22 October 2011

Vertigo (1958)

One of Alfred Hitchcock's masterpieces, the 1958 film Vertigo encompasses a multitude of fears, desires, and perceptions through the eyes of one man. Audiences are given the ability to feel the anxieties and psychological troubles of the film's main character, Scottie Ferguson (James Stewart) through Hitchcock's masterful use of rhythmic and continuity editing. This style is clearly represented through three of the film's most climatic scenes: the opening roof chase, Madeleine's suicide, and Judy's ultimate death.

Scottie is a retired detective plagued by his fear of heights and persistent vertigo. After being asked to track Madeleine (Kim Novak), the wife of an old college friend named Gavin Elster, Scottie finds himself falling in love with her mysterious nature and similar fears. Persuaded into thinking that Madeleine is suicidal due to her obsession with an old relative, Scottie is not surprised, but devastated at witnessing her fall from the bell tower of an old Spanish church. What's worse is that Scottie feels a sense of guilt and shame in his inability to save her due to his paralyzing fear of heights. Trapped by his own guilt and love towards Madeleine, Scottie begins to go a bit mad and starts finding Madeleine's image in everything he sees. He then meets Judy, a woman with an unbelievably striking resemblance to Madeleine. After acquainting himself with her and slowly turning her in to the woman he lost, a meaningful close up and dissolve into a flashback by Judy reveals that she is Madeleine and that Scottie was tricked into thinking he had met the real Madeleine when in reality, the woman he knew (Judy) was a simple distraction from Elster's attempt to murder his real wife. Scottie soon discovers this and after confronting and eventually forgiving Judy for her participation, a brief glimpse of a figure in the bell tower (which turns out to be a nun) startles Judy and causes her to fall (or possibly jump?) from the bell tower, leaving Scottie with another and final sense of loss.

Perhaps this may all seem a bit confusing, but trust me when I tell you that the plot is made more clear, more haunting, and more fantastic through the audience's experience and understanding of Scottie and his perceptions of the world around him. We are introduced to his fears in the very opening scene: a rooftop chase that ends in Scottie hanging over the edge of a building after witnessing a cop fall to his death while trying to help him. The editing in this scene interestingly reveals Scottie's state of mind as this horrifying event takes place. The first 48 seconds (about half the length of the entire scene) consist of only three shots. In these lengthy shots, we are given a full understanding of what's going on. We see the criminal, police officer, and Scottie climb onto the roof, a panning shot of the chase across the buildings, and each person's attempt to jump to a new building. The consistency and length of these shots are perhaps an indication of Scottie's firm and stable position. He is focused on his chase and nothing appears to be bothering him. Things suddenly change, however, when Scottie misses his mark and finds himself dangling over the streets of San Fransisco. The next half of the scene has almost ten times the amount of shots. The image rapidly changes between close up shots of Scottie, his apparent view of the street below him and the officer who tries to help. This, along with the music and facial expressions gives the viewer clearer insight into the mind of Scottie, and we thus immediately sense fear, anxiety, and horror: feelings that will persist throughout the remainder of the film.

Similar editing can be seen in the apparent death of Madeleine. As Scottie chases her up the stairs, the camera (for the most part) stays on him, making his journey the focus of the scene. Just like the opening scene, the only cuts remain between Scottie and his view of the distance below him. Hitchcock uses this eye line match to keep the audience's focus on Scottie's difficulty. The reaction shot of Scottie after seeing the distorted height of the bell tower is really what gives this scene depth. We see how paralyzing his vertigo is. We now understand that his problem is so deep that not even love can overcome it. After Madeleine has officially fallen, the scene tragically ends with a long shot of Scotties descending the dark, spiraling stairs as if to represent his massive guilt and symbolic decent into madness or hell.
Scottie's final witness of death comes at the very end of the film after his realization of Judy's falsehood. After a standard conversation scene, done with precise continuity editing, things suddenly change as the building music ceases and the shuffle of footsteps is heard coming up the stairs. As a dark figure moves into the bell tower, a quick cut to Judy displays her fearful reaction and she suddenly move out of the frame. We are left only with Scottie's expression of confusion the nun's voice is heard off screen ("I heard voices") and Judy's screams immediately follow. All the while, the camera remains on Scottie, emphasizing his shock and pain. Three rapid cuts between Scottie and the nun then proceed to give one final sense of anxiety and shock before one long shot pulls from the church and reveals Scottie standing in the window, free of his vertigo but lacking in life and love.

Upon first glance, the editing in Vertigo may seem like nothing special. In fact, it is easily forgotten. Hitchcock masters the essentials of Hollywood continuity style editing, making the cuts seem almost nonexistent and thus making the film enjoyable and apparently focused on the narrative. At the same time, however, he subtly emphasizes the unique and disturbed mind of Scottie through multiple eye line match shots and quick cuts between him and those in the surrounding area to give the film a more shocking, more tragic and more terrifying appeal.

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