Study Guide

Vertigo Production Design

Production Design

Vertigo was filmed in color, in VistaVision, the wide-screen format Hitchcock preferred.

Location, Location, Location

San Francisco, here we come. Scottie follows Madeleine all through the city and to some of the famous scenery around the area. Without having to spring for a plane ticket, we get to see the steep curvy San Francisco streets, the redwood forests (Big Basin Redwoods State Park standing in for Muir Woods), Cypress Point on the scenic 17-mile drive near Monterey, beautiful old Spanish Missions, the famous Legion of Honor art museum, and the iconic Golden Gate Bridge.

Location shooting started in September 1957 and moved to the Paramount studio a couple of weeks later. Hitchcock built sets on the Paramount soundstages for many of the interior scenes, including the climactic scene in the bell tower of the Mission San Juan Bautista. Hitchcock built a bell tower for the mission, whose steeple had been torn down, and used the replica and matte paintings to set the scene.

Point of View

Another key feature of Hitch's filmmaking involves point of view shots. Think of the number of times we see the world through Scottie's eyes—whether he's experiencing vertigo hallucinations, thinking he sees Madeleine after his release from the psych ward, or finally seeing Judy magically emerge from the bathroom, bathed in that foggy green glow, transformed into Madeleine.

Hitchcock made use of a lot of visual tricks and effects to connect us to Scottie's distorted view of reality. He shot Kim Novak through a fog filter to give her a dreamlike quality (source). Some of the effects, like the nightmare sequence, might strike us as a little tacky, spoiled as we are by CGI, but they were innovative at the time—think of the opening title sequence with its swirling spirals and blinking eyeball.

In the scene where Scottie and Judy, finally remade as Madeleine, kiss, Judy's apartment suddenly becomes the setting of the mission where Scottie and Madeline first kissed as the two sets swirl around them. The actors were on a revolving platform; Jimmy Stewart got a mild but real case of vertigo and fell off the platform at one point. He was probably really relieved that shooting finished three days later, just before Christmas, 1957. (Source)

The Dolly Zoom

If while watching Vertigo you're thinking you should get your glasses prescription checked, then Hitchcock has you right where he wants you. Vertigo marked the introduction of a camera technique called the dolly zoom, which Hitchcock used in a bunch of his films. In a dolly zoom shot, the lens zooms in while the camera moves back, or vice versa. The effect is one of altering normal perception, so that the objects look distorted in their relationship to the background. It's a way of conveying confusion, fear, disorientation, a sense of falling, etc.

The dolly zoom is sometimes called the Vertigo effect, and plenty of directors have used it since then. Remember the scene in Jaws where Chief Brody watches the shark kill the boy on the raft? We know you do. That's the dolly zoom.

The Famous Flashback Controversy

Hitchcock thought that the way to build suspense was to give the audience information that the characters didn't have. That way, we know what's about to happen and are on the edge of our seats until the situation's resolved.

His famous example: some people are sitting around a table having a discussion. An unseen bomb under the table goes off and blows everyone to pieces. The audience has 5 seconds of surprise. Now take those same people and same bomb, but show the audience a bomb under the table set to go off at noon. Place a clock in the scene that tells us it's 11:55 AM. Now you've given the audience 5 minutes of terrifying suspense. They're engaged—they want to yell at the screen to warn the people. They don't know what will happen. That's the reaction that Hitch was after: suspense, not surprise.

Judy's flashback in voiceover, where she reveals her and Elster's deception at the bell tower, is the perfect example of Hitch's signature suspense-building move: we know what Scottie doesn't, and we're chewing our fingernails waiting to see if he'll find out and how he'll react. It's a surprise, then, to learn that Hitchcock agreed to release a version without this scene. He screened the film for some of the producers without the scene, and a decision was made to send the film out for processing with the big reveal deleted and the secret only discovered during the final moments of the film. (Source)

There was intense disagreement about it, and at the last minute, the print was recalled and the scene added back in. Journalist Dan Auiler had a chance to interview screenwriter Samuel Taylor, who confirmed that the scene had definitely been in the original script, but that Hitch got "cold feet" about it. An associate producer told Auiler that the Paramount Studios head had screened the film a short time afterward without the reveal, and that everyone hated it, so Balaban forced Hitchcock to restore the scene.

It's hard to know exactly what happened, because years later, Hitchcock never claimed to have cut the scene. In fact he told French director Francois Truffaut: "everybody was shocked when I said, 'I'm going to spill the whole story now,' soon after we started the second story [where Judy enters the film]. I'm going to tell all. They [the studio] said, 'What, give the whole thing away now?' I said, yes." (Source)

Today, most critics agree that without the revelation scene, the film would never have been considered one of the greatest of all time. What's your take on it? There are tons of articles written just about this controversy—great essay topic if you ever need one.

Crime Shouldn't Pay

The producers had some concerns about what foreign censors might think about the fact that Elster managed to murder his wife and get away with it. Hitchcock, therefore, shot an alternate ending set in Midge's apartment at some point after Judy's death.

Midge is anxiously listening to the radio and hears that Elster's fled to Switzerland but the authorities are confident about finding him and extraditing him back to the U.S. She turns off the radio and Scottie walks into the apartment. Wordlessly, she makes him a drink and together they stare out the window at the city below. Apparently, Scottie survived his latest trauma instead of following Judy off the tower.

The film was released in Europe in 1958 with this ending. You can see it on the DVD, but it was never included in the U.S. theatrical release.

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