Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Film Form Main Category: Narration
Film Form Sub Category: Depth of Story Information
Terms Discussed: Mental Subjectivity and Perceptual Subjectivity
Vertigo is the most enigmatically complex film I have ever seen. With a depth as unlimited as the human mind itself, Vertigo guarantees some new revelation, some fresh layer to surface with each screening. Scottie’s (James Stewart) unhinged, voyeuristic obsession with Madeline (Kim Novak), a woman who does/does not exist, is simultaneously mesmerising, intricate, and creepy. Hitchcock depicts Scottie’s mental instability through depth of information techniques in the film’s narration. Specifically, these techniques of mental and perceptual subjectivity provide audiences a peek inside Scottie’s messed up, Madeline obsessed mind through ranges of intensity from passively obsessive (Madeline), to a medical condition (acrophobia induced vertigo), to madness (institutionalisation).
Hitchcock addresses the three levels of mental instability through narration techniques of perceptual or mental subjectivity, and sometimes a blend of the two. The less dramatic situation of Scottie’s obsession is depicted through perceptual subjectivity (the audience see through the character’s eyes) techniques. This perceptual subjectivity occurs as Scottie covertly drives, following Madeline, throughout San Francisco. The point-of-view shot looks out the windscreen and the audience see what Scottie sees, but are unable to decipher his inner thoughts or feelings.
When Scottie has a vertigo attack, the intensity of the narration technique rises with the drama, and subsequently, Hitchcock blends the perceptual subjectivity with the more intense technique of mental subjectivity (the audience see into the character’s mind). Hitchcock’s famously inventive, and dizzying, dolly-zoom is a cinematography technique where the camera is physically pulled back, as the lens simultaneously zooms in. The dolly-zoom motif occurs in each scene Scottie’s vertigo arises, such as the roof top chase and the Bell Tower staircase. Scottie’s perceptual subjectivity (point-of-view) blends with his mental subjectivity (the dizzying, dolly-zoom effect), as the audience experiences a rare portal into the medical condition of a character’s mind. The audience not only see the character’s point-of-view, but also the vertigo induced tricks Scottie’s mind plays on him.
Hitchcock raises the narrative intensity even further by using only mental subjectivity techniques during the psychedelic nightmare scene. Scottie is now clinically insane from an obsessive ridden guilt over Madeline’s death. Visuals of Freudian swirls, depictions of falling, and psychedelic animation are used to pull the audience from reality and into Scottie’s insane mind. These intense depictions of Scottie’s mental subjectivity force the audience to experience the severe trauma occurring inside his fragile mind. Significantly, this state of madness is not blended with any objectivity or perceptual subjectivity, as madness is only experienced in the mind of the one who is mad.
Like most films, Vertigo’s depth of story information primarily occurs objectively through external behaviour. However, the perceptual and mental subjective shots palpably punctuate Scottie’s mental instability with a successively potent range of narration techniques that directly relate to his mental state. Thankfully, the film never explicitly states what occurs in Scottie’s mind. The complexities of thoughts inside any human mind are never entirely uncovered? Vertigo only gives hints, even at the most mentally intense moments, the rest is up to you.