This post is for the FOR THE LOVE OF FILM blogathon, this time to benefit one of the first films Hitchcock worked on. Please donate by clicking the image below!
Most suspenseful films depend, in some way or another, on an asymetry of information. Hitchcock himself illustrated it with the example of a bomb under the table: the situation is only suspenseful if the audience knows the bomb is there but the characters do not. The opposite can also work: if we know a main character knows something, but we do not know what, that creates narrative suspense. There are many ways to establish this unbalance of information, but one of the most reliable ones in both books and films is to play with perspective, deciding whether to use an omniscient point of view or to restrict yourself to one character in particular.
Hitchcock clearly enjoyed playing with point of views in that way. Often his protagonists were suspicious female innocents: Joan Fontaine in SUSPICION and REBECCA, for instance, or Teresa Wright as young Charlie in SHADOW OF A DOUBT. James Stewart’s limited perspective in REAR WINDOW could even be said to be the whole point of the movie.
More interesting to me is a case where Hitchcock radically changes the perspective halfway through the movie: VERTIGO. By the by: here is where you will want to stop reading if you haven’t seen the film yet, since I’ll clearly be going into details of the plot. I was, sort of, and it kind of ruined my first viewing of the film, so seriously: stop reading, and get thee to Netflix.
From the first scene of VERTIGO, there’s no ambiguity about whose perspective we’re getting: when James Stewart’s Scottie almost falls off the roof, we get a clearly subjective shot featuring what’s now called the “VERTIGO effect”. We see what Scottie sees, and for the rest of the first half, there are no scenes in which he is not featured: we’re with him as he follows Kim Novak’s Madeleine, we see what he sees, are mystified when he’s mystified by sudden disappearances, and we get fascinated by her together with him. There’s 100% identification with the protagonist here, to an extent you don’t often get, until the fatal drop from the tower. In the dream sequence that follows, we are invited to share Scottie’s nightmare.
In the next sequence, we’re slowly weaned, so to speak. We see Midge’s view of Scottie at the sanatorium, and when we see him on the streets of New York, we’re not quite with him as we were before: the episode of madness created a distance. When we “meet” Judy, we’re still seeing things more or less from Scottie’s perspective. But then everything suddenly changes: Judy tells us in voice-over what really happened, and all of a sudden, we’re in her shoes.
I was very surprised, recently, when I found out that Hitchcock had doubts about the reversal, fearing it gave away the twist too soon. For once, it’s a good thing studio bosses intervened, because the shift is incredibly powerful on a number of levels. Purely on a narrative level, having empathized with Scottie for so long means his transformation into a monster right in front of Judy’s eyes is all the more powerful. In the first half, we are Scottie, and imbue him with all our better characteristics, but in the second part we get the outside view, unadorned, and it’s not so pretty. It’s a neat inverse of the perspective shift we get in PSYCHO, where we start seeing things from Marion’s perspective only to go to Norman’s after she’s dead, from the victim to the murderer. We want her to make it out alive, but then we kind of wonder whether Norman will manage to cover it up.
The shift in VERTIGO is also notable because it’s a shift from the traditionally male gaze, used by Hitchcock in many other films to observe his trademark icy blondes, to a female perspective. I won’t go so far as to call it the female gaze – Judy still photographed more lovingly than Scottie, almost glowing in parts – but it’s significant nonetheless. In the first part, Scottie’s love for Madeleine is more important than her reciprocation; in the second, his love becomes grotesque, while hers gets noble qualities.
The shift of perspective in VERTIGO may have given us too much information, taking away a little of the suspense. But it’s worth it.