“Vertigo” and S&M

Dom Seeks Sub
An essay by Witney Seibold

Vertigo 2
            It was during a recent viewing of Shakespeare’s “As You Like It” that I got to explain the dynamic of a typical S&M relationship to a previously uninitiated. Don’t worry; she was over 18, so I wasn’t trampling out any last flame of innocence. Well, perhaps I was, but I assure you it was relevant to the play. If you are not familiar with the play, Rosalind, in exile, runs into her intended, Orlando in the woods. She and Orlando are already in love with one another, but have yet to meet face-to-face.


            Rosalind, instead of doing the logical thing, and appearing right then and there to run off with Orlando, disguises herself as a man, and spends most of the play sort of prodding and torturing poor Orlando. I guess testing just how much he loves her. I came to the conclusion, after a handful of York peppermint patties, that Rosalind was teasing Orlando; trying to initiate him into an dominant/submissive S&M type situation.


            No, there was no nakedness. There were no riding crops or leather straps. Sex, indeed, was comfortably absent. What was present was humiliation. Sadomasochism doesn’t necessarily stem from physical pain, but one party with a desire to dominate and humiliate, and another only comfortable when being dominated and humiliated. The sources of these desires, while fascinating, is the subject for another essay. Needless to say, when a Sub and a Dom, or indeed anyone who shares a common sexual fetish, find each other, they click. And better than in the fluffy RomCom meet-cutes that saturate the genre. A Dom and a Sub understand what they themselves need, and know they can find it in the other person’s nature. And while most romances don’t have a lot of hitting and humiliation, there is something of a happy ending in a relationship of this sort. There is a deep understanding.
            I have to admit that the first time I saw Alfred Hitchcock’s 1958 film “Vertigo,” I was bored by it. I was in college, and had been eating up Hitchcock’s more sensational films like “Psycho” and “Rear Window.” I couldn’t get a handle on “Vertigo” because there was no outright terror. Indeed, it was so wholly about one man’s obsession, that I found little else to interest me. I found one handle, and just had trouble holding onto it. It wasn’t until years later that I finally was able to understand what was going on in “Vertigo.” It‘s a fetish story. Not only do two people begin to share a common fetish during the film, but Hitchcock, in the most subtle way imaginable, creates a fetish that we, the audience, can almost lock onto.

Vertigo 1
            James Stewart plays the man in this situation. An odd choice to be sure, as Jimmy was notorious for being so clean and upright, not only in other films roles (“Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” springs to mind), but in his public life as well. He plays ex-cop John “Scotty” Ferguson, a man suffering from acute acrophobia. He’s wounded, having seen his partner plummet to his bloody death recently. He’s also in a corset, and has to walk with a cane. When we first meet him, he’s chatting with his best friend Midge, played with surprising verve by Barbara Bel Geddes. Midge designs brassieres. They mention that they were once engaged for three weeks back in college, and a sly edit implies that Midge may still be carrying her torch. Then Scotty mentions that he got a call from an old college chum, Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore), and there is some sort of crisis.

Vertigo Midge
            This first scene has all the props. Midge and Scotty have a sort of sexual tension, as Midge still loves Scotty. There’s a corset. There’s a cane. There’s loads of underwear. There are even a few lines how one of the brassieres they are examining was designed by a naval engineer. It’s as if sex is on both their minds, and they can only express it in terms of wires and straps and corsets. The usual sexual props are replaced with more subtle ones. True, this may be a little over-analysis, and may even sound a mite perverted, but stick with me. My story, as they say, gets better.
            Elster hires Scotty to follow his wife, Madeline. Madeline is behaving oddly. She blacks out and goes wandering. Elster insists that Scotty go on the job despite his retirement. Scotty agrees. When Scotty first sees Madeline, he is instantly attracted to her. There is a scene in a restaurant where Madeline, icy blonde hair, high John Waters-like eyebrows, shiny green dress, walks by Scotty. She doesn’t see him, as we only see her profile, but Scotty, gazing over his shoulder from the bar, looks almost ashamed.


            Something has struck him. There’s a definite voyeuristic bent in how Scotty looks at Madeline. There’s a shot, later on in a flower shop, where he see him peering through a cracked mirrored door, while we simultaneously see Madeline’s reflection. Madeline is wearing a tight grey suit. Her hair is done up tight in coil. She wears gloves and low-heeled shoes (In fact, this is kind of an eerie combination. Fashion of the times dictated that blondes don’t wear grey. It makes her outfit stand out all the more, and add to the uneasiness of Scotty’s dire attraction to her.). And, for a moment, this is not a detective following a mark. This is an empty man who seems to have found what he needs to fill him. He follows her to a museum, and peeks at her, his back to a pillar, looking at an old portrait (She looks like the woman in the portrait… hm…). And when he follows her to an old hotel, he stays down in the street, peeking up longingly through the window. She appears at the window, standing in a way that may be a little exhibitionistic.
            But, isn’t that just love? Perhaps he’s just falling in love with her, I hear you say. Well, yes. Indeed he is. The romance is not subtle at all. In most essays on this film, the phrase “romantic obsession” is thrown about as Scotty’s motivation, and it’s not misused. But simple love and “romantic obsession” cannot account for his behavior later on in the film. Stick with me.
            Scotty rescues Madeline from drowning; she threw herself into San Francisco bay in a haze. She wakes up in his apartment, nude. He begins to ask about her, very directly. To wit: “My,” she remarks, “You sure are direct with your questions.” She sits in front of the fire in a bright red nightgown, Scotty above her on the couch in his frumpy green vest. She reveals that she does indeed black out sometimes, and wakes up in strange places (keep your alcoholic jokes to yourself, thank you). Her spells seem to have something to do with a Carlotta Valdes, a woman who committed suicide in the area some 100 years ago. Is Carlotta’s spirit somehow taking control of Madeline? Is Carlotta’s suicide destined to repeat itself?
            As it turns out, yes.
            They begin to investigate together. She, often in a trance. He, often staring directly at her. They explore ‘Frisco together, walk through giant redwoods, and finally, after enough tension has built on their little expeditions, they kiss by the sea. They are indeed “connecting.”
            There is an interlude with Midge. It’s in this interlude that I get the impression Midge knows Scotty better than even he knows himself. He’s not only helping out Madeline, but is rather obviously obsessing. Midge spots that it’s not a mere crush, or a soft flowery romance. It’s nothing that’s mature or controlled. It dives straight into painful, almost adolescent obsession. Sexual obsession! A repressed man is finally coming out in the hands of a kindred spirit (Madeline will have her chance too. Don’t you worry). In the scene, Midge shows Scotty that she’s taken up her painting again. We see that she’s painted the portrait of Carlotta that Madeline had been enthralled by, only with her own face in place of Carlotta’s. This painting is part of Scotty’s fantasy world. Midge wants Scotty, and is trying to play his mind games on his playing field. He, of course, is embarrassed by the painting. He sees the game. After he leaves, somewhat ashamed, Midge defaces the painting, scolding herself. She didn’t merely reveal her crush on Scotty, but revealed Scotty’s fantasy workings. It was a false step, and the reactions, I think, can be compared to an unwanted kiss planted on a reluctant teenager’s lips after the prom. Something one party desperately wants to do, takes the chance, and then, of course, only after it’s too late to take it back, does the poor kid regret it.
            Scotty and Madeline’s investigation, after a dream, leads to a Spanish mission about 100 miles out of town. This, supposedly, is where Carlotta committed suicide. Watch Madeline carefully, and you’ll get some hints as to what is coming up. Also, look at her outfit. She’s back in her gray suit. Her hair is back in the tight, tight bun. The low-heels, the gloves. They’re all back. She runs into the tower, Scotty chasing, but unable to follow well, as his acrophobia takes hold, and his vertigo activates. She makes it into the loft before he, and he can only watch as she plummets past the window to die on the roof below.
            I must pause here to tell about the unique “trombone” shots that Hitchcock employed to depict Scotty’s vertigo. When Scotty looks down the tower, it seems to stretch and lengthen out below him. It’s a beautiful effect. To achieve it, Hitchcock built a miniature of the set sideways. He would then zoom into it, while tracking the camera backwards. That way, the foreground got larger, and the background seemed to move further away. It’s a technique still often used in all media today, only usually with a person in shot.
            But back to out hero…
            Had this film been made by a less daring director, the film would have ended there. With Scotty realizing his new love was gone, and turning to Midge for comfort. He would have realized his true love was there all along, and he didn’t need to get mixed up in all this. Happy ending. But no, Hitchcock is not one to spoonfeed us an easy answer. There’s a hearing, determining the cause of Madeline’s death. There are a few scenes in a sanatorium. Midge makes her final appearance during these scenes. She gives Scotty some music while he sits, comatose, in a severe melancholia. She tells the doctor that Mozart won’t help. He’s still in love you see. Scotty will not get over this. We’re not done with him yet. Midge exits down a dark hall, gracefully leaving Scotty’s life. She failed.
            It is here that the film’s overtones of fetishism and the true sub/dom relationship come to the surface. It displays it’s daring. This is 1958, mind you. There had not been a film to deal with sex in such a way. Indeed, sex at all. Most American films of the time dealt with sex in the most evasive way possible. We had Rock Hudson and Doris Day flirting and making double-entendres, but nothing had yet broken through to show sex as something really adult. Before, it was fluffy. An embarrassing thing that people could only joke about, and not actually discuss. With “Vertigo,” we’re given a film that, however subtly, allows us to roam around in the mindset of the sex-minded adult man. Sex is not viewed as something dirty or jejune. It’s not kinky or outsider. It’s not silly. It’s something that people deal with every day. Sexuality is probably one of the most universal human truths; something we all must deal with at one point in our lives. Whether it’s a struggle or a celebration, it’s something of which every human becomes aware.
            Let me explain how. Scotty sees in the street, a redhead. She looks uncannily like Madeline. He, transfixed, follows her back to her apartment to meet her. This is Judy Barton. In character, she is quite different from Madeline. Madeline was icy and aloof. Judy is impatient and talkative. She fears he may be a letch, but lets him in. He asks to have dinner with her. She agrees.
            Judy walks over to her closet and opens it. Note what’s in it.
            We now learn the truth of the preceding. Judy writes a letter explaining that she was indeed Madeline, and that the whole ordeal that Scotty experienced was all a fake. The details were all calculated by Gavin Elster who really just wanted to kill his wife, and needed Scotty as a witness, and Judy as a proxy. More importantly, Judy reveals that she was indeed in love with Scotty. The attraction displayed by Madeline wasn’t merely part of the role. She liked being the apple of his eye. She wants to be again. Scotty never sees this letter.

Vertigo redhead
            Hitchcock is probably not the inventor of the word, but it was one he used often: The McGuffin. The McGuffin was what he called the main crime plot in many of his films. The McGuffin was the hook that he used to pull people into the real story. Never mind this crime and double-cross nonsense. What we want to see is the people. The human story. The interesting thing was not the crime, but the criminals. So the whole trick that Elster was playing was just the McGuffin, and the relationship between Scotty and Madeline/Judy the real story. This may be why the crime plot seems kind of unlikely. Did Gavin really plan for Scotty to be looking out that window at that precise moment, knowing that everything would work out? Like I said, it seems unlikely. And that’s because Hitchcock didn’t feel it that important.
            Judy and Scotty begin dating, it’s not long before Scotty starts his remolding. Scotty begins dressing Judy like Madeline. He reassembles her outfit. Asks her to wear the right shoes. He is very insistent. He badgers clerks and stylists. His interest is no longer casual or loving. It’s obsessive. He must, must, have back his object of desire (and I use the word “object” here very deliberately). Judy feigns ignorance to the proceedings, partly because of her agreement not to expose Elster, but partly, we suspect, because she wants to be part of the fantasy again. In fact, for all the badgering and the hair colorings and the recreation of that icy grey suit, for all of Scotty’s rather harsh treatment of her, his willingness to subsume her own personality in order to recreate what is now quite obviously his fetish object, she rather enthusiastically joins him. She’s not cheerful or happy about it, but she is now just as caught up in his fantasy. She needs to fulfill it as much as he. She even, at one point, shouts out “If I do this, wear the clothes… Will you love me?”
            “Yes.” He says without a second’s hesitation.
            And Scotty doesn’t just remake the woman. He remakes the scenarios he just experienced that he had with this woman. They go to the same restaurants, visit the same landmarks. He’s creating not just an object, but an entire role-playing scenario. He wants, I think, to recapture the intensity of his first fetish experience. Many people will often recall earlier, adolescent sexual experiences with a sort of mythic defining experience. It was when their bodies first started having these feelings, and, thus, when they feel the most intense. Scotty goes through that in his recreation of Judy. He is recalling when his experience was the most intense.
            It all culminates in a single beautiful shot when Judy steps out from the bathroom, bathed in a green haze. She now is Madeline.
            I must digress again for a moment to point out the film’s use of color. Hitchcock notoriously used color, in this film most, to set the mood. If you pay attention to the reds, greens, blacks and whites, you begins to get the emotional codes he was using. Red room in the restaurant, red robe, red hazes. Green vests, green signs, green haze. White blonde hair. Black emptiness. Grey suit. The reds seem to be the indication of solid an obvious passion (as red often is). The green, however is the spectrum’s flexing of obsession. It’s all very skillfully done. This use of color is not original by any means, but it’s one of the earliest times it had been used in such an intense degree. So, of course, when Scotty has finally completed his creation, and she steps from the bathroom, she’s bathed in green. The excuse, of course is that she’s being illuminated by the neon sign outside her hotel window. But the observant viewer knows what the green really is.
            I think the most telling line in the entire film comes right before the finale when Scotty and Judy, now looking exactly like Madeline, are preparing to go out once again. Judy steps from the bathroom, all gussied up, and says “Hello my love.” And then, showing herself off: “Like me?” She needs his approval. She’s asking for it. This is right after the dramatic green flash, and into a new feeling of release. This is the one moment of perfection when everything is perfect between them. He has belittled her to recreate his fetish, and she has happily endured the belittling. Say what you will about their motives or the health of their fantasies, but it seems to me that there was never a happier couple than in that one moment.
            Of course, the fantasy spins out of control. A small clue gives her away, and Scotty discovers that Judy was indeed Madeline. As they slip back into their previous roles, we get a finale where Scotty, angered, forces Judy back to that Spanish mission, and back up the tower. He shouts at her. And we, the audience, have been playing in his world for so long that we can only sympathize with him. We know exactly how much anguish he is in. In many films we get a shouting climax where the hero feels the truth, but it feels more like a final relaxing of the plot than true anguish. With “Vertigo,” we know Scotty in and out, and we know what he’s been going through. When he realizes that he is not experiencing vertigo right underneath the trapdoor at the top of the bell tower, we know why.
            The fantasy must complete itself. And part of the entire scenario was seeing Madeline die.
            Scotty got more than most of us get. He got a chance to relive his fetish more than once. It’s just too bad that tragedy, that death, had to be part of it.
            “Vertigo” is one of the most adult films ever made. It had a lot of exploitative tricks (edits, a nightmare sequence, suicides and double-crossings), but never feels exploitative. It’s mature in it approach to an adolescent view of sex. It is skillful and groundbreaking. It is often hailed as Hitchcock’s masterwork.
            NB: You will note that I did not once mention the actresses who played Madeline or Judy. I wanted to really make Scotty’s women feel like objects. Not real people with names attached. But credit where credit’s due: Kim Novak who plays both roles, does a stellar job as a distracted possessee, a torn actress, a helpless lover, and the all-too-willing object. He sideways glances reveal much, and her ability to make Judy and Madeline seem like two completely different women (yet the same) is a wonder. It also took courage to play a role with such strong fetish undertones, for not only was Novak playing a role where she succumbs to the unruly fetish of a man, but had to, in turn, become a fetish creation of Hitchcock’s as well.

Published in: on June 3, 2009 at 6:43 pm  Comments (2)  

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Enjoyed your essay. The rest of Hitchcock’s oeuvre reveals other moments of sexual fetish and obsession which can be interestingly explored. Ignoring the obvious “Psycho”, there is his use of women’s underwear in “The 39 Steps”.

  2. Fascinating look into the psyche of these characters and Mr. Hitchcock himself. This has been my favorite of his movies since the first time I saw it. His use of colors were always so haunting, literally in Marnie with the color red. Great essay!

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