Vertigo: Hitchcock’s Abstractions

by Matthew Raley

To start exploring why Vertigo has been called one of the greatest films of all time, let’s look at Alfred Hitchcock’s use of abstraction. The word abstract is used freely to describe artworks, but the meaning of the word can be difficult to specify.

Constable: “Representational”
Mondrian: “Abstract”

Abstraction in art is usually contrasted with representation, the use of forms rather than the use of imitation, as if these were absolute categories. This antithesis is easy enough to maintain if the artworks are Piet Mondrian’s Composition II in Red, Blue, and Yellow (1930) and John Constable’s Wivenhoe Park (1816). But I wonder whether antithesis is the best way to analyze abstraction in a work. Is there no abstraction in a painting if it contains recognizable eyes, ears, or fingers?

Clearly not. Artworks have many levels of abstraction in them, from low to high.

I define abstraction as any step away from a referent, from things-in-themselves to representations, imitations, or evocations of those things. An artist may intend such a reference to be close or distant, obvious or subtle, and the artist uses this range of interaction with things to control a work’s atmosphere, meaning, and relationship to its audience.

Hitchcock is a master at employing many levels of visual abstraction, and Vertigo is filled with examples.

Low abstraction: One step away from Stewart and Novak.
A bit more abstraction, using a filter.

Take two low levels of abstraction. The first, so low as to be routine, would be the camera’s literal capture of James Stewart and Kim Novak not representing themselves but Scottie and Madeleine. A slightly higher level would be the representation of Stewart and Novak in the Redwoods using a filter, which lends a dream-like quality that is less representational of the literal scene.

Still more abstract: Placement in the frame.

Hitchcock’s layered mise-en-scène throughout Vertigo would be a higher level of abstraction yet, informing plot development and characterization through placement within the frame. The point of view shot in which Scottie sees Midge’s parody of the Carlotta portrait next to Midge herself in the same pose is only one instance, a double juxtaposition of the fantastic with the normal.

Millais’s famous painting of Ophelia.
Hitchcock’s version.

Mise-en-scène, in a still higher level of abstraction, can refer to iconic images from other art sources. One critic, for example, argues that Hitchcock’s portrayal of Madeleine in the bay refers to the Pre-Raphaelite Ophelia (1852) by John Everett Millais.[1]

So a reason for Vertigo’s greatness is the richness of Hitchcock’s visual language. He crafts frames with varying degrees of abstraction, creating an emotional resonance with the viewer.

We’ll see more examples of this next week.


[1]James M. Vest, “Reflections of Ophelia (And of ‘Hamlet’) in Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Vertigo’,” The Journal of the Midwest Modern Language Association 22, no. 1 (April 1, 1989): 1-9.

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