I want to look at Hitchcock’s ability to tell a story through his use of cinematography alone.
Specifically, I want to focus on the idea that Hitchcock could place his characters on either the left or right side of the frame, and in doing so, reveal an added layer to the film.
In Vertigo, Jimmy Stewart plays the acrophobic detective, Scotty, whose disability leaves him unable to reach anything of height. He has a difficult time standing on stools, let alone the debilitating fear he has when reaching the top of a tall tower. Scotty is asked to follow his friend’s wife, Madeline; who is believed to be possessed by the ghost of a suicidal mistress. Scotty falls in love with the woman and plays along with her story of possible possession. However, because of his disability, he loses sight of Madeline on their race to the top of a tall tower. She then falls to her death in an assumed suicide as Scotty watches from a lower level. He’s overly distraught by the loss and for the second half of the film we watch Scotty desperately search for Madeline in the familiar faces of strangers. One stranger in particular looks so much like Madeline that Scotty follows her home, asks her out on a date, and then proceeds to slowly turn her into Madeline. He buys her clothes, dyes her hair, styles it a specific way, and even takes her to the same restaurant where he met Madeline. This woman’s name is Judy, and as the film progresses, we discover she has more to do with Madeline’s death than we could ever imagine.
Without focusing too much on the story, or the implications of the narrative, I’ll be going over specific moments in the film for which my theory of Hitchcock’s cinematography can be proven.
I believe Hitchcock enacted one rule to apply to Scotty’s character and how he interacts with the rest of the cast throughout the film.
Hitchcock’s rule is this: Left to Right is the natural order.
If you're moving from left to right, you're telling the truth. Right to left, and you're telling a lie. This rule applies specifically to Scotty and the rest of the cast in relation to him.
A movement from left to right is natural. We read that way, and so our eyes naturally want to move with the camera that way. Hitchcock is using our natural tendencies to help influence our understanding of the film. We’re not supposed to consciously pick up on it, but after a few scenes we’ll subconsciously begin to feel the difference.
Hitchcock enforces the rule with his own cameo. A cameo in which he moves left to right; to then cross paths with Scotty who is moving right to left. Hitchcock is the engineer of this film and so he represents truth. Whereas in this moment Scotty is on his way to being lied to.
Before going too far, I want to address the opening credits. I did not include the opening credit sequence in my film above, but I will briefly discuss it here.
The opening credit sequence focuses on the features of a woman’s face. It moves left to right to show you her lips as center frame. Then moves up to the nose and then the two eyes. The eyes look left to right, and then they look right to left. When they look back into the camera lens, we zoom in and we’re given only one eye — the left eye. It remains focused on this eye until a series of graphics swirl in to take up the frame. It’s notable that the majority of these graphics move in a counterclockwise swirl. Only once do they move clockwise. It’s enough to show us the difference.
I’m not saying this opening credit sequence completely supports my theory, but it is interesting to note that it seems to favor the left until the swirls push us back the other way. Much like Scotty is being pushed from right to left.
Okay, on to the film.
The first shot is of the last rung in a ladder. We see two fists come up. Right then left. At first glance we’re told something is wrong. We follow a police pursuit on foot across rooftops from right to left with Stewart’s character, a lawyer, following behind an officer, who follows a criminal. Visually there are three men on a race for the left. The youngest, most athletic, is ahead and winning. Next is the older, but able-bodied, cop. Then we meet our hero Scotty. He drags behind. He doesn’t fit the mold of cops vs. robbers and has a problem making the last jump. A jump from right to left. Visually speaking, Scotty is chasing a lie — something unattainable. It’s not a natural left to right journey for him. As we discover in the next scene, Scotty shouldn’t be anywhere near a police chase. He’s described as being the “bright young lawyer who thought he ought to be chief of police some day.” Unbeknownst to us, Scotty has been going through a major crisis of character. So much so that he’s put himself in harm’s way. Scotty has been chasing a dream that shouldn’t be. At this point it’s not integral to the plot, but it is integral enough to Scotty’s character that Hitchcock chose to open the film on this scene as a right to left journey. He’s visually communicating to us that something is wrong.
On the last jump of the chase Scotty trips. He falls and is left hanging by his own grip. This is when the vertigo sets in and we see that Scotty can’t focus enough to pick himself back up. The officer ahead of him turns around, forgetting his pursuit, and reaches back to save Scotty. He fails, however, and Scotty is left hanging as the officer falls to his death behind him. He now has a strong sense of guilt to add to his newfound vertigo.
From this scene on, Scotty is placed on the right side of the frame.
He’s cosmologically stuck on this side because he won’t accept the possibility of failure—that he hasn’t achieved his dream of being police chief, or that his dream may be wrong in the first place. He’s stubborn and angry with himself. We see Scotty use his cane for emphasis as he presses it against the wall behind him. He’s pointing and pressing his cane at what looks like the center of the frame. Seemingly angry with his own failure to fulfill a right-to-left journey.
We’re given our first female role in this scene, and her name is Midge. She’s a former love interest and she’s presented to the audience from the left side of the frame. Midge acts as the voice of reason for Scotty as they discuss what he’ll do with the rest of his life.
She is the voice of reason as she comes from the left side of the frame and speaks truth to Scotty.
She’s also an artist, which comes to play an important role in the concepts of fiction presented later (something I don’t overly go into).
There are two moments of foreshadowing in this scene that act as evidence to support my theory. The first is Scotty’s interest in a certain brazier (a brazier that Midge happens to be designing. He’s not snooping through her drawer or anything). Scotty stands on the right side of the frame as he uses his cane to point to the brazier in the left side where Midge is blocked. He asks about the design and Midge answers that it’s based off the physics of the cantilever bridge—known for having support on only one side of its structure. This alone, should be proof that there is an underlying theme here about balance and when to choose which side. However, there’s more foreshadowing found within the dialogue. If you say The Cantilever Bridge fast enough it sounds like you’re saying The Can’t Leave Her Bridge. Which is exactly how Midge says it — directly foreshadowing Scotty’s inability to forget about Madeline later in the film.
The second moment of foreshadowing that proves my theory is when Scotty is finally placed on the left.
Remember, for the majority of this scene, and the film so far, he’s only been on the right. When this pattern is broken, it is important.
Scotty stands and discusses how he thinks he’ll eventually overcome his vertigo. He describes his own journey; telling Midge that he if he can get used to heights one step at a time (as he points with his cane, increasingly higher) he’ll be able to eventually cross the Golden Gate Bridge. It’s a moment of confidence for Scotty and it’s an important one because he happens to be facing the right side. Yet, just two seconds later, he’s back facing the left and attempting to take small steps up a footstool; to which he collapses in fear (maybe because he’s moving in the wrong direction).
The next important scene has Scotty talking to what will prove to be the man who deceives him. An old friend asks Scotty to do a favor: follow his wife. Sounds simple enough until he mentions the possibility that his wife may be possessed. For almost the entire scene Scotty is placed on the left side of the frame. It’s not anywhere he’s been yet in the film, but it looks comfortable for him. He’s lost his cane, he’s smiling, and he’s confident again. He should be ready for a new journey. A real journey. A journey from left to right. Though it is quickly interrupted by his friend’s request.
At the pivotal moment in which Scotty accepts his friend’s request, he’s placed on the opposite end of the frame.
This seems to happen a lot in this film where decisions are made as characters cross center frame. This moment is significant because it acts as a flashpoint for the rest of the film. From this moment on, Scotty is on his wayward journey of right to left. He’s chasing another lie, and eventually another dream. Ones that will end as fatally as the first.
More hints are given here as Scotty’s pleading friend is always framed at a higher level than him and consistently placed in front of the many paintings on the wall. Hitchcock is trying to tell us that this man is lying. If we pay attention we notice the frame this man is building around himself. He even steps into a backroom that resembles a small stage under his feet. This is all in an attempt to eventually frame his friend Scotty.
For a majority of the film, Scotty is seen following Madeline. It’s the job he’s picked up now, and after a dizzying ride through San Francisco to start, she takes Scotty on a bit of a journey.
No matter where Madeline ends up, she’s placed on the left of the frame, where Scotty is always on the right and watching her.
The moments in which he’s reversed to being on the left and Madeline on the right, are the moments of real truth. These are the moments when we can infer that Scotty is falling in love with her and she with him.
This is when the real tragedy begins. Scotty will always be chasing the fictional version of Madeline. Even up the stairs when she supposedly falls to her death, they move up and to the left. The most important moment in the film is when Scotty is able to reset again. He falls in love with the fictional Madeline (they share a true love kiss from left to right), chases her love, receives it, and then loses her because of his own weakness. At this point it should be the hardest lesson for him. As we can see, he’s put back on the left, but only when he’s at the bottom of the frame. Scotty is scared to try anything again. He’s scared of the real journey ahead; the one of not chasing his dreams, the one of left to right. He’s haunted by nightmares of a swirling nature. We see his former lover, Midge, the one who pines, for him watching from the right side. She’s waiting for him to finally chase her. She wallows down right side of the hall inside the institution he’s been placed.
Hitchcock separates the narrative with a pan of the city moving left to right.
He’s telling us that Scotty is ready again, or at least he’s given one more chance and we’re supposed to root for him once more. Though he’s still caught chasing the fiction. He can’t get over his love for Madeline, nor does he want to. The way he sees it, there’s only one way for him. It’s as obvious as a One Way sign pointing left. Though we’re given the few moments of Scotty journeying correctly left to right, he’s usually stopped when the image of his lost lover is caught on the left side. Once he notices her, his placement on the frame is switched.
When Scotty finally finds the real Madeline, an actress named Judy hired to play her, he’s constantly trying to put her back in the left.
He’s desperate to find his Madeline again and chase her love once more. Throughout these painfully tragic moments of watching Scotty change Judy into Madeline, he’s always forcing her into the left frame. There’s a beautiful moment in which the two of them stand in front of a mirror. Their reflections show us the true nature of their relationship as Scotty forces Judy to obey him. Together they create a triangle that faces down and to the left.
For this, I want to stop and talk about triangles inside Vertigo.
There are a series of different triangles formed between characters and landmarks as well as important props and aesthetic décor. I’ve tried to find the majority of them and I could not form a complete theory on how they relate directly to my theory of Lefts and Rights. However, if I were to guess how they could related, it would be that they represent the path’s ultimate direction.
One of the most important triangles is formed within Scotty’s nightmare. We see Scotty placed on the right side of the frame and talking to the friend who betrays him. He’s already being lied to and is witnessing the lie firsthand. He’s witnessing the downward fall he will face if he continues this way. Scotty’s friend is seen beside the Madeline’s possessor and together they form the triangle. I compare this moment to the one I mentioned earlier. Scotty is able to recreate the same downward-facing triangle with Judy now beside him.
Okay, back to left and right.
As Scotty’s motives progress, we see Judy begin to literally beg for his love.
We have to remember that earlier in the film Scotty and Judy really did fall in love with each other. Our left and right theory shows us this.
They had something real together and without telling Scotty the truth, Judy attempts to reclaim that love. She agrees to his requests because she thinks it’ll bring them back together. It is in these moments of true love from Judy that we see her rest back into the right side. She asks, “Will you love me?” as Scotty nods —being pulled from left to right. Hiding truth, in Judy’s case, is the same as lying.
Judy is on the right side when she agrees to meet Scotty on their first date. Interesting to note that it’s one of the few moments her and Scotty share the right side of the frame. Typically, when shooting dialogue in a film, characters will be placed on opposite ends of the frame so that together they will fill it — leaving zero negative space and creating the illusion that they are having a seamless conversation.
But in this moment, both Scotty and Judy share the right side. Scotty — stuck chasing a lie he knows will destroy him. Judy — stuck hiding a lie that she knows could eventually destroy her chance for true love.
Following this moment is the realization for the audience as to who the true players are. Judy turns to stare into the camera and from her left we’re given the memory of what really happened. The audience learns that Madeline was nothing but a lie for Scotty to follow; she was portrayed by Judy in order to fulfill the real plot of murdering Madeline and dressing it up like a suicide — a suicide Scotty would witness, but because of his Vertigo, would be unable to prevent. The audience is given a small flashback and then we’re treated to the full explanation through Judy’s letter. This scene is full of truth and so we should pay attention to Judy’s position. She writes her letter to Scotty from Left-to-Right. She’s grabbing Madeline’s wardrobe from the left side of the frame. She balances with the dress in center frame, unable to distinguish whether she’ll be truthful or not. However, throughout her inner dialogue, the camera spins, keeping her in the center and we’re left to wonder what path she’ll choose next.
Another clue is present here when she shows Scotty framed pictures of her family. She holds up one photo of her father next to a separate photo of her mother and her sister. Visually speaking, it’s one man chasing two women; it’s Scotty chasing Madeline and Judy. It’s right in Scotty’s face and it’s the truth because it’s from left to right.
Two powerful moments to come are the kiss Scotty shares with his fictional Madeline, and the moment when he drags her up the steeple where she fell. As time passes, and arguments ensue, Scotty is able to fully recreate his memory of Madeline. Judy steps out of the bathroom in a green hue and together they share the most passionate kiss in the film.
He kisses from Right to left (a lie) then the camera spins and Scotty remembers their kiss in the stables (the truth). He remembers their true love kiss and he’s back on the left with her on the right.
It may be the most powerful moment in the film. Note that the camera is spinning in a counter clockwise rotation much like the opening credits and Scotty’s nightmare.
Hope resurfaces for Scotty as he’s placed on the left side of the frame and Judy now refers to him as “my love.” Happiness is nearly his. Yet, as an audience we know something is wrong. We expect it; and when Scotty makes his way back to the right of the frame, we see it. Judy kept Madeline’s necklace. It’s enough for Scotty to flip the switch and piece together the truth surrounding him. He may be back on the right again, but this time he knows it. This time he can feel it.
On the drive to the tower, there is an interesting moment of what I like to consider subliminal horror.
If you watch the road ahead of them, you’ll notice they’re driving on the wrong side. They’re on the left. It’s illegal, it’s dangerous, and yet it’s not addressed. This is Hitchcock warning us of what’s to come. We should be afraid of Scotty and what he’s capable of. Even Madeline notices the danger. Of course, her reactions in the car are attributed more to her realization of where they’re going (the tower), but it’s all tied together in how her eyes spiral around the trees in a clockwise fashion. Subliminally, it’s her realization that Scotty is driving toward truth; and he’s taking her with him.
One of the more obvious moments in the film happens just outside the fateful tower. Scotty parks, he walks around the car and attempts to pull Judy out of the passenger seat. In one moment she’s on his right, pleading for him to stop. She’s asking him to chase the real her and not the Madeline she once portrayed. She wants to stay on the right and have her chase her from the left. So what does Scotty do?
He grabs her by the arm and in one line “I need you to be Madeline for a while,” he forces her into the left — into the lie.
Scotty drags Madeline up the tower, always forcing her on his left as she pleads to be on his right. The moment he flips to being on the left again he’s only shouting at Judy and attacking her with the truth of what she’s done to him. He blames her for what she’s made him do. It’s nothing like we’ve ever seen Scotty act before, but we can’t deny that it’s the truth, and maybe it’s the truth behind who Scotty has become as well.
The question people are left with in the end is whether or not Judy jumped from the tower or simply fell to her death. We’re only given Scotty’s view of it, and Scotty can’t tell you. However, whether she fell or not, Scotty is still responsible for putting her there and so he is responsible for her death. Scotty created for himself what he thought was a second chance. He chased another dream from right to left knowing that he’d never make it.
Scotty was lost the day Madeline fell to her death, and there was never going to be a second chance for him.
He’ll never be the same Scotty again. Judy knows this as we can see her hugging the wall to her right. Desperately trying to escape the fiction Scotty’s forced her into. She crosses center frame as she pleads, “You love me now!”
We may never know if Madeline jumped or fell, but it can be argued that Judy became the ghost Scotty thought she’d been possessed by.
She was picked up, drenched in beauty and riches, created a false Madeline and was simply thrown away. Following the ghost story, the next step for her was suicide. The final hint we’re given, as an audience, is how Scotty is left framed. He’s positioned on the right side. Yet it’s the camera that moves to put him there. It means one of two things: Scotty thinks he’s guilty of her death, but also that Scotty has been lied to again. The truth, I believe, is that she fell on purpose. Not to be confused with jumping. I think she fell so as to ruin Scotty forever with another lie. And as we can see in this final shot, she did just that.
This is absolutely my favorite Hitchcock film, and I think it’s one of those achievements where directors were given absolutely free reign. The precise nature for which it’s shot is revealing of Hitchcock’s genius.
I could argue a hundred different theories on Hitchcock’s motives with this film. I didn’t go into color choices much, or even the use of art and fiction.
I like to think this film was a love story between Hitchcock and film. That at this point in his career people were begging him to make another Psycho, or another Birds. Scotty’s friend represents studio executives, Madeline represents the lore he created for himself and Judy is the real art that he can’t fully appreciate because he’s been trained to follow his own shadow.
I always think artists employ their own issues with being an artist as the underlying theme to all of their work. It takes a bit more research to flesh this one out, but if you look at this movie you can see Hitchcock crying out as an artist. If he is Scotty then he is being led the wrong way by those who think they know what real art is. He’s being wrongly guided into creating the wrong films, and because of it he’s taking original ideas and finding them molded to fit the needs of studios.
Maybe I’ll write another essay on that last idea, or maybe I’ll just watch Vertigo again because I love it so much. I recommend a second viewing for those who haven’t seen it in a while. It’s totally worth it.