Alfred Hitchcock is one of the greatest artists in the world of cinema who is primarily known for inventing the conception of a thriller. This genre supposes the constant deception of view; however, the most important element in a thriller is a personal mystery of the character. Hitchcock always divided the narrative into the conscious and subconscious parts, forcing the viewer to balance between the two dimensions. Hitchcock’s Vertigo is one of his key works and serves as a spectacular example of a classic psychological thriller, created and presented excellently in the characteristic manner of the legendary director.
Being a genius of formal receptions, Hitchcock made every effort to ensure that they were almost unnoticeable to the viewer and yet used them to enhance the tension, which is typical for the genre. For example, in the credits, the director shows two different parts of a woman’s face. First the lower half of the face with lips and nose, and then the upper half with the eyes. A woman consisting of two parts is an allusion of different women united by something, but the director states that regardless of what part the viewer sees, they are still a whole. At the same time, spirals emanating from the woman’s eyes give away her mysterious and complex inner world. Therefore, the viewer starts feeling some sort of anxiety even without any knowledge of the plot.
To a certain degree, Vertigo shows how a true vertigo can appear primarily from the director’s manner of storytelling. The retired police officer John Ferguson, who is so afraid of heights, accepts the offer from his school friend Gavin Elster to spy on his wife, Madeline. The detective desperately falls in love with the woman, and when Madeline dies, he meets a girl named Judy Barton who looks absolutely like Madeleine. The whole story takes place in San Francisco in the 1950s. The locations include the picture gallery, old cemetery, Ferguson’s apartment, old Spanish village and a forest with giant sequoias. One of the most remarkable settings elements is the representation of Spanish settlement with the use of fake plastic horses and decorations. Using these tools, Hitchcock hints that mystical part of the narrative is unreal and forces the viewer to focus on rational explanations. Moreover, the movie rhythm combines such small and enclosed spaces as a car, apartment or bell tower with open landscapes, bay, and Sequoia forest. At the same time, the cinematographer uses static angles and long pan shots. In that way, Hitchcock emphasizes the psychological mood of the work and simplifies the technical aspect of the filming process.
The primary focus of the story is the conflict between Ferguson and his acrophobia. While the protagonist is a human, the antagonist is a force that is familiar and recognizable to the audience. To enhance the feeling of fear for heights, in this movie Hitchcock uses his favorite technique, a fall. A police officer falls from the roof, the main character falls from the chair and in his own dreams, and Madeleine and Judy find their death on the high bell tower. In addition, the film contains numerous spirals: Madeleine’s mysterious hairstyle, stairs to the bell tower, circles on the giant tree. While spiral forms and the process of falling may have many symbolic interpretations, in this picture they particularly symbolize the immersion into the subconscious.
Expanding the plot, Hitchcock several times makes the audience change the point of identification. The part from the beginning to the death of Madeleine occurs from the perspective of the protagonist, detective Scottie Ferguson. The viewer begins to empathize with the main character, wondering where Madeleine went and who the woman in the portrait is, experience a deep fear of heights and the inability to save the woman the character loves. Obviously, in the first part of the movie Hitchcock has no plans to exempt neither his character nor the viewer from acrophobia. On the contrary, the death of Madeleine only emphasizes the fear of heights.
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The episode with Judy’s letter becomes the turning point for the viewer. The flashback shows the audience what really happened on the top of the bell tower. From this moment, the viewer knows the truth, but Ferguson remains unaware; therefore, the identification with the protagonist is broken. This form of connection is the primary motive of the second part of the movie. The audience knows the truth that is waiting for the main character, but has no idea what will happen to him and waits for the verdict of the director. In this way, Hitchcock’s suspense captures the viewer, forcing him to watch how Scottie recreates the dead Madeleine step-by-step. The episode with culmination occurs at the top of the bell tower. The camera focuses on the emotions of characters, providing the combinations of tilt and pan shots with long static plans. The masterly use of light that transforms the cloistress into a black silhouette of vengeance angel makes the scene rather impressive and memorable. This angel brings Scottie freedom from height and shows the true price of his desires.
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In his works, Hitchcock embodied an incredible amount of puzzles and secret manipulations, presenting a completely new approach to the filming process. Moreover, he created the genre of thriller. A classic thriller makes the hero meet his unconscious through the mysterious detective story. The Hitchcock’s Vertigo is an outstanding example of self-examination and understanding the nature of human desires. The viewer has a unique opportunity to wander through the dark corridors and tunnels of the unexplained mysteries of subconscious alongside with the main character. However, a thriller is always a deeply personal story inside the detective plot, and this is one of the biggest Hitchcock’s merits.