“In Each Specific Subject There Is Something I Want
Vertigo, and considers the way in which the Master of Suspense was a moral artist.
Hitchcock in Control
While Vertigo ‘s story provides an object lesson on the dangerous nature of control, Hitchcock, as always, controlled every aspect of filming and performance. He cast, costumed, set, and choreographed the film down to the smallest detail, exercising meticulous and obsessive care with his masterpiece.
Power and Control
Up to now, we’ve studied Hitchcock’s working methods and themes by examining memorable scenes from several of his films. In this lesson, however, we’ll take a close look at what many consider Hitchcock’s greatest and most personal film: Vertigo (1958).
Vertigo is a mystery that spirals inward to deeper, more profound mysteries about human nature, a tragic love story in which the tragedy is played out not once but twice. It is a film of haunting echoes and ambiguities, a work of art that raises more questions than it answers. The questions themselves — and the manner in which they are asked — reveal the moral concerns at the heart, and in the mind, of Alfred Hitchcock.
If you’d like a more thorough analysis of Vertigo before or while you move through this lesson, read Chapter 31 in the course text, The Art of Alfred Hitchcock: Fifty Years of His Motion Pictures, by Donald Spoto.
Who’s in Charge?
Alfred Hitchcock’s films resonate strongly with his misgivings about giving people control over others. Fallibility and human weaknesses leave the exercise of authority suspect at best — and subject to flagrant abuse at worst. Authority figures (police officers, doctors, intelligence operatives) in Hitchcock’s films are often seen as either sinister or somehow ridiculous.
In many ways, Vertigo is about the dangers of power. Hitchcock’s film does not focus on the abuse of power by authority figures (although that occurs, too); it is more concerned with the perils and seductive pleasures of the exercise of control over another human being. It explores the terrible potential that the abuse of power has to destroy human life.
Power in Vertigo
At the outset of Vertigo, its hero, Scottie Ferguson (Jimmy Stewart), is a conventional authority figure — a police detective. He falls from a roof during a nighttime chase, and his subsequent fear of heights forces him to retire from the police force. A wealthy acquaintance from college, Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore), hires Scottie to follow his wife Madeleine (Kim Novak), who he fears is descending into madness.
After rescuing her from an apparent suicide attempt, Scottie falls in love with Madeleine, but his vertigo leaves him unable to prevent a second (supposed) suicide leap from a mission bell tower. An unsympathetic Board of Inquiry tells Scottie that he should have prevented Madeleine’s death, precipitating a nervous breakdown. After his release from an institution, Scottie meets a woman who resembles Madeleine, Judy Barton (also portrayed by Novak). He tries to reshape her to recreate his dead love, with disastrous consequences for Judy and for himself.
It is in the relationship between Scottie and Judy — as he plays on her love for him to control her, to shape her into the image of Madeleine, and, ultimately, to destroy her –that Vertigo expresses its strongest reservations about power. As the audience to this perverse act, we watch fascinated, simultaneously repelled and seduced by the exercise of Scottie’s power. We sympathize with both Scottie in his perverse need to control and Judy in her growing sense of powerlessness.
In The Art of Alfred Hitchcock, Donald Spoto writes that birds have been a traditional symbol of bad luck since the Middle Ages, and that Victorian art and poetry made them symbols of discord. Hitchcock uses images of birds in many of his films besides The Birds. They are the most prominent motif in Sabotage, and they appear in Young and Innocent (1938), The Lady Vanishes (1938), Jamaica Inn (1939), and Saboteur, and ominously presage the action in Psycho.
Order and Chaos
Hitchcock’s rigidly ordered works tell stories of life’s chaos. People die unexpectedly, boats sink, airplanes crash. Violence invades symbols of stability, such as national monuments, and chaos flares unexpectedly in everyday settings like a roadside motel, a cornfield, a merry-go-round, a concert hall. In Saboteur (1942), Hitchcock sets a climactic confrontation atop the Statue of Liberty. In North by Northwest (1959), symbols of power (the United Nations, Mount Rushmore) are subverted by violence.
Birds were perhaps Hitchcock’s most important symbol of chaos. They found their way into many Hitchcock films, from his early Sabotage (1936, not to be confused with Saboteur) to his operatic The Birds (1963) where they represent nothing more than the end of life as we know it. The Birds was also Hitchcock’s most rigorously planned film; it simultaneously shows Hitchcock’s statement of the problem of chaos and his own way of bringing order from it. But Vertigo stands alone as a meditation on the dangers of both order and chaos.
Chaos in Vertigo
From its opening credits, designed by Saul Bass, Vertigo revolves around the idea of spiraling out of control. The film incorporates spirals and circles in a number of ways: the circular wandering in which Scottie follows Madeleine, the staircase of the bell tower, the rings of the tree in the forest, even the knot at the back of Madeleine/Judy’s hair.
Because of this circularity, the film seems to meander along with Scottie as he follows Madeleine in an attempt to make some order from the jumbled clues he has been given. Gavin Elster tells Scottie that Madeleine believes she is being possessed by the spirit of Carlotta Valdes, an ancestor who killed herself, and Scottie, the former detective, believes there must be some psychological explanation for this, if only he — and we — can find it.
But the clues refuse to be orderly. For example, in one scene, Scottie follows Madeleine to a room in a boarding house, then finds it mysteriously (almost supernaturally) empty. And yet Scottie believes — he must believe, as perhaps we all do — that he can find an answer that will bring order to the chaos if only he persists. When he finds the answer — that Elster set up Scottie to take the fall (so to speak) for his wife’s murder, that Judy is Madeleine — it brings him nothing but pain and more chaos. Judy falls to her death from the same tower that Madeleine supposedly jumped from, and he is left alone, one step away from his own oblivion.
Even as the film refuses solace to its hero Scottie, Vertigo refuses us the comfort of belonging to a recognizable film genre. What seems at first to be a supernatural mystery or a love story is revealed halfway through the film to be neither. Without the reassuring pattern of a familiar story, Vertigo ends in chaos, darkness, and madness. Many critics believe that Hitchcock deliberately pulls the genre rug from beneath our feet to unsettle us, to distance us from the story. It is in that distance, as we will see, that the possibility of moral reflection begins.
Hitchcock and the Production Code
Hitchcock worked for most of his career under the Production Code, which regulated the content of American films from 1934 until the late 1960s. Since graphic depictions of violence were taboo under the Code, only his later films contained them. The Production Code influenced storylines as well. Hitchcock wanted Cary Grant’s character in Suspicion to be a murderer, but the Production Code would not permit a criminal to go unpunished. Not even Cary Grant.
The Moral Possibilities of Art
Many critics have denied Hitchcock the title of “moral artist.” Some believe that his films are immoral; others call him cheerfully amoral, a director with as little at stake in his murder scenes as his love scenes. But, as we have seen, Hitchcock’s films are about more than chases, murders, and love stories.
Although such plot devices are staples in his films, they are markers of larger issues that interested Hitchcock, and like any artist, his own beliefs, hopes, and fears could not help but emerge in his work. By showing us his vision of our world in such a way that we must note our own response to it, Hitchcock is ultimately one of the most moral of filmmakers. Few directors have allowed us to watch as much — and to see at the same time.
Seeing Is Believing
In our last lesson, we learned about Hitchcock’s practice of implicating the audience members in the action they viewed in such films as Psycho and Frenzy (1972), a tactic that sometimes forces us to identify with Hitchcock’s villains. In Vertigo, Hitchcock takes this practice even further, for the entire last half of the film requires us to make — and decide whether we can suspend — ethical judgments on the film’s hero.
When Jimmy Stewart’s Scottie meets Judy, he is taken by her resemblance to Madeleine, and only by that resemblance. He tells her so when she asks, and although we recoil from this lack of courtesy, it is only the first of many unsettling actions Scottie takes. His attempts to remake Judy into Madeleine — changing her clothes, her hair, the way she walks, the things she does — are disturbing enough in themselves. Scottie is clearly wrong to try to change Judy in this way.
But Hitchcock complicates our response by having Judy confess to us, through writing a letter she never sends, that she was the “Madeleine” Scottie fell in love with, and thus a vital part of Gavin Elster’s plot to murder the actual Madeleine.
The powerful moral ambiguities of the film would have created a challenging problem under the Hollywood Production Code, which governed the final released version of the film. How could either Scottie or Judy be rewarded for their illicit love, and how could Judy be punished for her role in a murder? The Code principle of “compensating moral value” insisted on giving characters their just desserts. But in Vertigo, how can we say who deserves what?
When Judy’s love for Scottie causes her to endure his deranged desire to recreate Madeleine, we are forced to make moral judgments every step of the way. Judy is an accessory to murder and to Scottie’s despair. She deserves to be punished. But does she deserve this fate?
In Vertigo, as in many Hitchcock films, the discomfort we feel as an audience comes from the moral interrogation Hitchcock makes us undergo. Who is guilty? Who is innocent? And how would we react under these circumstances?
Difficult questions, and since Hitchcock paints in shades of gray, perhaps impossible to answer. Hitchcock leaves it to the audience to decide for itself. An artist’s job is not necessarily to supply answers but to provoke, and provoking us to consider the questions was Hitchcock’s intention in his meditative, mysterious Vertigo.
Now let’s move from one of Hitchcock’s most challenging movies, Vertigo, to two of his most popular films. In our next lesson, we’ll examine Notorious (1946) and North by Northwest to study the ways Hitchcock evolved as a director in the two decades between the two productions, even as he remained true to his unique vision.
Assignment: Vertigo and Hitchcock’s Morality
Read Chapter 31 in The Art of Alfred Hitchcock, which goes into greater analysis of Vertigo. To get ready for Lesson 7, read Chapters 18 and 32 — which cover Notorious and North by Northwest, the two movies that in that lesson will be contrasted and compared.
In Chapter 31, Spoto gives an extended analysis of the film’s structure and themes. How does Spoto sum up Hitchcock’s “metaphysical implications” of which screenwriter Samuel Taylor spoke? What, does Spoto conclude, is Vertigo ultimately about?
Share your answers and comments on the Message Board. If you’re feeling enterprising, rent a video copy of Vertigo. Watching the movie will help you better understand what the lesson is trying to convey.