In this post, I will be applying Laura Mulvey’s theories from Visual Pleasures and Narrative Cinema to Vertigo (A. Hitchcock. 1958).
“In a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female. The determining male gaze projects its phantasy on to the female figure which is styled accordingly. In their traditional exhibitionist role women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness. Woman displayed as sexual object is the leit-motif of erotic spectacle: from pin-ups to strip-tease, from Ziegfeld to Busby Berkeley, she holds the look, plays to and signifies male desire. Mainstream film neatly combined spectacle and narrative. The presence of woman is an indispensable element of spectacle in normal narrative film, yet her visual presence tends to work against the development of a story line, to freeze the flow of action in moments of erotic contemplation.” (Mulvey, 1975: 11)
Mulvey’s essay is all about how woman are looked at and displayed in cinema, which is pretty much what Vertigo is about. In a nutshell, Vertigo is about an ex-cop, John “Scottie” Ferguson who falls in love with a woman he is supposed to be looking out for, Madeleine Elster, just by watching and observing her. She then dies and he tries to recreate her and bring her back to life through another woman, Judy Barton. The whole film is about watching, voyeurism, spectatorship, and scopophilia.
Based on the narrative of the film, Vertigo is about the male gaze. Laura Mulvey argues that there are three looks in films; the look of the camera or director, the look of the male protagonist, and the look of the spectator. Vertigo is all about watching. Scottie watching Madeleine, Us, the spectators, watching Scottie, and Hitchcock, controlling how we watch it all.
In Mulvey’s Visual Pleasures and Narrative Cinema she uses the term “to-be-looked-at-ness” which she uses in the context of women are in films to be looked at or displayed. They are passive characters who don’t really serve any purpose but to cause trouble for the male protagonist to clean up. For example, Madeleine’s purpose was to be watched, as she was just playing an actress who was trying to get Scottie into trouble.
We see the whole from Scottie’s perspective apart from one scene in Judy’s flashback. We see Judy and Madeleine talking to other people once or twice but we don’t hear them, they only ever talk to Scottie in the whole film. We are positioned with Scottie throughout the whole film.
The first time Scottie sees Madeleine in Ernie’s restaurant, she walks towards the camera so we, the audience and spectators, get a really good look at her too, as she is the focus of the whole film. She walks towards the camera and pauses and we get that infamous side profile shot.
Scottie is a peeping tom throughout the whole film, and because we are positioned with him, so are we. The whole film is an example of Scottie being a peeping tom. Arguably, it starts during the first following sequence when Scottie follows Madeleine around a flower market, a church, a hotel and other places.
Mulvey also argues that women are the product of a fetishization, objectification and sadism. Scottie fetishizes Madeleine and when she dies, he tries to bring her back to life through Judy. He objectifies Judy by taking away her humanity and turning her into an object for his enjoyment. He does this by ignoring Judy’s pleads to stop buying her clothes and shoes that she doesn’t want. Scottie consciously make these decisions to change Judy’s image to recreate Madeleine and it is sadistic because he enjoys making her over, which is making her miserable. This is an example of our male protagonist asserting his dominance, which he can and was acceptable in the 1950s because of the patriarchy.
However, because it is not the 1950s anymore, clearly, Laura Mulvey’s theories are a bit outdated because women have power now, with better roles in films, which are not exactly equal to men’s roles, but we are getting there, slowly. I will discuss that more in my next blog post.
- Mulvey.L (1975) ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ Screen, 16(3) pages 6-18
- Vertigo (1958) Directed by A. Hitchcock, USA: Paramount Pictures