Alfred Hitchcock’s 1958 film Vertigo evades definition and avoids being pigeonholed in its darting from theme to theme. Vertigo explores the tantalising call of the past, and how it hauntingly echoes throughout the present. It is a film that is deceptive and uncanny in its cinematography and that has deception at the heart of its plot.
After his 1954 performance in Rear Window, James Stewart returns as troubled and obsessive ex-policeman Scottie. During an incidence where his vertigo leads to the death of a fellow policeman, Scottie takes early retirement and attempts to heal his condition. However, when acquaintance Gavin Elster asks Scottie to follow his wife Madeline, Scottie becomes besotted with her. Here the film first explores its central themes of history and identity. Madeline is besotted with her ancestral relation Carlotta Valdes. The suicidal female figure of Carlotta seems to possess Madeline and she throws herself off a tower, whilst Scottie’s vertigo renders him unable to stop her. Following Madeline’s death, he becomes obsessed with another woman, Judy who eerily resembles Madeline. Scottie, haunted by the image of Madeline, moulds Judy’s appearance to look like her. In changing her hair, clothes, and mannerisms Scottie remakes Madeline in Judy’s image. The complex plot and web of deceit that continues from this point makes Vertigo a film that continuously plays with ideas of the uncanny, identity and death.
Hitchcock grounds these ideas through the used of a saturated colour palette and the eery repetition of images. Madeline is first introduced to Scottie through the vibrancy of the colour green, a rich silk dress calling out from a dark red room, but it soon comes to represent death. When Judy, in the image of Madeline, appears to Scottie through a green fog we are reminded of the dead woman she is emulating. Similarly, Scottie’s apartment is frequently bathed in the green light of a motel room, casting a deathly hue as does the memory of Madeline. To show ghostly similarity of Madeline and Judy, Hitchcock uses the same profile shot to introduce both women. As the same events unfold, characters falling to their death from great heights the tragic lives of seemingly unattainable female figures are doggedly pursued by the male characters. The green colour scheme is a reminder of what has already happened, and a warning of what is too unfold.
The hypnotic and surreal Vertigo was beloved by its contemporary audience and critics. The film garnered mixed reviews but has become a point of fixed fascination and obsession among critics since. The tragedy and confusion of the nonlinear film still captivates modern audiences. The psychological intrigue of the film, as well as its bizarre dreamlike visual offerings have cemented Vertigo in the cinematic canon. To a 21st century audience it delves into trauma, identity, death, and femininity in a captivating nightmare that is difficult to forget.
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