You are on page 1of 2

Dorothy J Burk

Practicing Film Theory
Acrophobia and Woman as Trick in Hitchocks Vertigo
Vertigo is one of those Hitchcock masterpieces which has the effect of inspiring both adoration and disgust.
Masterfully directed and played, with excellent technical work which reveals the essence of vertigo, it stands on its
own as a great story of intrigue, deception, andmaybelove. At the center of the story is Scottie, a police
detective who has lived through the traumatic instance of watching his colleague fall from a rooftop and die. The
trauma awoke acrophobia (a fear of heights) in Scottie; and of course, his acrophobia is accompanied by severe
Vertigo which strikes him at all the wrong moments.
Enter Madeleine Elster, the doom-and-gloom wife of a college buddy who Scottie has been hired to tail. As the film
progresses, Scottie encounters the reality of supernatural phenomena which have inflicted Madeleine. He falls in
love (or something like it, arguably more connected to gaze) with Madeleine, and she plunges off a bell tower
shortly after. Scotties was on the scene, but his vertigo prevented him from reaching the top of the tower; otherwise
he might have saved her. There is a court preceding, and Scottie is institutionalized for a bit. Once released he visits
places where he saw Madeleine. Enter Judy, the sales girl; Scottie becomes obsessed with transforming her into
Madeleine, and then learns that Judy was Madeleine all along. Rather, she was playing Madeleine in a scheme with the
husband; but for all intents and purposes, as far as Scottie is concerned, she is the only Madeleine who ever existed.
She is pushed to her death off the bell tower as well, in an ironic moment where Scottie totally overcomes his
acrophobia and watches her, seemingly without emotion, fall.
I have seen Vertigo several times, and find myself increasingly convinced that Hitchcock is revealing woman as trick
through the film. He shows her as a simulacrum of a non-existent reality (Judy-cum-Madeleine), and also as the
reality around which Scotties vertigo functions (and is eventually healed). The woman is never what she seems to
be; she is totally Other and represents an excursion into a jouissance which is so unbearable that Scotties body
physically prevents him from truly encountering her. Only when woman disappears is Scottie securely installed into
the prevailing order as a functioning being. I would dovetail this into Weiningers assertion that woman does not
exist insofar as she is always denied a phallus and is thus always outside, Other. There is also a strong element of
subject-gaze relationship in the film, wherein Scotties gaze entirely structures the object of his love; this leads me to
believe that there is no love whatsoever but only a stark obsession with his own gaze.

Were I not familiar with Hitchcocks much-discussed fear of women, and previous scholarship about his films, I do
not know how quickly I would have drawn this conclusion. I think the real moment of revelation regarding his
attitude towards woman in the film is two-fold: first, in the opening credits, the swirling vertigo-ish whorl features
prominently in the womans eye (she is the source!). Second, the Coit Tower pops up at unusual times for no
apparent reason; Hitchcock mentioned that he used this as a phallic symbol, and I think it reads directly as such
without his admission. Given my critique of the ideological location of Vertigo, I admit that I still entirely love the
film. The story is interesting even if it does reveal a stance of womans non-existence, and perhaps even more
interesting because it does so overtly.