Perhaps no film of Hitchcock's is as complex or as ambitious as Vertigo (1958), which is the story of a detective, Scottie (James Stewart), whose fear of heights leads to his retirement (Figure 6.2). The detective is hired by an old classmate to follow his wife, Madelaine (Kim Novak), whom he fears is suicidal, possessed by the ghost of an ancestor who had committed suicide. She does commit suicide by jumping from a church tower, but not before Scottie has fallen in love with her. Despondent, he wanders the streets of San Francisco until he finds a woman who resembles Madelaine and, in fact, is the same woman. She, too, has fallen in love, and she allows him to re-create her into the image of his lost love, Madelaine. They become the same, but in the end, he realizes that, together with Madelaine's husband, she duped him. They knew he couldn't follow her up the church stairs because of his fear of heights. He was the perfect witness to a "suicide." Having uncovered the murder, he takes her back to the church tower, where she confesses and he overcomes his fear of heights. In the tower, however, she accidentally falls to her death, and Scottie is left alone to reflect on his obsession and his loss.
This very dark story depends on the audience's identification with Scottie. We must accept his fear of heights and his obsession with Madelaine. His states of delusion, love, and discovery must all be communicated to us through the editing.
At the very beginning of the film, Hitchcock used extreme close-ups and extreme long shots to establish the source of Scottie's illness: his fear of heights. Hitchcock cut from his hand grabbing for security to long shots of Scottie's distance from the ground. As Scottie's situation becomes precarious late in the chase, the camera moves away from the ground to illustrate his loss of perspective. Extreme close-ups, extreme long shots, and subjective camera movement create a sense of panic and loss in his discovery of his illness. The scene is shocking not only for the death of a policeman but also for the main character's loss of control over his fate. This loss of control, rooted in the fear of heights, repeats itself in the way he falls in love with Madelaine. Assigned to follow her, he falls in love with her by watching her.
Scottie's obsession with Madelaine is created in the following way. Scottie follows Madelaine to various places—a museum, a house, a gravesite—and he observes her from his subjective viewpoint. This visual obsession implies a developing emotional obsession. What he is doing is far beyond a job. By devoting so much film to show Scottie observing Madelaine, Hitchcock cleverly forced the audience to relate to Scottie's growing obsession.
A midshot, full face shot of Scottie in the car is repeated as the base in these sequences. The follow-up shots of Madelaine's car moving down the streets of San Francisco are hypnotic because we see only a car, not a close-up or a midshot of Madelaine. All we have that is human is the midshot of Scottie. With these sequences, Hitchcock established Scottie's obsession as irrational—given his distance from Madelaine—as his fear of heights.
Another notable sequence takes place in the church tower where Madelaine commits suicide as Scottie watches, unable to force himself up the stairs. Scottie's fear of heights naturally plays a key role. The scene is shot from his point of view. He sees Madelaine quickly ascend the stairs. She is a shadow, moving rapidly. He looks up at her feet and body as they move farther away. Scottie's point of view is reinforced with crosscut shots of Scottie looking down. The distance is emphasized. When he is high enough, the fear sets in, and as in the first sequence, the sense of perspective changes as a traveling shot emphasizes the apparent shifting of the floor. These shots are intercut with his slowing to a stop on the stairs. The fear grows.
The ascending Madelaine is then intercut with the slowing Scottie and the ascending floor. Soon Scottie is paralyzed, and rapidly a scream and a point-of-view shot of a falling body follow. Madelaine is dead.
Point of view, pace, and sound combine in this sequence to create the sense of Scottie's panic and then resigned despair because he has failed. The editing has created that sense of panic and despair. All that now remains is for Vertigo to create the feeling of rebirth in Scottie's increasingly interior dream world.
This occurs after Scottie has insisted that Judy allow herself to be dressed and made up to look like Madelaine. Once her hair color is dyed and styled to resemble Madelaine's, the following occurs.
From Scottie's point of view, Judy emerges from the bedroom into a green light. Indeed, the room is bathed in different colors from green to red. She emerges from the light and comes into focus as Madelaine reborn. Scottie embraces her and seems to be at peace. He kisses her passionately, and the camera tracks around them. In the course of this 360-degree track, with the two characters in medium shot, the background of the room goes to black behind them. Later in the track, the stable where Scottie and Madelaine originally embraced comes into view. As the track continues, there is darkness and the hotel room returns as the background. In the course of this brief sequence, love and hope are reborn and Scottie seems regenerated.
Because this is a Hitchcock film, that happiness will not last. The scene in the church tower quickly proceeds, and this time Judy dies.
In the sequence featuring Judy's make-over as Madelaine, Hitchcock used subjectivity, camera motion, and the midshot in deep focus to provide context. The editing of the scene is not elaborate. The juxtapositions between shots and within shots are all that is necessary.
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