In this section of our Colossus Movie Guide for Vertigo, we look at the key shots that help us understand the film.
- James Stewart – John “Scottie” Ferguson
- Kim Novak – Judy Barton / Madeleine Elster
- Tom Helmore – Gavin Elster
- Barbara Bel Geddes – Marjorie “Midge” Wood
- Henry Jones – the coroner
- Raymond Bailey – Scottie’s doctor
- Ellen Corby – manager of McKittrick Hotel
- Konstantin Shayne – Pop Leibel
- Alec Coppel – Writer
- Samuel Taylor – Writer
- Alfred Hitchcock – Director
Key shots of Vertigo
The famous dolly zoom shot, aka the “Vertigo Effect”
The dolly zoom, also known as the “Vertigo Effect,” is an iconic cinematic technique first popularized in Vertigo. In the film’s opening sequence, Scottie chases a criminal across rooftops, slips, and finds himself hanging over a void. As he looks down, the film employs a dolly zoom—where the camera physically moves away from the subject while simultaneously zooming in—to create a disorienting visual effect, simulating the sensation of vertigo.
Symbolically, the dolly zoom shot represents the movie’s central themes of fear, disorientation, and the psychological instability that defines Scottie’s character. The intense distortion of perspective illustrates Scottie’s emotional state and the psychological terror that grips him. It acts as a metaphor for the sensation of being drawn into an obsession against one’s will, reflecting Scottie’s ensuing obsession with Madeleine. The sensation of the world stretching away echoes his attempts to grasp the truth behind Madeleine’s identity and his failure to reconcile his perceptions with reality.
Historically, this shot has had a significant impact on the art of film. Pioneered by Alfred Hitchcock and his cinematographer Robert Burks, the dolly zoom was an innovative use of camera movement to communicate psychological states. This technique broke away from traditional filmmaking norms, introducing a new way of visual storytelling that went beyond plot and dialogue to incorporate a character’s subjective experience directly into the film’s visual language.
The dolly zoom has been replicated and adapted in countless films since, from Steven Spielberg’s Jaws to Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas, becoming an enduring part of film language. The continued usage of this technique is a testament to Hitchcock’s creative legacy and his profound influence on cinema. It remains an iconic symbol of Vertigo and a significant contribution to the evolution of cinematic techniques.
Madeleine’s entrance at Ernie’s Restaurant
Madeleine’s entrance at Ernie’s restaurant stands as one of the most iconic scenes in Vertigo due to its deliberate staging, visual appeal, and its integral role in establishing the film’s themes of obsession and illusion. This entrance marks Madeleine’s first appearance in the film, and director Alfred Hitchcock masterfully constructs this moment to be ethereal, almost dreamlike.
As Scottie looks on, Madeleine steps into the frame bathed in a radiant glow. She is dressed in an emerald green suit, contrasting starkly with the restaurant’s subdued color palette. This dramatic entrance not only establishes Madeleine as a figure of allure and mystery, but it also signals the birth of Scottie’s obsession. From this point on, the image of Madeleine becomes an idealized fantasy that Scottie attempts to recreate obsessively, a pursuit that ultimately leads to tragic consequences.
Symbolically, this scene plays into the theme of illusion versus reality. Madeleine, as Scottie sees her, is an illusion, a construct. As she steps into the light, she’s not only stepping into Scottie’s view but also into the role she has been hired to play. The stark contrast between her and the rest of the scene further emphasizes the artificial nature of her character, marking her as an otherworldly presence amid the mundane.
This scene also encapsulates the film’s exploration of gaze and objectification. Scottie’s gaze upon Madeleine turns her into an object of his desire and obsession, a narrative device that propels the story forward.
In terms of aesthetic appeal, the shot is visually stunning, characterized by its exquisite use of color, light, and composition. Hitchcock’s meticulous attention to detail heightens the visual impact of this shot, making it a cinematic moment that continues to resonate with audiences.
The portrait of Carlotta Valdes and Madeleine’s bun
The scene where Madeleine, adorned in a grey suit and spiral bun, is staring at the portrait of Carlotta Valdes in the museum is a key moment in Vertigo, filled with symbolic significance. This image is of a woman, supposedly possessed by the spirit of another, looking at the painted representation of that other—a multi-layered mirror effect that directly links to the film’s themes of identity, obsession, and the blurring of reality and illusion.
In this moment, Hitchcock underscores the film’s exploration of constructed identities. The striking resemblance between Madeleine and the woman in the portrait subtly hints at the fabricated persona Madeleine is embodying. However, Scottie, entranced by the enigmatic figure that is Madeleine, fails to see through the masquerade, symbolizing his surrender to obsession and his inability to discern reality from illusion.
The Carlotta Valdes portrait itself is significant as it represents the past reaching out to claim the present. It embodies the theme of the past’s cyclical nature and its ability to ensnare and manipulate individuals. As Madeleine stares at the portrait, she seems to be entrapped by the past, much like Scottie eventually becomes ensnared by his past obsession.
Madeleine’s spiral bun, mirroring the hairstyle of Carlotta in the portrait, is a visual cue reinforcing the doppelgänger motif present throughout the film. The spiral, often associated with a journey into the self or the unconscious, here represents Scottie’s descent into obsession. This motif is consistently used in the film, from the spiral staircase in the bell tower to the spirals appearing in Scottie’s dream, all hinting at the circular, obsessive nature of Scottie’s psychological state.
In a significant scene from Vertigo, Madeleine stands by the San Francisco Bay, holding a small bouquet of flowers and throws them one by one into the water. This scene is loaded with symbolism and is integral to understanding the deeper meaning of the film.
On one level, the act of throwing flowers into the water reflects Madeleine’s supposed fascination with death and the past (as exemplified through the Carlotta Valdes portrait). The flowers, vibrant and alive when plucked, meet their end as they hit the water, symbolizing the transition from life to death. This can be seen as a foreshadowing of Madeleine’s own “suicide,” the act of willingly giving oneself to the abyss. The act of discarding the flowers parallels the way Madeleine (or rather, Judy’s portrayal of Madeleine) is cast aside once her role in the murderous scheme is fulfilled.
On another level, this scene subtly emphasizes the theme of obsession. As Scottie watches Madeleine perform this ritual, he’s drawn deeper into her enigmatic world. Her actions, although simple, are shrouded in mystery, compelling Scottie to know more, to understand her better, thus driving his obsession.
This scene also highlights the concept of illusion versus reality. The flowers, once they hit the water, float away and are lost to sight, much like the illusion of Madeleine that Scottie falls in love with. The act of throwing flowers into the water can be seen as a metaphor for the ease with which illusions can be created and then discarded.
The Sequoia forest
In the Sequoia Forest scene in Vertigo, Madeleine leads Scottie to an ancient cross-section of a tree. She traces her finger across the tree rings, pointing out markers of historical events—each ring a year in the life of the tree and a moment in history. She stops at the current date, remarking that this is where she exists, but then moves back in time, suggesting that she’s inhabited by a past spirit, Carlotta Valdes.
This scene plays a crucial role in emphasizing the film’s themes of time, memory, and identity. The ancient tree symbolizes the continuum of time and the past’s profound influence on the present. As Madeleine traces her finger across the tree rings, she’s visually and symbolically journeying through time, underlining the idea of being trapped in the past, much like Scottie who becomes trapped in his past experiences and obsession with Madeleine.
Furthermore, this moment subtly foreshadows the later revelation about Madeleine’s true identity as Judy. As Madeleine/Judy traces the tree rings, she’s essentially playing out her deceptive role—living in the present but pretending to be a woman from the past. The markers on the tree and her dialogue suggest the merging of timelines and identities, hinting at the complex web of deceit woven around Scottie.
The aesthetic appeal of this scene lies in its stark contrast to the rest of the film. The vastness of the Sequoia forest and the natural beauty surrounding the characters provides a serene backdrop to the intimate conversation about time and identity, effectively juxtaposing the quiet beauty of nature with the turmoil brewing within the characters.
Scottie’s dream sequence
The dream sequence in Vertigo marks a critical point in the narrative where Scottie’s grip on reality begins to unravel completely. In this surreal montage, his subconscious fears and guilt over Madeleine’s death are brought to the forefront. Specifically, the sequence where Scottie’s body is falling is a vivid depiction of his mental descent and deep-seated fear of heights.
This falling motif is crucial as it symbolizes Scottie’s psychological turmoil. As he falls, he’s not merely succumbing to his acrophobia but also to the guilt and grief he harbors over Madeleine’s death. The fall embodies his feeling of helplessness, the loss of control, and his inability to save Madeleine. This directly ties into the film’s theme of obsession, as it’s his obsessive need to understand Madeleine’s death that plunges him deeper into his mental abyss.
Symbolically, the falling body also represents Scottie’s realization of the deceptive nature of reality, where things aren’t what they seem to be. It signifies the unraveling of the illusion he was caught in and his fall from the world of the idealized Madeleine to the harsh reality of her demise.
On an aesthetic level, this dream sequence is visually striking and creatively utilizes color, animation, and live-action footage to represent Scottie’s distorted perception of reality. The merging of abstract and representational images contributes to a sense of disorientation and unease, reflecting Scottie’s psychological state.
Judy’s transformation into Madeleine
One of the most important shots in Vertigo occurs when Judy, bathed in an otherworldly green haze, emerges from the bathroom as Madeleine. The shot is rich in symbolism and significantly contributes to the film’s exploration of themes like identity, obsession, and illusion.
The green light is a powerful symbolic tool in this shot. It creates an eerie, dreamlike atmosphere, which mirrors the spectral quality of Scottie’s memories of Madeleine. The light suggests a shift from reality to a realm of fantasy, underlining the blurred line between reality and illusion, a central theme in the film. It encapsulates the liminal space where Judy ends, and Madeleine begins—a testament to the fluidity of identities and the power of illusion in Vertigo.
The green light also links back to the emerald necklace Judy wears and the green dress Madeleine wore during her first appearance, symbolically intertwining Judy and Madeleine’s identities. It could also be interpreted as representing envy or desire—Scottie’s longing to bring back Madeleine from the dead.
In terms of the film’s themes, Judy’s transformation signifies the peak of Scottie’s obsession. He’s so driven by his need to recreate Madeleine that he’s willing to overlook Judy’s individuality. It underscores his inability to differentiate between the real woman (Judy) and the idealized image he’s obsessed with (Madeleine), reinforcing the narrative’s focus on obsession and illusion.
Aesthetically, the shot is masterfully composed, with the ethereal glow of green light enhancing Kim Novak’s (Judy/Madeleine) spectral beauty. The intensity of the moment, coupled with Novak’s emotive performance, makes this shot one of the most visually and thematically significant in Vertigo.
Scottie on the ledge
Vertigo’s final shot, with Scottie standing on the ledge of the bell tower looking down at Judy’s lifeless body, is a chilling and impactful conclusion to the narrative. This image is steeped in symbolism and encapsulates many of the film’s most significant themes, particularly those of obsession, identity, and the destructive power of illusion.
The height of the bell tower, which had previously been a source of terror for Scottie due to his acrophobia, becomes the site of his final epiphany. As he stands on the ledge, he’s not only looking down at Judy’s body but also at the disastrous consequences of his obsession. His conquering of his fear of heights parallels his understanding of his obsession’s destructive nature. He has reached the summit of his obsession, only to find it accompanied by loss and death.
In terms of the film’s exploration of identity, this final shot underlines the reality of Judy’s existence and the fallacy of Madeleine’s. As Scottie looks down, he sees not Madeleine but Judy, the real woman behind the illusion. The tragic reality of her death becomes the final shattering of the Madeleine illusion.
Furthermore, this scene symbolically suggests that Scottie’s pursuit of an idealized love, embodied in the ghostly Madeleine, has led him to the brink, both literally and metaphorically. The bell tower ledge is not only a physical height but also the precipice of his psychological undoing. In this sense, the ledge serves as a symbol for the dangerous edge of Scottie’s obsessive quest.
Visually, the shot is stark and haunting, with Scottie’s solitary figure contrasted against the gaping void beneath him. This image is a powerful representation of loneliness and despair, underlining the poignant and tragic undercurrents of the film’s narrative.
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