Ominous Close-Ups, Contrasting Colors, and Formalism Technique in “Vertigo” (1958): Hitchcock

Written by: Jenna Moloney

This piece was written with the help of the book “Understanding Movies,” written by Louis Giannetti. I highly recommend this book for anyone studying cinema in depth. I will be discussing the movie “Vertigo,” directed by Alfred Hitchcock in 1958. Hitchcock was most famous for his use of suspense to make his films effective. I will be exploring three major aspects that made the movie successfully suspenseful: the use of close-up and extreme close-up shots, the contrasting colors shown through different mediums, and an overall formalism technique through sequencing.

  1. Close-ups

The movie begins with an image of a person’s cheek. The person appears to be a Caucasian female. The extreme close-up of her face is displayed using a filter that makes it look a blue-ish gray, creating an ominous feel. Filters “intensify given qualities and suppress others.” (Giannetti, 29). In this image, the filter is intensifying the creepy feel of the woman and suppressing her pretty looks.

The scene doesn’t just consist of one extreme close-up, but five. The woman’s cheek is first, followed by her lips, nose, her moving eyes, and then one still eye. As the camera moves, the audience puts the pieces together and realizes that this woman looks frightened. “The closer the shot, the more intense the emotion.” (Giannetti, 11). In this extreme close-up, the woman looks scared and trapped, as if she is unable to move anything but her eyes and her trembling lips.

After the camera is finished moving, it stays locked on the woman’s eye. Then the whole screen shifts from it’s dull blue color to a bright red. “Red is…the color of danger. Of violence. Of blood.” (Giannetti, 24). This shift communicates to the audience, before the movie even truly begins, that danger is near. The red color symbolizes the fear that various characters feel during the film and may even be foreshadowing the deaths that occur.

Lastly, it is my assumption that the extreme close-ups are shown in high contrast. The lighting is even on the woman’s face, but every single mark or line that may not even be visible if she were standing in front of you is exaggerated. Every freckle/mole on her cheeks is extremely dark, the creases in her lips are very visible, and you can see every single eyelash on her eyelids. This harsh light/dark technique only adds to the fright, suggesting the woman is fully exposed to the scenario around her.

Overall, the director uses these four techniques to introduce the film in an ominous way. If a director can make the audience feel a certain way before the plot even begins, s/he has already accomplished something. Setting the mood for a movie is very important as it keeps the viewers feeling frightened yet confused. It is the perfect way to get them to keep watching, as they must find out what happens.

2. Colors

Onto the next topic, there are two specific images with contrasting colors that symbolize two different things. The first image is when John follows Madeline into the flower shop. As he is following her, the halls are not lit very well and the shadows are very dark, as if they are dark people following him. The low key lighting makes the overall feel of the scene sinister. The scene intensifies as John opens the door, but what he sees is surprising. The room is well lit (high key lighting), and the flowers are all bright, cheerful colors, including pink, purple, yellow, green, etc. The contrasting colors shown in these two images completely shift the mood of the entire scene, and the audience can almost breathe a sigh of relief. The setup made it seem like danger was near, but the cheerful flower shop showed otherwise.

The other image with contrasting colors is when John follows Madeline back to a house. The entire neighborhood consists of colored houses, creating a cheerful mood. However, the one they park in front of is dark. Not only does this contribute to the sinister mood of the entire film, but it also suggests that the rest of the world is proceeding as usual, and other people in the neighborhood are happy, except for those that reside in the dark house.

When John follows Madeline into the Church, there is one shot of him from a low angle. This low angle shot makes John look powerful and dominant. Behind him are trees and the Church, which don’t look quite as tall as him in the moment due to the way the camera is placed. The director puts this shot here as a suggestion that John is not backing down from this chase, and that perhaps he is close to figuring something out. This technique is wise because what he ends up “discovering” ends up being not actually true in the end, and John, as well as the audience, are misled.

Lastly, lighting plays a very important role throughout the entire film, but what particular moment in this sequence that portrays this is when John and Madeline are in the book shop. While they are in there discussing the problems at hand, the scene is shot in very low key lighting, making the scene dark and consistent with the frightening theme. However, as soon as they leave the shop and they are standing outside, the lights within the shop look bright, as if it was illuminated in that room the entire time. This contrast could make the audience feel confused.

All of the techniques mentioned above help the director to stay consistent in the overall ominous theme of the movie. Dark lighting, contrasting colors, and angles that make a person look dominating all contribute to this theme.

3. Formalism

To conclude our topics on this film, a bird’s eye view shot is used after the real Madeline falls to her death. It lets the audience look down on what is happening as if they are in a helicopter. This allows the viewers to see three things at once, even though they are occurring on all different sides of the building: Madeline’s dead body, John leaving the building and running away, and people trying to climb a ladder to find Madeline’s body. “Bird’s-eye shots permit us to hover above a scene like all-powerful gods. The people photographed seem vulnerable and insignificant.” (Giannetti, 13). This technique allows the audience to feel detached from what has happened and simply watch the aftermath unfold.

After this scene, John is shown laying in bed. A close-up of him in this scene shows the fear in his eyes as he is reliving the death of his lover. After this, various shapes of bright colors in a dark tunnel are shown. Then, multiple scenes including flashbacks and things that never even happened are shown. This sequence would not make sense in reality, but the director shows these scenes as if they are a dream of the main character. Contrasting from realism, this is an example of formalism. “Formalists…are often concerned with spiritual and psychological truths, which they can feel can be conveyed best by distorting the surface of the material world.” (Giannetti, 2). Not only does Hitchcock use this technique to distort heights (to appear higher) every time John’s phobia acts up on him again, but he also uses it in this dream sequence, showing things that could never really happen and moving colorful shapes to show disorientation, emotional pain, and a newfound psychological problem.

Hitchcock uses out of the box formalism techniques to portray John’s newfound psychological issue. The sequence is unrealistic and frightening, keeping the audience’s attention while advancing the plot as well.

2 Responses

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