60 years ago today: Vertigo

Hitchcock’s  Vertigo was first released 60 years ago today; to celebrate this classic here’s an extract from my guide to the film on its expressionist visual style (available here).

 

Expressionist mise en scene seeks to externalise the disturbed state characters’ minds through distorted perspectives created by, for example, settings in The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (Germany, 1920), the enormous sets of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (Germany, 1926) and chiaroscuro lighting in F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu, (Germany, 1922). Much of Vertigo is edited to be from the perspective of the mentally unstable protagonist so expressionist techniques are ideal to convey his weak grip on reality.

The scene where this is most apparent is when Judy is finally transformed into Madeleine. Judy’s cheap hotel has a green neon sign just outside her window that creates the garish green light that fills the scene. When she finally appears fully as Madeleine we see her, from Scottie’s point of view, suffused (by filters) in green light; she appears ghostlike – see below.  In a way she is a ghost because she is Madeleine returned from the dead and exists only as a creation of Elster and Scottie. Although the neon sign is casting the green hue the scene is not realistically lit; the exaggerated greenness makes it expressionist. The bed, where presumably they are about to have sex, is also in the frame.

The green light on the return of Madeleine makes her ghostlike

When they kiss, a virtuoso shot revolves around the couple and the background fades to black to be replaced by the stable at the Mission when Scottie had last kissed Madeleine. Before Judy was ‘made over’ he couldn’t bring himself to kiss her. He looks up and sees the stable, which is obviously not really there; we are seeing what he is thinking (see below). The troubled expression on his face suggests he suspects something’s not right.

The stable appears in Scottie’s memory as he finally gets to kiss Madeleine again but he’s thinking something’s not right

Hitchcock remarked that this scene was linked to an earlier one when Madeleine visited Carlotta’s grave which was also given ‘a dreamlike, mysterious quality by shooting through a fog filter’ (Francois Truffaut Hitchcock, 1978: 306). This link reinforces the idea that the dead have come back to life.

These expressionist moments emphasise that Scottie’s mental state is unbalanced and so his attempt to remake Judy is the product of a disturbed mind. It’s clear from the film that he should have loved her for who she was: as she said when composing her letter of confession, “love me again as I am for myself”. It is rare in Hollywood to find such a tortured protagonist, though these were a feature of film noir, particularly as James Stewart, whose star persona was of an uncomplicated good guy, is playing the part – see chapter five.

In Vertigo expressionist flashing colours are also used to signify mental anguish. For example, throughout Scottie’s nightmare colours flash on and off. At the start of Judy’s flashback, where the truth is revealed, the screen is suffused with red during a close up of her anxious and pained face (see below). The choice of Ernie’s restaurant as a setting was probably due to the décor, which is overwhelmingly red. The meaning of red depends on the context it is used however it is regularly associated with passion and violence and this fits Vertigo perfectly. Hitchcock also used the device in Marnie where flashing colours signified the protagonist’s mental breakdown.

The screen is suffused with red at the start of Judy’s flashback indicating mental anguish

Another expressionist device is the zoom-dolly used to convey Scottie’s acrophobia when he looks down. The camera zooms forward and simultaneously, at the same ‘speed’, dollies backwards so the background seems to fall away even though, because of the dolly, what we can see in the frame remains the same (see below). Camera operator Irwin Roberts is credited with creating this effect for Hitchcock.

The zoom-dolly makes the background appear to fall away while the composition of the frame stays the same

After Madeleine has fallen from the bell tower, the final shot of the scene is a typical Hitchcock high angle shot – see below. This unusual perspective, which has the effect of distorting what we can see hence its expressionist nature, signifies how disturbing the events are.

A typical Hitchcock high angle shot after Madeleine has fallen from the bell tower

A similar high angle shot is used to establish the scene when Scottie’s nightmare, after Madeleine’s death, presages his mental breakdown.

One of striking ways Hitchcock is an auteur is that even the casual filmgoer knew exactly what to expect from his films: he was the ‘master of suspense’. So it wasn’t just critics who were aware of his authorship, audiences knew they were more or less guaranteed to be thrilled by his films hence his box office success.

 

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