Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo is one of the most infamous mystery movies of all time and is about manipulation, love and obsession. What makes this movie legendary is not only the great plot but also Hitchcock’s use of the camera to tell the story. The first visual aspect of the film I noticed right from the start was how Hitchcock framed characters in scenes with dialogue.
This scene with dialogue is very well framed because Hitchcock divided the screen diagonally for each character. On the left, the character occupies the top diagonal half of the screen (divided by the desk) while on the right, the character occupies the lower half (divided by his posture on the couch). John Ferguson’s position on the couch is deliberate because it made for a much more balanced scene than if he was just sitting straight up on the couch. The great framing for dialogue was found at other points in the film as well.
This shot could have been arranged in several other ways or could have been two individual shots of the two characters but it is more visually interesting to have both of the talking characters on the screen at the same time. This shot also allows the viewer to see Ferguson’s reaction to what the character is saying in the background which adds another layer of depth to the shot. This scene shows that just because the conversations in a movie are straightforward, they do not have to be filmed that way.
The next aspect of framing that I noticed throughout the movie was Hitchcock’s use of the set to properly frame important characters. At various points in the movie, Hitchcock uses simple shapes such as rectangles and squares to frame characters in scenes. This could be seen in the restaurant when “Madeleine” was sitting at the table and was emphasized as being the most important character on screen by the rectangular door frame in the background in the center of the shot. This technique was also seen when she was standing in the window frame later on in the movie or when she was laying in the bed. An interestingly framed shot was also when “Madeleine” was looking at the piece of art while sitting on the bench. In this shot, she was deliberately not placed in front of the doorframe in order to show that: A. She was not the most important part about this scene; B. it gave the perception that she was disconnected from her original self.
Another visual effect that I noticed was the most infamous aspect about this film. The “Vertigo” effect is used at several points throughout the movie and the effect creates a surreal atmosphere that sets the scene perfectly. One of the main parts about this movie was the medical condition that the main character had when experiencing heights. This shot really put the viewer into the mind of the main character by making the audience uncomfortable with heights. It is also pretty great camera work especially because it has no special effects added by computers.
The Use of Light:
Hitchcock’s use of light was also another visual effect that I noticed through out the film. When the surrounding scene was dark, the faces of the characters that were important were always kept well lit. This lighting allowed for the viewers to only focus of the facial expression and dialogue that the characters were presenting in the scene instead of being distracted by the background. An interesting point is that in the last scene of the movie, the face of the nun is not lit up until she is completely up the stairs which added to the suspense of the scene and lead to a tragic ending.
Another example of the use of light in the movie is the scene where the green neon light from the sign outside the hotel room is pouring in through the window. This green light creates a silhouette of Judy’s character and gives the view a perspective into what the main character was seeing. This is a significant shot because the main character sees that Judy’s silhouette exactly resembles “Madeleine’s.”
The Rule of Thirds:
The rule of thirds can be seen at several points throughout the film and was used to successfully frame two or more characters on screen at the same time. This rule lead to each shot being well composed and balanced and did not make the scene feel sloppy.
Both of the screen shots demonstrate the rule of thirds, the shot on the left is divided into three sections and the characters on the left occupy the outer thirds of the screen.
I stated above that some shots in the movie included a blacked out background in order to put complete focus on the main characters in the foreground, well that was not always the case. One of Hitchcock’s themes in his movies is taking advantage of the foreground, middle ground and background and this film did not fall short. Having action in all levels of the frame adds realism to the scene and keeps the viewer interested in the shot.
There were a few examples of crude animation that were overlapped on top of the film in the movie. While these animations are dull in comparison to modern graphics, they represent the groundbreaking technology of that time. Watching the scenes with animations made me really appreciate the creativity and the hard work that went into making the animations come to life.
The visual language paired with the interesting and mind-twisting plot of Vertigo made it incredibly entertaining and enjoyable to watch. It is always amazing to watch older movies because they did not have the digital advantages that modern movies have. The fact that there is no CGI in any of the older movies means they have to compensate for sound visual techniques and a great story, and Vertigo did not disappoint in either aspect.