Camera Movement in Vertigo, by Richard Allen

[Editor's note.  Richard Allen, Chair of Cinema Studies at New York University, co-edits the 'Hitchcock Annual'.  His 'Hitchcock and Romantic Irony: Storytelling, Sexuality and Style' will be published by Columbia University Press in Fall, 2007.  Below, he deftly relates the Ernie's Restaurant scene in Vertigo to the key camera-movements of the film.]

Vertigo seems to me of all Hitchcock’s films the one nearest to perfection. Indeed, its profundity is inseparable from the perfection of form: it is a perfect organism.

                                                                            - Robin Wood

HITCHCOCK'S VERTIGO, LIKE REBECCA, is a film about the allure the dead may exert on the living, but in Vertigo the deathly object of desire is fully incarnated in the figure of Madeleine possessed by Carlotta Valdes - whose picture hangs in the San Francisco art museum. That the ghostlike Madeleine brings to life the youthful image of Carlotta gives the character a sense of timelessness, of mask-like immortality. As legions of critics have pointed out, Madeleine is a fetish object for Scottie Ferguson (James Stewart) as indicated by the way in which, when he loses her, he reconstructs her image in the body of one Judy Barton (Kim Novak) from Salina, Kansas, who, of course, turns out to have been Madeleine after all. However, Vertigo is reduced if it is simply conceived as a film about male perversion; it is also, equally, a film about love. Hitchcock fully implicates the spectator in the allure of Judy, not simply through character-identification and point-of-view but through the orchestration of camera movement, color, graphic, mise-en-scène, and performance in a manner that makes the film itself a correlate for the spectator of Scottie’s aestheticized object of desire. The result is a film of aching beauty, a supreme achievement in the history of cinema.

In this essay I want to focus upon one aspect of this achievement - Hitchcock’s camera movement in Vertigo - and in particular three set-pieces of camera movement that are interrelated in their structure and meaning: the scene at Ernie’s Restaurant that initiates Scottie’s pursuit of Madeleine; the famous zoom in/track out point-of-view shot that evokes Scottie’s acrophobia; and the equally celebrated 360-degree pan that encircles Scottie’s embrace of Judy Barton re-transformed into Madeleine.

The scene at Ernie’s Restaurant begins with a camera movement towards a doorway of radiant red glass, which has the force at once of a barrier and a lure. The next shot consists of a languid, fluid camera movement that tracks back from Scottie at the bar through a partition that at once separates and connects the bar and the dining area, as he glances screen-left to the back of the restaurant. The camera pauses momentarily to  take in the dining room with its glorious, deep-saturated red “tapestry” walls and formal white floral arrangements. It is positioned exactly opposite a picture framed by white flowers on the far wall in a manner that evokes, like a mirror, the pictorial framing of the shot itself. The camera then begins to move forward from this “establishing shot” towards the object that Scottie’s gaze seeks out, Judy Barton as Madeleine Elster, shining in an emerald green gown.

The significance of this shot can only be understood by examining what comes after it. As many critics have pointed out, much of the film is structured as an alternation between a forward-tracking shot and a backward-tracking reaction-shot, employed both when Scottie follows Madeleine on foot and when his car follows hers through the streets of San Francisco.1  The forward-tracking movement in Ernie's restaurant suggests the forward-tracking shot that is used throughout the film to imply Madeleine's allure for Scottie. The backward-tracking movement in the Ernie's scene evokes the backward-tracking shot used throughout the film to register the manner in which Scottie is bonded to his object of desire. Intercut together, they evoke the sense of the character at once pursuing and being drawn towards his object.

In The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), Hitchcock made a joke out of this camera movement: the protagonist, Ben Mckenna, is shown walking up a passageway to the wrong place, having mistaken Ambrose Chapell, a person, for Ambrose Chapel, a building. The forward-tracking shot and the backward-moving reaction-shot evoke the sense of the character being “led up the garden path.” In Vertigo, Scottie is also led up the garden path, but this time the path is in a graveyard and the consequences are not a joke, but something that is “deadly” serious.

The camera movement in Ernie’s Restaurant evokes the combination forward track and backward track that defines the point-of-view structure of the film, but here the camera movement does not straightforwardly articulate a point of view. Instead, Hitchcock self-consciously sets up the relationship between the elements of the point-of-view structure that the rest of the film will enact. He traces objectively the structure that the rest of the film will trace subjectively. Scottie does not actually see Madeleine directly, instead it is the camera itself that traces the connection between Scottie and the object of allure. Since Scottie does not literally see Madeleine, the camera does not occupy his point of view. Instead the camera stages the relationship between the looker and the object of his look, creating a subjective shot structure but with the subjectivity removed. Hitchcock here, as it were, announces the identification that will be made by his camera with the subjective allure that Madeleine holds for Scottie. In the microcosm of Ernie’s restaurant, the shimmering allure of Madeleine is equated with the allure of the world of the film itself as an idealized, aestheticized, hyperbolic reality, more real that reality itself, that is, a surreal universe.

The other side of the beautiful illusion of timeless beauty is the fact of human mortality and sense of life’s meaninglessness that the illusion of timeless beauty papers over. This abyss of meaning is opened up in Vertigo by the famous vertigo-shot itself whereby Hitchcock embodies for the spectator the visceral experience of Scottie’s acrophobia in the combination zoom in/track out point-of-view shot. This representation through camera movement and zoom of the experience of falling creates an effect that is precisely the opposite of the camera movement that brings into being Scottie’s relationship to Madeleine and the world of the film that mimes that relationship. The effect of the vertigo-shot is to close down the gap between self and world which must be maintained to sustain the beautiful illusion of Madeleine, and the shot also, equally, has the effect of disrupting the spectator’s absorption in the world of the film. Hitchcock’s reverse-field cutting between the forward-tracking shot and backward-tracking reaction-shot sustains the distance between self and other, even as it articulates the allure of immersing the self in the other. In the vertigo-shot, the relationship between self and other implodes. Scottie is at once pulled into and seems to fall into the spatial field in a way that collapses the distance between subject and object that elsewhere is sustained by the cutting between forward and backward motions of the camera. Scottie confronts an implosion of space in a colorless spiraling void in a manner akin to madness. The experience of vertigo on the bell-tower of the Mission San Juan Bautista leads both to the destruction of Scottie’s beautiful illusion and of the subjectivity (his own) that it serves to sustain. Madeleine perishes moments after Scottie’s attack of vertigo, and Scottie himself is reduced to a catatonic state. Equally, in the vertigo shot, the beautiful illusion of the film itself is destroyed, the contemplative experience of beauty ravishingly created in Ernie’s restaurant is transformed into the sensation of shock and overt manipulation.

The 360 degree camera movement that occurs after Scottie has succeeded in reconstructing Judy as Madeleine recreates this beautiful illusion as a microcosm that transcends the drab colorless environment of the everyday represented by Judy’s aging hotel room. But here, the illusion that is created is no longer one of which Scottie is primarily an observer. Rather it is world of illusory perfection that somehow contains the observer within it. Brilliantly, Hitchcock contrives the movement of the camera as a spiral with Judy and Scottie together within its eye, as if the gap between self and other has been transcended, in contrast to the implosion of self and other created by the vertigo shot itself. We should note that in the shot/reverse-shot that precedes this camera movement, Scottie looks at Madeleine bathed in ghostly jade light and we see that jade light reflected back in the look of his eyes, as if the eye of the beholder has become or merged with the object of his gaze.

As Scottie kisses Judy as Madeleine in close-up, the camera starts to track around them to the right but pans left as if being drawn into them - then continues to track right and is again drawn in. Suddenly, the background of the shot begins to transform into the environment of the Mission San Juan Batista stable, the historical place of Scottie’s last encounter with “Madeleine” and the place associated with Carlotta Valdes. As Scottie senses the background changing - that's to say, as his historical memory is triggered - the camera slows its movement and begins to pull back to medium shot. Simultaneously, the background itself begins to move from left to right, creating a sense that the spiral is being opened out by centrifugal forces. Then, as the hint of a memory recedes, the camera again begins tracking and panning to conclude the shot in the tightest close up of the sequence, set against a background of ethereal timeless jade green light (nominally motivated by the presence of the neon sign outside
the hotel room).2  It's an idealized image of romantic embrace, as if the contradiction between present and past has been “dialectically” overcome in a moment of sublime transcendence.

However, Bernard Herrmann’s liebestod-inspired Wagnerian theme, together with Hitchcock’s ghostly light, reveals that this ideal is one that cannot be reconciled with living historical reality, and Hitchcock’s camera movement reveals the conditions under which this microcosm will unravel in the very act of being created. For if the circling movement overcomes the contradiction between past and present in a moment of sublime transcendence, it also suggests, by bringing the past back into the present, the illusory nature of that transcendence. Judy participates in Scottie's fantasy because she is in love with him and wants their love to be realized, but the terms upon which their love is realized can only bring about its destruction. For at the moment their past embrace at the Mission is replicated exactly, Scottie, the literal-minded dreamer, is reminded, as it were by Hitchcock, the narrator, that if the beautiful illusion that is Madeleine has now been completely recreated, then it must have always already been an illusion, a fraud, though at this moment he is not yet ready to fully comprehend the implications of this intuition.

This 360-degree camera movement culminates the pattern in Vertigo that links camera movement to the spiral.  The forward-tracking point-of-view shot, backward-tracking reaction-shot structure of the film creates a movement in which the object of sight and desire, the lure for the gaze, keeps, as it were, receding from view. On her way to visit Carlotta’s grave, Madeleine disappears from view into the flower-shop, she disappears from view as she enters the church, she disappears from view again as she leaves the church for the graveyard, and finally she vanishes altogether at the McKittrick Hotel. Now, the idea of an object of allure that is forever out of reach, suggests not the circle whose end joins its beginning but the vortex of a spiral whose ends perpetually never connect. As critics have shown, the spiral motif in Vertigo defines the meanings of vertigo in the film and links Scottie’s acrophobia to the theme of sexual desire. By filming Scottie’s pursuit of Madeleine on the hills
of San Franscisco, Hitchcock builds a downward spiralling motif into the overall structure of the chase.3  However, since Scottie does not initially connect with the object he pursues, the spiral of pursuit remains for a time in a state of unstable equilibrium. The slow languid movement of fascination and nascent desire is so intense in the sequences of pursuit it evokes a “subjective” dream-like experience of time.

In the vertigo shot, the spiral structure, embodied in the staircase of the Mission San Juan Bautista, suddenly stretches like a spring whose tension has collapsed. Scottie will never reach his destination. Scottie's vertigo stretches to breaking-point the thread linking his present desire to its future realization. We might speculate that had Hitchcock the resources of computer-controlled micro-camera technology, he would have filmed the movement of the camera in this shot as a spiral movement of increasing velocity. In the actual film, the out-of-control spiral is brilliantly evoked by the “movement” of the spiral staircase. In the spiraling 360-degree camera movement that culminates Scottie’s re-creation of Madeleine, Hitchcock achieves the opposite, mirror effect of the vertigo shot. Instead of being pulled into the vanishing point in a manner that destroys the possibility of any relationship between self and other, Scottie now, as it were, is magically united with his object of desire, in a moment of suspended animation at the eye of a spiral where time is standing still. The camera movement now registers not a moment in time, nor a sense of the loss of time, or time receding, but the utopian sense of an infinite present - as if by achieving his object of desire, Scottie has momentarily transcended the limits of mortality. However, as we have seen, Hitchcock deftly reminds us that this is but an illusion by momentarily transforming the mise-en-sc
ène of the present in Judy’s hotel room to a scene from the past in the stable of the San Juan Batista Mission. Exposed to the doubt cast by memory, this imaginary temporal enclosure will inevitably unravel back into a sense of history, of the passing of time, of separation, and of mortality.

 1. For a close analysis of the car pursuit, see Charles Barr, Vertigo (London: BFI, 2002), pp. 40-44.
 2. Hitchcock recalled this green light from the stage of his youth: “I remember the green light - green for the appearances of ghosts and villains.” Quoted in Donald Spoto, The Dark Side of Genius:The Life of Alfred Hitchcock (New York: Da Capo Press, 1983), p. 22.
 3. See Tania Modleski, The Women Who Knew Too Much: Hitchcock and Feminist Theory (New York: Routledge, 1989), p. 92.