Hitchcock’s Vertigo and the Supernatural Illusion

Written by Colette Finkbiner, writer/blogger for Three Horizons Productions

Vertigo Poster
Vertigo Poster

In an ongoing look into the supernatural thriller genre history, I decided to revisit a Hollywood classic, Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958). Hitchcock is well-remembered for his fastidious attention to detail: the acting, the cinematography, and the visual effects. It is a meticulous vision to which the team here at Three Horizons Productions (THP) aspires (as evidenced in the premiere of its flagship short film, Out of Focus). Among those who study and those who are fans of Hitchcock’s work, Vertigo continues to fascinate viewers with its many levels of filmmaking and storytelling such as: the darker and obsessive sides of romance and beauty, the dueling impulses of the pull, the dread of greed and desire, and the use of the elusive possibilities of the supernatural illusion. Let us not forget abject fear (as manifested in the acrophobia of the main character, “Scottie” Ferguson [Jimmy Stewart]).

Initially, the viewer is brought into the uncertain footing and dizzying world of Vertigo through the music of Bernard Herrmann, who simultaneously evokes panic and longing right from the opening credits of the film. These credits are famous and distinctive for the swirling kinetic typography of innovative graphic designer Saul Bass and artist John Whitney’s Lissajous spirals (interestingly created using a curve algorithm discovered by French mathematician Jules Antoine Lissajous in the 19th century). The whirlpool of the title sequence begins and ends with the tightly filmed view of Madeleine’s (Kim Novak) eyes seemingly laying a clue to the vortex of desire and confusion that is in store for Scottie.

The opening sequence is only the first of many visceral sensations utilized by Hitchcock, not only to bring the viewer physically into the story, but also to set us up for the intensity of sensation experienced by Scottie Ferguson, as he loses his police partner in a rooftop chase and struggles to find his footing in his personal and professional life. He is further thrown into a chaotic space when his old friend Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore) requests his experience as a detective. Scottie is to follow Gavin’s wife Madeleine, who has been acting in an odd fashion, as though she were suddenly someone else. Gavin lays the ground for a supernatural illusion by telling Scottie that he needs to protect his wife from “someone dead.” Scottie bulks at this tale at first but inevitably agrees to investigate Gavin’s concerns.

Hitchcock leads us into the vertiginous progression of the film as we pursue Scottie following Madeleine. She moves quickly and mysteriously from a flower stall to San Francisco’s historic Dolores Mission and its cemetery, where she stops by the grave of Carlotta Valdes, to the Palace of the Legion of Honor art museum and on to the McKittrick Hotel, where he finds she visits a room and seemingly disappears. His doubt in supernatural forces is tested when the landlady of the hotel claims she had not seen the woman she knows as Carlotta enter the building that day.

Mission Dolores, San Francisco
Mission Dolores, San Francisco

Soon, we meet Scottie’s former fiancée and good friend, Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes). She seems to be a grounding presence for him. It is my personal opinion that she represents a different kind of woman other than the ethereal, delicate Madeleine. Midge is independent, she works as a fashion designer for ladies’ undergarments, she’s also an artist who’s full of humor, a lover of music and she feels no societal or fashion pressure to don a hat when she takes Scottie out to meet Pop (Konstantin Shayne), a bookseller who knows the stories of local color such as that of Carlotta Valdes. She is the model of a modern woman as Hitchcock envisioned—intelligent, sophisticated and blonde—similar to Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) in The Birds, Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint) in North by Northwest, and Lisa Fremont (Grace Kelly) in Rear Window.

Kim Novak in Vertigo
Kim Novak in Vertigo

Once we learn the origin of Carlotta’s suffering, Gavin reveals that Carlotta is Madeleine’s great-grandmother and that Madeleine’s ancestry to Carlotta has been kept secret because of Madeleine’s descent into madness and subsequent suicide. It is deemed by Gavin that Madeleine is just too delicate in order to process this reality. Scottie is pulled by these secrets into an obsession with Madeleine. He follows her every move, including to Fort Point, just below the Golden Gate. In this quiet place, Scottie witnesses her strange behavior as she drops flowers into the San Francisco Bay. Seconds later she jumps into the cold water. Scottie goes in to save her.

Madeleine’s ghostly-possessed suicide attempt brings more doubts and confusion to Scottie. Instead of taking her home or to a hospital, he chooses to take the unconscious Madeleine to his apartment on Lombard Street, which is famous as San Francisco’s most winding—and vertiginous—street in the city. In the distance, this “background” vertigo is supported by the view of Coit Tower rising high over the city’s hills. Within this backdrop, Scottie awakens Madeleine and speaks to her for the first time. She is seemingly unaware of the day’s events and merely implies she became dizzy and accidentally fell into the bay. As Scottie attempts to draw her out, he receives a call from Gavin while Madeleine once again mysteriously disappears.

Lombard Street, San Francisco
Lombard Street, San Francisco

At this point, Hitchcock moves full force into the realm of supernatural possibility. As Scottie pursues Madeleine, he follows her back to his apartment where he convinces her to go on a drive to the redwood forest with him. Once they arrive in the old growth grove, he remarks how the redwood is known as Sequoia sempervirens, “everlasting.” As Madeleine looks at a cross section of the long-lived redwood, she starts to fade into another persona. As she points to different rings of the tree, she says, “Here I was born and there I died. It was only a moment for you. You took no notice.” Suddenly, she is someone else. Scottie pursues her as she attempts to flee. She plants more confusion in him as she cries, “When I go into the darkness, I’ll die.” She relates a vision of a tower and a bell as well as a woman inside her, who says she must die.

Following this frightening turn of events, Scottie becomes inexorably involved with Madeleine. His romantic obsession has blinded him to other aspects of his life. His friend Midge must pursue a visit from him as he has stopped dropping by of his own accord. Midge attempts to bring him back around to their day-to-day banter by showing him a picture she painted of herself portrayed as the ill-fated Carlotta Valdes. Scottie leaves upset and angry. Her attempt to draw him into the sometimes gallows humor of daily life has failed. We observe a break in Midge’s cool demeanor. We now know she still holds romantic feelings for Scottie and is frustrated when she sees her attempts to bring him back into their friendship has failed. The supernatural darkness of Madeleine/Carlotta has taken Scottie from his former life and thrown him into a frantic pursuit of a woman, who may or may not still exist.

Scottie meets up with Madeleine again on Lombard Street. They discuss her visions of darkness and the bell tower. He becomes convinced that she must be talking about the old Spanish mission at San Juan Bautista. (The real mission at San Juan Bautista does not have a bell tower, but the location lends itself to the historical mystique of such a story as that of Carlotta Valdes.) Scottie drives Madeleine to San Juan Bautista in the hopes of exorcising the anxious demons from her vision. He, despite his doubts, continues his attempt to find logical explanations for everything she is experiencing.

Jimmy Stewart and Kim Novak in Vertigo
Jimmy Stewart and Kim Novak in Vertigo

At the old mission, Scottie and Madeleine kiss. Suddenly, she tears herself away from his embrace and runs to the bell tower. At this point, we must revel in the vision of Hitchcock and his cinematographer Robert Burks and his team. Burks’ team created a technique to re-establish the visceral sense of vertigo (IMDB credits Irmin Roberts with the dolly in/zoom out technique). By filming the tower steps in a scale model turned on its side, while the camera moved back as it zoomed in, we gain the disconcerting acrophobic point of view of Scottie, who is trying to overcome his fear in order to follow Madeleine. He can’t quite get over the crest of his phobia and at the last minute sees the object of his obsession seemingly jump to her death.

Jimmy Stewart In Vertigo
Jimmy Stewart In Vertigo

As the final scenes commence, we are left wondering if this supernatural possession by a long dead ancestor has captured the femme fatale. During the subsequent inquest, the investigator lambasts Scottie for his inability to stop Madeleine from her fate. We are told he blacked out and didn’t come to his senses until he made it back to San Francisco. Still, her death is ruled a suicide. Gavin, who is more than magnanimous for a man who has been recently widowed, bids his farewell to Scottie and says, “You and I both know who killed Madeleine.” Did Madeleine’s cursed progenitor reach from beyond the grave to enact a similar dark fate on her descendant?

Next, we see the power of psychological stress transfer from Madeleine to Scottie as he dreams of falling into blankness and relives Madeleine’s fall. His nervous breakdown sends him to the hospital for quite some time. Midge reappears at his bedside and tries without success to bring him back to the realm of the living. She leaves disheartened. Eventually, Scottie is back on his feet and coherent though still not well. Once discharged, he resumes haunting the places Madeleine once visited such as the Legion of Honor, the restaurant at which he first saw her and the flower seller. Every woman he sees he strains to recognize Madeleine. Suddenly, he sees a woman with Madeleine’s profile. He stalks her to a cheap hotel. He begs her to talk to him and questions her. He tells her she reminds him of someone. She responds, “Yes. I’ve heard that before.” His obsession has transferred to this new woman, Judy Barton (Kim Novak).

Scottie convinces Judy to go to dinner. While he leaves to get ready, we see her compose a letter to him explaining how she was hired by Gavin to pose as Madeleine in order to lay the ground for a supernatural possession and suicide. Meanwhile, the real Madeleine was murdered. Her body was the one thrown from the mission tower. Judy also admits that, although not part of the plan, she had fallen in love with Scottie. As she writes, she decides against leaving the confession and rips up the letter. She decides to play out the course in hope that Scottie will fall in love with her and not with the idea of Madeleine.

As this uneven relationship shifts upon much more uneven ground, Scottie begins the attempt to transform Judy into a replica of his Madeleine. Once he has dressed and coiffed her as Madeleine, he sees her transformation as a ghost of Madeleine. Judy makes one fatal error. Overconfident in her ruse and her desire, she decides to wear the necklace that once had belonged to Carlotta. It was part of her pay off from Gavin. Her misstep pulls Scottie out of his obsessive haze. Roughly, he informs her that he is taking her somewhere. He decides to drive her to Mission San Juan Bautista.

Alfred Hitchcock
Alfred Hitchcock

Hitchcock once again leads us into the roller coaster of this psychological thriller. Tension mounts on Scottie’s and Judy’s drive to the mission. He informs her he knows to whom the necklace belongs. He has guessed that he has been duped. She begs for his understanding and runs to the tower. Still frightened but with intense drive, Scottie pursues her and confronts her in the bell tower. As Judy attempts to explain her role as that of an ill-informed participant, Scottie becomes increasingly angry. However, as tensions rise, footsteps are heard and a black figure appears in the shadows. Spooked, Judy panics and inadvertently falls out of the tower to her death.

This tale of greed, desire and obsession relies on the perceived illusion of the supernatural. The dark corners of human experience perpetuate and exploit the frailty of the human experience. The illusion of a supernatural force works to keep the viewer gripping the edge of their seat. THP is working on a new psychological thriller (with a touch of the supernatural in art) called The Kiss. What dark influences may be lurking in the shadows? Stay focused.

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Three Horizons Productions is a team of independent filmmakers who want to develop, acquire, and produce multi-media projects that showcase inspirational themes, compelling stories, and provocative characters to entertain or educate international audiences. Three Horizons Productions, located in Arizona, has a global outreach.

THP is also launching the first Supernatural Film Fest – SF2 – in Phoenix, AZ… stay tuned for more info and submit your short film!