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The Secret Life of Vertigo

January 23, 2011

Kim Novak as Madeleine Elster in Vertigo (1958)

Vertigo begins with a close-up of a woman’s face. The camera moves from lips to eyes. Although the face bears no expression, the eyes move nervously from side to side, hinting at a key underlying theme of Hitchcock’s film: the impossibility of understanding what emotions, motivations and desires are hidden behind an outwardly calm and inscrutable mask. Then a spiral pattern rotates from the depths of one eye, and the fact that this effect emerges from behind the mask suggests that the film’s title refers to more than just a straightforward fear of heights. The music that accompanies these opening credits is only heard once more during the course of the film – as Judy Barton assumes the ‘mask’ of Madeleine Elster at a beauty salon.

In the film’s opening scene we see Scottie Ferguson, a police detective with the San Francisco Police Department, and a uniformed colleague pursuing a figure across the city rooftops at dusk. Scottie mis-times his jump, an error of judgment that leaves him clinging perilously to some broken guttering high above an alleyway. His fellow policeman abandons his pursuit of their quarry in order to attempt to rescue Scottie, but over-balances and falls to his death. A subjective shot, showing us what Scottie sees, uses the celebrated zoom-in/track-out effect which is later repeated in the bell-tower to convey Scottie’s sudden attack of vertigo as he sees the policeman fall to the ground. This effect also communicates the internal conflicts Scottie feels between the desire to fall and the fear of falling. Clinging desperately to the bowing gutter with the weight of his body pulling on his arms and shoulders, Scottie experiences the possibility of death – the relief of pain and fear and tension – as a preferable option to life – the continuation of pain and fear and tension. To end the pain, all Scottie has to do is let go of the gutter. This fear/desire of falling, therefore, can be equated with a fear of/desire for death throughout the film.

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