Voyeurism, Fantasy, and Vertigo
By Gus Cileone, BMFI Film Fan
Alfred Hitchcock addresses voyeurism often, which is fitting, since his audience lives vicariously through the characters he presents on the screen. But, he goes further, making the audience, from the perspective of the camera lens, an unseen presence stepping into the stories themselves. We become a Peeping Tom, like Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window; we observe Janet Leigh through the hole in the wall, in Psycho; we are accused directly of causing the coming apocalypse in the diner scene in The Birds.
In Vertigo, Jimmy Stewart’s weird obsession with Kim Novak’s Madeleine takes this voyeurism to the point of obsession. The voyeur has no respect for the individual, who is only a means to satisfy the voyeur's fantasy. In the opening credits we see a woman's face and then her eye. We then look into that eye, and there is a spinning pinwheel. Right from the beginning, Hitchcock is saying that a man can lose his balance with obsession over a woman.
After Stewart's detective, Scottie, discovers that he has acrophobia, hanging from a gutter after chasing a criminal, he is traumatized by witnessing a fellow policeman fall off the roof trying to save him. Falling becomes a motif in the film. The story takes place in hilly San Francisco, which symbolizes the precariousness of Scottie's predicament. (Scottie lives right near Coit Tower.) Probably because he feels guilty about the dead police officer, he dives into the bay to save Novak's character. But the jump also shows how dangerous his obsession can become. Of course, there are the falling deaths from the tower, and Scottie has dreams of falling off the tower. After the death of his fantasy woman, he drops into a state of catatonia, unable to be in the real world. The falling theme also refers to the danger of falling in love with the wrong person, for both Scottie and Novak's Judy. One could push it and say, for Scottie, the towers are phallic symbols, and the fear of falling could symbolize the fear of impotence in real life, thus encouraging the escape into fantasy.
|Jimmy Stewart stars as a traumatized detective caught in a deadly scheme.|
|Madeleine (Kim Novak), when Scottie follows her to the flower market.|
|After rescuing Madeleine, Scottie takes her to his apartment.|
Scottie's obsession is a kind of madness. Gavin says there is madness in Madeleine's family, which sets the stage for the belief that she would commit suicide (her name even has the word "mad" in it). And, Scottie's madness leads to a sort of personality suicide as he realizes at the end, as Roger Ebert says in his book The Great Movies, that another man (Gavin) created the woman he wanted to forge, and thus Scottie's dream was not even his own. First he lost the person he wrongly thought was his ideal woman incarnate, and then he loses the woman he thought he created to be his perfect reproduction of his ideal. For Hitchcock, the desire to possess one's dream person is an impossible act and can only turn life into a nightmare.
Gus Cileone is a retired government employee who worked for the Department of Veterans Affairs. He has received several writing awards and has published two novels, A Lesson in Murder and Feast or Famine. You can visit his website at www.augustuscileone.com.