Frames in Focus: Vertigo (Hitchcock, 1958)

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Watching a film you’ve seen many times before still often brings new elements to light, particularly a film as cinematically rich as Alfred Hitchcock’s 1958 masterpiece Vertigo. It could be that with a repeat viewing your attention is drawn more towards the psychologically nuanced performances of Stewart or Novak on one occasion, or perhaps Bernard Herrmann’s unforgettable score on another. Watching Vertigo again recently, one thing that took centre stage for me was Hitch’s masterful use of light and colour. From the bold, blood red walls of the restaurant where Scottie first eyes Madeleine to the cold blue of the Pacific Ocean lapping up against the shores of San Francisco bay, Vertigo is a film brimming with colour.

In one comparatively more subtle sequence during the latter part of the film, when Scottie first begins the process of transforming Judy (back) into his lost love Madeleine, the confrontation between the pair (set in Judy’s hotel room) is bathed in the sickly neon green light originating from the hotel sign just outside her window. It’s an intense scene. Scottie wants to see her again, having just taken her out to dinner as an apology for his first aggressive encounter. Judy (who the audience now knows to be Madeleine) fights the temptation to let the former police detective back into her life. She soon gives in to temptation.

In the frame seen above, the light as it is cast on Judy/Madeleine’s face immediately creates a complex set of meanings and suggestions. At once, her half-hidden face prompts an sense of mystery: a visual reflection of her hidden past and deepest secrets. Additionally, we could also interpret her half obscured face as an allusion to her dual identity. In this moment, deciding her fate, she is caught somewhere between Judy and Madeleine, uncertain as to how she should proceed. The play of light and shadow here is intelligent, but of course, not wholly original. Since the shadowy genesis of Film Noir, femme fatales have been caught somewhere between light and darkness: their silhouetted figures as much a part of Noir iconography as cigarette smoke and rainy cityscapes. The interesting addition in this scene then is the use of the green. In a way its another instance of expectation being fulfilled: Hitchcock emphasising the macabre, perhaps supernatural elements of the narrative with this ghoulish colour palate. But there is another point to note about the use of colour here. Intentional or not, the ray of green light as it falls on Judy’s brown hair goes some way to return the character to the blonde she once was. This strange optical illusion – the mesh of green light with Judy’s hair colour and the warm lighting hue of her room – could be seen to hint at the soon to be fulfilled possibility of the film’s return of the repressed.

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