an essay on alfred hitchcock's vertigo

September 27, 2011 8 min read

I was going through some old college stuff and came across this essay I wrote for a film class. It's a brief analysis of one of my favorite movies - Vertigo. This is full of spoilers, so if you haven't seen the movie, go watch it first, I highly recommend it.

The word vertigo comes from the Latin word vertere, meaning "to turn". Dictionaries contain various definitions for vertigo, including:

  • Dizziness; a reeling sensation; feeling about to fall
  • An imbalance of equilibrium that usually causes a spinning sensation
  • A confused, disoriented state of mind

Alfred Hitchcock’s 1958 film Vertigo tells the story of a man who experiences vertigo not only physically as a result of acrophobia, but also figuratively when he falls in love with a fabricated woman. Throughout the film, Hitchcock accentuates the cyclical and disorienting nature of vertigo explicitly with powerful visual images and a mystifying soundtrack, and also abstractly with recurrences and symbolism.

The opening shot of Vertigo features a close up of a human eye. A spinning, hypnotic shape emerges from the eye and is accompanied by equally hypnotic music. This opening sequence hints that visual images will dominate the film for both the characters and the audience, taking them into another world. “We are thus immediately introduced to the world of the eye, gaze and seeing, the world where the film takes place and about which it narrates” (1).

From the opening credits to the climactic conclusion, the audience is bombarded with various circular, spiral, and spinning images. The opening animations, the bouquet, Madeleine/Carlotta’s hair, the chandelier in the McKittrick Hotel which Scottie keeps staring at, the cross section of the sequoia tree, Scottie’s nightmare, the bell tower staircase – all of these concrete images along with the spiraling soundtrack convey the physical symptoms of vertigo, but more importantly, they also establish the idea of recurrence, a theme used extensively in this film. Locations and events from the past constantly repeat themselves, and the characters become trapped in this cycle, this state of illusion. In the final scene, Scottie says he wants to be “free of the past”. In other words, he wants to be free of his vertigo, both physically and figuratively.

The opening chase scene serves as the prologue of Vertigo. When Scottie is hanging from the ledge, we see for the first time the trademark vertigo shot, simulating the dizziness he experiences as he looks down. This effect was achieved by physically pulling the camera back and zooming in at the same time, and it successfully makes the viewer feel disoriented. It is interesting to note that we never see or are told how Scottie gets down from the ledge. This is a strong metaphorical statement to introduce the film. Scottie is desperately hanging onto a ledge (reality, stability) but is being pulled away by a strong gravitational force (Madeleine) into a great abyss (an illusion).

Flashing forward, we go to Midge’s art studio, where Scottie is trying to balance a cane on his finger tips, another symbol of imbalance and falling. Midge represents the safety and stability that Scottie needs but does not necessarily desire. The mise-en-scene in the room clearly demonstrates this safety. The studio is well-lit and has a yellow, cream colored tone. There are no mysterious shadows or strong colors. The overall feel of the room is sunny and comfortable. Midge, wearing a soft yellow sweater, is Scottie’s old college sweetheart, and she serves as the stark contrast to Madeleine. She is not beautiful or mysterious, and while she loves Johnny (the name only old friends call him), it is more of a maternal love. As critic Robin Wood notes, Midge is a “known quantity.” Scottie, however, is a detective. He makes a living on investigating and solving mysteries. So while he has a very healthy friendship with Midge, she does not intrigue him the way mysterious Madeleine does. It appears that Midge broke off their engagement because she wanted Johnny to grow up a little, to become more like her. “You’re a big boy now,” she says when Johnny inquires about the brassiere. However, this is simply not who Johnny is, and he is about to fall into a trap that most “big boys” would have avoided.

In Gavin Elster’s office, we are first introduced to the idea of bringing back the past, a central theme to Vertigo. “Do you believe that someone out of the past, someone dead can enter and take possession of a living being?” Elster asks. At this point, Scottie is still rational and quickly dismisses the notion. However, Elster has done his research. He knows that Scottie is a single, middle-aged, retired detective looking for some excitement in his life. He persists just enough to convince Scottie to come to Ernie’s. “You can see her there,” he says. This proves to be the beginning of Scottie’s downfall.

The mise-en-scene of Ernie’s sharply contrasts with the safety of Midge’s studio. The restaurant has dim lighting, and the walls are deep red, a color of warning. In our first glimpse of Madeleine, she is wearing a deep black dress and a bright green shawl. Green, a color of mystery and passion, shows up many times around Madeleine (her car, the neon hotel sign, Judy’s first outfit, etc.). As she is leaving the restaurant, she stops behind Scottie, and we see a close-up, profile shot in shallow focus. The profile shot, another repeated technique, emphasizes sheer beauty. Scottie catches just a short glimpse of Madeleine, yet the music escalates, and we see a look of astonishment on his face. “Even this indirect gaze from periphery of the eye, which does not give a clear image, was sufficient to infect him with the virus of mystery and obsession” (1).

Thus, Scottie has officially entered the world of illusion contrived by Gavin Elster, a world where people from the past can return and repeat history. The more time Scottie spends following Madeleine, the more her hypnotic energy draws him away from reality. Sensible Midge tries to bring him back to reality, laughing at Elster’s ghost story, “Oh now really Johnny, come on.” Scottie is at a loss for words. He knows deep down that the story is bogus, but he is so drawn to Madeleine that he wants to continue investigating.

As Scottie continues to follow Madeleine around, his obsession grows stronger. After she jumps into the bay, he touches her, feels her breath, and says her name for the first time. She is becoming more and more real to him and further pulling him into a fantasy world. The next day, when Scottie follows her to his own house, we only see him driving downhill and constantly turning. The shot constantly switches back and forth between Madeleine’s turning car and Scottie watching and following. This is another dizzying effect and represents Scottie’s downward spiral into illusion.

Scottie and Madeleine eventually decide to wander together, an activity they both do frequently. Wandering means traveling without a destination, which is precisely what Scottie is doing. He is trying to solve a puzzle for which there is no rational answer, and he is falling in love with a woman who does not really exist. This point is worth clarifying. Detective Scottie is trying to make sense of Madeleine’s strange dreams and behavior. “There’s an answer for everything!” he exclaims. However, in this fantasy world, the only answer is that Carlotta really did take possession of Madeleine’s body. This brings us to Madeleine. Madeleine is actually Judy Barton acting as a fictional Madeleine. The real Madeleine, Elster’s wife, is, for all intents and purposes, absent from this film. We only see her dead for a few seconds in a flashback. Scottie falls in love with the fictional Madeleine, but he thinks it is the real Madeleine, who is actually non-existent. Finally, Judy, fully aware of the plot, falls in love with the real Scottie. This mind-bending situation is enough to get anyone confused, another reference to vertigo.

Scottie and Madeleine wander to the shore, where they embrace and kiss for the first time in front of crashing waves. Scottie is now completely immersed in the illusion. He sees Madeleine as a perfect woman, his utopia, his cure for vertigo. The only reason this perfection is possible is because it is not real. He is living in a fantasy world not bound by the forces of nature. Midge makes another subtle attempt to bring Scottie back to reality with a painting of herself in Carlotta’s position. She is trying to get Scottie’s attention back on her, back on reality. However, at this point, there is no hope in getting him back.

After Scottie witnesses the “death” of Madeleine, the first half, or more precisely, the first cycle of the movie ends, and the second one begins. Scottie is emotionally scarred from losing his perfect woman and remains disconnected from reality. His nightmare emphasizes this with the surreal animations, a living Carlotta, and cycling colors symbolizing the past repeating itself. Midge makes one last valiant effort to rescue Scottie but ultimately fails. “You don’t even know I’m here, do you? Well, I’m here,” she says. This sums up Midge’s feelings about Johnny as well as his disconnection with reality. Midge makes her exit from the movie here, ruling out any possible return to safety for Scottie.

Gavin Elster has escaped, but Scottie remains trapped in his fantasy world. Recall that this is a world where people from the past can return and repeat history. Scottie quickly rejected this notion at the beginning of the film, but now he has embraced it in his neurotic obsession to bring back the utopia he once had. And so the cycle repeats itself. We revisit the same locations as the first part of the film. The apartment with the green car out front, Ernie’s, the art museum, and the flower shop. Scottie finds Judy and begins transforming her into Madeleine, destroying Judy in the process. Under normal circumstances, no woman would agree to this, but in this fantasy world, Scottie has the power to do so. In the climactic scene when Judy’s transformation is complete, she stands in the green glow from the neon light, appearing like a ghost. She walks toward Scottie and gradually takes on solid form. They embrace and kiss, and the camera circles around them showing that the cycle is complete. The background changes to the carriage at the mission for a moment, again emphasizing that history is repeating itself. Scottie has successfully resurrected Madeleine.

This rediscovered happiness does not last long. When Scottie sees Carlotta’s necklace on Judy, his detective light bulb turns on, and he quickly figures out how he was deceived. He begins his journey back to reality by reenacting yet another earlier event, walking up the bell tower staircase. As he gets more factual information from interrogating Judy, he makes it higher up the stairs. This shows how he is beginning to overcome vertigo both physically and mentally. He is finally escaping the world of illusion, and it appears that he may finally find his balance. Judy explains how she still loves him, and they even kiss one more time. Just as things are looking hopeful, the nun appears and causes Judy to run off the tower, almost as if God himself struck her dead as punishment for her crimes. Scottie is left to deal with yet another traumatic falling death.

Vertigo is an extremely complex film with so many levels and details to explore, but I'll conclude here with my final thought. Alfred Hitchcock said that Vertigo was his most personal film. Behind all of the complexities, twists, and turns, it seems that Hitchcock is simply saying that utopia does not exist in real life. We may be able to imagine some kind of perfect situation for ourselves, but it can never be achieved in reality. There will always be something to throw off the equilibrium of things. In a sense, we all suffer from vertigo, and as Midge says to Johnny, “There’s no losing it.”


(1) Mijuskovic, Slobodan. The Power of Fake.
(2) Dirks, Tim. Vertigo (1958).

© 2020 Mikey Gee