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VERTIGO

Year: 1958

Dir: Alfred Hitchcock

Gen: Looking at Women

he theoretical reception of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) has been irrevocably shaped by Laura Mulvey’s essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” (1975), which seminally deconstructed “the male gaze” of Hollywood cinema to highlight the fetishistic role that women play(ed) on screen for a patriarchal spectatorship (Mulvey 1975, p.6). Mulvey’s analysis is exemplified by Vertigo, in which 

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 James Stewart’s character Scottie is the holder of the gaze, whilst Kim Novak’s characters,interchangeably Madeleine and Judy, are its object of fetish.  

In Vertigo the camera sits in for the eye (the gaze), which is established in the film’s opening credits, and its spiralling movement foreshadows the instability and all consuming nature of the male gaze that will unravel as the film progresses. This unites the camera and the viewer, the latter’s gaze Mulvey associates with that of the protagonist, Scottie. The film is predominantly shot from his point of view and therefore both viewer and protagonist demonstrate scopophilia, a Freudian term used by Mulvey that refers to “taking other people as objects” and “subjecting them to a controlling and curious gaze” (Ibid, p.8). The spectator performs this role when they watch a film, as their desire for a harmonious and moral ending, as well as a gripping and entertaining film, overtakes the empathy that they might feel towards the characters on screen. In the setting of a cinema, the “contrast between the darkness in the auditorium…and the light and shade on screen helps to promote the illusion of voyeuristic separation”: we are morally justified, indeed required, to be voyeurs of the private worlds of the characters on screen (Ibid, p.9). 

In Vertigo, Scottie’s gaze is a menacing sign of his power over Madeleine, which with Hitchcock behind the lens has been compared to the director’s infamously poor treatment of his “blondes”, such as Tippi Hedren in The Birds (1963). Revisionist critics, most popularly The Guardian’s Anne Billson, have attributed this parallel gaze to a sort of auto-critique on the part of Hitchcock, but according to Mulvey’s analysis it simply reveals “Scottie’s active sadistic voyeurism” through the “use of subjective camera from the point of view of the male protagonist” (Ibid, p.16). Hitchcock is aware of the “moral ambiguity of looking”, but he doesn’t propose an alternative (Ibid, p.16). Rather, he exploits the sense of unease that this excites in the viewer, who shares Scottie’s point of view throughout the film, to garner a sense of illicit pleasure in looking: viewer turned voyeur. 

However, the relationship between Scottie and Madeleine is further complicated by the moral and legal power attributed to Scottie, who trained as a lawyer and was once a policeman, thus representing the Law (“of the father”) in Vertigo (Ibid, p.13). He is what Mulvey terms a “patriarchal super-ego” (Ibid, p.16). Scottie represents the active quest for truth whilst Madeleine and Judy represent, respectively, delusion and fantasy, not to mention the guilt required for the latter to passively submit to Scottie’s pseudo-necrophiliac demands.

However, it also highlights another key idea in “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”: the dichotomy between “active/male and passive/female” (Ibid, p.11). In Vertigo this is both narrative, as aforementioned, and stylistic, with shots of Kim Novak engendering what Mulvey calls a visual and narrative “no-man’s land” (Ibid, p12). This can also be seen in Gilda (Vidor, 1946) and Double Indemnity (Wilder, 1944), but is most notable in Vertigo due to Hitchcock’s auteuristic use of camera and lighting, which serve to fetishise Kim Novak throughout the film. Whilst the gaze attributed to Scottie progresses the narrative and the unfolding of events, the introduction of Madeleine into his visual field halts the investigation. One such shot concludes Scottie’s first visit to Ernie’s Restaurant, in which Madeleine’s profile is caught by Scottie’s gaze, the camera. The outside world disappears from the screen, replaced only by a lingering shot of Madeleine who, isolated in close-up, becomes Scottie’s sole focus. 

This technique was originally used by Hollywood studios to cultivate a transcendental aura around a star, famously Greta Garbo in Queen Christina (1933), which in turn supported the economic success of the film as the more close ups of the star, the larger the film’s revenue. The female close up was not introduced for narrative development, but for business, and it is this that Mulvey’s essay brings to the fore.

Indeed, Kim Novak’s characters epitomise the “to-be-looked-at-ness” of the female on screen, which is underlined when Madeleine, by way of parallel editing, is physically (and later psychologically) unified with a painting of her great grandmother Carlotta (Ibid, p.11). Just like a work of art, Madeleine is delicate, mysterious, a code to be deciphered. As Busby Berkeley declared, “what counts is what the heroine provokes, or rather what she represents. She is the one, or rather the love or fear that she inspires in the hero, or else the concern he feels for her, who makes him act the way he does” (Ibid, p.11). What Scottie looks for in Madeleine are his own desires and concerns, most importantly regarding his masculinity. It doesn’t matter who she is, it matters who she is for him.

In keeping with Mulvey’s Freudian approach, Madeleine needs Scottie because she lacks the traits of the man, the phallus, and Scottie needs Madeleine because he has lost his male agency. Madeleine needs Scottie’s guidance to the point that she does not “care about [herself] anymore”, because in herself she is incomplete. Madeleine’s “lack of penis” provides a role for Scottie, both a physical and social symbol of the phallus (think patriarchal Law), but thus also poses “a castration threat” to Scottie, as she wants to take from him that which makes him a man (Ibid, p18). She is at once a confirmation of his masculinity and a threat to the dominance that this entails. As Berkeley continues, “in herself the woman has not the slightest importance”: she is the negative space of man (Ibid, p.11).

Mulvey has since revised her essay to address post studio system cinema, which one hopes is less entrenched in the Freudian minefield of castration, scopophilia and ego complexes. Indeed, Wim Wenders’ film Paris Texas (1984) famously confronts the male gaze of the camera, Bell Hooks’ essay  The Oppositional Gaze: Black Female Spectators (1992) questions where the non-white woman sits in relation to Mulvey’s thesis and feminist filmmakers such as Chantal Akerman and Agnes Varda challenge “how a woman is to be looked at”, germinating the “radical” seed that Mulvey plants at the end of “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” (Ibid, p.18).

Podcast Discussion

Where to watch

The full version of Vertigo is available online and in stores across the UK. 

Bibliography

Mulvey, L. (1975) “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Screen 16 (1975): 6-18.


 

Supplementary Reading

 

Hooks, B. (1992) “The Oppositional Gaze: Black Female Spectators” In: Black Looks: Race and Representation. Boston: South End Press.

 

Hall, S. “Cultural Identity and Cinematic Representation” Framework: The Journal of Cinema and Media (1989): 68-81.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

KATHRYN CUTLER-MACKENZIE

Kathryn is a fourth year student of a joint degree in History of Art and Art Practice at The University of Edinburgh. Her interest in feminist cinema comes from her belief in political, cultural and social equity, a set of values that she says have often felt uncomfortable  alongside popular feminist movements such as "fourth wave" or Taylor Swift "girl gang" feminisms. Kathryn has found that by understanding the roots of female "types", consolidated through literature, cinema and art, she has been able to understand how they are constructed and how her own sense of femininity and womanhood differ.  

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ABOUT NEON EYE

Neon Eye is a film production company based in Edinburgh. As well as offering a platform for these curations and an accompanying video podcast, the company also creates and produces creative films of varying forms, from documentary to drama, and commercial videos for other companies, individuals, and enterprises.

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