Vertigo: More of Hitchcock’s Abstractions

by Matthew Raley

Abstraction in art is any step away from a thing-in-itself. Artists use abstraction to open emotional and reflective space in their work — space that isn’t there at the literal level. As I wrote in my last post, there is a range of abstraction levels in every work of art, and Hitchcock’s Vertigo is especially full of examples.

I’ve shown several examples of how Hitchcock took steps away from concrete referents like characters inside the film and even artworks outside of it. Here are some instances of higher visual abstraction, in which the referents are less concrete.

The first sequence ending with a dead policeman.
The view from the tower where Madeleine and Judy die.

A quite high level of abstraction is the reference of the film back upon itself. This is not merely the foreshadowing of an event early and the event’s later completion, but the recurrence of entire sequences of action, like the pursuits that end with Scottie witnessing a fatal plunge. Deborah Linderman, for example, acknowledging her dependence on Raymond Bellour, reads Vertigo as “a series of self-reflecting mirrors,” describing a displacement of stasis that recurs all the way to the final shot.[1] Peter Wollen uses similar terms to describe the plot.[2]

This self-referential abstraction creates the unsettling sense, which pervades the entire film, that “I’ve seen this before, yet I haven’t seen this before.”
Perhaps the highest abstraction in the film is at the level of design.

The motif of red and green that permeates the film does not represent a literal thing in the story; the colors influence the emotional atmosphere while maintaining visual coherence. The drab greens and reds in the hallway leading to Judy’s hotel room can be seedy, while the red and green theme at Ernie’s can communicate opulence. The artificially limited palette retains a broad range of impacts.

Another example of this level of abstraction would be the famous spiral motif in the opening titles. Spiral references occur in Scottie’s nightmare, in the mission tower staircase, and even in Madeleine’s hair. While the spiral does represent the physical condition of vertigo, in a sense, there is no suggestion that the condition actually looks like a spiral, either to the onlooker or to the sufferer. On the contrary, the literal imitation of vertigo is Hitchcock’s famous point-of-view shot in which the camera zooms in and tracks back at the same time.

Again, each level of reference raises the significance of the story’s literal elements, enabling us to reflect on the story, explore the internal structure, and discover larger meanings. The film is not just about a dizzy cop. The spiral helps us connect vertigo with erotic obsession. The mise-en-scène prompts us to question the characters’ relationships and motives more deeply. A simple filter can lift an image out of the prosaic and invite a second look, a thinking look.


[1]Deborah Linderman, “The Mise-en-Abîme in Hitchcock’s ‘Vertigo’,” Cinema Journal 30, no. 4 (July 1, 1991): 52.

[2]Peter Wollen, “Compulsion – Does Vertigo, Hitchcock’s Most Personal and Perverse Thriller, Show Him as a Surrealist?,” Sight and Sound. 7, no. 4 (1997): 14.

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