Vertigo (1958) is an American film noir psychological thriller and drama directed and produced by Alfred Hitchcock. The story follows retired Detective John “Scottie” Ferguson who suffers from acrophobia. He is hired by an old friend, Gavin Elster, to investigate his wife, Madeline, fearing that she is possessed by the spirit of Carlotta. Scottie agrees and soon after falls in love with Madeline.
When Madeline commits suicide Scottie is stricken with grief and suffers from vivid nightmares. Trying to heal from the loss of his former lover, he meets Judy. Her striking resemblance to Madeline turns Scottie obsessive, and with a revelation of the painful truth, a tragic end is inevitable. We will discuss the importance of semic and symbolic codes used in the film and how they add depth to the film, as well as the various combination of film techniques Hitchcock used to produce uncanny effects and build suspense.
Films are a form of storytelling, and storytelling is made up of thought-out structures that help execute the story’s plot and message. While the plot is crucial to a story, what often makes a story great is the deeper structure of the narrative that goes beyond merely the plot. There are a multitude of ways to understand the deeper structure of a story, however, Roland Barthes’ 5 Codes is the best way to analyze by highlighting the most important semic and symbolic codes in Vertigo, and how they are related.
A semic code refers to how characters or places are described, giving the audience a more rounded and deeper understanding of those characters or places by connotation. In Vertigo, Scottie suffers from acrophobia, the fear of heights.
Acrophobia is a critical semic code used in the film to deepen Scottie’s character, make the audience empathize with him and feel sorry for him, as well as make the plot of the film possible (Scottie could not make it up the stairs of the tower, unable to see Gavin Elster throw his wife out the window).
Another important semic code is Carlotta’s necklace because it binds the characters Carlotta, Madeline, and Judy together. While it did not have an obvious significance at first, its importance was revealed as the story progressed. Scottie first sees the necklace being worn by Carlotta in the painting Madeline was admiring at the Palace of the Legion of Honor art gallery he followed her to.
Throughout the movie you almost forget about it until the great mistake; Judy puts on Carlotta’s necklace for her night out with Scottie. Scottie recognizes the necklace immediately, the deceptions falling into place, thus beginning the tragic end to this story.
While these semic codes add depth to the plot and characters, Vertigo also contains symbolic codes. Symbolic codes refer to the in-depth structure of a story by building meaningful patterns such as parallels, contrasts, tensions, or subplots that reflect the main narrative.
One of the most meaningful symbolic codes in Vertigo are the parallels of Scottie and Judy, Gavin Elster and Madeline, and the Powerful Man and Carlotta. In each case, the woman is overpowered by the man which inevitably ends in the woman’s death.
Carlotta was a mistress to the Powerful Man and when she became pregnant he took her child. Carlotta went insane from grief and committed suicide. Madeline was the barely-seen wife of Gavin Elster. She kept to herself and barely left her house, overpowered by her husband who murdered her. Lastly, Judy, the mistress of Elster and lover of Scottie.
After being used by Elster to cover up the murder of his wife, she became the object of a grief-stricken Scottie’s sadistic torment in turning her into his former lover Madeline. Forced by Scottie to recreate Madeline’s death, already shaken, she gets frightened by a nun and leaps to her death from the top of the tower where Madeline Elster was thrown.
The stories of there’s characters intertwine throughout the film and seem as if they were the same story reported three times. They are also narrative devices used by Hitchcock as characterizations, parallels, and foreshadowing.
Vertigo is a psychological thriller and drama. As it should be in a psychological thriller, the sense of suspense is prominent throughout the film. Hitchcock used many different techniques to produce uncanny effects and create and build suspense in the film.
The first technique Hitchcock uses is the variation of camera movement, shots, and angles. Throughout the film there are a lot of close-up, tight shots, focusing on the actors’ faces and emotions, as well as a tight zoom on important objects, such as Carlotta’s necklace and hair. These tight shots force the audience’s attention and interest, gripping them.
Repeated blurring bird’s eye view shots of Scottie’s acrophobia are also used by Hitchcock, creating a sense of tension and motion sickness for the audience. There is a lot of use of bird’s eye view shots that jump into a tight or regular shot in critical moments like Madeline’s jump into the San Francisco Bay and Madeline and Judy’s fall from the tower, emulating the suddenness and shock of the situation.
The use of slow camera movements and panning also effectively create a feeling of unease and suspense throughout the film. Hitchcock had a long list of career strengths, and camera techniques were definitely one of them.
Apart from camera techniques, Hitchcock also used a wide range of sound effects in his film. Throughout the film there is a monotonous, steady score overlapped with the previously mentioned slow camera movements and panning which teases the audience that something is coming, giving them a feeling of nervousness.
There is also a lot of fast-paced, loud music, where the score changes to a heightened tension-filled part, getting the audience’s heart rate up. The different camera techniques and musical manipulation is completed with the careful use of lighting. Vertigo has a lot of back-lit scenes, creating silhouettes, simulating mystery, filling the audience with curiosity and unease. Dark or low-lit scenes create a noir-style feel to the film, also producing suspense.
During Scottie’s dream sequence, there is rapid, eerie music with unusual editing. Hitchcock uses a lot of bright colors, such as red, blue, purple, and green flashing on screen combined with shots of only Scottie’s head in the center of the screen as well as him reliving Madeline’s death. The dream sequence was out of character for the movie giving it an incredibly uncanny effect.
Lastly, Hitchcock again used one of the aforementioned Barthes’ codes to produce suspense. He used the hermeneutic code (also called the enigma code), by introducing supernatural elements to the film. Madeline’s ghost possession arc, Judy’s suicide, and whether Carlotta was real or not both added mystery, suspense, and unanswered questions to Hitchcock’s Vertigo.
The film industry is the most coveted industry and Hollywood is among the greatest dream companies to work for. While no film is without fault, Hitchcock‘s Vertigo stands the test of time as being a well-made, captivating psychological thriller and drama. With perhaps one of the most violent protagonist transformations this classic undoubtedly belongs in the movie hall of fame.