dreams of Carlotta and Gavin Elster.
in his dream, Scottie imagines Carlotta as a living person, first seeing
her in a medium shot that includes Gavin Elster and himself (a tableau
triangle of sexual rivalry according to critic Tanya Modelski). Next, however,
he sees this living Carlotta (an actress), uncannily still in the identical
pose held in the Carlotta portrait. Throughout this sequence, an odd, strobe
effect transforms the images from a "normal" white light to a
brownish red cast. It is as if the past and the present overlap in Scottie's
can mere lighting changes inspire such a symbolic reading? The two styles
of lighting convey associations already conventionalized by the time of
Vertigo's release. The "normal" style is depicted in still
(1) and follows the conventions of Hollywood high-key, studio lighting.
The brownish red style, however, is associated with two very different,
but equally familiar visual styles: (2a) the oil portrait, and (2b) the
faded and/or sepia tone photograph:
Hollywood High-Key Lighting
High-key lighting is the standard way most scenes were lit during what
is known as the Classical Hollywood studio era. High-key lighting was also
called three-point lighting for its use of at least three light sources,
a key, fill, and back light that insured that the scene was well-illuminated,
shadows were softened, and the sense of depth was increased by separating
backgrounds from actors (as in shot 1, whereas the backgrounds in shots
2a and 2b seem, especially in shot 2b, less distinct from the actress).
Thus, shot 1 reveals Carlotta as she would appear to us in the "normal"
light of a Hollywood feature film. It is this shot that is first seen and
which strongly conveys the sense of a living person (actress) behind the
Carlotta legend (although posing, the actress moves slightly--she is alive
after all--filmed in "live-action" and not through a freeze-frame).
The Oil Portrait
Shot 2a, however, mimics some of the visual properties of the oil painting.
Look particularly at the background, which appears (more so in the film)
as a textured surface, the literal visual reality of an oil painting. The
colors in shot 2 are also richer and bolder than "normal" (Hollywood)
high-key colors, another property familiar to oil-based paints.
The Faded, Sepia Tone Photograph
Lastly, shot 2b's single dominating color is an effect achieved usually
in photography either indirectly through aging of prints or directly through
a process of applying a single dye to an entire negative. In the early
decades of this century millions of still and moving images were dyed in
such a manner, including films (The opening and closing Kansas sequences
from The Wizard of Oz are sepia toned b&w footage, a visual
cue even by 1939 for signaling the past).
does Vertigo present Carlotta in four distinct visual styles (not
to mention her various visual incarnations through Midge and Judy/Madeleine)?
As noted above, Vertigo is devoted to the dream of reanimating the
dead, and what more conscious and intelligent exploration of that topic
than for the film to present a number of conventional graphic reincarnations
of Carlotta familiar in the age of mechanical reproduction. In doing so,
Vertigo self-reflexively exposes the power of the image to activate
desire. The film literally (from oil portrait to cinematography) brings
Carlotta to life for us. It flouts the most fundamental paradox of representational
imagery: the phenomenologically compelling re- production of human beings,
which, in film, is nothing short of astounding. How many filmgoers and
fans have desired and come to "love" stars they have never seen
in actuality or ever will see? Like Carlotta, Monroe and Bogart are sexy
can rephrase this question in terms of character motivation: Why does Scottie
dream of Carlotta in these different styles? As a dream built from popular
1950s psychoanalytic thought, Scottie's imagery is supposed to mean something,
to him, to us, if only we can decode the allegory. The dream sequence's
overall movement is a falling toward death (Scottie's near fall and the
policeman's fall; Madeleine's "suicide" jump; a free-falling
Scottie flying off the Mission tower into Carlotta's grave). In short,
the inevitability of death. The dream's middle, however, is Scottie's reincarnation
of Carlotta. In short, the non-physical (transcendent) realm of mind.
once crafted mummies, but today we cheat the grave through photography,
cinema, digital storage. Imagining the future, Cyberpunk, Japanese Anime,
and artificial intelligence explore extensions of the soul, or self, or
consciousness beyond the physical body. The impulse for transcendence is
old, yet never more tragically humbling as when, in Vertigo, desire
and love drive the mind toward an ideal, an image, while the real, the
here and now, goes unloved.
Robert Baird teaches film and serves
as a Multimedia Consultant for the University of Illinois English Department.
He is currently working on a book entitled How Movies Scare Us: A Cognitive
Poetics of the Threat Scene.
thanks Craig Fischer for important conceptual and stylistic help with this
Use of Profiles in Vertigo.
Universal/MCA Home Video