Alfred Hitchcock never admitted that he used any symbolism in his masterpiece, Vertigo, let alone incorporating any mythic elements. Yet this film, obsessed with the hopeless task of bringing a lost love back from the dead, leads to such interpretation. Indeed, the very premise is rooted in the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, where Orpheus travels to the underworld to retrieve his dead wife. His love was so strong that the god Hades let her go, on condition that Orpheus be patient and not look at her until they exit. On their journey out, Orpheus thought he was fooled, he looked back at Eurydice before they reached the light, and Eurydice was pulled back among the dead. This myth has inspired countless works of literature and art. In the case of Hitchcock, his film was based on the book D’Entre les Morts (Between Deaths) by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, where the same obsessive search for a dead love then creates the makeover of the same/different woman. In writing the script for Vertigo, many screenwriters were involved, and versions changed. During preparation of the last version involving Hitchcock and Samuel Taylor, Hitchcock was hospitalized twice in two months for a naval hernia and then serious gallstone surgery. He was in the hospital for a month for the latter, where he contemplated his own death. “The only way to get rid of my fears is to make a film about them,” he once said.
It was not only fear Hitchcock was trying to excise in Vertigo, but his own obsessions and subconscious feelings. Rather than communicate them in scripted dialogue, these elements were communicated symbolically and visually. Hitchcock had started as a silent filmmaker and believed that in many ways it was superior form of film making. In his interviews with Francois Truffaut he stated, “The silent pictures were the purest form of cinema.” Vertigo was filmed with long stretches of silence, but scored by the brilliant Bernard Herrmann: scenes of the introductory chase, Scottie’s tailing of Madeleine with drives through San Francisco streets, through a flower shop, at the cemetery of the Mission Dolores, and at the Art Gallery at the Palace of the Legion of Honor. Scottie voyeuristically watches her gazing at the portrait of Carlotta Valdez, whose gravestone she had just visited. Just enough dialogue elicited information on the painting from a museum guard. Madeleine’s husband had told Scottie that she thought she was Carlotta’s reincarnation. Hence the identical twirl to their hair-buns, and the same flower “nosegay’ they hold. As a main character, the beautiful Madeleine is also obsessed with death. We as the audience perceive, without dialogue, Scottie’s obsessive love begin. A mere private detective job of tailing a man’s wife changes completely. Scottie’s walk through the very dark tunnel-like back of the Podesta Baldocchi flower shop, then as he opens its rear door, magnificent full colors of flowers fill the screen, with a radiant Kim Novak as Madeleine turns and appears to walk toward him. Then as he follows her to the Mission and through its cemetery, his curiosity is heightened beyond where his reason finds answers. And finally on their third stop at the Art Gallery his attraction to her beauty is magnified by her unexplainable aura of mystery.
Chris Marker was a big fan of Vertigo, having watched it nineteen times. He said about Vertigo in his film Sans Soleil, in part, “….It seems to be a question of trailing of enigma, of murder, but in truth it’s a question of melancholy and dazzlement…so confidently coded within the spiral that you could miss it, and not discover immediately that this vertigo of space in reality stands for the vertigo of time.”
Immemorial time is likely what Marker meant and can be inferred by the symbolism and myths in Vertigo. Scottie is fascinated by Madeleine, who says she is the reincarnation of a woman from the old Californio days of California, a theme reinforced by the visuals from two old missions. This is further reinforced by their trip to the Sequoia Redwood forest. The visual here shows their tiny size compared to a giant sequoia and the forest, reinforced by Scottie saying the tree is two-thousand years or older. Their name is, “Sequoia sempervirens — ‘always green, ever-living,’” Scottie explains. Madeleine views that as how many lives have come and gone in that time. This is emphasized visually by her looking at the tree rings of a sequoia. “This is where I was born,” Madeleine tells Scottie, pointing to a ring from the 1800s, “and this is where I died.” On the trip she also explains how she feels like she is walking down a long corridor that is covered with mirrored fragments. She feels the life she sees is not her own.
In Jean Cocteau’s great film Orpheus (Orphée) Jean Marais as Orphée walks through a mirror to reach the underworld. Mirrors serve as a symbol of duality throughout Vertigo. From the scene where Scottie first sees Madeleine at Ernie’s restaurant, as she and Gavin Elster are walking toward the bar, and then leaving, their duplicity is emphasized by their double images in the mirror. Earlier at the flower shop, Scottie’s best view of Madeleine was in the mirror. And later, with Judy, we see her often in the mirror, “putting on her face.” The other woman in Scottie’s life was Midge, the woman who cared for him the most and took care of him after his breakdowns. She knew too well about his obsession, but like a mother she was always there for him but could do little to divert his attention. Her warmth was symbolized by her red and yellow sweaters, and her work illustrating bras.
The symbolic meanings of the colors used in Vertigo have been written about at length. Starting with Madeleine’s gray suit, a fixation for Scottie, and more so for Hitchcock. He insisted Edith Head design one for Kim Novak despite her objections. Gray represented modesty, and the gray was perhaps an association with a nun’s habit. Combined with Kim Novak’s blond hair it gave the image of the woman of mystery – the figure-hugging suit on a cool woman with fiery insides. Her car is green, and Judy’s first costume is a bright green color. While green normally denotes evergreens and life, Hitchcock’s strong association with green started in the theater in London as a youth, where ghostly representations were depicted in lime green. See for example the greenish gown and make-up of the ghostly character Elvira in the 1945 British film Blithe Spirit directed by David Lean.
After Scottie saves Madeleine’s life after she jumps into the bay, he becomes obsessed with her. And when later he is powerless to save her from jumping to her death, powerless because of his vertigo, he enters those dark places of the mind. This is exacerbated by his trial for her death. “The freedom and the power is something men once had,” Pop Leiber said in the Argosy book shop. Rather than a philosophy of the film or of Hitchcock, I believe this was used as a method to further symbolized Scottie’s weakness.
Vertigo is full of symbols. After Scottie has finally persuaded the character Judy to be made over in the image of Madeleine, she emerges from her bathroom and we see the bed as she approaches Scottie, which was barely seen before. Scottie’s own apartment window has a clear view of the phallic Coit Tower. The Mission Dolores, as it was commonly known, plays an important role, an old and historic building, named after the nearby Creek of Sorrows. Then there is the double itself, always a bad sign in mythology, and the basis of so much of Vertigo. The movie is structured as two halves, or a doubling of Scottie obtaining and then losing his love by “death.” And there is that great symbol of the Lissajous spiral, that swirling vortex that sucks in our main characters and serves as the graphic symbol of the movie’s opening title sequence. Death permeates Vertigo, alongside re-birth and reincarnation. Scottie has met Judy and begun a relationship – a relationship where he needs to change her into the lost love Madeleine. “Can’t you just love me for who I am?” Judy asks Scottie. But her need for love and his obsession results in the makeover. That miraculous final transformation takes place when Judy emerges, seemingly from the haze of time and green light in her apartment, as the very image of Madeleine, gray suit and blond hair in spiral bun. Scottie is transfixed, his eyes dazzling, and as they embrace and kiss, the camera captures a rotating scene of them at San Juan Bautista Mission. Seemingly spinning through time and memory, a “vertigo of time” as Chris Marker stated.
But as we know, Scottie has been duped in the story’s plot. Judy really was Madeleine all along, or rather Madeleine was Judy. Scottie discovers this when, as Judy dresses for dinner, she puts on the Carlotta Valdez necklace. So instead of going out to dinner Scottie takes her on a long drive, back to San Juan Bautista, back to the scene of the crime. Judy is bewildered at first, but she sees Scottie’s hostility as he pushes her up the bell tower stairs. “He made you over just like I made you over,” he says accusingly to Judy. Only Elster had made her over first, and thus Scottie had been pursuing the hollow goal of recreating another man’s fantasy. And then he accused her of being “an apt pupil,” for Elster, which he repeats twice – something she hadn’t been for him. That demonstrated to Scottie, and served as the film’s underlying theme, that the pursuit of an empty ideal is futile. For Hitchcock, it was a deeply ingrained motif, one that would keep repeating itself as he tried to mold one of his blonds after another into his fantasy, only to have her leave him for one reason or another. With the character Scottie, this creation and possession fantasy was played out not as a means of domination, but rather one where we could believe that once his fantasy woman was created, he could surrender and succumb to her. She could have been his Madeleine/Midge. But alas we know that that that too would have been another fantasy – another beguiling but untrustworthy image reflected in a mirror. But such was Scottie’s anger that he overcame his vertigo to go all the way up the stairs, dragging Judy to the top of the bell tower where “Madeleine” had fallen, or rather had been pushed to her death. In the book D’Entre les Morts, Roger Flavières strangles “Madeleine.” the woman who had duped him, out of jealousy, and knowing what he had transformed her double into was an illusion of lost love. Scottie wants to do Judy harm, although Judy shows her honest emotion. The ending seems clumsy, an accidental fall off the tower, but caused by the dark appearance of a nun announcing, “I heard voices.” For the Catholic Hitchcock, a director that never had anything in his films not carefully considered, this must have been a sort of absolution for Scottie (Hitch’s alter ego?). Yet we start off nearly where we began. Orpheus caused Eurydice to fall back to the underworld by his carelessness. Roger Flavières is sent to the mad house. Scottie would no doubt have returned to a clinic, forever damaged, perpetually seeing the loving, imploring eyes of Judy/Madeleine staring into his. Vertigo is not Hitchcock’s greatest mystery, but rather his greatest tragedy.
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18 thoughts on “VERTIGO: HITCHCOCK’S MYTH & SYMBOLISM”
Wonderful article, Christian. I have a hard time classifying favorites but when Vertigo is on the table, it’s a different story. Vertigo is easily within my top 3. I love how you write about the symbolism within the film and I agree with you re: “the underlying theme is the pursuit of an empty ideal is futile.”
I view this as a morality tale which is veiled within a psychological thriller. Poor Scottie wasn’t able to accept loss and move on i.e. overcome his vertigo, and his complex drove him to destruction.
On a happier note, I’m hosting a blogathon in honor of the 70th Anniversary of Singin in the Rain and would love to have you join us! Here’s the link if you’re interested:
Thanks for your comment Ari, and I’m gratified that you liked my post. For me interpreting Vertigo is like peeling an onion. Thanks for the invitation to participate in the
Singing in the Rain Blogathon. I think I will have time to do that.
Agreed 100%! I think that’s part of the greatness of Vertigo and what keeps us coming back time and time again.
Oh that’s great! It would be lovely to have you. When you have your topic in mind, please let me know so that I can secure it for you. Thanks very much, Christian!
Ok Ari, Ill have to come up with a topic soon for you. Thanks.
Reading over various interpretations, I’ve been surprised that, even in mentioning Hitchcock’s Catholic influences, I’ve seen no one point out that in the end, it’s a nun who (however innocently) puts the kibosh on an immoral love (in several senses), just as it was about to sprout.
Yes, good point Barry. I’m sure he was very influenced by that in his youth and in this film too.
I ran across your excellent post while trying to research a small detail in Vertigo. In the scene where Scottie and Madeleine meet at his house and they’re standing at the front door. There, a decoration in the metalwork of the balustrade (repeated three times) is the Chinese character meaning “double happiness”. As you say, Hitchcock did nothing by accident, and I wonder where he got this idea. Any thoughts?
Thanks for this astute observation and your compliment. The “double” theme occurs often in this film, although happiness is rare and three likely means that that there is a third party involved, whether it’s the double character of Madeleine or her handler is not certain. The couple did find brief happiness in Scottie’s apartment when he saved Madeleine and they presumably made love. Their pairing nonetheless is always shadowed, even haunted, by another.
I really enjoyed this post, Christian. I’m a lifelong Hitchcock fan who’s seen many of his film numerous times. I’ve pored over all the books, yet I’m always eager to read another review or analysis.
You’re right about “Vertigo”. I’ve always felt that any comments Hitchcock made downplaying the film were the result of him being defensive about a work that didn’t play well at the box office. (Imagine if he could see it now, knocking “Citizen Kane” off the top of critics’ all-time best films lists!) He obviously worked very hard on the film, and it shows. It’s stunning in every aspect. Each frame is like the paintings that Madeleine gazes at in the art museum. And the symbolism and autobiographical themes in the film are unmistakable.
This is a startlingly personal big-studio film — shot, edited, and scored with great care. I find it very hypnotic.
I’m not sure exactly how many times I’ve watched it. It’s at least a dozen, and that includes two or three showings in a theater after it was revived in the ’80s. It might be 19, like Chris Marker. Not sure, though, that I can top Hitchcock biographer Donald Spoto, who wrote in his “The Art of Alfred Hitchcock” that he’d seen it 26 times! And that was decades ago; I’m sure he’s seen it many times since.
But that’s the power of “Vertigo”; I could watch it many more times myself, and never tire of it. Like any great work of art, there’s always more to enjoy. Thanks for an interesting post, Christian.
Thanks for your comments Paul. I’m gratified that you enjoyed my post. And as you say, you can watch it any number of time and always find something interesting. Or it’s just the
the mythical aspects of it that draws you in – hypnotic as you say. Thanks again.
This study of Vertigo and its symbolism and its references is outstanding, Christian. I was reminded that one reason so many become hooked on Vertigo is that there is so much there, so many layers and avenues to explore.
I read a translation of the Boileau/Narcejac novel several years ago and came away admiring Vertigo all the more – the richness and depth Hitchcock gave it.
For me, this is the film Hitchcock truly went “all in” on. Not many understood it at the time. Fortunately the French did and the rest of the world eventually caught up.
Thanks for your comments Patty. Yes, you are so right about why Vertigo fascinates people, even with its faults. It has that haunting quality
that seems to hypnotize. And you are right too about Hitchcock putting his all into this film. His “obsession.”
Yes, yes, yes to everything here. This is Hitchcock’s greatest tragedy. You also blew my mind with the reference to the Greek myth, which never occurred to me but is completely obvious (Duh.)
Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts on this film. Yours is one of the best reviews I have read on Vertigo, and I mean it.
Than you for your compliment Ruth. I’ve gone down the rabbit hole with Vertigo, and so the deeper layers of the film have been what attracts me the most. Also Orphee is one of my favorite films.
Since this is one of the the films Hitchcock took out of circulation, it was obviously very personal to him. Thanks for your comment.
Intense and interesting, like the movie.
I’ll be re-reading this before the day ends.
Thanks Paddy. I went down the rabbit hole with this one, as I tend to do with Vertigo. And it could have been worse. Don’t get too close to the edge of the vortex Paddy.
This was a great read, Christian. For me this is the second best Hitch film after Rear Window. Every time I watch Vertigo I am as entranced by it, as Scottie is entranced by Madeleine/Judy.
Completely agree with you on the symbolism(something which I think helps make this one the masterpiece it is)everything in the film means something and there is so much to pick up on, something which adds to the overall viewing experience.
For me, watching Vertigo is a film experience, rather than the sort of film where you casually sit down to watch with some popcorn. It touches my soul and drags me into the mystery of Madeleine/Judy just like Scottie is pulled in.
James Stewart delivers one of his best performances here as the tortured detective in love with a ghost and a lie.
Thank you so much for joining me to help celebrate Hitch and his films.
Thanks Maddy. Yes, it is the deeper layers off the film and its connection to mythology, psychology, the subconscious, and symbolism that make it something you have to think
beyond it’s surface. Sometimes I wonder though if it makes that same connection to women since its depicts such a male obsession. Happy to be part of the blogathon.