In the first of a new regular series Rebecca McCallum investigates gender in the films of Alfred Hitchcock, beginning with a two-part analysis of the incomparable Vertigo.
A psychological vortex with no resolution, Vertigo is an intoxicating exploration of love, obsession and the unobtainable. Set amongst the cultural landmarks of San Francisco, retired detective Scottie (James Stewart) is hired by an old acquaintance Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore) to follow his wife Madeline (Kim Novak) who he believes is haunted by an aristocratic relative. The mystery is not as straightforward as it seems however when it transpires that the Madeline whom Scottie is trailing is in fact an imitation of Elster’s wife, embodied by Judy (also Kim Novak), forming part of an elaborate murder plot. In the opening credits, we are shown close-ups of a woman’s eyes and lips which both sexualises and anonymises her. As Kim Novak’s name appears over the image, audiences might assume these features belong to the actress herself, but they are the eyes and lips of a model. Within seconds Hitchcock has elegantly laid out the key theme of his film.
Art and Ambiguity: Constructing the Ideal Woman
The construction of the ideal woman is first teased out through the character of Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes), Scottie’s friend and one time lover. In her bohemian apartment we see her sketch a female figure which, with its swept back hairstyle and simple dress tight across the bodice, resembles Madeline’s forthcoming appearance at Earnie’s restaurant. Here, in a nod to his transference of the story from the original novel (D’entre des morts by Boilieau-Narcejac) onto film, Hitchcock brings the ideal woman from the page to the screen. Art is known for its potential to be psychologically revealing and Midge’s sketch shows her painfully accurate envisagement of Scottie’s ideal woman.
When Scottie (and the audience) meets Madeline for the first time, she faces away from us; unable to pick her out amongst the diners of Earnie’s, she resembles a lost figure in an expansive classical painting. As the shot tightens, Hitchcock distinguishes her by a prominent green-lined coat, a foreshadowing of the dreamy green haze that will surround Judy in the transformation scene later. Herrmann’s beguiling and fantastical score also plays an integral role in creating an immediate otherness to her character.
It is at this moment that another fundamental theme is introduced: the art of looking. It is not just Scottie and the audience who are looking at Madeline, Judy playing Madeline, and Kim Novak playing both, but Hitchcock as director who is also party to this voyeurism, adding to the motif of triplicates within the film.
Framed in the doorway, Madeline is idealised and put on display as an object of desire. Representative of an enigma, Hitchcock treats her as a work of art that is both utterly exhilarating and dangerously hypnotic. As she stops, surrounded by red (a colour associated with love, passion and danger) she is shown in profile, standing in an artistic cameo-style pose. Her movement is graceful as she glides dreamlike out of the door in her trailing gown, a representation of the lingering psychological impact she will have upon Scottie.
Madeline is next presented in another sublime and picture-perfect setting when we see her visiting a florist. In a scene reminiscent of Dorothy pulling back her front door and finding herself in the strange and beautiful land of Oz, so too does Scottie open the door to a new world of overwhelming idealism that one could only dream of. Madeline faces away from the camera again, allowing those watching to project whatever they choose onto this unknowable woman. Wearing the trademark Hitchcockian grey suit, ironically it is Madeline’s colourlessness that makes her stand out amongst the swathes of colourful bouquets. By choosing to surround her with flowers, Hitchcock is also exploiting conventional associations with romanticism. In the background directly facing Madeline, a man in a suit resembling Scottie and a blonde in a grey suit can be seen, acting as a mediation on identity and duplicity. The space also contains several mirrors, a further comment on the nature of duality and looking.
With Scottie on her tail, Madeline visits the Legion of Honour Art Gallery and the woman who has thus far been the subject of Hitchcock’s paintings now sits observing a work of art. However, she also becomes an exhibit herself through Scottie’s gaze. Just as Madeline admires and is bedazzled by the portrait of Carlotta, so too does Scottie stand admiring her as though she were a work of art. The twist Madeline wears in her hair not only adds to the dizzying and kaleidoscopic world of Vertigo, it also matches the hair worn by her ancestor Carlotta and in doing so becomes part of an entrancing cycle of art and life imitating one another. The device of framing and presenting Madeline in a portrait style likens her to a work of art and links to the notions of beauty and idealism. Ultimately Hitchcock maintains Madeline’s ambiguity by keeping her speechless for the first forty-four minutes of the film: the first words she speaks – ‘What am I doing here? What happened?’ – are directed towards Scottie (and coincidentally, to us) but could also be read as an existential question that she is asking of herself.
In addition to dealing heavily in spiral imagery, cinematically Vertigo uses heights and levels as a means of communicating power, helplessness, and the psychological state of its characters. While Scottie is shown at low levels, by contrast Madeline is permanently ascending, whether it be up the steps of the McKendrick Hotel, up towards the cemetery, in an upwards direction to the apartment with Elster and of course up the bell tower. In leading Scottie to locations where he looks or travels upwards (such as when she appears at the windows of both hotels), Madeline is constantly ahead of him and this elevation and advancement connects to her status as an unobtainable woman. Significantly, the reason he is able save her from Fort Point bay is because this requires a descent.
Communicating Through Costume
Actress Vera Miles was originally scheduled to play Judy but was unable to commit after falling pregnant. By the time Novak was on board all the costume, hair and make-up planning had been completed, based entirely upon Miles. Such a fact presents a real-life layer of not only Judy being made up in another woman’s image, but Novak too.
Just as the grey suit is instrumental to Scottie’s fantasy, so likewise was it important to the director in creating his ideal leading actress. Hitchcock was as specific about how he wanted Novak to look just as Scottie is about the steps Judy needs to take to resemble Madeline. The grey suit worn by Madeline is indicative of her being buttoned up, restricted and confined. In reality, Novak loathed her costume but noted how it aided her performance: ‘I really hated that silly suit, but it helped me to be uncomfortable as Madeline’1.
Remarkably different from Madeline in every way, when we first meet Judy she is not wandering alone but instead walks out with friends and is shown laughing and chatting. The greatest distinction between the pair however is undoubtedly the physical one: Judy represents the working girl and is independent and earthy rather than the kept Madeline who is ethereal and aloof. In addition to this Judy wears heavier make-up, statement jewellery and speaks with a southern accent.
Ever the aesthetic storyteller, Hitchcock associates Madeline with the colour green. This can be seen from the lined coat we see her in at Earnie’s, to the colour of her car and even in the clothes she wears as Judy. When Scottie first sees Judy, she is also wearing green and is positioned between two green vehicles. For Scottie, the confirmation that she is Madeline comes when he sees her in profile, a shot which recalls the first scene in Earnie’s. We learn that Judy has kept the grey suit as a memento of her time with Scottie and – notably – even when he tries to make her over she never reveals to him that she still has it. From her wardrobe we also see her take a purple outfit (Novak’s favourite colour and a garment she felt personally connected with) which she holds closely, as though clinging to part of herself.
1 Young, C. Hitchcock’s Heroines. 2018
Part II of Rebecca’s deep-dive into Vertigo is available here.