*This was a video originally published on the Media Maven Youtube Channel in 2018 in collaboration with Wild Cat Film, LLC.
Conversations In Color: Vertigo
written by: Carlotta Summers
Let’s look at how color can help a movie tell a story.
In film history dating from the silent era, there has been a great deal of experimentation in producing color films. There was the stencil process in 1905, where a copy of the original film was made, sections cut out, and placed under a machine to stencil in the appropriate colors (fun fact by 1910, they had over 400 women working in sweatshops to carry this out). And various other dyes and chemicals where often experimented with to produce certain colors.
Out of all of the techniques that have come and gone, Technicolor always had a profound effect on me. Implemented in 1922 - 1952 it is most recognized in films such as The Wizard of Oz, Gone with the Wind, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Ben Hur, and even a film noir or two such as Leave Her To Heaven. But the film that has always stood out to me is Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo.
In the film, a former police detective wrestles with his personal demons and becomes obsessed with a hauntingly beautiful woman. At the risk of sounding ironic: I am obsessed with this film, but for different reasons. It is one of the few films where its imperfections (whatever they may be) actually add to its evocative, unsettling nature. What really stands out to me is the coloring.
Hitchcock had a preoccupation with a red, gold, and green color palette and was insistent on using this in Vertigo. I remember the famous revelation of Kim Novak’s character, Judy, after her final transformation. Like some sort of phantasmagoria, surrounded by a green light as if she were an alien being exiting a spacecraft or a butterfly emerging from its chrysalis. Where the imperfect Judy, bathed in green, transforms into the fantasy of Madeleine. Interestingly enough, originally this scene was not written this way. According to Vertigo: The Making of A Hitchcock Classic, by Dan Auiler, the screenplay at first read: “Scottie watches as she picks up a couple of pins from a glass tray and scoops a hand full of hair...Judy slowly turns from the mirror to face him. She looks exactly like Madeleine…” The scene was then changed to “give the director the opportunity to realize [Madeline’s] reemergence in a single breath taking shot.”
Despite the negative connotations this transformation would have today, a woman changing herself in order to gain the love of a man, this is exactly what makes the piece as vital to our culture as it is right now. There are lessons that are presented by the creator. And the green color that is associated with the character Madeline throughout, suggests an almost abnormal obsession any normal human could potentially have with the idea of their “ideal” partner. This is what happens to Scottie as he pursues the eternal feminine fantasy.
Madeleine's primary color green, is often in contrast with its complementary color, Red. Historically, green is often associated with mother nature, youth, vigor, and safety, while red’s emotionally intense visuals signify passion, danger, desire, blood, heat, or allure.
It is widely received that the colors foreshadow the imminent danger that will soon befall Madeline in the end.
Maybe what Hitchcock is subconsciously trying to convey is the danger behind familiarity. And how we can become obsessed with the things that seem comforting. How something so intrinsic can actually be harmful.
Judy’s transformation then begs the question: what makes a person? What parts of yourself do you sacrifice when entering into any serious relationship? And can you truly change yourself to make someone love you?
Hitchcock treats each frame like a tableau or painting. There is a focal point in every painting and in Vertigo it inevitably leads you Madeline. Hitchcock uses color to draw the eye to the same attraction that the protagonist is drawn to. In this scene where Scottie is spying on her having dinner, her skin even seems to burn red with warmth and attraction.
The reds can be seen as the virility Scottie longs to have and Madeline as the eternal woman who brings it out. Midge, his former on again off again…friend…is often adorned in and surrounded by dull pastels signifying a warn out libido. It is only when she tries to bring out more of this passion by, literally inserting herself into the picture that she is adorned with a bright red and the rejection of her in this color, allows us to conclude that Scottie is uninterested. But the color itself is also alarming, signifying danger as Scottie walks across the red floors giving a sense of foreshadowing danger, also most like lava where Scottie can’t help but tread on the heels of trouble.
The infamous grey suit which Kim Novak, the actress playing Madeline and Judy, detested when first being brought onto the project, grew on her. And by grew on her, I mean she was eventually charmed by costume designer Edith Head when she suggested the color of the suit was specifically chosen because of its simplicity and according to Hitch, “represented the character’s view of herself in the first half of the film, the character would then go through a more psychological change in the second half of the film and would wear more colorful clothes to reflect the change.” Novak acquiesced and we can see that awkwardness played out on the screen, as if the character herself, sensed she was an imposter, imitating a dream.
The white Madeline wears as she walks through the forest, like a ghost, tormented by images of the past can be related to Scotties own struggle with finding himself. Tania Modleski, author of, The Women Who Knew Too Much Hitchcock and Feminist Perspective Theory states, “It is as if [Scottie] were continually confronted with the fact that women’s uncanny otherness has some relation to himself, that he resembles her in ways intolerable to contemplate—intolerable because this resemblance throws into question his own fullness of being.” The color helps support this theory as Scottie seems ever drawn to her ghost like figure as it wisps through the Forrest. White, in many Eastern Cultures is also the symbol of death, which could be directly foreshadowing what is to come. It also give credit to the idea that Scottie is obsessed with his own annihilation as we look at the infamous dream sequence, where a replica of his tiny body is shown wreathing like a cockroach, under a microscope, absconded by a white light. White being the color of death and him being swallowed into the darkness.
Notice as well, how Madeline’s coat covers a black chiffon dress signifying a foreboding darkness underneath a pristine innocent exterior.
This is also replicated by the lavender gloves Judy wears as she jumps into the San Francisco bay in contrast with the lavender dress she wears at dinner as Judy. Look there are a lot of clothing references all symbolizing little pieces of her illusion which are hidden in plane sight and eventually come into being.
Even the mood of Vertigo is heightened by the absence of color with the interplay of darkness and light. And in the darker moments, such as in the forest, how light tries to break through into the darkness but can barely come through. Or the very end where color seems to be completely absent, as Scottie delves deeper into darkness. Juxtaposing with the film’s richer colors, such a stark contrast at the end lets the audience melt into a darker more aggressive reality.
I could go on an on about how Hitchcock uses color to symbolize the parts of ourselves that we imprint on others by showcasing colors associated with certain characters on one another, or how he manages to make even the lightest tones, such as his meeting with Elster suspenseful, or how he influences our very mood with the blues surrounding Scottie as he’s facing his inquest signifying his transition into depression, but we have run out of time.
Ultimately, for me, Hitchcock's Vertigo is about death. It is about the psychological toll the idea of death can take, as experienced in the loss of a loved one or even in the demise of your own self conception. Such thoughts can transform you. And all this can be seen... no felt, through the use of color.