Hitchcock, Vertigo, and the Uncanny

Hitchcock often blended eroticism with his murders, to uncanny effect. Here's a lovely scene with Grace Kelly and Anthony Dawson in Dial M for Murder.

In Strangers on a Train (1951), an aspiring politician meets cute with his evil twin, leading to chaos and murder. In Blackmail (1929), a snaggle-toothed jester leers and points from the canvas of a painting, mocking the audience's murky morality. Meanwhile, the danceable little ditty of Shadow of a Doubt (1943)—the “Merry Widow Waltz”—acquires increasingly sinister overtones each time it's repeated. What do these scenes have in common? Each are moments of the uncanny. In film after film, Alfred Hitchcock's characters meet their psychic doubles; paintings become as alive as the flesh-and-blood actors who stand alongside them and themes, motifs and images repeat themselves, to ghoulish effect. 

More than any art form that came before it, film blurs the line between perception and reality, the familiar and the strange, and we experience it as a peculiar oddness at the least, and spine-tingling when it's cranked to eleven. This is the shadowland of the uncanny, a not-quite-haunted place that gives rise, as psychologist Ernst Jentsch wrote in 1906, to "doubts whether an apparently animate being is really alive; or conversely, whether a lifeless object might be, in fact, animate." In his 1919 essay, “The Uncanny,” Freud drew a distinction between "the uncanny that we actually experience and the uncanny that we merely picture or read about." Movies check that distinction at the door, and nobody deployed these techniques as eloquently as Hitch.

Whereas horrormongers use the uncanny to send chills up our spines (think of those old wax museums and their all-too-lifelike inhabitants, not to mention Alfred Hitchcock Presents episodes that feature ventriloquists' dummies),* Alfred Hitchcock mined it for its potential for wisdom and wit. To his titles Master of Suspense and Master of the Macabre could be added Master of the Uncanny—"that class of the frightening," as Freud describes it, "which leads back to what is known of old and long familiar."

I've compared Salvador DalĂ­'s theories regarding attraction and repugnance with Hitchcock's work. This, too, is tied in with the uncanny. When Psycho's Lila Crane (Vera Miles) tours Mrs. Bates' bedroom, each object in that room is animated with a disquieting sense of the uncanny. But one moment stands out as its spookiest. Caught between two mirrors that face each other, Lila glimpses the infinite regress of her own image:

At first startled at what could be another person's presence, she then sees her own face, catching herself in the act of catching herself. It's as though her faculty of self-perception had been momentarily plucked away. If you've had the same thing happen to you, you know that it's disconcerting, like an an out-of-body experience; a reminder that image and imagination—two words derived from the same root—occupy a reality status that's equal to what we typically call the real.

Hitch's inspiration for the uncanny came from a number of sources, Surrealism being the most obvious. He also confessed to being a Symbolist in the tradition of the 19th century art and poetry movement, going so far as to 'dream Symbolist dreams' at night. As a youth, he pored over the stories of Edgar Allan Poe and E. T. A. Hoffmann, masters of the uncanny in whom he saw a kindred spirit.

When you look at it this way, it's no surprise that he never filmed an out-and-out ghost story. Ghosts are too straightforward. You know where you stand with them—you in your realm, the spirit in its. Besides that, Hitch, ever the contrarian, liked to cut his stories both ways, fudging the line between those two worlds. The uncanny dwells in those liminal zones wherein lurks the shadow of a doubt.

Following the bleak, documentary literalism of 1956's The Wrong Man, whose doppelgängers gain uncanny points for being doubles of actual people in the real world, Hitch took a year or so off from work, an unusually long hiatus for him. Part of that time was spent mixing business with pleasure, traveling to Africa to scout locations for an unrealized project, Flamingo Feather. He also started working on his next screenplay, but had difficulty finding writers who could deliver the kind of story he wanted. Then he was hospitalized with stomach surgery, taking several weeks of to recuperate. During those many months, whether he was consciously aware of it or not, it's a fair guess that he was adding nuance to that story, shaping it into, among other things, an extended meditation on the uncanny. That movie was Vertigo.

From the very first frame, Hitchcock plays with our perceptions. Vertigo was advertised as a Technicolor, experience designed to lure audiences away from their TVs. The opening credits, however, start out with a bait and switch, in black and white.

With that old-fashioned, monochrome treatment, Hitchcock was, as it were, calibrating the audience's eyes, preparing them  to fully absorb the impact of the saturated colors of the modernist title sequence to follow. Ten years earlier, his first color film, Rope, featured red and green as supporting characters. In Vertigo, they occupy a starring role. 

Vertigo is observed almost in its entirety from one point of view—that of John “Scottie” Ferguson (James Stewart). Through his skeptic's eyes, which stand in for the modern audience's own rational dismissal of the supernatural, we observe a series of uncanny events in which a woman seems not to be who she seems to be. Try as he might, the “hardheaded Scot” fails to explain away what appears to be the spiritual possession of Madeleine Elster. We, the audience, are hoodwinked, not so much by the dialogue—there isn't much of it—but by the film's visual information, aided and abetted by Bernard Herrmann's Wagner-infused musical score.

Scottie's initial setup takes place in the comfortable, no-nonsense setting of the office of his college schoolmate, Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore), who wants to hire him to investigate his wife, who, he says, has been engaging in rather bizarre behavior. With serpentlike cunning, Elster pulls Scottie into his story, leading to his deception and, finally, obsession. Says Elster, “Scottie, do you believe that someone out of the past, someone dead, can enter and take possession of a living being?... [My wife will] be talking to me about something. Suddenly the words fade into silence. A cloud comes into her eyes and they go blank. She's somewhere else, away from me, someone I don't know.”

Despite Scottie's refusal to buy his cockamamie occult story, Elster persists. "I'm not making it up," he says. "I wouldn't know how." Scottie agrees to take the case, albeit reluctantly. Of course, after one look at his putative wife and Scottie was fully engaged on the case. After all, it's one thing to stake out a kooky middle-aged housewife, it's another thing to stalk Kim Novak's mesmerizing curves around San Francisco. Scottie couldn't refuse. How ironic that this character, afflicted with acrophobia, should be the fall guy. 

Soon enough, the seeds of the uncanny that Elster planted begin to sprout. The next day, Scottie espies “Madeleine” wandering among the tombstones at Mission Delores. At this point, we may feel as if we're two steps ahead of Scottie: he may dismiss her spells as a mere psychological disturbance, but we've likely already bought into the notion that she has been touched by something or someone from beyond. Yes, we're two steps ahead—down the primrose path. Of course, Scottie will turn out to be right, but not in the way that he expected, and only after he's completed his trip through the looking glass.

The first of Madeleine's "beautiful, phony trances." I couldn't spot any primroses along the path the she leads on, but there are plenty of other roses in this scene.

A visit to the Museum of the Legion of Honor sends the mystery deeper. With a spiral hair bun and a floral bouquet that match those in the portrait of Carlotta Valdes, Madeleine shows herself to be a double of the woman in the painting. 

The scene would have been simple enough to shoot using a series of cuts between the flowers in the painting and the bouquet sitting beside Madeleine and cutting between her hairdo and that of the woman in the painting. Instead, the camera moves fluidly between between the two, adding vitality to an otherwise straightforward scene.

As Tom Gunning writes, "The dolly-in camera makes us gradually approach the painting, finally drawing so close to its surface we feel we could touch it. … Through the dolly-in, the camera seems to sink into and open up the space of the painting, not only directing Scottie's (and our) attention, but seemingly confusing the space of observer and painting, of representation and reality." From "In and Out of the Frame: Paintings in Hitchcock.")

When the camera moves so close to the painting that its frame and edges disappear, a curious thing happens. The figures in the painting take on a more lifelike quality, as if they had stepped off the canvas to move among the film's other characters, producing the same unsettling effect of portraits whose eyes seem to follow you around the room. That this painting is supposedly a portrait of an undead woman adds another frisson of the uncanny, and we join Scottie in his first step toward belief the paranormal.

Those who believe that the dead can actually rise and haunt the living often cite personal experiences to back up their claim. Scottie, ever the rationalist, suggests that such people ought to visit "the nearest psychiatrist or psychologist, or neurologist or maybe just the plain family doctor." Nevertheless, as Freud pointed out regarding our modern belief system, many of us "do not feel quite sure of our new [materialist] beliefs, and the old [animistic] ones still exist within us ready to seize upon any confirmation. As soon as something actually happens in our lives which seems to confirm the old, discarded beliefs we get a feeling of the uncanny; it is as though we were making a judgment something like this: … 'So the dead do live on and appear on the scene of their former activities!'"

Thus, Scottie soon gets caught in the slipstream of strange events.

Not that he completely lets go of his skepticism, but Madeleine's strange behavior causes him to question his assumptions. Elster's snowjob becomes more plausible until he doesn't know what to believe.

Hitchcock loved to place important scenes in the vicinity of national monuments – all the better to take the familiar and make it queer – and this one is no exception. It's a strange and wonderful and dreadful moment, replete with Gothic Romantic symbolism: the bridge, which fittingly represents Madeleine's having been caught between this world and the next; the body of water, suggesting death and sex, baptism and rebirth; the statuesque, idealized blonde, symbol of Woman who mournfully plucks the flowers from her nosegay and tosses them into water—all heightened by the golden rays of the afternoon sun and wisps of ghostly fog rolling off the bay. And then she makes the leap into her watery grave.

Part of Madeleine's beguiling appeal is that she seems to have found her double – her doppleganger – in a dead woman, materialized in a painting. And, as doubles are wont to do, it leads to death. (Or so it would seem, had Scottie not rescued her.) But doubles abound in this film.

The artist Midge, sensing that she's losing Scottie to his infatuation with his client's “wife,” decides to play a joke, replicating the portrait of Carlotta, but substituting the deceased woman's face with her own. Upon showing him her new masterpiece—an uncanny resemblance to the image that has played a part in his seduction—he reacts with disgust. “It's not funny, Midge.”

Hitchcock did a similar thing some thirty years prior. In Blackmail (1929), Alice White (Anny Ondra), lured to her would-be seducer's lair and given a quickie art lesson, painted a crude version of her own face. Laughing at her naivete, the artist (Cyril Ritchard) took over, finishing the picture with a deft, sensual line drawing of her body. The mix of the two painters' work (the one childlike, the other erotic) add up to a grotesque whole, inciting the same feeling of disgust Scottie felt when he saw Midge's painting.

In another similarity, in self defense, Alice killed the artist, and in fleeing the scene of the crime, she painted over her signature on the painting. Likewise, after Scottie turns and leaves, Midge blots out her face. Though Midge has eliminated her double from the painting, she turns to see herself reflected in the window.

Try as we might, we cannot ignore our shadow.

Foreshadowing the death of Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) halfway through Psycho two years later, Madeleine appears to fall to her death from the tower at Mission San Juan Bautista. Later, wandering the streets of San Francisco, Scottie's hungry eyes search for his lost love. Revisiting old haunts—Ernie's restaurant, the museum, Madeleine's old apartment building, he sees women who appear to be her, but upon closer inspection turn out to be woefully inadequate doubles. And Hitchcock deliberately messes with our heads: he employed Kim Novak herself for the long shots, switching her out for the actual people mistaken for Madeleine in close-up. Novak becomes a double for a mistaken identity. 

Such repetition makes Vertigo an uncanny film in its very structure. In his 1919 essay, Freud spoke of involuntary repetition that can “turn something frightening into something uncanny.” For example, Scottie visits Ernie's three times, while making plans for a fourth trip. The film makes five separate trips to Mission San Juan Bautista—three visits in “real life,” once in a dream and once in a flashback.

Actions are repeated, as when Judy/Madeleine appears in a window and pulls the shades, first at the McKittrick Hotel and later at the Empire Hotel. As are visual motifs. The famous “trombone shot” of the tower stairs at Mission San Juan Bautista echoes the Lissajous spirals that accompany the opening credits as well as the concentric rings of the felled tree at Muir Woods and the spiral twist of Madeleine (and Carlotta's) hair.

As Scottie goes about transforming Judy, he puts her through paces she had already taken, for instance, placing her before his fireplace in the exact same position she had been in following her plunge into the bay and later seating her at his writing desk just as he had done before.

Their famous kiss after her transformation is complete may be the most dizzying moment in the movie. He finally has Madeleine back in his arms, or so it seems, and the moment uncannily recalls his last kiss with her in the livery stable, the hotel room dissolving back to the stable again, swirling around the pair in one hallucinatory moment. So similar. Yet strangely different.

The film's very name – Vertigo – is itself, in this context, synonymous with its spiraling sense of the uncanny.

That Scottie's repetition is indeed a compulsion is borne out by his repetitious speech. During the film's climax, his hysterics lapse into a repetitional fugue:

In the car, on the way to the mission.

SCOTTIE: [There's] One final thing I have to do, and then I'll be free of the past.

JUDY: Scottie, why are we here?

SCOTTIE: I told you. I have to go back into the past once more. Just once more, for the last time....

Moments later, on the tower stairs.

SCOTTIE: I tried to follow her, but I couldn't get to the top. I tried, but I couldn't get to the top. One doesn't often get a second chance. I want to stop being haunted. You're my second chance, Judy. You're my second chance!

Numbers, too, can take on uncanny resonance in a movie. Whether their place in the frame is intentional or not, digits have a Tarot-like gravity, begging for interpretation. Over the years, all kinds of theories have been proposed for the meaning of numbers in Hitch's films (a parlor game inspired by Hitch himself when he used the number 21 to symbolic effect in Spellbound).

So the "8 mph" seen in the background of Hitch's cameo shot, followed moments later by the number 24 on the crane in Elster's window could have meaning. For instance, film moves through its projector at eight miles per hour and at 24 frames per second. Conversely, the number eight is regarded in Chinese culture as an omen of good luck.**

Or such interpretations could be feverish readings-into by one Hitchcock geek or another. Whether they are meant to or not, they add significance to the film, reminding viewers that this is a film that must be closely watched, lest telling details be missed. They incite the viewer to seek meaning and recognition, which could be their sole purpose, with Hitch enjoying the last laugh as he and Alma watched people spin their pet theories regarding the numbers' symbolic import. It's unlikely that Hitch, who understood the mystical power of numbers, would have allowed them to slip haphazardly into the frame. Uncannily, they take you to the brink of recognition and then, at the last moment, pull back.

You'd think that, with all this repetition in Vertigo, the movie would be a dull experience. But it's just the opposite. Each time we return to these settings, these events, these words, they take on new meaning, drawing us into the story and its insane plot twists, identifying us so closely with Scottie's breakdown that we go right over the edge with him, joining him in his necrophilic obsession. His confusion, terror and anxiety become ours. Drawn to the truth, yet horrified at what we might find we plunge head over heels into the realm of the uncanny.

* "And So Died Riabouchinska" (1956) and "The Glass Eye" (1957). Curious that these television works  preceded Vertigo as his greatest treatment on the uncanny.

**That Hitch may have had Chinese symbolism on his mind is suggested by the numerous references to Chinese metaphysics in the movie. Says Scottie to "Madeleine": “The Chinese say that once you've saved a person's life... you're responsible for it forever, so I'm committed” and later, in the tower, she begs him to remember his promise ("keep me safe!"). The cast-iron railing outside Scottie's Lombard Street apartment with its Chinese pictogram for "Twin Happiness" recalls the film's many doubles; this location was personally chosen by Hitch because of its red door -- another Chinese symbol of good luck.

This wouldn't be Hitch's only use of the number eight. Later, during the horse race scene in Marnie, he sat Tippi Hedren and Sean Connery at trackside Table 8; moments later, the red polka dots on their winning horse, number 8, caused her to have one of her psychological seizures.


jmichaelfulton said…
Great blog Joel! I have been following for a couple months now.
Joel Gunz said…
Thanks so much and glad to finally meet you!
jmichaelfulton said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jennythenipper said…
You put your finger on what is so compelling about Vertigo, that you get dragged so deeply into Scottie's POV that you start to feel as though you are cracking up too. Another great post.

While I'm firmly down on the too much reading in camp for the use of 8 and its multiples, I'm glad you pointed it out to me. These things are fun and give you something to ponder during multiple viewings.
Anonymous said…
Something about Hitchcock's influence in...Terrence Malick: