Sunday, May 23, 2010
Alfred Hitchcock’s film Vertigo (1958) is a psychological thriller with themes that are preoccupied by necrophilia, the subjective gaze, obsessive desire and neurosis. Based on the book D’Entre les Morts by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, Vertigo is an uncanny look at investigation and murder through the eyes of John ‘Scottie’ Ferguson (James Stewart). Much criticism has been written of the male’s character having the controlling (male) gaze upon that of the female character. Writer Robin Wood has criticized that, “the spectator constructed by the film is clearly male.” Yet, if it is Scottie’s gaze, then his perspective transgresses from male desire to female construction. Though, I’m not fully convinced that it is purely Scottie’s subjective gaze. The audience views a morbid perception, which fluctuates between male and female throughout the film.
The one scene in particular that seems to never get full critical mention is the opening scene. We see a black and white shot (which is often an association with the past) of Vista Vision, and then a woman's face appears, and she turns to color (the present). The female looks right then left, and then the camera zooms in on her left eye. Through multiple viewings, I’m convinced that the woman in the credits is Carlotta Valdez. The black and white shot links the image to the past, as it fades to the present in artificial color. It's as if the camera is penetrating the gaze of the dead woman, as her eye (vision) turns into spirals, foreshadowing Scottie's psychosis. After Saul Bass’ visually stunning credits pass, her eye appears again, gazing upon the opening scene. A detective, Scottie, is in pursuit of a criminal across the rooftops of buildings. Scottie slips and falls from the roof hanging (for his life) from a drainpipe. Another police officer tries to save him, but falls. At this point I believe the gaze of Carlotta shifts to Scottie, as he watches the man plunge to his death. Scottie’s vision and subconscious becomes locked in trauma, for we never see him saved from the drainpipe.
If the gaze of the narrative has shifted to Scottie, it is definitely an uncanny one. For the first time we see Scottie, it is in association with a cane. Mentally crippled, his fear of heights lead to vertigo and early retirement. This crippling can be seen as a metaphor for impotency, for Scottie is unable to rise to elevated challenges. His best friend is a bespectacled and asexual woman named Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes), who designs strapless bras for a living. This is where the film introduces Midge’s perspective of repressed sexuality, and Scottie’s inability to climb a stepladder.
Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore) recruits Scottie to follow his (seemingly) possessed wife, Madeline, as she spends her days attending an art gallery and meditating on the painted image of Carlotta Valdez. Madeline (Kim Novak), visits the gravesite and hotel room of the dead woman, as well as wears the woman’s jewelry (locket) and replicates her hairstyle. When she eventually tries to commit suicide by throwing herself into the San Francisco Bay, Scottie jumps in and rescues her. Back at Scottie’s apartment, Madeline awakes to find herself in a bathrobe (having been stripped nude by Scottie), while her clothes are hung to dry. It is through this unveiling of Madeline’s clothes that sets of Scottie’s sexual desire. It is at this point, where the criticism of the male subjective gaze is relevant, though more through insinuation. It is also, important to know, that Scottie up to this point has been lead to these desires through Madeline’s perceived performance to lure Scottie in. She finally leads him to the Spanish Mission, where she abandons Scottie to run up the bell tower. Unable to complete the climb of the bell tower steps (due to his vertigo), Madeline jumps to her death.
The other extremely important scene that I want to mention is the dream sequence. Which begins with animated flowers unraveling to pieces, as we see an image of Gavin next to Carlotta. Scottie’s investigative nature leads him to walk towards Carlotta's grave. As he gets closer to look, the film cuts to Scottie's head (which exits without his body). In Scotti’s transgression he will inhabit the body of Madeline, as she falls from the tower. It appears as if Scottie’s perspective has fused with that of the dead Madeline, which I believe counters the exclusive male construction theory. When Midge visits Scottie at the hospital, he is as possessed as Madeline once was, and is unable to even register the visit.
Scottie eventually meets Judy Barton (Kim Novak again) and becomes obsessed with recreating Madeline out of her (just as Madeline was recreating herself out of Carlotta). Scottie appears to be forming a necrophilia fetish, in his need to rebuild Judy to match his sexual desire for a dead woman. At this point the gaze transfers to Judy, as the audience views what really happened at the bell tower. We see that Gavin set the whole thing up and murdered his own wife, with the help of Judy. Unaware of the truth, Scottie views Madeline’s doppelganger as a second chance. Yet, Scottie still suffers from vertigo (his metaphoric impotency) and now can only content himself with female reconstruction. Through the dress rehearsal, dye job, and overall reshaping, Judy appears to Scottie as an apparition in the finished state. When Judy/ Madeline approaches Scottie, she is lit with a green light, creating a translucent, ghost-like quality. Scottie’s haunted perception, transgresses from maleness into the realm of otherness, as he is absolutely consumed by feminine details. Modleski futhers my point:
My analyses of Hitchcock have been in part been meant to demonstrate that this male spectator is as much “deconstructed” as constructed by the films, which reveal a fascination with femininity that throws masculine identity into question and crisis. (Modleski, 87.)
Scottie’s masculine crisis has been constructed by Judy’s performance of Madeline. It is through her projection, that Scottie suffers in his haunted psychosis. Scottie’s transgression acts as a karmic lesson to Judy, who had no business impersonating (first) Gavin’s wife, and (secondly) the dead Carlotta.
Through Judy’s sentimentality for Carlotta’s locket, Scottie discovers the truth. He forces to Judy to relive the fateful night where Madeline was killed. Through reenactment, Scottie is finally able to ascend the stairs, curing his psychosis. But the fate of Judy is one claimed by death, for she frightfully jumps from the bell tower when hearing the approaching steps, of what she believes to be Gavin. Though her death is not delivered through Gavin, but that of the messenger of spirituality and redemption, as it was an approaching nun. The last shot is extremely significant in that we now see Scottie standing on the edge (rather than hanging from it), viewing the demise of his illness, obsession and desire. If the woman (in the opening scene) is indeed Carlotta Valdez, was the destination of the story her out-worldly design? I believe Hitchcock is warning us not to impersonate one who is dead, or we will share their fate.
Modleski, Tania. “The Women Who Knew Too Much: Hitchcock and Feminist Theory,” New York: Routledge, (1988), pg. 87-100.
Wood, Robin. "Fear of Spying," American Film (November 1982): 35.