Vertigo and Rear Window

by mikeyzjames

It seems natural that a director like Alfred Hitchcock, who was so cued into how his audiences viewed his films, would make two films explicitly about the act of watching. In Rear Window, voyeurism is presented as a natural human impulse, a response to the world that Hitchcock mines for cinematic thrills. By 1958’s Vertigo, however, those thrills have been replaced by an inescapable doom. Here, to watch is to destroy.
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Like Rope, Rear Window initially seems to be primarily a cinematic exercise. Hitchcock places technical restrictions on himself and uses those limitations as a creative instigator. How do you make a movie when your main character can’t move? And more importantly, how do you make a movie that feels cinematic, that doesn’t feel like a stage play, with a main character who can’t move? His answer is quite simple: make the world around the protagonist a character. The courtyard outside Jeff’s (Jimmy Stewart) window has its own vitality, and each apartment carries its own narrative: the songwriter suffering from writer’s block, the newlywed couple who can’t even come up for air, the lonely woman desperate for love. While Jeff can’t move, they can, and as he watches, their stories unfold.

Hitchcock forces his camera into this narrative logic. He maintains long-distant shots that mimic Jeff’s own point-of-view. When he wants to move tight to accentuate a detail, he has Jeff pick up his telephoto lens. The resulting close-up is meant to be the view of the long-lens (replete with iris effect). Now, this isn’t to say that Hitchcock always sticks to his rules. In one sequence, the camera pans around the courtyard, catching us up-to-date with each of the apartments, but by the time we get to Jeff’s apartment, we realize he wasn’t looking out at all. Instead, he was facing into the apartment talking with Grace Kelly’s Lisa. In another key sequence, we see Thorwald leaving his apartment late at night with a woman. When we cut to Jeff, he’s asleep in his wheelchair. That bit of voyeurism, it seems, was meant just for us.
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As a thriller, the film works wonderfully. The immobilized Jeff amplifies the suspense, especially when Lisa makes an impulsive trip into Thorwald’s apartment. Watching Jimmy Stewart watch Grace Kelly is perhaps the best moment in the film. But at the same time, there’s perhaps too much on-the-nose discussion of voyeurism and what it means, especially at the beginning. The foreshadowing, particularly from his nurse is too overt.

But Hitchcock still manages to play with the theme with nuance and insight. He uses Det. Doyle as a counter-balance to Jeff and Lisa’s strengthening belief that Thorwald murdered his life. He does all the investigation that they aren’t able to, and repeatedly enters the story to dash their ideas. Here, Hitchcock glides into his greatest insight. Not only are Lisa and Jeff disappointed in Doyle’s findings, but the audience is too. Weirdly, we want there to have been a murder, because otherwise, why are we watching at all? What kind of thrills can we get out of a wife moving to the country? As if on cue, Hitchcock calls attention to this weird yearning, and Lisa scolds Jeff and herself for being sad that Mrs. Thorwald is alive and well. Hitchcock, of course, doesn’t let this shaming last, and quickly enough, the two are back on the hunt. In the end, we are all rewarded and a murder is solved (I love how Thorwald owns up to everything within like 30 seconds of questioning).

Vertigo is a much more nuanced, much more contemplative examination of voyeurism. Unlike Rear Window, the theme is never discussed; instead, Hitchcock explores it visually (and sonically). And unlike Rear Window, Vertigo doesn’t reward the voyeur.

Every time I watch it, Vertigo fills me with this overwhelming sense of melancholy. It feels like death, but in a blissful way. Martin Scorsese described the film as a “beautiful, comfortable, nightmarish obsession”, and I think that explains the weird paradox of Vertigo. I think this is mainly the result of the pacing of the film, especially the first half. Hitchcock is never in a rush; he lets the film slowly unfurl its tendrils that wrap you up and suck you in. After three scenes that set up the whole plot of the film (the rooftop chase, Midge’s apartment, and the meeting with Gavin), we sink into a nearly silent 20 minute sequence of Scottie following Madeleine. Time seems to float during this sequence, even though Hitchcock is developing visual cues that will become crucial as the film progresses.

Hitchcock was known for his efficiency, especially in terms of camerawork and editing, but Vertigo is perhaps the most expressive of his films. The camerawork isn’t necessarily more daring or non-traditional. There’s just an ethereal quality to his composition and movement that I can’t quite put my finger on. The way he’s constantly profiling Kim Novak, for example; the way he repeats the shots of Madeleine and Jeff running into the belltower; the way Midge walks away from the camera down the mental hospital’s hallway; the mixture of rear-projection and live-shooting in the numerous car sequences.
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And then there’s the sequence where Judy exits the bathroom in her apartment and completes the transformation into Madeleine. It might be the greatest shot in movie history. Somehow, I had forgotten about it, or forgotten the specific feel of it, but when I was watching it in class, I was genuinely caught off-guard and my mouth dropped open. As she opens the door and walks into the room, the neon green light from her window catches something in the air and she’s hard to see. She’s there and not there, Judy and Madeleine, human and ghost, all at the same time. And then she begins walking forward and the transformation is complete. She is Madeleine again (or is she Carlotta?). It’s a purely cinematic trick, a perfect mixture of lighting, camera-work, set design, costuming, and make-up. There’s a visceral pleasure to this shot that we can’t escape, and somehow, Hitchcock has managed to sync us with Scottie, if only for a moment. We see what he was searching for, and there’s a weird comfort in it.

But the transformation has come at a cost. Although she looks the same, Scottie isn’t satisfied. Just like he had to physically remake Judy into Madeleine, he also has to re-enact the moment where he failed to save her. And in doing so, he discovers the truth and Judy is punished. But as Scottie accuses her of being “a very apt pupil”, we can’t help but blame him for the situation. He could never remake Judy into the woman he loved, because the woman he loved never existed. She was an unattainable image, an emerald ghost always 50 feet away.