Masculine Dilemma through Aesthetics

Vertigo (1958)

Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) broke the pattern of his films in several ways.  It launches his belief in cinematic paranoia more directly than his previous collaboration with actor James Stewart, 1954’s Rear Window; it replicates his signature mixture of drama and thrills; it initiates his research into male paranoia and methods of displaying moral dilemma.  But Vertigo is unusual in its handling of moral dilemma that afflicts the male protagonist, its eclectic experimentation with paranoia, its exuberant leaps of tones and genres, its poster like extremes of noir and romanticism.  Unfortunately, Hitchcock unfairly blames the film’s initial blunder at the box office on James Stewart’s (who was than fifty) diminishing screen appeal whereas many contemporary writers blame the complicated plot and unhappy ending (McLean, 208).  Yet, what makes Vertigo a great film to analyze surfaces from James Stewart’s screen presence and performance.  Stewart mixes the noir male libido with a vulnerability seldom seen within the genre.  Many regard this as a more feminine portrayal that calls into question the standard of masculinity, a standard which has come into question in postwar cinema.  This entry will focus on the aesthetics of Vertigo such as camera work, character blocking, and mise-en-scene that call into question the standard of cinematic masculinity and the already well established portrayal of moral dilemma.

James Stewart’s character in the film, “Scottie,” has an ailment; he suffers from acrophobia, which Hitchcock recreates cinematically with unique and jarring camera work.   The camera work in the opening sequence establishes a pattern that appears in several scenes in the film.  The film starts with a chase sequence where two cops, including Scottie, chase a criminal across rooftops.  The scene climaxes when Scottie attempts to clear a gap but does not make it and must hold unto a ledge to avoid plunging to his death.  The moment Scottie looks down, while hanging from the ledge, the camera zooms in very unusually (the famous forward zoom/reverse tracking shot).  The point of view shot recreates the moment of vertigo from Scottie’s perspective and establishes his ailment.  In the obvious reading, Scottie’s vertigo serves as a crutch that hinders his masculinity and lingers throughout the entire film.  The next scene where Scottie experiences a moment of fear happens while he talks to his initial female love interest, Midge, played by Barbara Bel Geddes.  In this scene he talks about overcoming his ailment by gradually steps and then attempts to climb a small stepstool.  At first he appears okay when he begins to mount the stepstool.  Initially the camera work follows a basic shot reverse shot pattern.  Medium close up shots of Scottie as he climbs the ladder are followed by medium close up shots of Midge as she watches Scottie ascend the step ladder.  Close up shots of Scottie’s feet as he climbs the ladder do not break up the pattern because they are followed by medium close up shots of Midge as she watches Scottie climb.

Stepstool Crisis, Vertgo (1958)

Once Scottie reaches the third step he peers out of the window and the camera immediately cuts to a shot of the window.   The point of view shot shows Scottie looking down through the window.  The tight shot captures the steep height from which Scottie has ascended too, made steeper by looking through the window to the ground below.    The camera cuts to a close up shot of Scotties face.  A lot of this scene depends on James Stewart’s acting.  In this close up his expression shifts from calm to fear.  He loses his balance and stumbles into the arms of Midge.  Scottie’s vulnerability becomes even more pronounced in the medium close up shot of him in Midge’s arms that desperately resembles a scarred child suckled to his mother.  Even though the camera work in this scene follows a particular pattern the tight point of view shot through the window makes that moment jarring.  It breaks the established pattern and visual creates the dilemma and ailment that afflicts the male protagonist, Scottie.  The camera work in several scenes challenges the triumphant view of the male protagonist with jarring point of view shots and tight angles that capture Scottie at his most vulnerable.

The character blocking in the scene that follows Scottie’s plummet from the step ladder helps show Scottie’s vulnerability by making him look apprehensive.  The scene after Scottie’s plummet takes place at his friend’s house.  His friend asks him for a favor, to follow his wife around, and complains that his wife has recently been acting different.  When the scene begins Scottie stands while his friend sits, but Scottie does not stand still.  He constantly moves around and touches various objects on his friend’s desk.

Vertigo (1958)

When he finally sits, he sits at the edge of a table.

Vertigo (1958)

He gets up again and walks over to a painting on the wall but this time his friend brings attention to his reluctance to sit still by saying “shouldn’t you be sitting?”  Scottie’s responds with a still reluctant “no.”

Vertigo (1958)

He decides to sit again but this time in a chair.  Even while sitting in the chair he sits at the very edge, leaned forward, elbows resting on thighs, and hands clasped between his legs.

Vertigo (1958)

Scottie repeats this behavior in several scenes throughout the film.  Scottie’s behavior resembles that of a child.  He cannot sit still and when he does he sits at the edge of his chair or at the edge of a table.  When he sits at the edge of the table it also looks oddly feminine.  This pattern of behavior and constant repeat of the character blocking create a childlike and feminine vulnerability in Scottie that carries throughout the entire film.

In Dennis Bingham article Acting Male: Masculinities in the films of James Stewart, Jack Nicholson, and Clint Eastwood featured in Film Quarterly he writes that “Stewart’s mixture of male determination and forcefulness blends with a feminine vulnerability and passion which call into question the prevailing standard of masculinity” (39).  While Bingham’s statement speaks for Stewart’s overall screen presence, his performance in Vertigo blends a childlike and feminine vulnerability that challenges standard representations of men in film noir.  Alfred Hitchcock shows Scottie’s ailment through jarring camera angles and character blocking, which helps create an innovative portrayal of male dilemma.

-Emmanuel Roberts


 Bingham, Dennis. “Acting Male: Masculinities in the Films of James Stewart, Jack Nicholson, and Clint Eastwood.” Film Quarterly Summer 48.4 (1995): 39-40. Print.

McLean, Adrienne L. “Movies and Allegories of Ambivalence.” American Cinema of the 1950s: Themes and Variations. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 2005. 208. Print.

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