During my CAMS class in college, I watched Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo twice. In fact, I watched it twice in one day as part of an assignment. My Classic Hollywood self-education has included watching other Hitchcock films for the first time, but Vertigo demanded a repeat viewing. This is my first experience with watching a movie and then being able to read a paper that I wrote about it three years ago. I expected a lot of overlap in my observations, but my focus was actually quite different each time.
You don’t need me to tell you that Vertigo (1958) is a good movie. Next I’ll be asking if you’ve heard of a little film called Casablanca. There are visual references to Vertigo all over our culture, from the opening credits of Mad Men to Edward and Bella’s creepy forest confrontation in Twilight. (I probably never would have made that second connection without Professor Carol Donelan.) It’s the story of John “Scottie” Ferguson, played to obsessive perfection by James Stewart, who is asked to investigate the mysterious behavior of an old friend’s wife. Enter the platinum-blonde mystique of Kim Novak as Madeleine Elster, entrancing Scottie with her frailty and desperation.
My response paper focused on perception as a major theme of the film. Our assignment was to link concrete details to the film’s meaning, which might explain why I wrote about point-of-view shots and two-shots instead of characters and relationships. Still, I was barely thinking about those details during my recent viewing. It was nice (if strange) to learn something from my past self. I even talked about the closeup of a woman’s eye in the opening credits, writing: “Film is an inherently visual medium, but these opening images encourage us to consider the visual experience of the characters, as well as our own.”
These days I was obsessed with the women in Scottie’s life: hallucination-prone Madeleine and just-a-friend Midge. More specifically, I was obsessed with how differently they were portrayed and Scottie’s attitudes toward each of them. Midge is a thoroughly modern gal who doesn’t need Scottie to remind her to get her hat. (“I don’t need a hat!”) The woman designs undergarments, for goodness sake, which she can joke about with her male friend without blushing. In their first scene together, Scottie actually collapses into her arms while trying to master his fear of heights. Can you say gender role reversal?
Ah, but Scottie doesn’t want to be the one who swoons. He wants to be swooned upon, if you will, and Madeleine is certainly willing to oblige. This woman, polar opposite of Midge, doesn’t speak until 45 minutes into the movie. Scottie watches Madeleine, and the camera follows his gaze. Kim Novak is filmed as an object of beauty, something to be admired against the lush backdrop of a restaurant’s brocade wallpaper or a flower market. In this first nonspeaking section of the film, Madeleine’s closeups are usually in profile. Her beauty is admired in fragments, more sculptural than human.
The fact that Scottie falls in love with an image or an idea, rather than a real woman, is a central conflict of the film. At one point, Midge paints her own version of the portrait that Madeleine (and by extension, Scottie) repeatedly visits at an art gallery, with her own face replacing the woman in the portrait. She presents it to Scottie as a joke, but he isn’t laughing. He doesn’t want Midge inserting herself into the let’s-be-crazy-together thing he has going with Madeleine. He is simply not interesting in objectifying her, and in this case that’s not a compliment.
This isn’t the first Hitchcock film where Jimmy Stewart poorly treats a woman who loves him in order to obsess over something else. In Rear Window (1954) he would rather spy on his neighbors than make out with Grace Kelly, from which we can safely deduce that this guy has problems. Both films position Stewart as the male voyeur, the photographer or the private detective. My current focus as a viewer, particularly with Vertigo, was definitely influenced by Laura Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” an essay we read for class. Mulvey discusses how the camera often mimics the male gaze, where women are the pleasurable object of his gaze, and misogyny ensues. However you feel about her theory, it’s fascinating to consider in the context of Hitchcock’s films.
Hitchcock’s world is not an ideal place to be female—or for that matter, to be Jimmy Stewart. But damn if it isn’t fun to analyze. If you stuck with me through this lengthy post, I thank you.