Film and Vertigo

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Film Theory & Analysis

Vertigo (1958)

Vertigo, directed by Alfred Hitchcock in 1958, is a psychological thriller that is said to be Hitchcock's most personal and revealing film. Vertigo was a failure in the box office, but later became to be the premier of pure cinema. Through the use of formal elements such as lighting, color, spacing, and sound Hitchcock brings the film off of the screen and into the audience's head. The themes presented in Vertigo: love, sex, obsession, and guilt play a far more important role in telling the story than the acting. These are common Hitchcockian themes, which culminate all within this one film.

The visual elements in Vertigo are exceptionally important in the telling of the story. Lighting, color, sound, and editing play a far more dominant role then the acting because this was the way Hitchcock intended the movie to be. Throughout many of Hitchcock's movies, such as "Rear Window" and "Spellbound", the themes are generally the same. Love, guilt, obsession, are among the most common. In Vertigo obsession and fear are blended together in the main character Det. John 'Scottie' Ferguson's fear of heights as well as romantic attachment Judy Barton (Madeleine). As Scottie follows Madeleine, watching her day after day, he falls for her. Eventually, the two meet and discover that they like each other, but even love is not enough to overcome Scotties vertigo, and he is unable to save her from a fall from the top of a church bell tower. Madeleine's death causes Scottie to suffer a breakdown, and, during his recovery, a chance encounter on the street brings him face-to-face with a woman, Judy Barton, who is the spitting image of his dead love.

Obsession is one of Hitchcock's primary themes in this film. From the very beginning of the movie, the audience is aware of Scotties fear of heights and his reason for quitting the police force. However as the movie progresses and we are introduced to Madeleine, the blonde girl he is to follow and protect we see his obsession begin to change towards love. As Scottie and Madeleine see more and more of each other it is obvious the two are in love despite the insanity that Madeleine says she possesses. As the movie moves forward and Scottie believes he Madeleine is dead, a more menacing and sick obsession takes hold. More like an addiction, Scottie believes that if he can change any girl to look like Madeleine he will be happy again. Lastly, the sick obsession is presented in a darker manner then the other shots. Dimly lit shots and/or nighttime usually surround this theme.

Guilt is another powerful theme presented in Vertigo, which doesn't actually present itself until about halfway through the movie. When Madeleine supposedly dies, we see our main character begin to transform in the way he is visualized. Nearly all the reaction shots from here on are of him looking depressed and lonely. The guilt surrounds him for 2 reasons. He feels guilty of his fear of heights, and his inability to save Madeleine from falling. This guilt consumes the lighting as well as the music. The movie transforms from being a sincere love story, to a dark, obsessive, twisted mess.

Color choice, editing, and shot types are all specific ways in which Hitchcock shifted the film from acting to voyeurism. If one were to turn the volume off, the amount of cinematic effects would continue to tell the story. For example, in the second opening shot, when Scottie is climbing up a stool to test his fear of heights and goes too far, the room becomes dark and his eyes become full of fear. The editing also helps to tell the story by its use of reaction shots. Often times the camera will show what Scottie is seeing and instead of Scottie vocally saying what his reaction is, the camera cuts to a close up of his face such that you can see his reaction to what is going on. Unlike "Rear Window", which was entirely ‘set built', Vertigo utilizes scenic San Francisco as its...
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