Love, Desire, the Image, and the Grave
by Robert Baird
Publisher's note: A restored 70mm version of Vertigo is now playing in selected theaters across the country. Under the sponsorship of Universal Studios, Robert A. Harris and James C. Katz spent the past two years painstakingly restoring the colors in Vertigo to their original hues and luster. In addition, the Bernard Herrmann score has been digitized for DTS stereo. The movie’s foley soundtrack was completely lost, however, so new sound effects have been created.

For details on the restoration, we suggest you check out the official Universal Web site for Vertigo.

For additional information on the restoration and the Bernard Herrmann score, we suggest you check out "The Vertigo Restoration" page at The Bernard Herrmann Web Pages.

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Use of
in Vertigo

Vertigo is devoted to the dream of reanimating the dead. This desire is fed through the supernatural possibility of reincarnation of Carlotta through the possession of Madeleine, but this is later exposed as merely a conceit of an elaborate murder plan. One manner of preservation that is never discredited, however, is the power of dreams, words, stories, and images to preserve--even bring to life--the beloved dead. Madeleine/Judy, for example, studies Carlotta's portrait in order to bring Carlotta to life.

And Midge paints herself as the dead Carlotta to bring herself to life in Scottie's eyes.

Scottie dreams of Carlotta and Gavin Elster.

Later, 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 dream.

How 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:

(1) 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).

(2a) 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.

(2b) 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).

Why 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 and dead.

We 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.

We 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.

He thanks Craig Fischer for important conceptual and stylistic help with this article.

Related article: Hitchcock's Use of Profiles in Vertigo.

Photo credits: Universal/MCA Home Video