Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo is a master’s class in subtle and effective filmmaking – its noirish tale of obsession and loss is considered one of his best works. This is due in no small part to the directors’ use of the various elements of film as a mirror. Hitchcock intends to create a sense of repetition and a cyclical nature to the life of the characters in the film; following Scottie (James Stewart) through his descent and ascent into madness deals significantly with themes of duality and obsession.
Furthermore, the use of film as a mirror onto ourselves is made very clear in the audience’s relation to Scottie throughout Vertigo.
In this paper, three instances of the film as mirror will be detailed in Vertigo, as well as how they inform the concept of film as mirror through their existence and varying properties. Metz describes film as a mirror in that “the cinema involves us in the imaginary: it drums up all perception, but to switch it immediately over into its own absence, which is nonetheless the only signifier present” (p.
250). The audience, like a child, sees themselves as an other; by identifying itself with its ‘other’ other, it can separate itself from that subject and look at the mirror objectively.
In the case of Vertigo, the ‘other’ is Scottie, and look at his visage on the screen as a mirror unto itself. Thus, we can project our own feelings and insecurities onto Scottie, which helps us relate to his desperation and madness. The first scene in Vertigo that demonstrates film’s ability to hold a mirror to the individual watching it, and elicit the emotions of the character in the audience, is the first scene of the film itself. The very first shot of the film is a pair of hands desperately grasping a ladder rung in extreme close up.
This connects the audience from the beginning with the desperation and fear that comes from hanging from a great height. This pulls back to reveal a shot of a cityscape, focused on the top rungs of a ladder leading to the roof of a building, as we follow the resolute climb and pursuit of a criminal by Scottie and his partner. This shot establishes the faces of the characters and establishes the stakes; the criminal is panicked, and Scottie and his partner are determined and aggressive.
The next shot in this scene s a wide shot of the rooftop where the chase is occurring; the blurry, obscured background indicates great distance, and the dull blue lighting indicates dusk. Combine that with the heights at which this chase is happening, and the scene carries the same unease that is placed in the audience during this scene. The real moment of ‘film as mirror’ occurs when Scottie misses a jump and grips onto a storm drain for dear life. The point of view shot used to demonstrate Scottie’s acrophobia is the key to creating the effect of the mirror in the scene, and is one of the most famous recurring shots in the film.
As a point of view shot, Scottie’s eyes become our eyes, and what he sees is reflected back at us. In this case, it is the dangerous and intimidating view of the hard, concrete ground dozens of feet below him. In order to punctuate the terror of this moment, and the fear that Scottie (and the audience) feels, Hitchcock accompanies this static shot with a simultaneous zoom in and track out. This is a camera trick used to disorient the viewer and create unease; with the threat of death from falling fully established, the film becomes our mirror to our own fear of heights.
While it is exaggerated in Scottie, the film touches on our own sense of fear at this moment. The second scene in Vertigo that elicits the film as mirror conceit the most is the first scene at Ernie’s Restaurant, the one which kicks off the plot thread of Scottie following Madeleine. At first, the camera moves towards a door consisting of bright red glass; the door is a barrier, containing something forbidden. Despite this, the camera (like us) is dying to know what is inside, as Scottie wants to find and pursue Madeleine.
We next fade directly to a shot of Scottie, who is clearly scanning the restaurant for her. His eyes search, and so the camera follows his search, panning around the restaurant. This movement is slow and elegant, allowing us a full view of everyone. Soon, like Scottie’s eyes presumably do, the camera fixates on a woman dressed in green, slowly moving toward her. Cutting back to Scottie, we see his eye is fixed on her as well. All of this work Hitchcock places in the scene serves to show us our own sense of voyeurism, as reflected by Scottie’s own snooping and obsession over Madeleine.
Through our connection to Scottie, the camera becomes an extension of him; his search becomes our search, and we see our own search for the woman at the heart of this investigation reflected in Scottie. The smoothness of the camera movement indicates the confidence that Scottie feels in his professionalism; this mirror reflects Scottie’s subconscious desire to demonstrate his certainty and calm in the face of pressure, which matches our own. The third scene in Vertigo to elicit the film as mirror conceit is the scene that depicts Scottie’s guilt-induced nightmare after Madeleine’s apparent suicide.
After an establishing shot of the city, which reminds the audience of the opening scene of the film, we settle on a close-up shot of Scottie’s face. Tossing and turning in bed, the shot is long and unflinching, remaining on his face for a long time. This gives the audience time to get accustomed to the series of flashing colors that wash over him, and to put ourselves in his place. This brings us deeper into identifying with Scottie’s guilt and curiosity-induced fever dream, which continues the varying flashes of multicolored light, as well as images of animated falling papers and leaves.
After nebulous, confused walking toward a freshly dug grave, the audience is treated to a bizarre sequence where Scottie’s disembodied head falls down a tunnel, wind blowing in his hair while the colors continue to flash. Cutting in and out, Scottie’s head falls closer and closer to the audience, closing the gap between audience and character with the screen as the meeting point. By holding this deep connection with Scottie’s face the whole time, his confusion reflects ours; the surreal nature of the whole scene is just as perplexing to Scottie as it is to us.
With this in mind, Scottie joins us in wondering about what is going to happen next in the events of the film, becoming the audience incarnate, reflected on the screen. Film as a mirror is showcased deeply through the character of Scottie; just as he watches Madeleine, we are watching him. Just as Scottie believes that Judy looks like Madeleine, we believe they look the same as well. Furthermore, Scottie wants Judy to become Madeleine, the woman he loved; this desire is mirrored in us.
The use of mise-en-scene and a strong performance by James Stewart helps us put ourselves in Scottie’s place, and allows us to experience his paranoia, guilt, and fear of heights, among other things. Hitchcock uses all the tools in his film cabinet to help the audience identify and relate to the characters and the events within it, and allows us to identify with Scottie on a psychological level. Hitchcock’s use of surreal imagery and presentational camera tricks bring us into Scottie’s mind and see our own guilt, fear and confusion reflected within.
Hitchcock’s Vertigo uses elements of mise-en-scene, cinematography, editing and acting, amongst other film techniques, to reflect the protagonist’s personality and inherent flaws onto the audience. He makes the audience viscerally feel the disorientation and fear of heights, and thus makes Scottie a reflection of the audience’s anxieties throughout the film. This makes the film succeed all the more in creating suspense and anticipation; we become the investigators and acrophobes because Scottie is the ‘other’ reflected back at us.