Vertigo by Alfred Hitchcock: The Difference in Seeing and Being Seen


Alfred Hitchcock is one of the legends of English and American cinematography. It is impossible to imagine a person who does not know Hitchcock and the contribution he made to the world filmmaking. His personal invention of numerous techniques in different genres made his films spectacular and different from what existed on the screens. Underlining Hitchcock’s impact on the world cinematography, Jean Luc Godard said, “The death of Hitchcock makes the passage from one era to another…

I believe we are entering an era defined by the suspension of the visual”.[1] The focus of our discussion is going to be Hitchcock’s film Vertigo and the technical effects present as the helping elements to for movie perception. Vertigo is a psychological thriller which comprises an original idea, a telling title and the visual effects which contribute to the understanding of the main idea of the movie.

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The main purpose of this paper is to dwell upon the movie Vertigo and to understand its underlying theme, the role of lighting and cinematography effects in movie perception and to compare and contrast it to other films shot by the director in America.

Vertigo by Alfred Hitchcock: The Difference in Seeing and Being Seen Underlying Theme in Hitchcock’s Vertigo

Watching a movie Vertigo, a viewer remains in tension from the first minute up to its final scene. Hitchcock kept the viewer in guessing for some time, whether Madeleine and Judy was one and the same person.

Providing the audience with the story about a detective Scottie who had to retire from the police work because of the developing latent acrophobia and Madeleine/Judy who fell in love with each other but the strange story of Madeleine’s death does not allow Scottie and Judy be together. The finale of the movie is unpredictable as no one can expect that Judy is going to die.[2]

Still, a close consideration of the movie may provide us with some specific ideas which point to the underlying themes in the film. Hill and Helmers want to state that “Vertigo positions its viewers, its characters, Hitchcock, and its cinematic style in a matrix of ideological practices and rhetorical appeals analyzable as identification and division”.[3]

Much attention is paid to Scottie and his pure but at the same time imaginary identification. Hitchcock wanted to show the difference between something that was seen and that what desired to be seen. Identification of people and object is the central theme of the movie. The audience had to think thoroughly to understand the director’s plan.

The Role of Lighting and Cinematography Effects in Movie Perception

It is impossible to get the underlying idea of the film without discussing the techniques used there. Throughout the whole movie, the director implements a great variety of different visual techniques “to focus our attention on the psychological consequences of this desire for identification or identity”.[4]

The camera zoom, different visual effects, change of color, light and picture, and offline editing are the most important techniques which help the audience to understand the main idea of the movie. Here is a close consideration of each effect which adds to the understanding of the film.

There are a lot of different scenes when some objects become either lighter of darker. For example, there is moment when Madeleine is in the shot. In this very scene, the restaurant wall on the background becomes brighter.

The main idea of the light here is to underline the moment, and make the blurred red restaurant walls more visible. One of the main purposes of this effect is to “give a visual uplift, a small background effect which subtly enhances the emotional high-point to which this scene was lading”.[5]

The art of montage is magnificent in the film. There are a lot of different effects which seem simple for a modern viewer, but a close consideration of the quality and the period when the movie was shot may state this effect if magnificent.

For example, the highest effect from montage is achieved when the main character shadows his friend’s wife by car. Both the main character and the audience are confused whether the persecuted car is the necessary one or not.

Another good example of montage is achieved with Kim Novak. Hitchcock has managed to create a three-screen effect, when a “triadic image appears within the same picture”.[6] As a result, an actor (Novak) is seen in one and the same picture, as double, Madeleine and Judy.

The music effects also impress. The alteration of the sound pays attention to some specific scenes and events which take place in the movie, e.g. at the moment when Scottie sees Madeleine’s half-image, “the soundtrack moves from a believable representation of the restaurant environment to thy mysterious-romantic music which peaks at the moment when Scottie’s half-imaged view of Madeleine is most vivid”.[7]

The music volume also plays important role as when the sound increases, the viewers pay more attention to the events and shot than to others.

Camera is really important in this movie as Hitchcock has managed to use the camera as the part of the film. The main peculiarity f the place of the came in the movie is that it shoots “the processes”.[8] For example, returning to the same scene when Madeleine is standing on the background of the red restaurant wall, the camera shows Scottie’s face and eyes which “move away from camera to the bar” and then “bridges the cut to the next image of Madeleine in profile”.[9]

It is the moment when it seems that the eyes of Scottie and Madeleine might meet. But, “Madeleine’s forward-facing gaze is broken by her distracted look down and to her right, towards (but not at) the camera”.[10] Having considered these scenes, it may be concluded that the camera is the part of the movie, which might possess “both active and passive possibilities or ontological qualities”.[11] The so-called imaginary point of view becomes noticed when the gazes of Scottie and Judy almost meet.

“The camera captures a key image in that part of the scene which Scottie later recalls from his mind”.[12] This camera effect helps us see that this scene is more about Scottie’s thoughts and emotions, the reflection of his character.

Visual effects in the movie also add to the understanding of the understanding of the movie title and idea. Scottie feels vertigo when he has to look down from height as he has an acrophobia. The ability to zoom the camera makes us feel vertigo in reality. This effect is perfectly seen in the first scenes of the movie when Scottie’s partner dies and causes his acrophobia.

The Similarity of Vertigo with other Hitchcock’s Films

Almost all Hitchcock’s films are similar in the ideas, he was fond of shooting suspicious and psychological thrillers. Putting the visual effects as one of the main points of our discussion, it is important to state that Vertigo is very similar to Psycho.

A triadic image is seen when Perkins appears in doubles, as Bates and Mother.[13] The theme of “psychological consequences of seeing and being seen”[14] considered in Vertigo is highlighted in the other Hitchcock’s films, especially in Rear Window and Psycho.

Considering the main topics of these movies and the techniques used for their shooting, it may be concluded that the main message the author wanted to deliver is that that human desires may ruin everything what people desired. It seems that the problem of voyeurism and objectification is really important for the author, as he has implemented this theme in many American films.


Thus, it may be concluded that visual effects, camera movements, music sound and other techniques the director uses while shooting a film are extremely important for movie perception. We have based our attention on Alfred Hitchcock’s movie Vertigo and the effects the director used to reach the desired goal.

The film director wanted to show us the different between seeing and being seen. He managed to do this via numerous camera and visual effects which added to the understanding of the scenes. Lightening and sound were also important as they paid our attention to the specific profiles and shots.

Works Cited

Deutelbaum, Marshall and Leland A. Poague. A Hitchcock reader. New York: John Wiley and Sons, 2009. Print.

Gibbs, John and Douglas Pye. Style and meaning: studies in the detailed analysis of film. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2005. Print.

Hill, Charles A. and Marguerite H. Helmers. Defining visual rhetorics. London: Routledge, 2004. Print.

Orr, John. Hitchcock and twentieth-century cinema. London: Wallflower Press, 2005. Print.

Vertigo. Dir. Alfred Hitchcock. Perf. James Stewart, Kim Novak, and Barbara Bel Geddes. Paramount Pictures, 1958. Film.

Charles A. Hill and Marguerite H. Helmers, Defining visual rhetorics (London: Routledge, 2004) 111.
Vertigo, dir. Alfred Hitchcock, perf. James Stewart, Kim Novak, and Barbara Bel Geddes. Paramount Pictures, 1958.
Hill and Helmers, 119.
John Gibbs and Douglas Pye, Style and meaning: studies in the detailed analysis of film (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2005) 93.
John Orr, Hitchcock and twentieth-century cinema (London: Wallflower Press, 2005) 128.
Gibbs and Pye, 94.
Marshall Deutelbaum and Leland A. Poague, A Hitchcock reader (New York: John Wiley and Sons, 2009) 235.
Gibbs and Pye, 93.
Deutelbaum and Poague, 241.
Gibbs and Pye, 94
Orr, 128.
Hill and Helmers, 111.


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