Film as Mirror in Hitchcock's Vertigo

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Film as Mirror in Hitchcock's Vertigo
Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo is a master's class in subtle and effective filmmaking - its noirish tale of obsession and loss is considered one of his best works. This is due in no small part to the directors' use of the various elements of film as a mirror. Hitchcock intends to create a sense of repetition and a cyclical nature to the life of the characters in the film; following Scottie (James Stewart) through his descent and ascent into madness deals significantly with themes of duality and obsession. Furthermore, the use of film as a mirror onto ourselves is made very clear in the audience's relation to Scottie throughout Vertigo. In this paper, three instances of the film as mirror will be detailed in Vertigo, as well as how they inform the concept of film as mirror through their existence and varying properties.

Metz describes film as a mirror in that "the cinema involves us in the imaginary: it drums up all perception, but to switch it immediately over into its own absence, which is nonetheless the only signifier present" (p. 250). The audience, like a child, sees themselves as an other; by identifying itself with its 'other' other, it can separate itself from that subject and look at the mirror objectively. In the case of Vertigo, the 'other' is Scottie, and look at his visage on the screen as a mirror unto itself. Thus, we can project our own feelings and insecurities onto Scottie, which helps us relate to his desperation and madness.

The first scene in Vertigo that demonstrates film's ability to hold a mirror to the individual watching it, and elicit the emotions of the character in the audience, is the first scene of the film itself. The very first shot of the film is a pair of hands desperately grasping a ladder rung in extreme close up. This connects the audience from the beginning with the desperation and fear that comes from hanging from a great height. This pulls back to reveal a shot of a cityscape, focused on the top rungs of a ladder leading to the roof of a building, as we follow the resolute climb and pursuit of a criminal by Scottie and his partner. This shot establishes the faces of the characters and establishes the stakes; the criminal is panicked, and Scottie and his partner are determined and aggressive. The next shot in this scene is a wide shot of the rooftop where the chase is occurring; the blurry, obscured background indicates great distance, and the dull blue lighting indicates dusk. Combine that with the heights at which this chase is happening, and the scene carries the same unease that is placed in the audience during this scene.

The real moment of 'film as mirror' occurs when Scottie misses a jump and grips onto a storm drain for dear life. The point of view shot used to demonstrate Scottie's acrophobia is the key to creating the effect of the mirror in the scene, and is one of the most famous recurring shots in the film. As a point of view shot, Scottie's eyes become our eyes, and what he sees is reflected back at us. In this case, it is the dangerous and intimidating view of the hard, concrete ground dozens of feet below him. In order to punctuate the terror of this moment, and the fear that Scottie (and the audience) feels, Hitchcock accompanies this static shot with a simultaneous zoom in and track out. This is a camera trick used to disorient the viewer and create unease; with the threat of death from falling fully established, the film becomes our mirror to our own fear of heights. While it is exaggerated in Scottie, the film touches on our own sense of fear at this moment.

The second scene in Vertigo that elicits the film as mirror conceit the most is the first scene at Ernie's Restaurant, the one which kicks off the plot thread of Scottie following Madeleine. At first, the camera moves towards a door consisting of bright red glass; the door is a barrier, containing something forbidden. Despite this, the camera (like us) is dying to...
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