The Colors and Symbols of Vertigo

“Only one is a wanderer; two together are always going somewhere. “

-Madeline 

Alfred Hitchcock is regarded by many film critics and audiences as one of the greatest if not the greatest film director of all time. No matter how you may feel about his movies it would be very difficult to argue against Hitchcock’s exceptional craftsmanship in his films. Recently I watched one of Hitchcock’s most acclaimed films Vertigo for my Film Analysis class and I discovered many questions and answers about this film that I had not seen before when I watched the film in high school. The film is about a detective who gets lost in his obsession and in the end loses everything to it. I found the film to be unique, dark, very sad, and full of suspense. Hitchcock went out of his way to make sure that this film incorporated the symbolism of these ideas and themes in the film in one way or another.  What is Hitchcock trying to say with this film and it mystery and better yet what does all of this symbolism mean for modern audiences today?

Vertigo tells the story of John “Scottie” Ferguson who begins the film in a chase as he is pursuing an apparent suspect when he jumps and fails to reach the next roof in line and instead holds onto the gutter. Once he is here he discovers that he has vertigo which keeps him from pulling himself up. The movie then moves to a different time where Scottie apparently survived the fall. After having a brief conversation with a lady friend Midge he goes to an old  acquaintance of his,Galvin Elster, who believes that his wife Madeline is possessed by an ancient relative who has come to end her life. Scottie begins to follow her and eventually begins to fall in love with her. As the story progresses he becomes more and more consumed by the her and the idea of her. The final act of the film is a reflection of showing just how far his obsession has become as he transforms another girl he loves into a near replica of Madeline. It is a sad turn for the character and at times very difficult to watch. The film ends in a way that leaves the movie rather ambiguous as Scottie is left alone without much explanation as to what all was happening in the film.

The film puts a very subtle but powerful emphasis on colors and symbolism which I believe adds to the ambiguity of the film. Red,yellow,green, black,white, and grey are all noticeably spread throughout the film. What do these colors mean? As with all types of art and literature that is a very interpretation based question with a very interpretation based answer. I believe that the film uses colors to show symbolism associated with certain objects and people. I found this to ring especially true when looking at the color green that is associated with Madeline/Judy, the color yellow with the character of Midge, and the color of red associated with Elster.  All of the women play as a potential romantic interest to Scottie in the film. What’s interesting is what all of these relationships mean to Scottie. Midge is a woman that seems like a person who would be happy to be with Scottie as she flirts with him many times and seems to genuinely like him. I saw this this relationship as the most grounded and safe for Scottie. She like him and all he had to do is like her back. I believe that the reason yellow is associated with her is because this is a very warm color that is many times associated with happiness or comfort. The next woman in Scottie’s life was Madeline who would go on to become the center of his obsession as she seemed to be deeply in love with him. Green was a color that popped up all of the time when she was in scenes. The first time you see her she is wearing a green dress and later in the movie she is driving a green car. The color certainly means something and I theorize that it is meant to be some type of warning that Scottie cannot see that the audience can. Every time something dealing with the obsession present so is the color green. As I stated he was originally chasing green but as the film progresses it is shown in other ways. There was one point where the walls of a room was green and then toward the end of the movie there is a big green light behind Judy’s hotel room. In that scene we see Scottie’s obsession hit the highest it is in the film with him becoming truly and utterly consumed by the fantasy of Madeline. The reason I believe green is also tied to Judy is because the first time we meet her she is actually wearing a green dress. I believe that this suggests that Scottie sees a girl(Judy) that reminds him of his obsession. I also found it ironic that Madeline was the subject of Scottie’s obsession while Judy was the victim of it. The last relationship with a color I want to mention is Elster’s association with red. When the audience meets him for the first time he is seen in a red office and throughout the movie whenever he is present so is the color red. I believe that the color red is supposed to be a metaphorical red flag for audience to see that something is not right about Elster. In the film he ends up using Scottie and Judy to accomplish his goals and I believe that red is a warning to stop in your tracks much like a red light or a stop sign. The colors could mean any number of things and I believe that it was very clever of Hitchcock to use these colors because it created another layer of ambiguity to this already very ambiguous film.

Why do the colors even matter and why should you look at them? From what I understand Alfred Hitchcock very carefully crafted this film and every detail was essential to him. By look at the color schemes and analyzing the symbolism we can have a better idea of what the movie itself is saying. In this case I believe that these colors are there to give us more depth and a better understanding of what these characters represent. The movie is called Vertigo and in many ways the movie is about Scottie’s desire for the fantasy he has created in Madeline but the fear of leaving the reality. Just as the policeman in the beginning of the movie falls so does Scottie; he falls head first into his obsession with a woman who really never existed in a sense. And much like the policeman who hits the ground at the end of the movie;  Scottie to hits rock bottom when he has been completely consumed by his obsession and in the end he is left with nothing. I like to think of the shot of Scottie looking down to the ground at the beginning of the movie as Scottie as we see him early in the movie; looking into the world of Madeline but afraid to let go of the world he has which is filled with detective work and Midge. After looking down in fear he eventually lets go and succumbs to the fall much like he succumb to his obsession with Madeline and eventually everything comes to a halt that is not filled with happiness or safety.

This movie may not be my favorite Hitchcock movie but it certainly has its merits. The film is very ambiguous and filled with fascinating characters that always seem to be a mystery. While the film does not give the audience resolution or answers to the many questions the film raises, it does give fans and critics of the film something to think about and look at as they try to decipher the meaning of the movie using the clues given with the colors and the symbolism. The movie is a mystery that Hitchcock gave us with few answers and I am sure there are people out there that are obsessed with the meaning of the movie much like Scottie was with Madeline. And so it goes.

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2 comments

  1. I’ve come to believe that in film, there is a certain “universal lanquage” when it comes to the use of color. Green usually suggests sickness — physical or psychological — whereas red suggests sexual passion and/or anger/blood/violence. (think of it’s use in Scorsese films, particually Goodfellas) Blue means trust, yellow cowardice. Black can mean bad, evil, or suggest depression. White = good, or more commonly, purity or innocence.

    On a related note, weather often plays a similar symbolic role. Rain suggests tears and sadness. Sunshine: happiness. Snow always seems to mean death. Think of all the funeral scenes in films set to falling snow.

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