Charles Barr,
London: BFI publishing, 2002.
ISBN: 0 85170 918 4
UK£8.99 (pb)
(Review copy supplied by BFI publishing)

If ever a film deserved its own monograph, it would appear to be Vertigo (USA 1958). It has become a cinematic icon, revered by cinephiles, reworked, quoted or plagiarised by other filmmakers, and even canonised by its critics, as Virginia Wright Wexman once wrote. Other films may inspire devotion: Vertigo results in fixation. As Charles Barr observes, there are various levels to this l’amour fou: multiple viewings, tourist trips around San Francisco, autobiographical commentaries, the hunt for the film in the years before Alfred Hitchcock’s death when it had been withdrawn from distribution, and the competing theoretical causes it has served. Vertigo lovers seem to yield to Hitchcock’s “pure cinema”. It is as if they are enchanted by the combination of authorial artifice and what Barr calls the film’s “intense and rather magical quality of rootedness” in the real (34).

Barr seeks to explain “what it is about Vertigo that gives it this Hamlet-like status as such an exceptionally fascinating and fertile text” (20). The first section of the book, appropriately entitled “Obsession”, begins with a discussion of Madeleine’s introduction in the film. Like the camera, Barr lingers over this moment before acknowledging that it exemplifies Laura Mulvey’s critique of cinematic voyeurism. He argues that the film “draws in, and indulges, the pleasurable gaze with extraordinary fullness, and at the same time foregrounds the mechanisms behind it – first by taking them apart, then by pushing them to an extreme” (10-11). He contends that we, too, are like Scottie, “allowing ourselves to be, led on, deceived, by a consummate manipulator, complaisant victims of what has all along been – like all cinema – an illusory construction” (11).

From the beginning, then, we find ourselves back inside the maze of Vertigo. However, this is about as insightful as Barr’s analysis gets about the reasons for our continuing inability to find Ariadne’s thread. He claims that Vertigo offers its viewers a choice between a subjective, highly romantic, dream-like narrative and another, more “objective” film, but he opts decisively for the former in his own interpretation. Barr’s short detour through the film’s actual production history (which draws explicitly on Dan Auiler’s work [1] ) is merely perfunctory. Instead, he prefers to saunter around his own favourite textual “sites”, interrupting his eccentric wanderings occasionally to muse on the film’s possible affinities with Hitchcock’s other films, the work of Michael Powell, and the San Francisco writer Ambrose Bierce (who wrote the story An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge).

Barr’s extended paraphrase as criticism has merit – Vertigo certainly repays close attention – but there is little innovation in his appraisal of the film. Like so many others, he examines Scottie’s silent surveillance of Madeleine in respectful detail, noting the way in which Scottie’s numerous POV shots align character, camera and spectator as he is lured into the trap. Barr contrasts this with the alternation-editing pattern used in certain dialogue scenes, especially the one which he regards as pivotal set in Scottie’s apartment after he has rescued Madeleine from San Francisco Bay. Yet his analysis of the scene’s formal elements is just an extension of Robin Wood’s approach. [2] Readers would be better served by returning to Wood, as well as Tania Modleski’s influential feminist critique of Vertigo [3] , since these superior interpretations form a stimulating critical dialogue on masculinity, the perils of romantic love and cinematic voyeurism in the film.

There is a telling moment in the book when Barr describes how he once edited a version of the film in order to omit Judy’s flashback (a key moment for viewers and critics alike). While he accepts that the idea does not work, it bespeaks, if briefly, a desire to remake the film as something other than its own image, as if the film could somehow end otherwise. Yet what so many of us forget about Vertigo is that it is, like an iconic sign, always already not quite identical to the thing it is supposed to represent. That is, Vertigo is not entirely a dream, nor a fully realised example of (POV) form matching or allegorising (male voyeuristic) content. If we become captivated by the text, it is perhaps because in our obsession we overlook those instances where the film warns us to move away, to question our longing identifications with the most doomed of cinematic couples.

These moments, which belong to what Barr terms the “objective” Vertigo narrative, are plentiful enough, yet he continually glosses over them in his book. While we may recall Judy’s flashback, Kim Novak’s first appearance as Judy, or Scottie’s rather silly dream as examples of textual distanciation, there are also several opportunities before Madeleine’s death to avoid Scottie’s madness. To take one example: in his analysis of Scottie’s surveillance of Madeleine, Barr stresses the significance of the manner in which she has been posed by Elster for effect, as a lure for Scottie. This is underscored for the viewer through the extensive use of POV shots. However, this reading could go so much further. What Barr overlooks is the importance of the reverse shots of Scottie during the pursuit sequences. These would be from Madeleine’s POV, if she ever turned around. Of course, she does not. But something else is at stake here besides the apparent denial of her subjectivity. Madeleine has no need to look back; the cinematic apparatus does it for her. Scottie is exactly where she expects him to be, the victim of Elster’s devious strategy (in which she is, at this point, a willing participant). Thus we are sutured into Scottie’s position as victim at the moment where we think we are most in control, even if we are aware of our voyeurism. By ignoring this textual strategy we become the “made-to-order” witnesses of Hitchcock’s cleverness and our own foolish desires. Only by examining the many clues provided to us about our potential gullibility can we move past the film’s elaborate deceptions. In this respect, Charles Barr’s Vertigo is an index of lost opportunities.

Tim Groves,
University of Ballarat, Australia.

Bio: Tim Groves teaches Film Studies at the University of Ballarat.


[1] Dan Auiler, Vertigo: The Making of a Hitchcock Classic (New York: St Martin’s Press, 1998).
[2] See Robin Wood, Hitchcock’s Films Revisited (London and Boston: Faber and Faber, 1989).
[3] See Tania Modleski, The Women who Knew Too Much: Hitchcock and Feminist Theory (London: Methuen, 1988), 87-100.
Created on: Friday, 27 June 2003 | Last Updated: Friday, 27 June 2003

About the Author

Tim Groves

About the Author

Tim Groves

Dr Tim Groves is Senior Lecturer in Film at Victoria University of Wellington. His research interests include horror and serial killer films, and post-classical film aesthetics.View all posts by Tim Groves →