That curl in the hair

 just a small detail in Vertigo…

This spiral form is of course one of the most important visual motif of the film, announced in the very beginning by Saul Bass and Whitney’s credit sequence. It is also, as Hitchcock himself remarks later to Truffaut, the last piece of garment that Judy has to take off, which she has been resisting all along, for Scottie to claim her. It is a spiral that leads to a hole, which can be metaphorically read as female sexual organ, or this abyss to which he is falling into. Literally, Scottie won’t have her until she acquires that hole. Curiously the direction of this curl changes every time to accommodate the viewer. It was at the back of the head in the museum, towards the right at the Ernie’s, and towards the left on the painting.

Notice too how the two shots in the Ernie’s change. In the one ends the camera movement, the hole is still towards the back, and there is strong back lighting on her shoulder. As she stops, the light in the background noticeably increases. In the one that is supposed to intensify Scottie’s gaze, however, a different (longer) lens is used, which further blurs the background (notice the enlarged halo of the wall lamps). The back lighting is reduced. But most important of all, and quite noticeable for everyone, is the background is illuminated to the point that the hue of the red simple changes, from a purple-ish red to a much warmer kind of red.

The decision to film Novak in profile is a very intriguing one to me. Not that we cannot find an easy explanation for it. We might conveniently believe that this is a POV shot of Scottie, as he is sitting at that position in relation to her. But let us not forget he is facing the bar. Although he turns his head half way to her, he cannot really see her profile if she stops right behind him. In fact, the shot immediately follows her stop is one in which Scottie’s eyes roll left, which makes it further improbably that the next shot, which is the “intensified” one, be literally Scottie’s POV. As she turns her head right in this shot, the film cuts to Scottie again, who is turning his head towards left. Notice too that next shot (a match on action) returns to the previous lens — it is safe to say the two shots belong to the same sequence and the intensified shot is an insert — and she now shows us her left profile which is much less glamorous because of the key light is now on the back of her head and her face is in shadow.

There is also a possible revision of the POV logic that can be offered, namely, even if he doesn’t really see her in that position, he senses her with his whole body. He senses her presence in proximity. And such sensation is so strong that it resembles vision. He believes that he sees her, whereas he is only imaging. For him, Madelene is always an image, an image he later tries to rebuild from Judy. Madelene, too, is a derivative of an image, that of Carlotta. Therefore there is this chain of image-making here, from Hitchcock to Alster, and finally to Scottie. We, as the audience, of course is given vision; but this vision has to be translated to to its original form, that is, not vision but a bodily sensation. This also explains the use of long lens and the much warmer color, since the body cannot really see except in its proximity.

The point of this sequence, however, is about how LOGIC is defied. The scene overwhelms us with the emotional charge of the image that the various justifications are only superficially important. The profile is intensely erotic; that’s the main impact of the sequence. It is a pattern that occurs at various points of the film.

All of these shots can be justified as POV shots. Hitchcock has never once violated our sense of diegetic reality. But every time she conveniently stops, even if momentarily, for us to fully appreciate this profile. There is an intention; not coincidence. What becomes obvious now is this is a formal pattern. It becomes an emblem of the mystery woman: unfathomable creature that does not look at us.

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