Here’s how I think of Vertigo. It’s like one of those 1950s American cars – gorgeous and shiny, beautiful down to the last detail. But also well built – engineered to a tee, built to last. Vertigo is timeless and stylish, and not for nothing, was recently named by Sight & Sound magazine as “The Greatest Film of All Time.” Just like those classic Detroit cars, it’s a precision machine. Each delicate part of it functions smoothly with every other part to create a perfect engine of a movie. Just to belabour this point – there’s the Vertigo spiral.
Fashion and Control
With hindsight being 20/20, it’s reasonable to say the defining characteristic of Hitchcock the director (perhaps also of Hitchcock the man?) is control. Self-reflexive is not a term typically applied to his work, but with a little armchair psychology, Vertigo might read that way. Hitch with his obsession for blondes and the hyper-voyeurism examined across his body of work reaches a kind of symphonic apotheosis in this film. In Vertigo, Hitchcock stitches together all the threads of his own fixations into a cinematic master work.
Hitchcock’s heroines were icy goddesses, meant to be untouchable. Fashion in a Hitchcock film, Vertigo included, is a kind of armour. There’s nothing literal. The ladies didn’t don chain mail. Rather, they were perfect, too perfect for spoiling. As Madeleine Elster, Kim Novak is dressed in the finest, yet most tasteful, fashions of the era. There is nothing ostentatious about her wardrobe, there’s no over the top couture of Grace Kelly in Rear Window. Rather, she is put together, perfectly. Poor Judy Barton, of course, doesn’t have the same wardrobe of class and privilege. Yet, even Judy remains the picture of Midwest sensibility. Only Midge turns up in a cotton smock signalling that she is attainable, thus not worth the effort.
The Vertigo Hair Spiral
The movie is named Vertigo, of course. There’s your first clue that the spiraling, out of control, slightly nauseating feeling of vertigo is a key motif in this movie. The famous spiral appears in the promotional poster, the seminal kiss scene, and in multiple camera “spiral” shots including the deadly bell tower scene. The vertiginous aural spiral recurs throughout Bernard Herrmann’s score. It also appears in Kim Novak’s hair (as well as Carlotta’s) and then makes a scattered and disjointed appearance as a fringe of baby spirals framing Judy’s face. One can get dizzy just thinking about the spiral.
Kim Novak’s hair isn’t just pretty. As Madeline, it’s an unnatural shade of blonde and it’s styled in a meticulous spiral, just like Carlotta’s. As Judy, Novak’s hair loses its studied precision, our first clue that perhaps Judy isn’t quite what she seems. Judy’s face is framed with a mess of little uncontrolled spirals, with more than a hint of the mythical Gorgon. Of course, that chaos becomes the crucial linchpin in Scottie’s transformation of Judy into Madeline. As our stand in for Hitchcock, Scottie directs Judy’s life. Every detail must be perfect to complete and maintain his fantasy. When Judy’s wild spirals are contained and Madeline’s perfect spiral is back in place, all is well. And not well at all.
The Void at the Centre
But what’s a spiral, really? A spinning form, with snaky arms extending out from some implied, but still mysterious, force. Yet, at its centre, a spiral is nothing, a void. Scottie embraces Madeline, itself a kind of spiral, but empty at its heart. Those bell tower stairs are a dizzying spiral, empty in the centre. Judy’s hair is styled into Madeline’s spiral, empty because Madeline is an illusion, and Madeline’s hair spiral was a cipher in the first place, a fake haunting from Carlotta. In the end all of the spirals spin out into nothing, uncoiling into a void. And we realize, we just got played by a master.
For those who love Vertigo, the spiral makes a final appearance, though this time as exegesis. The final spiral is the vertigo Hitchcock invokes for us the viewer. The final spiral is the vertiginous feeling that comes from examining Vertigo too closely. You find a glimmer of meaning, a moment of clarity, but then it whirls away just out of your grasp. Scottie is the victim, Scottie is the villain. Madeline is a ghost, Judy is a cipher. Gavin Elster goes free. But who are we the viewers? The screaming, plummeting Judy, the psychedelic spinning Jimmy Stewart head, the supernaturally cool Madeline? Or are we the nun – there to ruin the illusion with a stubborn insistence on logic and reason?
Each month TFS Essentials will examine some aspect of the cinematic experience that is essential for all film lovers to know about.
This month Toronto Film Scene is unzipping the mystery surrounding Fashion in Film. Who are the people behind the clothing choices, where in Toronto do they shop and what are some examples of great costuming? We’ll also check in with CAFTCAD, revisit the relationship between Edith Head and Alfred Hitchcock and look at films that have inspired fashion trends.
More from Toronto Film Scene
- The careless chic of French New Wave fashion
- Cinema Revisited: old Hollywood’s “˜Material Girl’, Edith Head
- Spotlight On: The Canadian Alliance of Film & Television Costume Arts & Design
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