My Thoughts on “Vertigo” (1958) and the Mysterious, Unattainable Woman

About two weeks ago my film class was assigned to watch Vertigo for the feminist film theory portion of the class. Since my initial viewing I had done some reading on the basis of the theme and found it interesting, yet not enough to go back and rewatch it. But now I had to go back and rewatch it, which, if anything, is always a beneficial experience.

I didn’t expect to feel the way I did once the film ended though. Perhaps I felt the way I did because I am much more conscious of who I am now (how I dress myself, apply my makeup, AKA live my life as a woman conscious of my appearance) than I did just two years ago. (Because who can focus on your apparel when you’re forced to wear a uniform?) Anyways, I felt so uneasy after Vertigo that I spent a good thirty minutes thinking about it before I fell asleep.

I’m not sure if I’m just rebellious or truly feel this way, but whatever the case I don’t think it’s 100% fair to label Hitchcock as a misogynist either (see previous post about Altman). In terms of labeling a director as misogynistic, I feel that there are many different angles or viewpoints for the word, such as what happens to the women in the film, how they are contrasted to the men, their particular role in the film, their relationship to the men, etc. However, I do not find enough logic in saying that a film or a director is misogynistic by simply placing the female as secondary to the male or for the character to die at the end. For in Vertigo, I see Hitchcock condemning the male if anything else. Jimmy Stewart is the perfect actor for this role because he is the opposite of what the viewer is used to him as, that is the everyday American good ol’ boy (read that in Jimmy’s voice and I think we’re all set).

Kim Novak (especially as Madeleine) is stunning and I think even a better choice as Madeleine/Judy than Grace Kelly would have been, as at the time Novak was still pretty new to cinema, thus more mysterious. This idea of the elusive woman is what upsets me the most. Perhaps from this point on my post will be a bit narcissistic but, nevertheless, we all go into a film with our own experiences and thoughts and come out with a different reaction, and this is mine.

As Vertigo demonstrates, fashion itself is created and determined by male’s fantasy and erotic desire; even something so inherently feminine is still under the control of men. To me that’s frightening when I think of the reasons why I dress the way I do. Unlike what some people may think, I dress and apply my makeup for my confidence alone, not to attract men (which, okay fine, we do have certain men that we’re attracted to and want to dress nice for but that’s not in opposition to my argument). The basis of why I dress the way I do is for pure confidence and identity alone.

For me, I am drawn towards the look of the mysterious, unknown woman, which lord knows I am not, nor would Hitchcock ever dream of labeling me as such, but still. It’s a life goal because it’s the style I like. Yet in reality, as all women are, I am Judy. Hitchcock reveals right away that even Judy is not Madeleine, despite the fact that she “was” Madeleine. What we are painfully about to see is the male’s desire to dress up the real as the elusive. The idea that the elusive reigns, this nonexistent woman, is what (real) women are always in competition with and never win. I think specifically of the scene between Scottie and Midge when Midge paints the portrait of her as Carlotta. Scottie is obviously upset and deeply disturbed by the idea of Midge as Carlotta that he has to leave the room. But Hitchcock doesn’t follow him out the door; instead the viewer stays in the room with Midge to watch her frustrated reaction of “oh, you fool! Idiot! Stupid, stupid!”

So why am I so upset about this? After much contemplation I think I’ve got it. Here I am, a girl drawn towards the mysterious look (maybe because of the contours of my face? My admiration for the actresses of Old Hollywood cinema ex. Lauren Bacall? I really don’t know) yet I’m told that it’s unachievable. It’s a conflicting issue because the idea of the desire for the elusive is not real, yet I strive for it because like it, not because a guy will like it. Yet, it is the thing that men desire. Obviously I know the elusive is not real because I am not elusive or one-sided. It is not that woman does not exist, it is that the woman that men want does not exist. Women, just like men, are people, not some mythical creature. We have thoughts, opinions, hopes, desires, emotions etc. just like anyone else, thus putting a screeching halt to Scottie’s “It can’t matter to you.” The fact that Judy allows Scottie to dress her up as he wants is utterly terrifying. If she doesn’t let Scottie do what she wants, then he won’t love her. Yet, even when she does and he learns of the truth, it is not good enough.

People interpret Judy’s death as she fell off the tower, but I read it as she pushed away from Scottie. If Judy truly wanted to stay with Scottie (patriarchal control), I feel she would have pushed herself closer to Scottie versus running from the object that appears in the shadows. Scottie is angered that Madeleine is not real and takes it out on Judy. However, in the end, all the women leave Scottie and he is left no one. Judy presents to me that women (in this film at least) will go to their death to escape the abusive, twisted control of men.

The reason I can’t let Hitchcock be labeled as misogynist because not only he is so self-aware of what he is doing, but he is also aware of patriarchal control’s affect on women. There is a unusual close up on Midge that happens twice that happens in the beginning of the film. It occurs when Scottie casual asks “weren’t we engaged at one point?” The camera immediately cuts to a close-up of Midge’s face, specifically at an acute high angle just above her glasses. Her tone holds back so much repressed anger that Scottie isn’t aware of, and we’re only aware of it due to the close-up that shows her tensed, angered face. It’s the minute detail that Scottie unsurprisingly misses. I feel this shot wouldn’t have even happened nor thought of if Hitchcock was misogynistic.

Personally, I don’t think this specific concept of Vertigo is something that men can completely grasp or understand for it’s something only women can understand. Yet as I say that, it is Hitchcock, a man, who directed this film. But as women, we’ve grown up with certain standards and images that completely differ from those of men’s. It almost feels like deceit because, what Vertigo suggests, is that it’s not women who created it, but men. In short, Vertigo raises questions about female image that I don’t think any other film will raise for me because Hitchcock is probably the only person that can do it.