The Secret Life of Vertigo (1958)
Part One: Days of Power and Freedom
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 (James Stewart), 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.
Hitchcock never reveals how Scottie finds his way down from the gutter – the next time we see him he is in the apartment of Midge (Barbra Bel Geddes), a former college sweetheart – and this omission serves to leave him metaphorically stranded, and permanently trapped between his conflicting fears and desires.
Scottie’s tone is deceptively light-hearted as he chats to Midge in her apartment, but this scene provides a number of hints and clues to the illness that lies dormant beneath his healthy, positive exterior. His experience has left him nearly emasculated: his physical injuries require him to wear a corset, which he happily announces he will be ‘free’ from the following day, and the use of a cane. Although he has quit his job with the police, he has no firm idea of what he plans to do – he describes himself in this scene as available, but he is really aimless, a wanderer.
Although Scottie and Midge once had a short-lived engagement in college, they now share more of a mother-son relationship. When Midge suggests to Scottie that he goes away for a while, he mildly scolds her for ‘being motherly.’ And when Scottie attempts to demonstrate how he can beat his vertigo, Midge at first encourages him by fetching a kitchen stool for him to gradually climb and then holding him in a comforting embrace when he nearly passes out in much the same way a mother might encourage a child riding a bike for the first time, then comforting that child when he or she falls off.
Throughout their conversation, Midge comes across as the more mature and level-headed of the two. It is a quality that sets her apart from Scottie and which, in the absence of any reference in the script, provides an explanation as to why she ended their brief juvenile relationship. When Scottie reminds Midge that it was she who ended their engagement she gives him an arch look which, without words, explains how, even back then, she was more perceptive and self aware than Scottie, and that she has continued to develop while Scottie remains essentially unchanged. To emphasise this difference in their characters– and therefore their unsuitability as romantic partners – Hitchcock rarely shows Midge and Scottie in the same shot during this sequence. Although it is clear that Midge is attracted to Scottie, she understands with some reluctance that she is too independent for him, and doesn’t possess the kind of mysterious qualities in a woman to which he is attracted. For this reason – and the fact that Scottie is a weaker and more flawed character than her – she adopts the motherly role in their relationship. For his part, Scottie’s lack of emotional growth means he is possibly incapable of maintaining what is considered a ‘normal’ relationship with a woman.
Without any real agenda, Scottie tells Midge that he’s still available (‘That’s me, available Ferguson’), once again giving a sense of his metaphorical ‘suspension’ – between jobs, relationships and direction. This reference comes after they have briefly inspected the prototype of Midge’s latest design, a revolutionary bra: (‘Works on the principle of the cantilever bridge,’ Midge says, a typically matter-of-fact observation of what a male might see as a sexual object). ‘It was designed by an aircraft engineer down the Peninsula,’ Midge informs Scottie, giving us a foreshadowing of the theme centred around the way men attempt to mould women and, in doing so, mysticise them. Scottie typically describes the endeavour as ‘kind of a hobby. Do-it-yourself type thing.’
When Scottie is once again gripped by vertigo as he steps upon Midge’s kitchen stool and stares out of the window of her apartment, it is not the actual view from her window that he sees but the drop from the guttering to which he clung in the opening scene. However, the ornaments in Midge’s apartment remain in shot so that the breach between Midge’s safe, comfortable world and Scottie’s mental state is emphasised.
During his visit, Scottie mentions that he has received a message from Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore), another former college friend, and in the next shot (in which director Hitchcock makes his trademark appearance) we see Scottie arriving for his appointment. Elster is a wealthy businessman who has ‘inherited’ his wife’s family’s shipbuilding business. His office is spacious and opulent, commanding an impressive view of the shipyard he oversees (we see a number of tall cranes from Elster’s window – another reminder of the film’s vertiginous theme). When Scottie examines some pictures of old San Francisco, Elster laments over the passing of the old days of ‘colour, excitement, power and freedom.’ Hitchcock cuts away from Scottie as Elster speaks the word ‘freedom’ so that we see him standing in front of the tall, imposing cranes. The audience is invited to associate Elster not only with power and freedom – two words that are repeated in key moments later in the film – but with the imposing heights of which Scottie is so afraid, thereby establishing a glaring contrast between the two men, and providing the first clue as to their respective positions of strength and weakness within the relationship.
Elster wants Scottie to follow his wife, whom he believes is disturbed – “Do you believe that someone out of the past, someone dead, can enter and take possession of a living being?” he asks. The camera cuts to a close-up of Elster standing over Scottie as he says, “Someone dead,” placing him in a dominant position over the detective, who is shot from above.
Scottie is initially sceptical, but Elster persists, and provides a link between his wife, Madeleine (Kim Novak), and the aimless, unattached Scottie when he says, “She wanders… God knows where she wanders.” The wandering theme is repeated a number of times throughout the film.
Intrigued by Elster’s suggestions of possession, and against his better judgment, Scottie reluctantly agrees to visit Ernie’s Restaurant that evening to catch a glimpse of Madeleine. There then follows around fifteen minutes without dialogue as Scottie embarks on his following of – and obsession with – Madeleine Elster.
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