Lost Illusions: American Neo-Realism and Hitchcock’s Vertigo

Brigid O’Shaughnessy: “I love you!”

Sam Spade: “I don’t care who loves who.  No one’s gonna play me for a sap.”

—The Maltese Falcon

Joe Gillis: “You’re Norma Desmond.  You were in the silent movies.  You were big.”

Norma Desmond: “I am big.  It’s the movies that got small.”

 —Sunset Boulevard

            The movies did not exactly get smaller in the period 1939-1958, but they got less glamorous, and the glamour that remained had diminished force, was either trivialized or inflated to pomposity, but mainly exposed as phony.  The move away from hypermimetic representation[1] created an agenda of exposing the illusions about glamour and the happy, wealthy world of witty aristocrats that the thirties wanted and needed.  The death of grand illusions is a theme of American movies from the late thirties on.  At the same time, a nostalgia for lost grandeur answered the hard-nosed realist vision of a world liberated from a phony idealism.  But both of those positions confirmed the passing of the age of grand illusion.

            This crux of film history registers in some of the biggest films from the late 30’s, not because they reflect directly on trends in the cinema, but because their narratives are perched, like the creative energies of the film industry, between two worlds, one where glamour, wealth, success, stability and happiness were conjured and believed in like presences at a séance; another where that kind of seduction was exposed as foolish and dangerous.  Gone with the Wind (1939) sits exactly on that crest: it looks back to a world of elegance built on airy foundations and about to collapse—the old South—and forward to a harsher world where life and competition have become brutal and a new world has to be built on the ruins of the old.  It has two kinds of heroes: one, the slave-owning plantation masters and gentlemen who think that southern chivalry, fine manners and aristocratic values are stronger than yankee cannons; the other, the hard-bitten, clear-seeing, self-serving realist, Rhett Butler.  The former live in dreams and illusions and predicate their lives on them; the latter serves himself, not hindered by ideals or feather-light southern moral values.  Scarlett O’Hara stands between the two: she clings to a false romantic illusion, however hard-edged her relation to men and business otherwise.  She ruins her marriage to Rhett Butler by her love of a world that no longer exists, projected onto a man, Ashleigh Wilkes, who turns into a pathetic shell of that world and its values.  The final moments of the movie show her throwing over the illusion too late (“I’ve loved something that didn’t really exist”), while Rhett tries to reconsitute it by returning to Charleston (“see if there’s something of charm and grace left in the world.”)

This is a parable for America and its relations to the movies in the period, 1930-1950. 

The Wizard of Oz (1939) also develops the constellation of big illusion debunked by reality.  The major part of the film still plays in the grand, operatic (at least comic-operatic), hyperreal  mode, but it is a dream, embraced by the dreary black and white world of Kansas, ultimately preferred to technicolor fantasy via the flat-as-Kansas wisdom, “There’s no place like home.”  The wizard on whom Dorothy pins her hopes of return from Oz to Kansas, her companions their hopes of a brain, of a heart, and of courage, turns out to be a charlatan who has adduced cultic adulation in the people of Oz by projecting a hyperreal image of himself in smoke and flames through a variant of cinematic special-effect.  The charismatic tyrant reveals himself as a blatant phony.  He ministers to the psychic needs of the three companions with some tinny substitute for brain, heart and courage.  Over-inflated illusions can do nothing for those who come to them as petitioners, nothing that the petitioner can’t do by his or her own character and will (they’ve already proved themselves in the quest for the witch’s broomstick).  The symbols conferred on them—ThD. (Doctor of Thinkology) degree, ticking, heart-shaped clock, and hero-medal—are cheap, empty reminders of acts of real heroism that didn’t depend on any supernatural force.  Again, a parable for movie history, 1930-50.[2] 

            A hunger for “reality” was the energy that drove film production,[3] and to some extent American culture generally,[4] from about 1939 on.[5]  The gangster thriller and film noir fed that appetite—the need to see things as they are by cutting through illusion, the dangers of succumbing to false appearances.[6]  The film noir comes in many different variants, but one of its most durable formulae is this: a beautiful woman practices her allure on a man, manipulates him in order to cover her crimes, to get rich, or to get rid of her husband, and the man either penetrates her web of deceit, or falls victim to it, or escapes it in spite of being taken in by her.  The essence of the film noir is the opaque nature of female charm.  The woman is beautiful, irresistible, but always mysterious, her motives always concealed.  But she hardly needs to conceal them and can still wrap men around her finger.  If the man is strong, hard-boiled, incorruptible, like Humphrey Bogart in The Big Sleep, Maltese Falcon and Dead Reckoning, then he is immune to her glamourings.  Or he may be a softy and roustabout, available for adventure and susceptible to the dangerous female.  Orson Welles in The Lady from Shanghai gets wrapped in the deceptions of the seductress, but comes through it unscathed when the glamorous-appearing world of hatred and evil, magnified and multiplied into a thousand images of itself in the hall of mirrors scene, self-destructs.      

            The detective becomes the leading character in film noir.  Law is the unshakeable ground on which the genre rests.  The gangster-hero gets tripped up by it; or the detective- hero, often a former cop, becomes a quasi-legitimate law enforcer alongside the feckless sanctioned one.  Often the law coincides perfectly with the personal values of the hero, as in The Big Sleep and Maltese Falcon, and the hero in the end hands over the culprit or the evidence to the police.

Alongside film noir there is also the gangster film where the tough guy still nurtures illusions of love and innocence.  He pins them onto a young woman, who betrays them.  His disillusionment frees him to do desperate things, more to commit suicide than to gain freedom (High Sierra [1941], Brute Force [1947]).  The cynicism of the formula is unrelieved by any redeeming elements, and that is clearly seen as “realism.”  

While Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) rises far above the hard-headed banalities of the genre,  its basic scheme repeats the experience of seduction through glamour and grand illusion followed by disenchantment.[7] 

Vertigo reworks, with great psychological complexity, the theme of seduction by illusion and restates the rejection of big illusion rooted in American neo-realism, however much it rises above genre.   But the romanticism of Vertigo is so intense that it generates a nostalgia for what is lost in the rejection of an enchanting illusion.   


Epiphany in film, as in religion, is the sudden appearance of a character who seems to have walked in from another world.  The appearance of Harry Lime half-way through The Third Man, whom everyone in the film, and the audience, take for dead, is probably one of the most riveting moments in film.  Liza Doolittle’s (Audrey Hepburn)  appearance in red velvet dress, diamond tiara and necklace, a gutter-snipe, lower class flower-seller transformed into a goddess in My Fair Lady, is also a moment of pure magical transcendence.  In Vertigo the Kim Novak character(s) have two such moments. 

The First Epiphany

Madeleine Elster (Kim Novak) appears to waiting ex-detective, John (Scottie) Ferguson (James Stewart) in Ernie’s restaurant in San Francisco.  She is sublime and ravishing, she seems to float rather than walk along the path that leads from her table to the place where she pauses, seemingly to wait for her husband, in fact to display herself to Scottie.  Her magnificent profile shows off her ethereal beauty, her other-worldliness.  [FIG. 1: MADELEINE AT ERNIE’S] 

We hear it in the music.  We also see it in Scottie’s face, tense with suppressed emotion. As Madeleine both waits for “her” husband and puts her spell-binding presence on display, a light comes up on the background, the restaurant’s plush dark red Victorian wallpaper.  It creates a halo effect.  Scottie blinks and looks down and away, as if to avoid detection, but also with an admission of awe, as if to say,  “I didn’t know it would be like this.  Do I really want to get drawn into this?”  We watch him starting to fall in love with “Madeleine” and buying into the story that she is possessed by an ancestor, that a dead woman from the past is now coming to life in her.  If this woman is this beautiful, anything could be true—that is something like the logic that takes him in.

The Second Epiphany

Judy Barton is putting the finishing touches on her hairdo so that she will look in every way like the supposedly dead Madeleine Elster.  Scottie has made the shop-girl from Salina Kansas into a perfect copy of the Madeleine who fell to her death from the tower of the San Juan Bautista mission.  Her emergence from the bathroom in the Empire Hotel suggests a resurrection, a return from the dead.  Judy steps out slowly.  She’s bathed in a green-white light, more intense and other-worldly than the subtle halo of the first epiphany.  She stands in the mandorla it forms.  The contours of her over-exposed image almost fade into the surroundings  [FIG. 2: JUDY MADE-OVER, EPIPHANIZING] 

For the first moment she’s a ghost, in a state between the living and the dead.  Then she steps forward out of the fog of obscuring and illuminating light.[8]  A ghost is made flesh; a real woman emerges from among the dead.[9]  Scottie has been fidgeting restlessly while he waits, the same tenseness in his face as at Ernie’s, now heightened.  As Judy approaches he swallows with emotion, the nervous anticipation gives way to a blissful smile, his eyes widen, tears well.  He’s ecstatic.  The camera zooms in on Scottie, moderately fast, to a medium close-up.  The swelling music parallels the heightened visual excitement.  Scottie cranes his head slightly backwards as if he had to make room for the vision that’s about to flood in on him.  Disbelief overwhelmed, he now has Madeleine.  He has brought her back from the dead.  She lives again in Judy.      

Once we get initiated into the intricacies of the plot, we know that “Madeleine” and Judy are the same person, just Judy.  She was pretending to be Gavin Elster’s wife, so that Gavin could murder his wife, the real Madeleine Elster, and inherit her money.  So “Madeleine’s” epiphanies were both false.  But it doesn’t matter.  They are the highpoints which suck Scottie into the caper as an innocent witness and hold him enthralled in the drama of Madeleine’s reincarnation.  The camera and lighting are partners in the conspiracy: they let us think Madeleine is a goddess[10] with her two penumbras.  The script conspires also.  It keeps any hint of the conspiracy hidden until Judy’s flashback ¾ of the way through the film.  We are Scottie; we see what he sees.[11] 

What he experiences is the construction of a charismatic allure, glamouring, then enchantment, seduction.  The dynamics are of course powerful: passionately loved woman dies, lover finds a bad copy of her, bad copy gradually approaches through the obsessive artistry of the bereft lover, to the archetype, and in the green glamourings of the Empire Hotel, the transformation is complete; Madeleine was dead; now she’s alive.  Miracles happen, to Judy/Madeleine, as to Christian saints.  The light effects are there to shore up the sacred, at least supernatural character of the resurrection.


So the plot of Vertigo  plays in an “indicative” and a “subjunctive” mode.[12]  Carlotta Valdes was, in the story’s past indicative, its historical reality, Madeleine Elster’s grandmother.   Abandoned by her wealthy lover, whose child she has born, she went mad and committed suicide.  But the real witchcraft is in the present subjunctive: the dead Carlotta Valdes returns to inhabit the living Madeleine.  In Elster’s invented scenario Carlotta has transmigrated into the body and soul of Madeleine; the suicide of Carlotta threatens to repeat itself in Madeleine. 

Elster’s yarn plays on some favorite motifs of the romantic imagination:  the past is alive in the present, and can be evoked by—various means:  recognizing its aura, sensing its presence. Proust says, “Each face we love is a mirror of the past”.  And Walter Benjamin: “The past carries with it a secret index by which it is referred to redemption.  Doesn’t a breath of air that pervaded earlier days caress us as well?  In the voices that we hear, isn’t there an echo of now silent ones?”  Those alive at present, the Benjamin passage continues, are obligated by a virtual contract to recapture the past and are “endowed with a weak messianic power” to enable the recovery.[13]  That is, we are the savior of the past; we redeem it from its only partially dead state, the limbo in which it floats inexpressibly around us and wafts by in living persons and moods, rises up out of saints’ bones and French pastry.  Gavin Elster’s conspiracy weaves this world view, injects the past into the present, turns it into a case of demonic possession, and foists onto Scottie the role of exorcist.

            The highly auratic setting of San Francisco is made to participate in this logic: for Elster, the city’s alluring past (“I should like to have lived then [in the 19th century]: color, excitement, power, freedom”) is still alive but “fading fast”; pseudo-Madeleine sits looking at the Palace of Fine Arts, “you know, the portals of the past”; she passes her finger along the time-line of the ancient redwood and comments in the mid-nineteenth century, “Here I was born, there I died.”  In other words, the conspirators plant hermeneutic signals in the cityscape and the landscape, saying to Scottie, look how we read the present: its surface is charged with past, and the past is still available, not that dry realm of history and fiction a man like Scottie cares nothing about.  Elster and pseudo-Madeleine propose to Scottie a Proustian world, where the past haunts the present in its very materiality, and objects—buildings, trees, cars, women, streets, painted portraits, even the walls of hotel rooms—can open to discharge the past that they contain.

Proust called one of his characters, M.de Borodino, a “living reliquary,” because Proust could see the man’s imperial ancestors peering out through the eyes of their living descendant.  Gavin Elster’s plot lures Scottie and the viewer into the same logic.  He makes Judy into the “living reliquiary” of Madeleine as San Francisco is the living reliquary of the nineteenth century.  He creates a work of charismatic art, both character and setting.  Charisma, whether in a person or an artifact, captivates by suggesting a living force both natural and supernatural present in the person or the world depicted.  Madeleine charged with the presence of Carlotta is charismatic in this sense.  Madeleine glows with the past, it radiates from her like an aureole.  The double habitation, a host and an invisible occupant, magnifies the host, raises her up into the realm—here—of the supernatural.[14] 

Hitchcock was tuned to the theme of one person living in another.  Uncle Charlie and young Charlie share one existence in Shadow of a Doubt.  They merge into one another, and the danger of Uncle Charlie’s madness infecting young Charlie is real.  In Psycho  Mrs. Bates lives on in her son and eventually takes over, or at least the son capitulates to her.  A comparable agon is fought out in Rebecca, where the dead Rebecca is, or seems, still present in Manderley, working a demonic effect on the second Mrs. de Winter (Joan Fontaine), who tries to take her place.  She also is urged by the overpowering model of Rebecca (well, by Mrs. Danvers channelling the dead Rebecca) to jump to her death, the same act the dead Carlotta is supposed to be urging on “Madeleine.”

            In Carlotta, we have a strong presence absorbing the weaker presence of “Madeleine”—as Rebecca threatened to absorb and destroy the second Mrs. de Winter.  Carlotta is dead;  she is “preserved” only in her portrait, but also in some vague sense inhabits the body of “Madeleine.”  Madeleine pretends reluctance with the pathos-laden claim that “absorption” means death.  The film posits a spell, experienced in a trance-like condition (“Madeleine” among the redwoods, standing at the edge of San Francisco bay, sitting in the horse-drawn buggy in the stable) in which the living woman gets drawn into the consciousness of the dead spirit, and loses her own. 


The love-struck Scottie is beyond questioning the fine-spun spirituality of this whole scenario.  His mission is as the exorcist, redeeming Madeleine from a potentially fatal demon- possession.  Of course, the relationship to the past and its effects are raw fabrication.  There’s a perfectly good explanation for Carlotta’s presence in Madeleine—it’s  faked—and for Madeleine’s in Judy—they are the same person. 

Why does Scottie succumb to this hoax?  It’s clever, but so full of improbabilities that a man like Scottie, in possession of his faculties, should have seen through it from the outset.  Before vertigo set in he was a detective, idealistic and successful.  His job required precisely the clarity of vision that cuts through lies and fabrications, the stuff from which criminals regularly weave tales of innocence.  That quality is not only in the job description, so to speak, it’s also on the line of descent, in film tradition, from Mike Hammer, Sam Spade and other film noir detectives.  When Elster first pitches the story of Carlotta’s return from the past to him, he reacts with appropriate scorn:

Elster: Scottie, do you believe that someone from the past, someone dead, can enter and take possession of a living being?

Scottie: [Emphatically] No.

Elster: If I told you I believed that this is what has happened to my wife, what would you say?

Scottie: Well, I’d say, take her to the nearest psychiatrist, or psychoanalyst or neurologist or psycholo…  or maybe just a plain family doctor.  I’d have him check on you too.

Elster: …  It sounds idiotic, I know.  And you’re still the hard-headed Scot aren’t you.  Always were.

Scottie offers to find him a good detective firm.  Elster: “I want you.”  Scottie:  “Look, it’s not my line.”  What an understatement!  Threats from beyond the grave, mad-women from the past inhabiting the living—the irrational, the absurd—are way beyond the parameters of experience of the hard-headed Scot.  And of course there is detective film tradition, where the detective dominates women and penetrates fraud with incorruptible judgment.  But Scottie is no Sam Spade or Philip Marlow.  He has next to no experience with women, knows only the comparatively ordinary Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes), a buddy, not a lover.  He doesn’t court her or flirt with her.  Sex is far from their minds.  The closest they come to it is the inane exchange about what a brassiere is (Scottie: “What’s this doo-hickey?”  Midge: “You know about those things.  You’re a big boy now”[15]).  It turns out that they were engaged once, and Midge broke it off.  Scottie is still available, “That’s me, available Ferguson.”  So there is still some of the innocent good boy of his Frank Capra movies in this James Stewart role, and that means, he is way out of his depth dealing with Elster and Madeleine.  Romantic and psychological complexities are definitely not “his line.” 

            But seeing through fraud is.  What blinds him to it in this case?  Of course, his vertigo.  The real transformation of Scottie comes through the trauma of his brush with death and his fellow policeman’s succumbing to it.  He loses his grip.

            “Grip” is a visual theme of the opening scene.  The first thing the viewer sees is a solid horizontal iron bar dominating the screen.  We haven’t a clue why the movie opens with this odd, unidentified object in the foreground—in shallow focus, behind it an undefined blur.[16]  Our first clue is that a strong hand reaches up and grabs it with force.  The other hand follows.  Then the camera backs up[17] to reveal the bar as the top rung in a steel ladder leading to a rooftop.  The focus deepens, we see the skyline of San Francisco in the background, a fleeing crook climbs up the ladder and heads across the roof, Scottie and partner in hot pursuit.  Scottie misses the jump across two buildings, skids off the edge of the roof, and grabs the gutter drain, which all but rips out of place.  The firmness of the crook’s grasp is answered by the precariousness of Scottie’s.  And “grasp” is clearly meant in a broader sense than just holding firm to a pipe.  Scottie’s hold on reality is weakened by the experience.  Hanging from the gutter drain about ten stories above the ground,  he discovers that he has vertigo, or perhaps he contracts it at that moment (“Boy, what a moment to find out I had it!”)   

            What is vertigo?  What does it mean for the movie?  Fear of heights, fear of falling is made visible in the spinning eye-grids of the opening titles and of Scottie’s nightmare, and made audible in the music of the title sequence: delicate pulsing swirls wrap blaring intrusions of the brass, single notes or descending fifths.  Vertigo is a disorientation of the mind, which skips out of its normal orbit.  The vertigo-sufferer has his emotional world overturned.  He feels fear he had not known before; he looks into the irrational, and height becomes a cipher for its most frightening manifestation, death.[18]  Scottie’s nightmare fear is falling into the grave, far deeper than six feet or even ten stories.  Carlotta’s grave is the entrance to that “dark hall” which “Madeleine” wanders through in her dreams on the way to suicide.  The plummeting is also a descent into the past.  Carlotta’s grave, the real “portal of the past,” drags him in.  Space translates into time.  His fall will be a century or so deep. 

Vertigo dulls his reasoning faculty.  It also intensifies his emotional faculties:  fear, guilt, desire, imagination.  The swirling eye-grids are not only dizzying, they are hypnotic and seductive.  They exercise a magnetism like the irrational compulsion to jump when standing at the edge of a cliff or a high building.  They suck the viewer and Scottie into the enchanted world of “Madeleine.”

A great bit of camera work marks one step (beyond the erotic/mystical vision in Ernie’s) in his entrapment.  Scottie is standing in the museum watching “Madeleine” staring in trance-like rigidity at the portrait of Carlotta.  He stations himself behind her and two point-of-view shots show us his eyes as they wander from the bouquet on the bench next to “Madeleine” to the identical bouquet that Carlotta holds in the portrait; again, from the swirling bun into which “Madeleine” has tied her hair to the identical swirl in Carlotta’s hair.  The camera literally weaves the real and the painted objects, the past and the present, together.  Both are present on proximate surfaces; the living woman is woven into the dead woman, and the weaving also weaves a spell on Scottie.  His unpracticed imagination expands to take in the merged identity of the two women.    

The incident in the McKittrick Hotel, Carlotta’s old house, and “Madeleine’s” mysterious disappearance, cinch the knot.  The story of Carlotta’s death is confirmed by the “historian” in the Argosy bookstore, Pop Leibel.  The further details that connect Madeleine with Carlotta are supplied by Gavin Elster.  So Carlotta’s story is “true”—at least Scottie swallows it, and “Madeleine’s” possession by her is established—at least her belief in possession. 


            He might still resist a belief in ghosts and spirit possession, but having fished “Madeleine” out of San Francisco bay, he is hopelessly in love with her.  Love never prevented Sam Spade (“I don’t care who loves who; no one’s going to make a sap out of me”) or Philip Marlow from squeezing the truth out of lying females they were in love with.  But Scottie has other ballast, noted above.  He is far from Rip Murdock’s manifesto, “I don’t trust anybody, especially women!” (Humphrey Bogart in Dead Reckoning).  Scottie has made the leap out of reality and into romance.  He now participates in “Madeleine’s” world.  He accepts the reality of her spirit-possession with the one remaining scrap of rational analysis: Scottie believes in “Madeleine’s” possession by Carlotta, in the way that the analyst believes in the patient’s neurotic symptoms.  He himself has been wrenched out of the realm of empirical thinking by looking into the face of death.  Why not Madeleine?  Both are sick, both need a cure.  He is no longer a detective; he is a psychoanalyst with his own mental problem in love with his patient. 

He drives “Madeleine” to San Juan Bautista, Carlotta’s home town, convinced that a cure lies in the return to the past: “I’m going to take you down to that mission and when you see it you’ll remember when you saw it before, and it’ll finish your dream, it’ll destroy it, I promise you.” 

Scottie wants to cure her without realizing, in the fog of romance, that he is the one who is sick and living in a dream, hypnotized and spellbound.  Without any experience in psychoanalysis or understanding of neuroses, he is convinced that the cure lies in a return to the past.  Hitchcock’s dime-store take on Freudian analysis served him in various of his films: confronting childhood trauma, seeing its origins, loosening the mental knots that formed neuroses, unravelling them by exposing things forced out of the subconscious and into the conscious mind—this romanticised Freudian therapy  was an effective, dramatic plot element of Spellbound, Vertigo, and Marnie (at least I find it effective.  Hitchcock was lambasted in reviews for the ending of Marnie).  Both John Ballantine (Gregory Peck in Spellbound) and Marnie are cured by the return to the neurosis-generating trauma.  But the cure of “Madeleine” fails miserably.  She dies, or least appears to, in the fall from the tower, and Scottie’s own malady moves from fear of heights to a complete nervous breakdown, followed by obsession and compulsive behavior.  He sees Madeleine in every trace of her, he works at imagining her back into life.  Again he is set up, made vulnerable for the reappearance of “Madeleine” in the form of Judy.  Scottie thinks the untying of his own knotted complexes depends on a return to their place of origin: “There’s one final thing I have to do, and then I’ll be free of the past….  I have to go back into the past once more, just once more….  I need you Judy.  I need you to be Madeleine for a while.  And when it’s done, we’ll both be free.”  Scottie’s return to the mission church, the climb up the tower, confrontation with his vertigo, does in fact cure him of his fear.  So Hitchcock’s faith in the return to past trauma as neurosis-therapy remains strong, at least as a narrative device.

There is a pathology of Scottie’s development that connects fear and guilt with love and desire.[19]  Both are a form of sickness.  Elster knows his old college mate is vulnerable, and he gets into him like an infection.  The story of Carlotta is like a secondary disease that progresses naturally from the first, his vertigo.  Elster is like pneumonia, attracted to a patient suffering another, milder disease.  The progress of the disease takes Scottie from skeptical detective and regular guy who wouldn’t know what to do if he found Donna Reed naked in the bushes (the embodiment of “health”)—through fear and guilt to love and desire, to psychoanalysis.  He enters “Madeleine’s” mind, as we enter Kim Novak’s eye in the image of the opening titles.  The turn inward, the descent into the mind, ultimately leads to the traumatic emptying of the mind (his mental breakdown). 


            Scottie’s development is a descent from a naïvely rational life with all the attendant denial of the senses, into the irrational.  In the character of Scottie, Mr. Deeds and George Bailey meet Dionysus, they absorb what Nietzsche calls the “wisdom of Silenus” (“The best thing for you is never to have been born; the next best, to die as soon as possible.”)  Like the wisdom seeker who sees into the deepest causes and motives of existence in Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy, his ability to think and act are crippled.  Suicide has to look like a good alternative to his empty life.  Again, like Nietzsche’s dionysian philosopher, art and the realm of the beautiful present themselves as the only thing that can lure him back into existence.  Scottie emerges on the other side of his nervous breakdown as—an artist.  Sickness, derangement, and artistry—together again at last.  They share a long history of association. 


Pygmalion-Scottie goes to work on Judy.  She is the raw material of Madeleine, a copy stripped of charisma, a reminder, a petite Madeleine, so to speak, able to evoke the memory of the lost one.  Scottie reduplicates the work of the real master sculptor, Gavin Elster:

Scottie:  You were the copy, you were the counterfeit, weren’t you….  You played the wife very well, didn’t you Judy.  He made you over didn’t he.  He made you over just like I made you over, only better.  Not only the clothes and the hair, but the looks and the manner and the words.  And those beautiful phony trances…  And then what did he do?  Did he train you?  Did he rehearse you?  Did he tell you exactly what to do, what to say?  You were a very apt pupil too, weren’t you, you were a very apt pupil…. 

Judy: I let you change me because I loved you.

Others have noted that what Elster is doing is what a movie director does.  The bit of dialogue just quoted, taken out of its context (Scottie is dragging Judy up the tower for the last time), describes a director at work on the living material of the actress, remodelling her into a dramatic figure and a star.  Scottie as “director” is spared a lot of work because of Elster’s efforts.  But what was crass deception for Elster takes on the quality of an Orphic quest for Scottie, a descent to the underworld, to redeem the lost love.  Like Eurydice, Madeleine is not exactly dead..  Both appear resurrectable to their mourning lovers.  Madeleine is still alive in Judy.  He works obsessively, true artist that he has become, to reconstruct the original in the surrogate and carve the beautiful Madeleine out of the rough matter of Judy.[20]  A primal and aboriginal aspect of art resonates behind the surface of the “revival” scenes: the artist as one who restores the dead to life.[21] 

The disease in its second stage reaches its critical point when Madeleine steps out of her green gloriole in the Empire Hotel.  His last shred of empiricism is overridden, replaced by ecstasy at the mystic vision of Madeleine reshaped, the thwarted orphic quest completed in a work of living art.  His clear judgement is replaced with a vision of the reincarnated beloved.  The initiate into this mystery cult is all shivery bliss.  He kisses her with the magic kiss that breathes the breath of life into the effigy, not with the passion of sexual desire, but of the resurrection—as Madeleine restored. 

Again the camera sees with Scottie.  It circles around the couple as they kiss, and—another miracle: the wall of the hotel room opens to show the stable and arcades of the mission at San Juan Bautista.  The past lives again, in his arms and in the once firm walls of reality, now a passageway into history for this spellbound dupe. The mysteries with which Gavin Elster baited his hook offer themselves to Scottie in this moment of consummation—a dead woman epiphanies in a woman at hand, and the walls themselves open to let in the past they contain, as impossible and as mystical an event as the heavens opening in some revelation of a hidden god.


Somewhere in his mind Scottie must have sensed, in the lead-up to this paralysis of his character and theft of his mind, that he was abandoning good old yankee common sense and Scottish hard-headedness for romantic nonsense.  That awareness might account for his reaction to Midge’s caricature of Carlotta’s portrait.  Midge, still living in a Frank Capra world, naïve and jovial, puts her own face on Carlotta’s body.  Scottie: “No Midge.  It’s not funny.”  Why not?  It has approximately the effect of the Bruce Dern face on the crucified Christ in Hannah and her Sisters or Marilyn Monroe in the place of Christ in the kitsch pop-art parody of Da Vinci’s “The Last Supper.”  To Midge and any viewer not affected by the religious devotion to the cult image, it’s not a bad joke. But Scottie is on his way to cult membership.  His reason is replaced with a dizzying intoxication, and he doesn’t want to be reminded of the time when reason, and that means also the acceptance of irony and parody, were his way of thinking.  There is also something of the genre-wiring of charisma and caricature at work in his reaction: these  two modes are fundamentally mutually repellent.  Charisma inflates; caricature deflates.  Scottie has become a connoisseur and devotee of charismatic art.  The loved woman is present in the painting, and the maiming of her portrait disgusts him.  Midge intrudes into the elevated, “romantic” world that has sucked in Scottie, and the intrusion lowers it. 

            Vertigo places a powerful emotional charge on things and places: Ernie’s restaurant, Carlotta’s grave, the flower bouquet, the gray suit, the green Jaguar, and most powerful for its role in exposing the hoax, Carlotta’s necklace.  Scottie’s obsession registers in his shocked reaction to the sight of things charged, after her death, with Madeleine’s aura.  Her invisible presence is a ghost haunting the places and things he associates with her.  A lady in gray walks out of Madeleine’s apartment building, goes to the green Jaguar.  Scottie’s aggressive reaction: “Where did you get this car?!”  as if Madeleine were so present that her property rights need protection, or as if the answer might lead him to the lost woman. 

            Of course, the real aura-bearer is Judy herself.  She is not just the “reliquiary” of Madeleine, she is a full-body relic, a living effigy.

            Carlotta’s necklace has the role of disenchanting.  It breaks the spell when Scottie sees it around Judy’s neck.  [FIG. 3: SCOTTIE SEES NECKLACE ON JUDY] 

It is an anti-McGuffin, heavy with both meaning and plot development, like the wedding ring of one of Uncle Charlie’s victims (Shadow of a Doubt), Guy Haines’s lighter (Strangers on a Train), or Bob Rusk’s tie-pin (Frenzy).    

Carlotta’s necklace is the taking back of Cary Grant’s erotic entrapment with Grace Kelly in To Catch a Thief (“You know as well as I do that that necklace is a fake.”  “Well I’m not.”).  The logic of Carlotta’s necklace turns into “That necklace is genuine.  Therefore you must be a fake.”  Scottie sobers up the instant he sees it on Judy’s neck.  It is the Scarlett O’Hara moment, when both say/might say:  “I loved something that did not exist.”  The besotted lover is gone, the resurrection and the light that the revivified Madeleine seemed, wither and fade to what they were: criminal deception.  Judy is still Judy, however.  Nothing has changed.  She exudes the same sexual attraction; she still has the Madeleine-remake about her person (She says, significantly, as Scottie pulls her over to kiss her just before the revelation of the necklace, “Too late[22], I’ve got my face on”).  But that’s just what she has lost, or is about to lose, the face that she had put on. 

A definition of aura that I have proposed in another publication runs, “Aura is that quality which the crystallization of things lost or hidden, the sudden apparition of the reassembled past, seems to confer on the evoking object.  That which rises up in the mind of the beholder from the scar of Odysseus, the petite madeleine dipped in tea, or the bones of a saint, we can call ‘aura.’”[23]  And let’s add, for Vertigo, Carlotta’s necklace.

Aura is an invisible presence that assembles itself in the mind of the beholder who sees an object onto which he/she has projected associations.  It is only apprehendable for another person initiated into the same set of associations.  Petites madeleines and tea transmit the lost world of his youth only to Marcel Proust.  That world of Paris and Combray had seeped inconspicuously into tea and cookies as it unfolded before the eyes of young Proust. It is there to stay, eternally present, always alive and young.  Forgetting cannot strip the associations away from the object on which they accreted. 

Carlotta’s necklace is the big moment in Scottie’s cure.  As he drags Judy up the tower stairs, he changes from third person (“Madeleine made it this far”) to second (“You went on”).  Judy starts.  She knows the deception is over.  Scottie: “The necklace, Madeleine.  That was the slip.  I remembered the necklace.”  Then he looks down through the stairwell—which has telescoped each time previous—and it’s stable.  The spell is dissolved.  The necklace reverses the act of “experiencing the aura” of a thing.  The whole auratic world that Scottie had swallowed hook, line and sinker is present in it but its recurrence on Judy’s neck exposes that world as a sham.  The reconstructed Madeleine deflates like a punctured tire.  The aura of mysterious reincarnation withers.  Like a frog prince in reverse, she reverts to a vulgar shop girl and paid swindler—and Scottie reverts to his role as a detective.[24]  Gone is the psychoanalyst and lover.  The necklace sobers him up, for the moment, totally, though it does not cure all of his romantic compulsions.  The drama of the reversal is great, not just because of the dynamics of the plot reversal, but because it works on the mechanism of aura destroyed.  It is as vulnerable and volatile as grand illusions and charisma, since it relies on stories, legends, complexes of beliefs, whose habitation in a physical presence is unstable and in this case vulnerable to debunking.


The last words Scottie speaks to Judy in the belltower are “It’s too late.  There’s no bringing her back.”  Then they kiss passionately.  The double-gesture makes it at least conceivable that he might after all walk back down the tower stairs with Judy and make a new life, work things out, carefully plan the concealment of her crime, create a life together on the basis of a cover-up.  Scottie is in love with her or with Madeleine in her, and he had already once managed to resurrect her in her; she is in love with him.  That’s more than Mark Rutledge and Marnie have as they conspire to fabricate Marnie’s innocence and create a lie that makes their married life at least viable.  But the ending in Vertigo cuts off this possibility.  Judy sees the figure in black, staggers, a guilty thing surprised (is it the ghost of the real Madeleine Elster?), and falls to her death. 

            The final shot is resonant, complex, ambiguous, and deeply engaged in the movie’s central idea.  Scottie steps slowly out onto the ledge of the belltower.  No railing prevents him from following Judy and falling to his death.  But the slowness of his steps (he could have lurched after her in a desperate grab) speaks clearly: it’s over.  Judy is dead, both she and the disease are gone.  He can balance on high places and look down without fear of falling.  Then Scottie raises his arms slightly.  The image of a falling man splayed in just this position recurs throughout the movie.  [FIG. 4.: DREAM FALLER, SCOTTIE FINAL SHOT] 

That position becomes the emblem and visual marker of the falling figure, of loss of solid ground, of imminent death,[25] but the image that ends the movie is motionless.  It is an emblem of static depair, frozen into an endless moment.  Why end with this shot? 

            Consider Scottie’s position: now Madeleine and judy are both lost irretrievably; the vertigo is cured; so is obsession and the crazy illogic that persuaded this soft-boiled detective that the dead can live again.  He is once more the detective.  And he’s successful at it: he has uncovered a murder plot.  He could even go back to work.  Bringing Elster to justice might give him something to live for. [26]  He has already brought Elster’s co-conspirator to an inofficial justice.  It is easy to think out a future for Scottie, maybe with Midge.  But it’s also easy to see how empty, trivial and futile that future would be.  We don’t need to spell it out.  He has won his freedom from vertigo and grand deceptions—and the final image asks if there could be anything more absurd, sterile and useless than that freedom.  The world of Carlotta, Madeleine and Judy was rich, full of life, vitality, emotion. Scottie had a deep relation with another human being—so far as we know, the only one in his life.  That may have been an illusion and a deception—but it gave meaning, intensity, human depth and intimacy to this life of sterile rationality.   

So Vertigo speaks the language of neo-realist disillusionment, of skepticism towards fabricated glamour, towards charismatic stars and charismatic (mis)representation.  It exposes entrapment by glamour as phony and conniving; it shows the realm where enchantment by glamour happens as a dangerous place.  A man’s life is ruined for getting absorbed into it.  Anyone who enters that world without clear-headed cynical skepticism (and perhaps the crass anti-feminism of a Sam Spade and Philip Marlow), is headed for trouble.  

But Vertigo also argues, in the emotional momentum of the entire movie and in the darkly suggestive final shot, that Scottie’s life is barren once its mysteries are penetrated and exposed and its actors eliminated.  Some element of his life is swept away that can never be replaced by the desiccated pleasures of a profession and a side-kick/female buddy.  Vertigo both rejects grand illusion and shows the poverty of life when it is gone.  Robin Wood summarized the meaning of the scam for Scottie: “Madeleine…represents wish-fulfillment on a deeper and more valid level than that normally offered by the Hollywood film…  She has evoked in us all that longing for something beyond a daily reality which is so basic to human nature.”[27]  Romantic illusion is a psychological need as powerful as the hunger for reality.  The two live in a reciprocal relationship with each other that guarantees their constant presence in varying mixtures and excludes the complete victory of  “the real” over dream, illusion, desire, relativizes the truth-claims of critical reason compared to those of the imagination.[28]

That claim makes of the grand illusion something other than self-delusion.  Imagine, by contrast to Scottie’s love of Madeleine and his pursuit of the dead woman beyond the grave, the barenness in the everyday lives of those hard-boiled film noir detectives whom no romantic dream can touch.[29]  Their hard edge is a kind of inhumanity.  Their mastery of women is asexual dominance, the activating of a master-slave relationship.  The level of human sensitivity in the successful film noir hero is represented in “Rip” Murdock’s (Humphrey Bogart) view of women expounded to Mrs. Chandler (Lisbeth Scott) to shut her up in Dead Reckoning: Women talk too much.  It would be good if he could shrink her to fit in his hand.  When he needs her, he could take her out of his pocket, restore her to normal size, then shrink her again and put her back in his pocket.

In this suggested affirmation of illusion beyond the attainment of the “real,” Hitchcock’s “realism” again has an Italian counterpart.  The last shot of Vertigo has the kind of thematic resonance and moral complexity as the last shot of Fellini’s La Strada (1954).  Zampano (Anthony Quinn), shaken by the news of Gelsomina’s death, drinks himself into a stupor, gets into a fight, kicks over garbage cans, then wanders out onto the beach and washes his face in the ocean.  Kneeling in the sand, he is suddenly seized with fear, and a kind of horror, his strong-man’s chest begins to shake with voiceless sobbing, he looks up into a mottled night sky.  The camera pulls back and climbs, leaving Zampano small and writhing.  [FIG. 5: ZAMPANO ON THE BEACH]  Gelsomina’s song plays on the sound track. 

Like Scottie, Zampano looks into some abyss that appears because Gelsomina and whatever it is she comes to represent for him is dead.  Some element of guilt and bereavement softens his animal brain, some dull awareness that gentleness and goodness and a mental state outside of the narrow bounds within which he relates to the world count for something in his life.  The good Catholic artist posits an ineradicable innocence in the most brutish characters, a moral core fouled over and encrusted with a kind of secular original sin.  It can be awakened by characters like Gelsomina, il matto, the woman in white in 8 ½ , the young girl in La dolce vita (“like an Umbrian angel”) who beams innocence to the corrupted Marcello with her angelic smile in the last shot of the film, or uncovered by penetrating a hardened character’s consciousness and seeing what’s beneath it, as the hypnotist penetrates to the fully preserved innocence behind the hardened shell of the prostitute Cabiria.  Zampano on the beach is the terror of a lapsed realist who glimpses the desolation of a world stripped of that redeeming element.

Both Zampano’s and Scottie’s prostrate, capitulating postures figure men who have battled their way to a life without illusions to find how senseless existence is without them. 


The hard line neo-realist cinema of the post-war years, Italian and American, overcame the fluff of the 30’s grand illusions, but not altogether.  It kept casting Rhett Butler’s backward glance toward a richer period of “grace and charm.”  Glamour, romance and a vision of a happy world continued in romantic and musical comedies.  The aristocratic sophistication of the 30’s musical turned into the plebeian or middle-class sentimentality of the 50’s (Rogers and Hammerstein).  The world of high glamour shrank into the many mediocre remakes of 30’s movies.  It lived on in the nostalgia of movies like Singin’ in the Rain, Radio Days, and Purple Rose of Cairo, a nostalgia for the good old days when the movies and entertainment were “big.” 

Fortunately the two did not annihilate each other, as Norma Desmond (“big movies,” the past, glamour) shoots Joe Gillis (B-movies, mediocre, trivial, desperate for creative inspiration), shortly before going completely insane.  Sunset Boulevard is an allegory of two eras of the movies in a destructive struggle.  Gillis hopes to live off Desmond.  He’s inwardly scornful of her pathetic attraction to him, her big overswollen ego and her big overswollen movie ideas.  But he’ll scavenge off her leavings.  In this dark agon of classic versus post-classic Hollywood, the greater existence snuffs out the life of the smaller, shortly before expiring itself. 

            Vertigo—whatever else it is—is a comment on the development of American films from the thirties through the fifties.[30]  The false world of glamour and mystery produced and directed by Elster and play-acted by Judy is the classic Hollywood film of the 30’s; the world of Scottie the detective and Midge, the smart, snappy, cute-as-a-button female buddy and sexless romantic interest, is post-classical ordinariness, the ‘50’s of Doris Day and Rock Hudson.  “Madeleine” relates to Judy and Midge as Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich relate to Marilyn Monroe and Doris Day.  Scottie penetrates the falsehood of mysterious, obsessive, spell-binding romance, and ends up dully aware that his life once was “big” and now it’s gotten “small.”



[1] I’ve defined “hypermimesis” in earlier publications.  Briefly: it is a mode of representation that injects charismatic elements into a realist mode.  The problems of defining “realism” are eased if we see every representation as a blend of realistic and other elements.  Hypermimesis presents a magnified, exalted semblance of life.  Its basic impulse is to create a world grander than the one the reader or viewer lives in, a world of beauty, sublime emotions, heroic motives and deeds, godlike bodies and  actions and superhuman talents—in order to dazzle and astonish the humbled viewer and to draw him/her into the world represented, to inspire participation and imitation of the higher world—what René Girard called “mimetic desire” (Violence and the Sacred,trans. Patrick Gregory, [Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1979], pp. 145-149.)  Hollywood glamour and the star system of the 30’s work largely in this mode.  Some thoughts consistent with this (very abbreviated) definition, Fredric Jameson, “On Magic Realism in Film,” in Signatures of the Visible, (New York & London: Routledge, 1992), 128-152.  “Hypermimesis” distinguishes a charismatic mode (the illusion seems real, the world and humans are great and admirable) from other modes that might be called “hyperreal”: science fiction, horror, genres where the supernatural is present and embodied in the “reality” of the film.

[2]           The unmasking of the wizard of Oz repeats itself in the biopic from the 40’s on. The general tendency of 30’s biopics to make heroes of public figures and depict their lives as uplifting and inspiring (The Story of Louis Pasteur (1936); The Great Ziegfeld (1936); The Life of Emile Zola (1937)), while it continued into the 40’s and beyond, moved away from social issues (Pride of the Yankees [1942]; Yankee Doodle Dandy [1942]), and was answered by a tendency to critical, unmasking portraits of public figures (Citizen Kane [1941]).  The Hepburn/Tracy film Keeper of the Flame (1942) aimed at the debunking of hero worship precisely by showing the dangerous delusions it can rouse in duped admirers.  Thematically related to the deconstructed hero in Keeper are Hitchcock’s Stephen Fisher (Foreign Correspondent, 1940) and Uncle Charlie (Shadow of a Doubt, 1943).  While it was still possible to rescue the suave, hypocritical crypto-nazi played by Herbert Marshall as a patriot albeit for the other side, Uncle Charlie, seemingly the most charismatic and suavest guy in the world and an elegant public figure, gets unmasked as a psychotic murderer.


[3]   See Ian Jarvie, “Knowledge, Morality, and Tragedy in The Killers and Out of the Past,” in The Philosophy of Film Noir, ed. Mark T. Conard, (Lexington: Univ. of Kentucky Press, 2006), 163-185, esp. p. 168f.: the movies of the mid-forties “play on the differences between reality and appearance,” with reference to Martha Wolfenstein and Nathan Leites, Movies: A Psychological Study, 2nd ed. (New York: Atheneum, 1970).   

Sheri Biesen locates the originating forces of the noir genre in the war and the atmosphere leading up to it: Blackout: World War II and the Origins of Film Noir, (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005).  For a longer genealogy see Robert Durgnat, “Paint it Black: The Family Tree of Film Noir” (1970), in Film Noir Reader, ed. Alain Silver and James Ursini, (New York: Limelight, 1997), 37-51.  

[4] E. E. Cummings satirized the appetite: “Let’s start a magazine / to hell with literature / we want something red-blooded / long with pure / reeking with stark/ and fearlessly obscene / rut really clean/ get what I mean / Let’s not spoil it / let’s make it serious / something authentic and delirious / you know something genuine like a mark / in a toilet graced with guts and gutted with grace /  Squeeze your nuts and open your face.”

[5] Preston Sturges mounted a brittle rebellion against the trend in Sullivan’s Travels (1941), where a Hollywood director of fluffy comedies, Sullivan (Joel McCrea) wants reality in his movies:

Sullivan: This picture shows we’re awake and not ducking our head in the sand like a bunch of ostriches.  I want this picture to be a commentary on modern conditions, stark realism, the problems that confront the common man….  I want this picture to be a document.  I want to hold a mirror up to life…a true canvas of the suffering of humanity…

Producer: How about a nice musical?

Sullivan: How can you talk about musicals at a time like this when the world’s committing suicide, when corpses are piling up, with grim death gargling at you from every corner, with people slaughtered like sheep? 

Producer: Maybe they’d like to forget that.

To get authenticity into his next film (to be titled Brother Where art Thou?), Sullivan decides he has to experience poverty.  He lands in prison, gets beat up, brutalized, put in isolation.  While serving a ten-year sentence, from which he sees no escape, he and the other prisoners once watch a Micky Mouse cartoon.  They are hysterical with laughter.  Sullivan is a changed man.  He realizes the redemptive force of comedy.  Restored to his stature as glamour director, he drops the Brother, Where art Thou, project and returns to light comedy.  The message that the Hollywood film redeems reality by rising out of it, not reproducing it, is undermined by the film’s light-weight character, more nostalgia for Lubitsch and Frank Capra than strong opposition to the tides of cultural history.  But the film is useful for focusing on a clear trend by opposing it.

[6]   While Italian neo-realism took inspiration from American film noir, it is also in part a reaction against the bombast and pomposity of Italian thirties films and of fascist culture.  Both the Italian and American cinema discovered a truth-value in illusion-free realism in part as an answer to the extravagance and grandeur of the thirties, which seemed to be a pack of lies as gross as those which Mussolini had fed to the country.  See Peter Bondanella, Italian Cinema from Neorealism to the Present, 2nd ed. (New York: Continuum, 1997), esp. pp. 12-30.

[7] On Hitchcock and film noir see Alain Silver, “Fragments of the Mirror: Hitchcock’s Noir Landscape” (1976) in Film Noir Reader 2, ed. Silver and James Ursini, (New York: Limelight, 1999), 107-127; James Naremore, “Hitchcock at the Margins of Noir,” Alfred Hitchcock Centenary Essays, ed. Richard Allen and S. Ishii-Gonzalès, (London: British Film Institute, 1999), 263-277.

[8] This haziness (produced by a fog filter) marks scenes associated with death throughout the film: Scottie follows “Madeleine” into the graveyard at Mission Dolores in SF; Madeleine stands at the edge of the breakwater at Old Fort Point and pulls the flower arrangement apart, a moment before jumping into the bay; Madeleine walks into the grove of giant redwoods and seems to disappear. 

[9] The original title of the book from which Hitchcock and crew adapted the film: D’entre les morts, From Among the Dead, by Thomas Narcejac and Pierre Boileau.  The Hitchcock film retained the title, From Among the Dead, well into the creation of the script.  See Dan Auiler, Vertigo: The Making of a Hitchcock Classic, (New York: St. Martins, 2000), 28ff. 

[10] See Lesley Brill’s reading, The Hitchcock Romance: Love and Irony in Hitchcock’s Films, (Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 1988),  p. 207f.

[11] Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” in her Visual and Other Pleasures, (Bloomington & Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1989), 14-26.

[12] On the terms see Stanley Cavell, “What becomes of Things on Film?”  in Cavell on Film, ed. William Rothman, (New York: SUNY Press, 2005), p. 4ff.

[13]  Walter Benjamin, “On the Concept of History,” Selected Writings Volume 4 1938-1940, trans. Edmund Jephcott, ed. Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings, (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 2003), p. 390.   

[14] While the term is used regularly in circumscribing glamour and other star qualities, it has barely surfaced in theoretical literature on stars and the psychology of the fan.  But see Richard Dyer, Stars, new ed. with Paul McDonald, (London: British Film Institute, 1998), pp. 30-32; and Dyer, “Charisma,” in Stardom: Industry of Desire, ed. Christine Gledhill, (London & New York: Routledge, 1991), 57-59.  Dyer’s take on film charisma is decidedly debunking in line with current sociological studies of charisma that tend to regard it as a product manufactured by .  I don’t know of film commentary that sees the psychological effects of stardom as an instance of a much broader psychological phenomenon. 

[15] See Robin Wood’s reading of the character of Midge in Hitchcock’s Films Revisited, rev. ed., (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 2002), p. 111.

[16] Hitchcock liked to open with details (shoes in Strangers on a train), and to puzzle the viewer by their undefined character that gradually opens into something recognizable and central to the story or theme (the spinning disc in Blackmail that turns out to be the hub on the wheel of the police patrol wagon).   Hitchcock told David Selznick that the Titanic movie they never made should begin with an extreme closeup of a single rivet, then move back to reveal the entire ship.  (John Russell Taylor, Hitch: The Life and Times of Alfred Hitchcock, [New York: Berkeley, 1980], p. 143). The abstractness of the steel bar in Vertigo invites speculation: “The bar is a first entity, an essential substance that we come to see, in both filmic and cosmological terms, after the birth of light…  splits the rising heaven and sinking earth.”  (Murray Pomerance, An Eye for Hitchcock, (New Brunswick etc.: Rutgers University Press, 2004), p. 214).  “The blank screen that opens the movie is a radical declaration of the director’s power to show us nothing beyond what he wishes” (Brill, The Hitchcock Romance, p. 214).     

[17] Actually, zooms out.   See Pomerance’s detailed reading, An Eye for Hitchcock, p. 216ff.

[18] Leslie Brill maps the visual realizations of falling: Hitchcock Romance, p. 202ff.

[19] Often noticed in Hitchcock criticism, incisively analysed by Donald Spoto, The Dark Side of Genius: The Life of Alfred Hitchcock, (New York: Ballantine, 1983), pp. 420-435.

[20] Zizek reads this as a kind of Platonism.  The suggestion of a metaphysical purpose is a stretch, however, also his reading of Scottie’s sexuality (he is distant to Midge and Judy because he wants to masturbate).  Slavoj Zizek, “Vertigo: The Drama of a Deceived Platonist,” Hitchcock Annual 12 (2003/4), 67-82.

[21]  Ernst Kris and Otto Kurz,  Legend, Myth and Magic in the Image  of the Artist, pref. E. H. Gombrich, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979; orig. 1934).  Ernst Gombrich, Art and Illusion: A Study in the Psychology of Pictorial Representation,  (New York: Pantheon, 1961), p. 125.

[22] “Too late” is a leitmotif of the film.  Madeleine to Scottie on the mission lawn: “Too late, too late…  There’s something I must do.”;  Scottie to Judy, his last word before her death: “Too late.  There’s no bringing her back.”  Possibly Hitchcock or the writers knew the movie One Touch of Venus (1948), also a pygmalion story, where a department-store window dresser (Robert Walker)setting up a statue of the goddess Venus (Eva Gardner) kisses her, she comes to life and falls in love with him.  She stays alive only for a day, during which time the clerk, with an excess of phony pruderie, resists her charms until it’s too late.  She sings the haunting Kurt Weill song, “Speak Low,” with its refrain, “It’s late, darling it’s late.”  After the goddess reverts to stone, he finds her exact copy again, this time embodied and alive, a new employee of the store. 

[23] “Aura and Charisma,” (forthcoming in Una Eademque Europa).  The article tries to come to terms with Walter Benjamin’s much debated and deeply obscure notion of aura in “The Work of Art in the Age of its Technical Reproducibility.”  Recent commentary on “aura”: a number of essays in the volume Mapping Benjamin: The Work of Art in the Digital Age, ed. Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht and Michael Marrinan, (Stanford, Stanford Univ. Press, 2003).  Also, Robert Kaufman, “Aura, Still,” October 99, Winter 2002, 45-80; Lutz Koepnick, “Aura Reconsidered: Benjamin and Contemporary Visual Culture,” in Benjamin’s Ghosts: Interventions in Contemporary Literary and Cultural Theory, ed. Gerhard Richter, (Stanford, Stanford Univ. Press, 2002), 95-117; Willem van Reijen, “Breathing the Aura – the Holy, the Sober Breath,” Theory, Culture and Society 18 (2001), 31-50;

[24]  Auiler quotes Hitchcock’s notes on the moment of recognition, detailing the chain of conclusions that fall into place the moment Scottie sees the necklace.  Vertigo: The Making of a Hitchcock Classic, pp. 54-55.

[25] See Brill, Hitchcock Romance, p. 205.

[26] Samuel Taylor originally had written a final scene where Scottie and Midge hear a radio announcement of Elster’s imminent capture.  It was for the censor.  Once the proposed script passed, that scene was scrapped.   

[27] Hitchcock’s Films Revisited, p. 117.

[28] Useful deconstructions of the term “realism,” Jameson, “The Existence of Italy,” in Signatures of the Visible, pp. 158ff.  Slavoj Zizek, Looking Awry: An Introduction to Jacques Lacan through Popular Culture, (Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 1992), pp. 1 ff. (“How Real is Reality?”)

[29] Jules Amthor, the villain in Murder, My Sweet (1944) reviles Philip Marlow: “You’re just a dirty little man living in a dirty little world.”

[30] This is not to say that Hitchcock thought of it in those terms.  The terms are present in the film whether the director planted them there or not. 

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