Deciphering the Doubles in Hitchcock’s Vertigo

vertigo hitchcock scottie

Last fall, I was lucky enough to watch Vertigo (for the first time actually) on a gorgeous print. It was beautiful, and I quickly fell in love with the it.

The Prevalence and Importance of Doubles
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Doubles are common all throughout Hitchcock, but they are especially significant in Vertigo. Not only are characters doubled in the film, shots, scenes, and words are as well.

 One of Vertigo’s most notable features is its symmetry; by the film’s end, enough of its shots and scenes seem to have doubles that it is tempting to go back and try to find a match for all of them. Again and again throughout the film, scenes appear that clearly echo ones that have come before them. Things that have already happened happen again, though never in quite the same way. Places the film has already been are visited again, but under different circumstances.

By including so many scenes that appear as different versions of some corresponding one earlier in the film, Vertigo urges viewers to compare those which seem to be altered duplicates of one another. Just as Scottie cannot look upon Judy without thinking of the Madeleine he knew her as before, so too does it become difficult to view those scenes in Hitchcock’s Vertigo that seem to be redoing others without thinking of their original. (Thus, one effect of such doubling is to increase viewer identification with Scottie, but I’ll leave that for another day.)

Furthermore, Vertigo’s pervading preoccupation with doubles involves more than just redone shots and scenes, as becomes particularly apparent when one rewatches the film. Once one knows that the woman Scottie originally falls for never actually existed, once it becomes apparent that Judy was actually performing “Madeleine” the entire time, a great deal of what is said in the film, particularly by Madeline/Judy, takes on double, and even triple meanings. Clearly, Vertigo‘s interest in doubles is also strongly reflected by the figure Madeleine/Judy herself; whether she is performing the role of Madeleine given to her by Gavin Elster or that of some version of herself that has never met or previously fallen in love with Scottie, Judy almost always seems to be two people in one.

Vertigo‘s choice to redo (to re-present in a different light) a number of its scenes stems from a thematic concern (which results in an overarching symmetry) with doubles and doubling, with copies and alternate versions. Once this concern is recognized, parts of the film easily construed as a reproduction of another can be more fully understood when one remembers their original.

All the doubling also produces a lot of feeling of the uncanny in characters and in viewers, but I am not going to go into that in this post. 

Example from the Film
One sequence of “redone” shots and scenes that demonstrates that one way to understand the events portrayed in Vertigo is in terms of which events are repeated and how occurs when Scottie sees Judy for the first time since the death of “Madeleine Elster” (that is, since Judy as Madeline tricked Scottie into thinking she jumped to her death from the San Juan Bautista tower so that Gavin could cover up the murder of his wife).

The sequence begins with a close-up on a bouquet nearly identical to the one that Madeleine used to carry and to the one in Carlotta’s portrait. From the close-up, the camera tracks backward to reveal Scottie standing outside a flower shop. He then notices a group of women walking up the sidewalk toward him. They stop briefly in front of him, and it becomes obvious that one of the women (later revealed to be Judy Barton) looks almost identical to the Madeleine Scottie knew. She continues down the sidewalk alone, and Scottie begins to follow her from a distance. Below, I discuss just some of what this sequence reveals about Scottie and how the rest of the film is likely to play out for him and Judy.

The sequence introduced above presents viewers with an alternate version of the film’s earlier flower shop scene and signals to viewers that from this point on in the film, nearly all that happens will seem like an odd reflection of events that came before. 

The close-up of the bouquet that begins the sequence lasts only for an instant—just long enough for viewers to confirm its undeniable likeness to the one Madeleine used to carry—before the camera tracks backwards to reveal Scottie standing outside a flower shop, staring fixedly down at the bouquet. The lettering on the shop window reveals that it is indeed the same flower shop from which Madeleine made a purchase earlier in the film. Looking down at the arrangement of flowers, Scottie is dressed almost entirely in a dismal brown and seems forlorn. The dull color of Scottie’s ensemble stands out sharply against the bright and vivid flowers that surround him; where they are lively and suggestive of positive feelings, he is drained and appears hopeless. This is not the same man that exuberantly kissed Madeleine on the beach or in the stable; rather, this is a man consumed with longing for one who is gone. That Scottie is at the flower shop at all demonstrates that he is longing for Madeline (in fact, he may even be looking for her, as hopeless as that may seem). After all, the flower shop is the first place the film shows Scottie really looking at Madeline without Gavin Elster present, and it’s not at all unlikely that it is in the film’s first flower shop scene that Scottie’ infatuation with Madeline really begins.

In the earlier flower shop scene, the music shifts dramatically as Scottie looks at Madeline through the doorway; as Scottie gazes on Madeline, the screen is filled with the shop’s bright colors, and the music swells to a passionate and romantic pitch. Though Scottie does not actually enter the flower shop—does not himself step into the romantically colored space beyond the doorway—the score, by suddenly soaring to match the lush and vivid qualities of the flower shop as it does, seems to say that he at least wants to enter that intensely colored world. From this point on, Scottie steadily develops increasingly passionate feelings for and grows closer to Madeleine. After seeing her amid the flowers, Scottie begins down (in multiple senses, considering how much downhill travel he seems to do) a path to romantic ecstasy (albeit one that is built on a lie and ends abruptly with a death). I describe this earlier scene in the flower shop, because it provides clues as to how to read the scene in which Scottie (and Vertigo) choose to return to that very same shop.

Except for a differently colored tie, Scottie wears the same dark brown outfit in both flower shop scenes. With Madeleine dead, Scottie does not fit into such a romantic and vivid space. That he is estranged from the flower shop’s beauty and from all the positive and romantic feelings the space becomes associated with is further emphasized by the fact that, once again, he does not actually enter the shop. On a certain level, Scottie is back to square one. With Madeleine dead, he is once again a lonely ex-detective with no romance or excitement in his life.

At the same time, the fact that Scottie is where he is and that he appears much like he did before he fell for Madeline could be an indication that another intense infatuation is about to begin.In fact, by returning Scottie to the spot where his original infatuation began, Vertigo marks the beginning of an arc in the film in which Scottie will, once again, become obsessed with a fantasy image of a woman only to have her die. Furthermore, just as Scottie—having lost his love and witnessed another death—is an emotionally darker figure in the second flower shop scene than he is in the first, so too is the film’s second narrative of romance its most tragic. 

Additionally, the sequence that takes place outside the flower shop indicates the new role Scottie will take on in the latter third of the film, marking the beginning of his transformation from a sympathetic and romantic detective protagonist to a selfish and controlling man consumed by desire for a fantasy. 

The image of the bouquet that begins the sequence recalls the bouquet Madeleine purchases the first time Scottie follows her, the bouquet in the portrait of Carlotta that Madeleine often stares at for extended periods, as well as the  bouquet that quickly disintegrates into a swirling mass of petals during Scottie’s nightmare. Thus, by the time the bouquet appears in this particular sequence, it has become an object associated both with Madeleine and with Scottie’s swift, violent, and deeply felt loss. By showing Scottie transfixed on the bouquet, Vertigo informs viewers that, in that moment, all Scottie is thinking about is Madeleine. He cannot let go of the memory of the dead woman he loved. He is haunted. He is obsessed. He is not well.

Notably, however, while the bouquet that commands Scottie’s attention outside the flower shop is remarkably similar to the one Madeleine bought and carried about, it is not actually identical to it. How fitting then, that upon looking up from it, Scottie should see a woman who is not the Madeleine he knew and yet looks very much like her. When Scottie looks up from the bouquet, the film cuts to a shot showing the viewer what he sees.

Walking alongside each other down the crowded sidewalk, a group of four women approach. One of them, wearing all green, stands out sharply from the rest. Since the woman (Judy Barton) looks so much like the Madeleine Scottie loved, its impossible (even for first-time viewers) not to think of the first time Scottie sees Madeline at Ernie’s (in that scene, Madeline wears a rich green dress that distinguishes her from everyone else in the room). Thus, the film indicates that, just like the Madeleine that wore green to dinner, this woman wearing green on the street will become an object of Scottie’s affection, regardless of who she actually is or is not. 

Still, when Judy in her bright green clothes catches Scottie’s eye, he does not know who she is. As the group of women stop briefly in front of Scottie, he stares at them intently. By cutting between shots of Judy (talking to the women) and of Scottie (watching her), the film conveys Scottie’s intense interest in her. As far as Scottie knows, Madeleine Elster and the woman he fell in love with are one in the same and are dead.Therefore, that he sees Judy as she passes him on the sidewalk as anything other than a stranger he has no business with is telling. True, Judy does look an awful lot like the Madeleine Scottie knew, but since when did resemblance to a dead person become reason to stalk someone back to their home? Yet, this is exactly what Scottie does. As Judy leaves the other women and continues down the sidewalk, Scottie follows her. Whereas, when Scottie follows Madeleine in his car he is doing so at another’s request, when he follows Judy on foot, he is under no obligation to do so at all. Rather, in this second scene at the flower shop, Scottie, motivated by dark obsession, disconcertingly decides to follow a woman he knows to be a stranger. (That he is once again, travelling downhill is no coincidence either.)

Indeed, by having Scottie follow Judy just after revisiting the flower shop closely associated with Madeleine, Vertigo suggests that, even though the woman on the sidewalk is not identical to Madeleine, Scottie sees her as such (not unlike the way viewers are likely to see the bouquet in this sequence as the one Madeleine carried even though it is not). This, in turn, emphasizes the intensity of Scottie’s obsession with Madeleine.

Such obsession is made even more apparent by the way Scottie outside the flower shop appears like one in a trance. Scottie is silent for the entire sequence and, for its duration, lacks significant expression. He stares down at the bouquet, he stares at the woman in green, and then, like an automaton, he walks stiffly after her. Scottie believed Madeleine to be possessed by a dead woman, and that that often caused her to go into trances—trances in which she did not seem to have full control or awareness of her actions and was likely to hurt herself. Scottie outside the flower shop is not possessed, but is obsessed with the memory of woman who was violently torn from his life. As Madeleine’s trances (feigned though they were) led her to harm in spite of herself, a viewer noticing Scottie’s trancelike status here would do well do assume that any decision he makes in that state—namely, the decision to follow the woman who looks like Madeline—is unlikely to achieve anything good (and it certainly doesn’t).

I should also note that, though no music plays when Scottie first sees Judy on the sidewalk, it does after she stops in front of him, and it is not wholly unlike the music from the first flower shop scene either. With the first shot that focuses on Judy’s face, music begins that evokes profound longing, thereby underscoring the intensity of Scottie’s desire to possess this woman in green. Obsession so intense it causes one to seem to lack control and awareness is a far cry from innocent or admirable infatuation; and, as becomes clear as Vertigo progresses, a man afflicted by such an obsession does not seek romance so much as he does control.

Wrapping Up
The sequence discussed above is just one in which the film seems to redo things it has done before. There are many others. If you want to take a look at some of them yourself, they include the the shot of Madeline’s profile at the restaurant and that of Judy’s in the hotel, the kiss scene in the stables and the kiss scene in the hotel, the moment when Judy sees Scottie in the hotel mirror and when Scottie recognizes Carlotta’s necklace in the same mirror, and Madeline’s entrance into Scottie’s living room and Judy’s into the hotel room from the bathroom.

If Madeleine-as-portrayed-by-Judy’s actions make more sense once Vertigo’s grand illusion is dispelled and the Judy beneath the performance is revealed, it seems only logical that those scenes in Vertigo that rehash and reinterpret others should be more thoroughly understood when one has awareness of those others in tow.

Repeating certain events, revisiting certain places, and redoing certain scenes is just one of a number of ways Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo explores the concept of doubles, as well as questions like how much a copy is influenced by its original. By reading the short sequence outside of the flower shop with those instances in the film it repeats in mind, one begins to suspect that Scottie is no longer the sympathetic protagonist he was before and that no good will come of his decision to follow Judy even before he does anything truly disturbing. As both of these suspicions are confirmed by the film’s end, Hitchcock seems to be directing viewers not to try to understand those shots, scenes, or characters that have potential doubles in isolation; rather, each member of such a pair makes the most sense when considered in terms of the other.
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Until Next Time
Thanks for reading. As always, feel free to leave me a comment below.

Also, In unrelated news, I recently watched Frances Ha, and I totally recommend it (pssst, it’s on Netflix).

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