Vertigo: The Gaze

For me Hitchcock’s Vertigo contains one of the most extraordinary examinations of obsessive desire associated with the male gaze. The texture of Hitchcock’s film itself has a strange, powerful and sensual quality, implicating us almost physically in Scottie’s vertiginous and ultimately hopeless desire, which is expressed at first through an erotic desire for a ideal fantasised woman and then through an obsession with the abyssal absence of the Other. The quality of the first erotic desire is almost traditional, and is certaintly familiar. There is a woman with both a polished and glowing surface, who shines ecstatically with great beauty, but who also posseses a dark and troubling depth. She is a woman haunted and possessed by an atavistic female double. The woman being desired (Madeleine) is mysterious, unknowable, and troubled.

Camille Paglia has written some extremely perceptive things on precisely this aspect of the film:

“Some of my favorite moments in that film are simply when James Stewart is looking, just looking, staring. That includes the first time he actually sees Madeleine, when of course the whole thing is a show put on to dupe him. He’s sitting in that fancy San Francisco restaurant as Kim Novak floats by in this magnificent floor-length cape and opera gown. I’m so transfixed when she arrives: It’s this long, slow pan as she comes into the restaurant and moves by him. He just sits and stares, and it’s the fascinated staring of all men — all heterosexual men but even gay men — through history as they watch a beautiful woman walk into a room. I mean it’s absolutely primal to me; it’s that kind of deep, mythological emotion, the kind of awed emotion that almost can’t be expressed…here is something mysterious about femaleness — coming from the facts of woman’s physical nature, the endless mysteries of the shadowy womb, and the power of procreation that even she doesn’t understand. Part of what I got from Hitchcock is his vision of woman’s un-knowability, her un-reachability, her enormous beauty — the glamorous artifice with which she cloaks herself but ultimately her incredible, natural sexual power.”

But to me the film really appears to subvert this traditional erotic desire, simply because Scottie is being misled. His gaze, his desire, his obsession, is for something that cannot be reached simply because it does not exist. Madeleine is not real, she is a fabrication designed to seduce him and use him. He is duped within the game of ‘power and freedom’. He is, in the words of Chris Marker, ‘time’s fool of love’. His desire ultimately leads his gaze towards not the surface abyss of the mysterious and unknowable woman, but the terrifying abyss of the Other itself.

“The abyss Scottie is finally able to look into is the very abyss of the hole in the Other (the symbolic order), concealed by the fascinating presence of the fantasy object. We have this same experience every time we look into the eyes of another person and feel the depth of his gaze.”
—Slavoj Zizek, from Looking Awry

Is this what finally drives Scottie mad? There are certaintly indications that it is. In the hallucinatory dream sequence the final image before Scottie wakes up is the silhouette of a hollow figure that falls from the tower. The figure falling from the tower has become a dark hole, hollow and unreflective.

The fantasy figure of Madeleine that occludes this truth from Scottie’s gaze has disappeared, which leaves him with the problem of how to confront the terrifying vertigo of the abyssal hole in the world that the Other signifies. His answer is to try to put the fantasy object back in its place, to try and cover over the abyss before it’s too late. Judy is his second chance. But fatally Judy too (the prosaic woman who merely resembles Madeleine) is merely another of Scottie’s fantasies, another lie, which in his frantic and almost necrophiliac desire to resurrect Madeleine, he misses.


Vertigo: Haunted Locations – Part Four

Scottie proceeds to follow Madeleine into the chapel, fearing that she is about to kill herself.

After Madeleine has fallen to her death there is a sequence consisting of the coroner’s inquest into her death which was filmed in the Plaza building at the Mission San Juan Batista.

After Scottie’s mental breakdown there is a sequence in San Francisco where he spots a woman who bears a striking resemblance to the dead Madeleine. He follows her back to her room at the Empire Hotel. This Hotel has now been renamed the York Hotel but is still clearly recognizable from the film.

Scottie befriends the woman, who calls herself Judy. In one beautiful sequence they take a walk together at the Palace of Fine Arts.


Vertigo: Haunted Locations – Part Three

There are two sequences which take place at the old Spanish Mission at San Juan Batista which is located 40 miles south of San Francisco. Before each there is a striking sequence where first Scottie and Madeleine and then Scottie and Judy drive down to the Mission. There is a beautiful sequence where they drive through the Avenue of Tall Trees.

The iconic sequences at the San Juan Batista Mission south of San Francisco occur in a number of different buildings. The first sequence occurs in a livery stable, where Madeleine sits apparently in a trance on a buggy drawn by a plaster horse. The stable, together with plaster horse and buggy are perfectly preserved and almost completely unchanged since the shooting of the film.

From the script:

INT. LIVERY STABLE – (DAY) The dark interior of the Livery Stable. The figures of Scottie and Madeleine are seen a little way in. Madeleine is seated in a surrey, while Scottie stands by her.

INT. LIVERY STABLE – (DAY) Madeleine’s eyes are closed. Scottie, leaning against the surrey, looks up at her intently. After moment he calls to her softly.

SCOTTIE: Madeleine…? She opens her eyes and looks down at him.
SCOTTIE: Where are you now? She smiles at him gently.
MADELEINE: (Softly) Here with you.

SCOTTIE: And it’s a all real.

SCOTTIE: (Firmly) Not merely as it was a hundred years ago. As it was a year ago, or six months ago, whenever you were here to see it. (Pressing) Madeleine, think of when you were here!

She looks down at him with, a worried, regretful smile, wishing she could help him. Then she looks away into the distance, and speaks almost at irrelevantly.
MADELEINE: (Dreamily) There were not so many carriages, then. And there were horses in the stalls; a bay, two black, and a grey. It was her favorite place, but we were forbidden to play here, and Sister Teresa would scold us…
Scottie looks up at her in desperation, then looks about the stable for help. His look scans the carriages and wagons lined against the wall, goes past the old fire truck on which there is a placard proclaiming the world’s championship of 1884, and finally stops at a small buggy — a Bike Wagon –To which is hitched a full-sized model of a handsome grey horse.

SCOTTIE: Well, now, here! He races to the horse. On it hangs a sign: “Greyhound World’s Greatest Trotter.”

SCOTTIE: Here’s your grey horse! Course he’d have a tough time getting in and out of a stall without being pushed, but still… You see? There’s an answer for everything!

He looks across to Madeleine eagerly. She is staring ahead, lost in the past.

Madeleine then runs from the livery stable across the courtyard of the Mission towards the chapel and the Tower. The Tower does not exist and was added as a special effect for the film. In all other respects though the Mission at San Juan Batista remains startlingly unchanged from the film.

The chapel and the Tower from the original film:

Madeleine and Scottie embrace outside the chapel, before Madeleine persuades him to allow her to go into the chapel alone.

From the Script:

MADELEINE: You believe that I love you?


MADELEINE: And if you lose me, you’ll know that I loved you and wanted to go on loving you.

SCOTTIE: I won’t lose you. Pause.

MADELEINE: Let me go into the church alone.


MADELEINE: Please. Because I love you.

He stares at her, sees the pleading look in her eyes, and lets go. She turns and walks away toward the church, slowly, her head bowed. He watches her go and starts to move after her. Then slowly, as she goes, her head begins to go up until finally, as she walks, she is staring high above her. And then, suddenly, she breaks into a broken run.

EXT. CLOISTERS – (DAY) Scottie jerks his head up to see what she was looking at.

EXT. CLOISTERS – (DAY) From Scottie’s viewpoint: the high church tower.

EXT. CLOISTERS – (DAY) Scottie, immediately alarmed, brings his eyes down and looks toward the church entrance.

EXT. CLOISTERS – (DAY) From Scottie’s viewpoint: Madeleine runs through the open front door of the church, and vanishes.

EXT. CLOISTERS – (DAY) Scottie starts to run toward the church.
SCOTTIE: Madeleine!!! He runs to the church door and runs in.


Vertigo: Haunted Locations – Part Two

Scottie follows Madeleine to San Francisco Bay at the spectacular Fort Point, location of the Golden Gate Bridge. This is the location of one of the most iconic sequences in the entire film.

Scottie watches as Madeleine stares mournfully into the bay, dropping flower petals into the water. Suddenly she jumps into the bay, and Scottie jumps in to save her.

Scottie pulls the unconscious Madeleine from the bay and takes her back to his apartment at 900 Lombard Street in San Francisco. This apartment still exists and is still clearly recognizable from the original film, and provides a further extraordinary touchstone to Vertigo.

Later in the film Scottie continues to follow Madeleine around San Francisco and is surprised when he follows her green Jaguar right back to his apartment at Lombard Street. This is the scene from Scottie’s point of view as he follows Madeleine down Lombard Street.


Vertigo: Haunted Locations – Part One

I recently visited San Francisco in pursuit of my obsession with Hitchcock’s Vertigo. I spent two weeks methodically visiting surviving locations from the film. What follows is the first part of a kind of photographic field report of that visit.

This is the Brocklebank Apartments at 1000 Mason and Sacramento, which is home to Madeleine Elster, and is where Scottie begins to follow her green Jaguar.

After following Madeleine through San Francisco she is seen parking her green Jaguar in a dark alley and disappearing through a door. This turns out to be the rear entrance to the Podesta Baldocchi flowershop. Scottie follows her into the alley, enters the back door and spies on her in the flowershop. This location was at Claude Lane, which is a small lane connecting Bush and Sutter Streets in San Francisco.

Despite being the location for some upmarket boutiques and restaurants, Claude Lane retains many of the strange elements visible from the original film, particularly early in the morning when it is quiet. Unfortunately the beautiful Podesta Baldocchi flowershop exists in name only, as the charmless internet flower warehouse, which was only discovered after a number of fruitless treks accross the city, testified.

Scottie then follows Madeleine to the Mission Dolores in San Francisco. This is the oldest building in San Francisco, and retains pretty much everything seen in the film.

Scottie follows Madeleine to the beautiful old cemetry at the rear of the Mission, and in an extraordinarily dreamlike sequence observes her placing flowers on the grave of Carlotta Valdes. The cemetry has not changed dramatically since Hitchcock filmed here, and offers a very powerful touchstone to the film.

Scottie then follows Madeleine to the California Palace of the Legion of Honour art gallery, where he watches her sitting in front of the portrait of Carlotta Valdes.

Unfortunately Madeleine wasn’t there when I visited, and nor was the portrait of Carlotta.


The Vertigo of Time

Chris Marker observes, in a remarkably lucid essay on Hitchcock’s greatest film, that the vertigo dealt with in the film is not really concerned with space, height and falling – rather, these function as metaphors for another type of vertigo which is extremely difficult to represent – the vertigo of time. Scottie, played by James Stewart, is infused with the ‘madness of time’. ‘You’re my second chance’ cries Scottie as he drags Judy, played by Kim Novak, up the stairs of the tower at the end of the film. This moment is not about conquering his vertigo, it is about reliving a moment lost in the past, about bringing it back to life only to lose it again. As Marker notes, Scottie imagines a second life in exchange for the greatest tragedy, a second death.

Following a dramatic rooftop chase where the detective Scottie loses his footing and is left hanging by his fingertips from guttering twenty or so floors up, a policeman, attempting to rescue him, falls to his death. Scottie is retired from the force, diagnosed with acute agoraphobia which leads him to suffer episodes of vertigo. The now retired Scottie is asked by an old college friend Gavin Elster, played by Tom Helmore, to go ‘on the job’ one more time, to trail his wife Madeline, also played by Kim Novak, who he claims is acting bizarrely. He claims she is being haunted, even possessed, by the tragic figure of Carlotta Valdes, a woman from the 19th century, seduced by a rich and powerful man, who had a child resulting from the affair which was taken away from her when the man abandons her, she later committed suicide. Madeline apparently makes unexplained journeys during the day that she claims to have no memory of. Scottie, reluctant at first, is ‘seduced’ by the sight of Madeline at the wonderfully evocative Ernie’s restaurant and agrees to follow Madeline.

He spends a day following Madeline around San Franciso – to the Podesta Baldocchi flower shop, the old Spanish Mission Dolores which is the site of Carlotta’s grave, the Legion of Honour art gallery, home to a portrait of Carlotta, and the McKittrick hotel, the former home of Carlotta. Scottie continues to follow Madeline the next day – she drives out to the Golden Gate Bridge where she attempts suicide by throwing herself into the bay, and Scottie rescues her.

He takes her unconscious back to his apartment. Upon awakening Madeline appears to have no memory of her movements prior to going to the Golden Gate Bridge, or how she came to ‘fall’ into the bay. Scottie and her begin to become more closely involved with each other, and ‘fall’ in love. Madeline attempts to explain to Scottie her feelings of possession and haunting (the wonderful scene in the sequoia forest – the ancient monuments to ‘time’ – the oldest living things).

Madeline proceeds to explain to Scottie her deep fear of madness, destruction and death. She describes a dream to Scottie about an old Spanish mission with a tower, where the past is seemingly preserved. Scottie realises that she is describing an actual preserved Spanish mission to the south of San Francisco and drives her there – to show her that it’s ‘real’ and not a dream, to confront an object of her fear, in some attempt to dissipate it and ‘free’ her from being haunted by the past. When they arrive Madeline becomes extremely distressed and insists upon going into the chapel alone. Upon entering she climbs the stairs of the tower. Scottie attempts to follow her but is prevented from doing so by his ‘vertigo’. Madeline throws herself to her death from the tower.

The now traumatised and guilt-ridden Scottie slides into an acute form of stasis, depression and withdrawn, which is signalled by a bizarre dream sequence – and described quite comically by the psychiatrist as ‘acute melancholia with a guilt complex’. Upon seemingly recovering and out of hospital Scottie is seen wandering around familiar landmarks in search of Madeline. After a number of failed encounters when he appears to see Madeline from a distance, but is disappointed to discover that it is a different woman when closer, Scottie spies a woman in the street who bears an uncanny resemblance to Madeline. He pursues this woman to her hotel room where he demands to speak to her. We learn that this woman is called Judy, she is a brunette from Kansas, and is apparently devoid of the social grace and charm of Madeline. Scottie persuades her to have dinner with him. We then learn, in a narrated section where Judy writes a letter to Scottie, that Judy is in fact Scottie’s Madeline. She reveals the part she played in Gavin Elster’s plot to kill his wife. The seduction and manipulation of Scottie (she played the role of a Madeline haunted by the past in the form of Carlotta), and the leading of him to the tower where they knew he could not ascend, in order that Elster could throw his real wife from the tower and make it look like a suicide caused by her being haunted by Carlotta. However, Judy had been in love with Scottie, and appears to abandon her plan to flee from Scottie, and dares to try and stay and have a relationship with him. The traumatised and haunted Scottie, in a series of disturbing scenes, attempt to ‘make-over’ Judy so that she better resembles Madeline – shoes, clothes and hair. He finally achieves this in the famous scene in the hotel room where he manages to resurrect Madeline from the dead.

Judy, however, makes an apparent ‘slip’ and attempts to wear Carlotta’s necklace. Scottie realises the truth – realises that he’s been ‘had’. He drives Judy to the old Spanish mission – ‘There’s one more thing I need to do before I can be free of the past’. Once at the mission he reveals to Judy that he knows the truth and he forces her to climb the tower, to the ‘scene of the crime’ – to become ‘free of the past’. Once in the tower, Judy, startled by the appearance of a dark shadowy figure (which turns out to be a nun) falls to her death, and the film ends with a shot of Scottie staring down at her body from the top of the tower.

Vertigo brilliantly dramatises the interior mental anguish of the protagonist Scottie by demonstrating the progressive infusion of memory into the mechanism of his thought.

Scottie’s haunting – his possession by the figure (memory) of Madeline drives him to attempt to recover the past and instantiate it in a resurrected figure of Madeline through Judy – Judy-Becoming Scottie’s Madeline. Scottie spirals into the past (like the spirals in the opening credits) – trapped by an obsessive and traumatic image of the past which he attempts to repeatedly instantiate (to bring Madeline back from the dead, from the ‘dead-time’ of the absolute past of memory, into the present). The film manages to dramatise a subject’s possession by time – Scottie is ‘lost in time’ – and the drama of a traumatic division between the pure memory (Scottie’s obsession with Madeline) and his present/actual recollections (his attempts at repetition with Judy). The indiscernability between the two realms instantiate what Deleuze calls the crystal-image.

This is captured in Eric Rohmer’s writings on Vertigo: ‘In Vertigo we travel in space in the same way we travel in time, as our thoughts and the characters thoughts also travel. They are only probing, or more exactly, spiralling into the past. Everything forms a circle, but the loop never closes, the revolution carries us ever deeper into reminiscence. Shadows follow shadows, illusions follow illusions, not like the walls that slide away or mirrors that reflect to infinity, but by a kind of movement more worrisome still because it is without a gap or break and possesses both the softness of a circle and the knife edge of a straight line.’

Cinematic works of art such as Vertigo are able to create extraordinary images that weave a transverse continuity between different layers of the past and elaborate an entire network of non-localisable relations between them. In this way such works are able to express in the most profound manner non-chronological time – or direct images of time. Immediate and direct confrontations take place between the past and the future, the inside and the outside, at a distance impossible to determine, independent of any epistemologically fixed point (indiscernibility). Such an image no longer has space and movement as its primary characteristic, but topology and time. Cinema has the capacity of infusing images with a real sense of the transcendental form of time, its ceaseless differentiation of present into the past and the preservation of the past in the constitution of the future.


Vertigo: An Obsession with Realism

Photographs seem to haunt our imagination and our relationship to the world, offering as they do a persistent material presence to us of our absence from the world they display. The photograph confronts us with an automatic, mechanical and faithful doubling of a world now seemingly lost to us in time.

Their strange aura appears to derive from the degree to which the ephemeral moment of presence they persistently confront us with is inextricably linked to the overwhelming material density of the reality they serve to double and offer up to our memory.

Cinema, due to its essentially photographic nature, is also able to provide a complex double of an absent real world. Through the development of the necessary technology to screen moving photographic images the cinema was able to develop a simulacrum of the real world, capturing and ‘embalming’ the movement and eventually the associated sound of the existing material world.

Here lies the extraordinary value of Bazin and Cavell’s work on the strange and mysterious intertwined ontology of photography and cinema. Both identified the degree to which cinema extends and expands upon the ontology of the photograph, concentrating particularly upon the notion of mechanical automatism and the role it has in serving to so effectively double reality and mummify the duration of things in the world. Bazin highlights the fact that photography allows, for the first time in history, the mere ‘instrumentality of a non-living agent’ (i.e. a mechanical automaton) as the only medium between the original object and its reproduction. So the image is formed ‘automatically’, seemingly free from the intervention of the human hand and subjectivity, which, as Bazin indicates, ‘satisfies, once and for all and in its very essence, our obsession with realism.’

The fact that photographs provide a double of the real world does not at all guarantee our ongoing presence to the world so displayed. In fact it is just the opposite. The photograph displays a mummified presence that is absent – as Cavell writes ‘present as absent, or absent as present’. This is not to deny the reality of the real, rather it is to allow the photograph to disclose or approach an understanding of the ontology of reality. The photograph discloses reality itself (what is really in our presence) as being from which we are always absent.

The displacement of present reality, which is persistently displayed by the photograph, explains our sense of persistent estrangement from it. The ‘realism’ achieved by the photograph provides us with an acute sense of reality, which crucially is one from which we already sense a distance. The photograph doubles and consummates our implicit sense of ‘reality’. The mechanical automatism of cinema clearly exacerbates the sense of distance and estrangement implicit within photography thereby providing us with the requisite heightened sense of reality. However, it is an ontology of reality which is persistently haunted by the realisation of our absence from reality, the impossible distance which always already haunts our sense of reality.

I believe that such a hauntology provides an explanation for my ongoing obsession with a film about a singular desire for realised fantasy generated by the protagonist’s absence from the present of reality – Hitchock’s Vertigo. The obsession with realism and its integral connection to fantasy in cinema (exemplified so powerfully by Hitchcock’s Vertigo) was clearly identified by Bazin when he observed that cinema inherently produces images of the reality of the world, or hallucinations ‘that are also a fact’.

For Cavell the obsession with the type of realism explored within cinema is connected with our strong desire to ‘view the world itself’ and the associated wish to access the very condition of viewing or imaging as such. Cinema responds to these desires insofar as when we watch a film we appear to be viewing the world unseen and we appear to be in communion with the objective conditions of viewing as such. Such viewing fulfils our obsessive desire for realism since it displaces us from our normal subjective habitation within the world, and propels us towards a sublimated objectivity troublingly associated with voyeurism. Our normative mode of perception constitutes a somewhat strained connection to the world which is not so much looking out at it and perceiving ‘how it is’, but rather to ‘look out at it, from behind the self’. The interposition of subjectivity between one’s being and the world besets philosophy with a convoluted epistemological problematic, itself a symptom of our obsession for realism.

In order to come to view the world ‘how it is’, to form images of reality, it becomes increasingly necessary to attempt a sublimation of our private fantasies, to render them imperceptible. Yet, as Cavell notes, by viewing the world from behind the self, we repeatedly consign our private fantasies to being thwarted and displace ourselves from our natural habitation within the world. We are thus responsible, in our normative condition, for everything that is unnatural about our condition. However, the cinema offers us a redemptive opportunity for an automatic displacement from our unnatural subjective condition. Films seem to respond to our obsession for realism, insofar as they appear to be ‘more natural than reality’, by removing the responsibility for the displacement of subjectivity from us. Cinema thus provides a relief from the burdensome realm of private fantasy and its heavy responsibilities. Films serve to automatically displace us from our subjectivity and offer us an objective glimpse of the world ‘as it is’. However, crucial to such an understanding of the ontology of reality disclosed by cinema is the fact that the objective world which appears ‘as it is’ has always already been drawn by fantasy, that the world drawn by fantasy is not a world separate from the real world – fantasy and reality are aspects of the one existing world – and therein lies the revelatory redemptive power of cinema in relation to our obsession with realism. On film the world is automatically recreated, doubled and imaged.

As Cavell identifies, the cinema permits the self to become ‘awakened’ and to cease withdrawing its desires deeper and deeper into an imperceptible interior realm. Film awakens us from the governing mode of normative perception that has come to seem so natural to us, namely that mode of perception in which, in order to view the world unseen (and therefore objectively) we look at the world ‘from behind a self’ and render our desires and fantasies invisible (or rather, deny that their visible marks constitute part of the ontology of reality).

The cinema has the capacity to awaken us to the world’s reality and to the reality of our unnatural condition of displacement from the world.