An Ode To Vertigo’s Opening Sequence

On Alfred Hitchcock’s birthday, we deconstruct the title sequence of one of his most celebrated films
An Ode To Vertigo’s Opening Sequence

Known as one of the most prolific filmmakers of cinematic history, Alfred Hitchcock pioneered experimental genres, camera movements and narrative techniques that are studied to this day. 

Vertigo (1958) introduced the world to 'dolly zoom' – an optical illusion effect where the camera seems to zoom in on a subject while simultaneously moving away. The effect is to disorient the audience and you can see the technique work its magic in the opening shot of Vertigo. However, the storytelling in Vertigo begins even before that scene, with the film's opening credits.  

Vertigo begins not with an image, but the score by Bernard Herrman, one of Hitchcock's long-time collaborators. Every note of the composition is eerie, with an echo of menace and a melody that stops just short of sounding dissonant. The first image is a close-up shot in black and white that shows the lower part of a face. The camera zooms in on her painted lips and the name of the hero (James Stewart) appears between the nose and the lips while the music swells. The wind and string instruments almost clash with one another, creating a tension that only seems to intensify when the music quietens again. The camera travels up to a pair of eyes that look nervously from one side to another as Kim Novak's name appears, accompanied by another orchestral swell. When the eyes look straight into the camera, as though locking its gaze upon the audience, the camera zooms in further. A tight shot of the eye, looking just off-camera, is the background for the line "in Alfred Hitchcock's" and then the camera zooms in further. The light changes to red, revealing the nuance of shades to what had seemed like a flat, dark pupil. The eye widens with fear and the title appears, as though coming at the audience from a distance. The word "vertigo" becomes larger and larger, until it floats out of the frame and neon spirals emerge out of that same pupil. 

For those of a certain age, the first spiral may not be particularly mesmerising given its resemblance to the vintage Doordarshan logo, but once the other shapes enter the frame, the effect is hypnotic. You may not even realise when the close-up of the face gives way to a black background against which these colourful spirals move with grace and menace, matching the melodic rhythm of Herrman's score. The eye, filmed in red light, returns as the background for Hitchcock's own credit, which comes out of the pupil and at the audience just like the film's title did. Only now, the eye is not widened. It darts around, still fearful but noting details. 

There are three themes — objectification, voyeurism and duplicity — that Hitchcock is signalling at through these credits. 

Objectification: 

Vertigo explores the idea of a woman being objectified in many ways and the decision to turn a woman's face into an almost-abstract collection of shapes is a foreshadowing of this theme in the film. Women in the film are objects of obsession, ghosts, impostors and lookalikes — and they're mostly manipulated by men who use the women to achieve their own ends.  

The protagonist in Vertigo is retired detective, John "Scottie" Ferguson, who thinks he's helping out his friend Gavin (Tom Helmore) when he follows Gavin's wife Madeleine (Kim Novak) after Gavin tells Scottie that his wife has been behaving oddly. After some twists — including Madeleine and Scottie having an affair — it turns out that Gavin was using Scottie to cover up his own misdeeds. Also, the woman Scottie thought was Madeline was actually someone else impersonating her.     

One of the more uncomfortable parts of Vertigo is when Scottie makes Judy, the woman who was pretending to be Madeleine, transform herself into Madeleine. He makes her change the way she dresses and her hairstyle so that she resembles the appearance of the woman he had once loved. At one point Judy asks Scottie, "I'll do what you tell me. Will you love me then?" By the end of the film, Judy has to die for Scottie to be cured of his fear of heights. 

Voyeurism

Much of Vertigo is about the camera watching a character watch another character. It's almost like an endless loop. No wonder, then, that Hitchcock wanted to use the eye and spirals in the opening credits. It's worth noting that for the first 45 minutes of the film, Madeleine doesn't speak. We follow Scottie as he follows her, watching her eat, buy flowers, and look at paintings. He has no idea that this is a performance for his benefit and he is being watched too. This is what Hitchcock foreshadowed In the opening credits, when the eye shifted between being the watcher — looking straight into the camera — and being watched, when the gaze is on something off camera. There's also an eerie parallel between the way Scottie watches Madeleine and the way audiences watch lives play out when they watch a film. While artistic genres like painting, photography and literature can offer snapshot views of people's lives at particular moments, cinema is the only art form that offers viewers a simulation of life. The spirals in the opening credits are meant to be hints of the designs being made on Scottie, but their looping patterns may also be seen as signifiers that point to this circular relationship between cinema and its audience. 

Duplicity: 

The word "duplicity" comes from the Latin word for "twofold" and this idea of doubling is central to Vertigo. The spirals in the title sequence duplicate and then become new patterns — much like Judy becomes Madeleine and then reveals herself to be a distinctly different individual. There are other pointed references to duplicates and doubling. At one point, Gavin tells Scottie that he thinks Madeleine is possessed by a ghost. Hitchcock repeatedly frames scenes in a way that Madeleine is seen reflected in mirrors. The shapes and patterns of the opening sequences also find parallels in the scene where Scottie tails Madeleine's car for two whole minutes. Madeleine drives around the city for no apparent reason, conveniently pausing at turns, waiting for him to follow her; literally making him go around in circles. 

Related Stories

No stories found.
Film Companion, Movie reviews, Celebrity Interviews, New Films Trailer, Web Series
www.filmcompanion.in