Holding On to the Opening Minutes of Vertigo


by Daniel Bosch

Against a black background, part of the face of a fair-skinned woman. The tone and texture of her skin. The curve of her lips. Especially the black of her eyes — as if we could look through her. All these exceed not only what we expect to see when we begin to watch a film, but what we desire to see. Even before the camera slowly swings upward from her mouth to her eyes, even before we realize that those are not opaque black pits but irises, the first frames of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo have made us conscious of how a camera and a screen limit and fix visual perception — even with all their jump cuts, films concentrate better than we do. And so it is strangely a relief to fall as we do into the pupil of the eye that Hitchcock’s camera enters. Finally we do not have to look so closely at such a disturbing reality as that woman’s face.  Finally the music, a spell which is only now being cast, shifts from anxious repetition into a broader flow and resolve. Finally we move into a realm we can identify as “imaginative” or “fantastic,” a world where our perceptual fears and obsessions are sublimated into abstracted representations of our real concerns.

Such a world can hold Hitchcock’s attention for only so long. The succession of colored forms that flows past as we fall toward them during the credits — each composed of layered or spiraled parallel shapes — comes to an end. We expect this. He’s taken us, for a few seconds, out of this world, but we know that the “movie” — and our paradoxical return to something closer to “reality” — should begin any second.

A horizontal bar halves the screen. Suddenly everything is like the camera, completely still.

We look up, we look down — but the bar is all we can visually grab hold of. What we want — the world — is behind this bar, vague and blurry, out of reach. Or we are the ones behind bars, kept from reaching the world.

Then the hand — but hold on — there’s another. Both of them arrive from the other side: our threshold for entrance into the movie has become a literal threshold for human presence. [1] Not abstract forms, but human parts — and soon, we are promised, human beings. The hands clamp themselves side by side, a pair, tight about the bar (“Two together are always going somewhere,” Madeline will say.) Now, because the camera moves, we can read that dark horizontal as the top rung of an access ladder or fire-escape, the blurry world “behind” it as the perspectivally obscured backdrop. And though the image (due its relative ambiguity) is startlingly effective for us, as viewers, those hands are about to be revealed to be parts of a very pressing problem.

They are too close together for fast climbing. To pull one’s body up by both hands (as one might do a chin-up) is no way to get to the top of a ladder. The man to whom these particular hands belong demonstrates this for us as he strains at the bar. As we will see, this is not a “normal” situation, but an emergency. But only when the pair of hands finally manages to raise the diminutive, light-clothed body from which it extends up and across the threshold at the top of the ladder will the camera draw back and make that ladder our threshold too, will the camera allow us to locate this rung, these hands, and that body within the more “realistic” space where plot begins and our attention to abstract and allegorical play of signs must recede.

But hold on. As soon as that threshold is broached, another body appears, this one black-clothed, a black gun thick in the white skin of its right hand, and our reading of the essential details is once again obscured by perspective, which always brings narrative with it. Now we can identify the first body as “the pursued,” and some of our response to the film’s first recalcitrant images shifts from the phenomenological to the generic. Even though the pursued is lighter, smaller, less threatening than the hulking badge of darkness that rises in its wake, it’s “cops and robbers time,” a “chase scene.” The pursuer does not climb by holding tightly, by fixing himself momentarily — like the pursued — but more quickly, with greater agility. The long arms of the law do not enter the film as abstracted, nearly disembodied parts, but as the ranging extensions of an ambling whole. But then they belong to the system of justice, wear the uniform of the institutional right. Hitchcock’s contrast of these two bodies suggests that the first body is tired, awkward, and likely to get caught. Again a focused visual detail describes our own human relation to the film as a whole — and again we feel this, though we cannot know it yet.

But hold on: even the pursuer is pursued. A third body emerges from the non-space at the edge of the building, and the first of many triangulated human relationships in Vertigo is established. Genre helps us to recognize this body, of course, as “the detective” — he’s neither as white nor as black as suspect or cop;  he’s a man with both hands free like the pursued, but who climbs like the pursuer.  The effectiveness of this body depends in part on its ability to blend the roles it so faithfully and literally follows: the detective’s “uniform” is, like his position in the chase, defined by custom and tradition. A detective follows the patrol officer to the scene of a crime. That patrol officer will follow the trail of the suspect, but only up to a point. Then the detective follows the trail left by both suspect and officer. Like us, the detective watches the chase scene. Like us, he is a partially distanced participant, occupying an ambivalent position, wearing a neutral color. And also like us, the detective, the third man, is the one upon whom the responsibility for a higher evaluation of the situation rests. (“After all,” Scottie will say, “I’m a man of independent means. . . mostly independent, anyhow.”)

A broad patterning of “normal” institutionalized relations has been established — but only to be tested. Genre seems to answer a lot of the questions Hitchcock’s opening images raise. But still the visual representation differs and exceeds, defers any sense of making ourselves comfortable here. Normal as it might be, after all, for a suspected criminal to be anxious, agitated, chased — the usual color pattern of light for good and dark for bad is reversed. Normal as it might be for two law officers to pursue a suspect across a difficult landscape, this particular landscape is wildly uneven, treacherous. To have arrived in this world of heightened activity and excitement, this world on top of the world (yet it is the only world the film has presented to us), puts all three bodies at peril. The “landscape” seems to shift as they cross it — as stones might in a brook. (“I have fallen in before,” Madeline will say, “but only crossing a stream from stone to stone.”) Indeed the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge looming in the background, touching down at man-made Treasure Island, suggests the nature of their crossing. Using the top of the city for the site of his “chase scene,” Hitchcock has already remembered the bar that had seemed to bridge the sides of the screen, the instability he had charged the blurred surrounding space with. The bar is the bridge: heavy, metal, stable; and yet at the same time the bar is the range of edges, levels, and elided precipices over which the bodies run — the only thing they have that will hold them up.

Shots are fired: “one! two! ” — a sonic image of the strength of the adversarial relationship between suspect and cop. The detective still trails, his relationship unvoiced, but constant. A succession of leaps is made: “one! two! and three! ” But not quite three. White makes it across. Black makes it across. Gray slips, unable to get a purchase on the other side, to make the jump that the others have managed. Now the detective’s difference is clear: the landscape exceeded his physical capabilities as it exceeds the viewer’s. Now another emergency, another pair of hands is forced into the chin-up position. Now another pair of eyes confronts the dangerous edges we knew were there, but that the bodies had to forget in order to function. The world where that can be a mode of “normal” operation has ended for the detective — and for us as well. In these first few moments of Vertigo we have seen how that detective operated in the old, time-honored manner (“Men could do that in those days,” Pop will say, “They had the freedom and the power.”) Now this manner will be nothing but how it “used to be”—an ideal beyond human reach that will take on physical signs (a cane, a corset) and become an obsession for Scottie Ferguson and ourselves and as we further come to know him, and the complex identification with him that Hitchcock offers us (“There’s no losing it,” Midge will say.)

Scottie hangs from a gutter. He doesn’t scream. He looks down. Suddenly the “ground” rises, his body swims. He practically swoons: the “chase scene” is over. Genre collapses. [2] Again the landscape is a bar — the detective clutches at what for him is the edge of the world. Like Scottie, we can see only the visually phenomenal, can feel only the excessive visual gravity which pulls our eyes toward the ground, toward imminent death.[3] And if we are not sure how imminent death is, it doesn’t take long for it to arrive. The cop now must turn his attention from the suspect and focus on the detective, must put his gun down and lean his black body out and across the peaked roof from which his “superior” hangs. (“I want you , Scottie,” Gavin Elster will say.)

Strangely enough, it is the detective that will survive this encounter. The black and white world doesn’t really mix with the gray—at least not if it wants to survive. The patrol officer’s long arm now extends itself not to apprehend, but to rescue. “Give me your hand!” he tells the detective.

“Give me your hand!” But this is the opening of Vertigo, and a heightened awareness of the landscape has frozen the detective. His hands are locked on that gutter and the gutter below him has a lock on his eyes. The cop grimaces horribly. Stretching himself out heroically to grip the detective, his grip on the heights gives and he falls — passing over the very body he had desired to pull to safety. Law and order takes a beating in this chase scene. The suspect vanishes, the patrolman falls to the alley far below, the story of this moment is entirely the detective’s to construct.

Except for us, on the other side of the bar. We are the only other ones who know: even if we don’t know vertigo, we already know Vertigo. (“The Chinese say that once you save a person’s life you’re responsible for it for ever,” Scottie will say.) We know that in this world of strange landscapes — where black and white kinds of distinctions blur, fall away, and escape us — that how we perceive the world will determine to some extent whether we are able to do any more than merely “hold on.” When the black body has fallen to the solider reality below the detective, Hitchcock makes it seem to rise, to surround him, and its blackness expands to fill the screen, leaving Scottie hanging there. In minutes, Hitchcock has conditioned us to know that to have Vertigo is to feel a radical limitation of our perceptive faculties; to be forced to admit, as the detective is, that the world at times exceeds what we can physically make of it (or do about it). In Vertigo there is little to hold onto that matters. And there is too much.

For Edward Snow.

Images from Vertigo, Paramount Pictures, 1958


[1] My analysis here underplays the mediating presence of the camera: a sense, an eye, which moves while and when we don’t, looks where we wouldn’t, and remains conscious when that might be all but impossible for ourselves. Though I believe the “behavior” of Hitchcock’s camera is anthropomorphic, I am not sure that it doesn’t deserve at least the attention we might pay, were we discussing a piece of verse, to what we would suppose to be its “speaker.”

[2] i.e. The thief escapes, the patrolman fails, the detective (we learn seconds later) falls.

[3] Regarding this pre-“occupation” (Scottie had formerly been a “real” detective) with imminent death, Edward Snow has called attention to Scottie’s pronounced tendency to stand and look down–a tendency echoed and emphasized by Vertigo’s final image.  Is he looking because he needs reassurance? Because he is the gray one (neither black nor white) who is ambivalent, unsure, from the very beginning?

About the Author:

Daniel Bosch’s poems and translations have been published in journals such as Poetry, Slate, The Times Literary Supplement, Agni, The Beloit Poetry Journal, The New Republic and The Paris Review. He was Poetry Editor at Harvard Review for issues 19 and 20. In 1998 he was awarded the Boston Review Poetry Prize for a set of poems riffing on films starring Tom Hanks, and his first collection of poems, Crucible, was published by Other Press in 2002.  Recent essay-reviews by Daniel can be read at Artsfuse, Contemporary Poetry Review, The Critical Flame, The Rumpus and The Fortnightly Review. He lives in Chicago.