turns. After Scottie saves Madeleine from a suicide attempt, the two begin to fall in love with each other. Trying desperately to save her from an unseen enemy, her torment mounts driving her to throw herself from the top of a bell tower. His vertigo leaves him powerless to save her life a second time and he sinks into a deep despair. Scottie spends a year in a sanitarium fighting to regain some semblance of a normal life.

Returning to the places that remind him of Madeleine, Scottie sees Judy Barton from across the street. She bears an uncanny resemblance to his dead love. Judy agrees to go on a date with Scottie, but after he leaves she sits down and writes a full confession of Gavin Elster’s plan to murder his wife. Elster found Judy, coached her to be like Madeleine, killed his wife, and threw her body from the tower on the fateful day knowing Scottie would not be able to follow. Judy confesses her love for Scottie and decides to stay, throwing away the letter; she wants to make him love her for herself.

The rest of the movie spirals around these two characters as Scottie remakes Judy as Elster had done to fit the image of Madeleine. As he becomes more obsessed, she becomes more neurotic and psychologically trapped. Her descent into madness is tragic and complete, ending in her death as she falls from the same bell tower as Madeleine.

Film noir has always followed the societal trends of the country. The 1930s were a decade of fear, want, and changing identities for Americans. Socialism, fascism, and isolationism collided with a force that shook the world. The 1940s brought no relief as Hitler spread his message of hate and destruction across Europe. The films of this time were full of gunfights and criminals, politics and murder.

Vertigo speaks to a society where physical danger isn’t the overwhelming fear. Though the murder of Elster’s wife is part of the story, the true fear underlying this film is the fear of madness. In their book, Noir Anxiety, Oliver and Trigo write:

“In Vertigo, the truth of physical facts gives way to the truth of the psyche. The threat to the detective is no longer physical but mental. The investigative narrative structure of film noir becomes a psychological investigation whose physical hazards—falling, death—become metaphors for psychological hazards, metaphors for the fall into madness. The investigation into women and their sexual power over men is no longer the latent motivation of film noir; in Vertigo it becomes explicit. Madeleine herself, and her power over Scottie, is the film’s real mystery. This is evident when the truth of the mystery is revealed two-thirds of the way into the film. Once we know the answer to “whodunit,” the lingering question is “What will Scottie do when he finds out?” By perverting the investigative structure of film noir, Hitchcock invents they psychological thriller. The mystery becomes the secrets of the psyche, and the danger becomes madness (101).”

Vertigo is set in San Francisco and the city lends itself to acrophobia; hills, skyscrapers, bridges, and narrow staircases set the stage for the psychological precipices. Shot primarily in the daylight, the outdoor scenes are full of filtered light creating a soft and dreamlike effect. Vertigo reserves the classic noir lighting for the scenes where Carlotta is haunting Madeleine and for the final scenes where the make-over of Judy is complete, leading to her death.

Filmed in Technicolor, Hitchcock associated red with passion and danger. Carlotta is the vehicle for this color and continues to be a haunting presence through the end of the film. Scottie’s college-fling Midge wears motherly pastels, blending into the background so well it is almost unnoticed when she disappears completely from the storyline. Her mise-en-scéne always includes the clutter of her life as a single girl who choose a career over marriage. Judy wears bright green and lilac with a fresh attitude that a single girl in the city would have, while Madeleine wears gray, white, and black suggesting mystery and sophistication. The shots of Madeleine are filled with profiles, suggesting her duplicity, while the shots of Judy are square on. She is playing a dangerous game of facing what she fears in the hope of gaining true love.

Perhaps the most tense aspect of this film is the choice by Alfred Hitchcock to reveal Judy’s part in the murder before the end of the film. By folding this fact into the middle of the story, and then by following Scottie as he remakes Judy, Hitchcock turns the story into itself in a way that is just as disorienting as Scottie’s vertigo. We see in Scottie’s transformation of Judy a reflection of the transformation Elster performed. We are, in essence, seeing a kind of prequel in the final few moments of the film. Because Hitchcock chooses to reveal the key to Madeleine’s death, we as viewers are left wondering how this will play out for both Scottie and Judy. We cannot decide whether we want justice or true love. Both characters are now haunted by the real Madeleine and there will be no escape.

Perhaps in no other film do we see so clearly a commentary on the role of man in the creation of the femme fatale. There are hints in Gilda and Mildred Pierce that life’s circumstances are what cause women to change from nurturer to destroyer. But in Vertigo, Gavin Elster is responsible for turning Judy Barton into the femme fatale. Certainly, she is not innocent. She was his girlfriend when he already had a wife. She tells Scottie that she’s been understanding men since she was seventeen. But the leap from a girl with relaxed morals to an accomplice to murder is one that Judy couldn’t have done on her own. Gavin Elster changed her hair, her clothes, her mannerisms, her words. In her greed, and perhaps her love, she went along with him. She is fatal to the real Madeleine, fatal to Scottie, and above all, fatal to herself. Because she is also the victim of Gavin Elster, we cannot despise her, even after we know what she is. We hope alongside her that Scottie will let go of Madeleine and fall in love with her. It seems disappointing, and a bit unfair, that their ends are so tragic.

Vertigo moves from classic noir’s focus on physical danger to the new focus on psychological danger. Psychology was gaining in popularity and this film contributed to a dialog that validated the psychological dimension of humanity. It showed the weakness of the mind in the face of madness, the breakdown of logic to deal with illusions. The dialog moved from the streets into the minds of America.

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