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American cinema often presents spectators with red herrings and macguffins in order to create a mysterious impression, especially during the 1950’s. Alfred Hitchcock in particular is known for this strategy to the point where if one was to be asked about macguffins their brain would immediately stray to the works of Alfred Hitchcock. The 1958 psychological thriller, Vertigo, directed by Hitchcock uses macguffins and perspectives in order to manipulate the narration of the film which then creates the narrative. Tha aim for ‘Vertigo’ film analysis essay is to examine what techniques and perspectives Hitchcock uses in this film to create the narrative of the film. Professor of film, Edward Branigan, provides a book in which he explains the concepts which “need to be learned in order to analyze narration”. These include how events are presented, the disparities of knowledge and the hierarchies of knowledge.
Within ‘Vertigo’, Hitchcock uses many techniques in order to create a disparity of knowledge and to present characters in a certain way to the spectator. During the first part of Hitchcock’s masterpiece, the protagonist Scottie is sent on a mission to follow his friend Gavin Elster’s wife as he believes she is being “possessed’ by her great grandmother Carlotta Valdes. This mission leads Scottie to a museum where he observes Madeline (Elster’s wife) who almost looks as if she is idolising a painting of Carlotta. The mise en scene of Madeline presents her in an obsessive manner as she is seen wearing her hairstyle the same as Carlotta’s once was as well as having the same flowers and posture as Carlotta has within the painting.This is presented to the spectator through Scottie’s eyes as the camera is positioned to give a point of view shot of Scottie watching Madeline, therefore immediately aligning the viewers with Scottie which gives us the interpretation that we will discover answers to the enigma’s Hitchcock has planted within the film as Scottie discovers them. Due to the alignment with Scottie, the spectators are somewhat hypnotised to subconsciously feed into the idea’s which Scottie feeds into, a key example of this is the idea that Madeline could actually be possessed as the close ups on Scottie’s face reveal to the viewer that he is warming to the idea that Carlotta is within her and she is not just having a deterioration in mental stability. Branigan states that “the film’s manipulation of visual access to knowledge will be based only on a few variables associated with the position of the camera”. The camera positioning within this scene restricts the viewer from resolving some enigma’s as the camera stays with conventional over the shoulder shots, p.o.v shots and close ups of Scottie, almost as if the spectator is spying with him creating mystery which is conventional of psychological thrillers. This restricts the viewer from seeing Madeline’s point of view making the knowledge received unreliable and limited as the spectator knows as much as Scottie does. Disparities of knowledge are also created through the physical obstacle of the pillar which Scottie was originally hiding behind as this creates a restricted view, however, Scottie’s growing obsession over Madeline creates another obstacle for the viewer as what the spectator can see will be a biased perspective. Within Todorov’s narrative theory this would be the disequilibrium stage.
“Suspense is a paradigmatic instance of the manner in which a spectator’s emotional responses to narrative can be manipulated”; a common theme within Hitchcock’s wide variety of films. As previously stated, Hitchcock uses macguffins to create both mystery and suspense in order to provoke an emotional response from the spectator which is presented within the scene where the spectator discovers that Judy is the same person as Madeline and was in fact acting for Elster the whole time Scottie was following her. Suspense is built as this is the first time the spectator is without Scottie and are therefore no longer aligned with him. Dramatic irony is created through this situation as the spectator is now positioned with Judy where they receive an insight to her perspective and the truth in which they have been blinded from the whole film due to alignment with Scottie and his obsession. This scene is also the first time the viewer receives a direct address rather than a covert one as Judy’s voiceover allows us into her thoughts and reveals the truth behind the events which have unravelled throughout. Within Branigan’s book he also explores other theorists and their explanations of narration within films. One of these theorists is Ben Brewer who ‘asserted that changes of viewpoint in a narrative make possible hierarchies of relative knowledge for characters and spectators’. Throughout all of the scenes prior to Judy’s letter there has been both suspense and mystery for the spectator as they have known the same amount as Scottie but less than Judy Madeline, however, this is the first scene where there is genuine surprise for the viewer as the spectator is now higher within the hierarchy of knowledge as they know both perspectives and know the truth before Scottie does, creating a disparity of knowledge between the spectator and Scottie. The spectators hierarchy of knowledge confirms Colin McCabe’s theory of the “hierarchy of discourses” and “aim to place the spectator in a position of superior knowledge”. The cinematography, mise en scene and music within this scene reiterate the suspense built for the spectator due to the green motif which follows Judy throughout the film, earlier it being her green car and now her clothes. The green motif is “associated with Scottie’s vertigo and the dizzying fear of falling” which then progresses into the ‘dizzying fear of falling precipitously and deliriously in love’, already hinting to the spectator that Scottie’s perspective should not be trusted and revealing the film’s manipulation throughout. The cinematography consists of close ups of Judy’s face showing her deep in thought as the spectator listens to her voice over; the fact that Judy decided to stay and see Scottie one more time creates a disequilibrium as Judy’s weakness and vulnerability for Scottie is ultimately the reason for her death as she is unable to let go off the past just as Scottie is unable to let go of the idealised version of Madeline. As Judy opens the wardrobe the camera is positioned in an over the shoulder shot which allows a view of the grey suit in which Judy used to wear as Madeline and removes the obstacle of the wardrobe confirming the viewers suspicions before the voice over as well as confirming classic film conventions for psychological thrillers. Hitchcock’s bomb in a briefcase theory explains how suspense, mystery or surprise is created for the audience through what the spectator knows compared to what the characters know, in this case the spectators know Judy’s secret and Scottie does not. “Hitchcock recognized that these effects can be intensified according to what we know about a character and our emotional involvement with him or her”, therefore intensifying the surprise for the viewer as they are not familiar with learning information that Scottie doesn’t know. Non-diegetic music intensifies the scene due to it’s suspenseful tone of a deep trombone sound, a typical thriller-esque music type favoured by Hitchcock within his films. The revelation highlights the macguffin of Carlotta Valdes and her insignificance throughout the film whereas at the beginning the spectator was led to believe that Carlotta was a much more important part of the narrative than she is.
Eventually the spectator is realigned with Scottie in the scene where the truth is finally revealed to Scottie through a prop in which Judy kept from when she portrayed Madeline, the prop being Carlotta’s necklace. Power shifts from Judy to Scottie at this point as Scottie has now realised the truth about Judy yet she does not know, the hierarchy of knowledge now changes again as both the spectator and Scottie know information that Judy does not, proceeding with the dramatic irony except this time it is Judy that does not know the full story. The power shift is inferred through the high angle dirty over the shoulder shot looking down at Judy, showing the spectators that Scottie now holds the power again creating themes of male vs female and power vs weakness as Judy could have held onto the power if she did not let her weakness for Scottie overwhelm her. Female characters being weaker than male characters was a very common occurrence during American cinema in the 1950’s and can still be seen during some films in the modern day. Before Scottie discovers the truth he manipulates Judy into looking like Madeline with lines such as “please Judy do it for me” and “I told them to pin it up”, reiterating the manipulation and power male characters held during the 1950’s. The green motif appears yet again as the green light shines into the apartment and Judy steps out of the bathroom looking ghost-like as Madeline’s theme song plays for the first time since we last saw Judy dressed as Madeline. The light which makes Judy ghost-like suggests that Scottie is holding onto the ghosts of his past and cannot move on just as Judy cannot move on from Scottie, therefore making both perspectives unreliable as both are stuck on past events and blinded through obsession. The camera positioning mainly stays beside Scottie and consists of p.o.v shots, over the shoulder shots looking at Judy and close ups and the only time this switches is when Scottie has a flashback to the Carlotta painting and the necklace which was not revealed to the spectator before this scene as the camera positioning in the museum scene in which Judy was looking at the paining did not allow the spectator to see Madeline wearing the necklace. The spectator acquires knowledge through props and the camera positions within this scene.Wittgenstein’s theory states that to create narration within a film both procedural and declarative knowledge is needed which is how and what. By the reveal scene both the spectator and Scottie know how and what events have happened to lead us to this point and the truth is now clear to both. Judgemental attitudes are also provided as Scottie is scheming and manipulating as he now knows the truth whereas Judy is compassionate as she is blinded by her love for Scottie. Bordwell has 5 axes which consist of range, self-consciousness, communicativeness and judgemental attitudes. By this point in the film the spectator is now less restricted than they were before as they know what they believe to be the full story, the self consciousness is more direct, Hitchcock is now directing in a way where the film is sharing more information giving the viewer a wider degree of knowledge and leaves the spectator to leave their own mind up about what emotional response they will have as to whether they are going to feel more compassionate towards Judy or Scottie. As a result of these narration techniques this would be the recognition stage of Todorov’s theory.
In conclusion, Hitchcock uses different perspectives and camera positions to create alignment and disparities in order to allow the spectator to feel surprised by the conventional twist and to create the narrative of the film. Hitchcock successfully determines ‘how and when the spectator acquires knowledge’ throughout all three scenes discussed as he chooses camera positioning and which perspective the spectators see from wisely therefore selecting when they acquire knowledge as can be seen within Judy’s letter scene as Hitchcock has chosen this point for the revelation purposely. These narration techniques create the narrative of the final film which can be seen through Todorov’s theory of an equilibrium which is when Scottie is retired, disequilibrium when Elster asks Scottie to track Madeline, realisation when Scottie notices the necklace and discovers the truth, resolution when Scottie confronts Madeline and finally a new equilibrium is presumed as we do not see Scottie’s life after Madeline. The manipulation of the narration is the key aspect in creating a successful narrative for Hitchcock, making ‘Vertigo’ a vast success.
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