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Alfred Hitchcock’s Use of Colour in His Film Vertigo

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Filmmakers use colours as instruments for storytelling, and visual minded directors create colour palettes almost as memorable as the films themselves. Hitchcock is not an exception. Few movies use colour palettes as brilliant as Vertigo (Hitchcock) and there may not be any other film that evokes such a powerful impression of a colour palette of red and green. Almost everything that relates to Madeleine and Judy is in red and green. Lacking that strong colour palette is lacking of emotions. The colour palette becomes especially standing out in some circumstances.

Vertigo (Hitchcock)’s title sequence is a three-and-a-half-minute microfilm that is designed by a young graphic designer, Saul Bass. To Bass, the title sequence provides a valid chance to set the mood for the actual movie and to catch the attention of the viewers from the start. In Vertigo (Hitchcock), it aims at creating an anxious and vertiginous feel. It starts with an extremely close up shot of a nameless woman’s face in black and white. Then, the camera focuses from the mouth to the eyes and freezes at her left eye. At this time, the frame is fully covered by the bloody red. This shiftiness of colour creates a more intensive nervousness. During the image was in black and white, it is hard for the viewers to immediately read what messages are left by the director. But as it turns to red, things get different. Red is a colour often suggesting pressure, desire, danger, and even death. The whole frame filled with red makes the viewers’ unsure and curious about what kind of feeling they can expect from the movie. Within this three-and-half minute title sequence, there is also an odd spiralling image spinning inside one of the woman’s eyes. As it is spinning, the colour switches in between reds and greens repeatedly, and it also gets larger and larger as if it is going to suck everything into it. Eventually, it returns to the same old eye covered with bloody red. Red and green in colour principle are the contrasting colours. They are strong enough and maybe representing some wholly opposite ideas. In this case, such a strong colour palette of red and green sets the mood for viewers and catches our attention directly and promptly.

A similar motif repeats in Scottie’s nightmare. In his nightmare, the portrait of Carlotta (an ancient relative of Madeleine’s family) is again covered with a layer of red “curtain” and the image flickers many times which adds some kinds of mystery and danger. As he is walking towards Madeleine’s tomb in the dream, he finds that she was not there at all. It represents Scottie’s fear and remorse. He may regret his vertigo (Hitchcock) and timidity is what actually results in Madeleine’s death, or it could be something else.

The viewers can observe the same colour palette repeats again and again between the two mysterious women figures and Scottie except Scottie’s old friend Midge. Midge never wears anything in green or red. She is always in a white T-shirt, and her home decoration is neither green nor red. It makes her insignificant or almost invisible in the film. In one scene Midge is sitting by the window, she is almost merged into the background. She is a female figure as well, but just nothing to do with an object of male desire or sexual attraction. The viewers can identify themselves from watching the story of the film, but also from reading the colour palette. It does not mean she is not good enough. She is an intelligent person who likes Scottie. She investigates him and tries to please him by helping investigate Coletta, but Scottie is living in the realm of fantasy by being attracted to Madeleine or Judy. It makes Midge more like a visible observer rather than a woman Scottie would in love with.

Colour palette is especially important in colour films. When combining the two opposite colours, the viewers are expected to see something that is compelling automatically. Vertigo (Hitchcock) might be the best example of using contrasting colours.

Works Cited

  • Bordwell, David, Thompson, Kristin, and Smith, Jeff. Film Art: An Introduction. Eleventh edition. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill Education, 2017. Print.
  • Rawsthorn, Alice. “The Man Who Made Film Titles into Stars; Saul Bass Elevated Form for Movies from ‘Vertigo’ to ‘West Side Story.’” International Herald Tribune 7 Nov. 2011. Print.
  • Vertigo. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock, Alfred J. Hitchcock Productions, 1958. Film.

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