Hitchcock, Vertigo, and the Uncanny

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

An aspiring politician meets cute with his evil twin, leading to chaos and murder. A snaggle-toothed jester leers from the canvas of a painting, foisting guilt on the heroine while mocking the audience. An otherwise harmless little ditty, the “Merry Widow Waltz” acquires increasingly sinister overtones each time it's repeated.* In film after film, Alfred Hitchcock's characters meet their psychic doubles; works of art become as lively as the much-better-paid actors who stand alongside them; and themes, motifs and images repeat themselves, to ghoulish effect. Such devices are part of the language of film, and nobody used them as eloquently as Hitch.

More than any art form that came before it, film blurs the lines between perception and reality, the familiar and the strange. 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 we experience it as a peculiar oddness at it least; spine-tingling at its most intense.

Whereas horrormongers use the uncanny to send chills up our spines (think of those old wax museums and their all-too-lifelike inhabitants), 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. I should add that 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, in the way you might imagine an out-of-body experience to be; a reminder that the words “image” and “imagination” do, after all, share the same origin.

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, authors 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 world, the spirit in its. Besides that, Hitch, ever the contrarian, liked to cut his stories both ways, fudging the line between those two worlds, dwelling in the shadow of a doubt.

Following the bleak, documentary literalism of The Wrong Man (which is no less uncanny for being so) in 1956, 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 what turned out to be 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, into an extended meditation on the uncanny. That movie was Vertigo.

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

Not only did that monochrome treatment throw audiences off, but it also prepared their eyes to fully absorb the impact of the gradually saturating colors of the eerie, avant-garde title sequence to follow.

Vertigo is observed almost in its entirety from one point of view, that of the “hardheaded Scot,” John “Scottie” Ferguson (James Stewart). Through his skeptical eyes, which stand in for the modern audience's own rational dismissal of the supernatural, we observe a series of uncanny events. Try as he might, Scottie attempts to explain away in scientific terms what appears to be the spiritual possession of Madeleine Elster. We, the audience, are hoodwinked, not so much by the dialogue, but by the visual information provided during long dialogue-free passages, helped along 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 serpentine 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 follow the elegant, mesmerizing curves of Kim Novak around San Francisco. It was an offer Scottie couldn't refuse. Frankly, neither could I.

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: although he may dismiss her spells as a mere psychological disturbance, we've likely already bought into the notion that she has been touched by something or someone from beyond. 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."

A visit to the Museum of the Legion of Honor sends the mystery deeper. By wearing her hair and carrying a floral arrangement just like the portrait, “Madeleine” doubles the portrait, copying the look of a long-dead woman.

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 wrote in his essay, "In and Out of the Frame: Paintings in Hitchcock," “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.”

When the camera thus 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 the strange behavior he witnesses in “Madeleine” – tagged along by her mysterious beauty – causes him to question his assumptions. Under the thrall of Elster's snowjob, he doesn't know what to believe.

In one of the most lovely and haunting scenes in cinema history, “Madeleine” prepares to jump into San Francisco Bay.

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 is 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 a disgusted, “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 (played by 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 refuse the existence of our shadow selves.

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 spots several women who could be his “lost Lenore.” Revisiting their old haunts – Ernie's restaurant, the museum, her old apartment building – he sees women who at first glance appear to be “Madeleine”'s double, but upon closer inspection turn out to be false leads. Here, Hitchcock deliberately messes with our heads: for each of these scenes, he employed Kim Novak herself as a stand-in for the long shots, bringing in the actual people mistaken for “Madeleine” only for their close-ups.

Finally, Scottie discovers Judy (also played by Kim Novak) – a dead ringer for the lost Madeleine, excuse the pun. Ironically, her hair color, lifestyle, fashion style and even walking gait were completely different. Still, for Scottie – and for us – the resemblance, though ineffable, is uncanny.

We come to learn that Judy really is the same person he earlier fell for (emotionally, psychologically, thematically). Judy was an imposter, a double, a fake standing in for poor, dead Madeleine Elster. Scottie realizes this only after recreating her in the image that she was before. In fact, he only realizes this when he sees Judy's double – and the incriminating evidence of her necklace – reflected in a mirror.

It is such repetition that 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), each visit is uncanny in its own way. The film makes five separate trips to Mission San Juan Bautista including three visits in “real life,” as well as 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 near-hysterical accusation of her is 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 highly regarded in Chinese culture as an auspicious 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.

* These situations and motifs are from Strangers on a Train, Blackmail and Shadow of a Doubt, respectively.

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: