Vertigo and the Maelstrom of Criticism

Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock, 1958) is a site of cultural fascination. Brian de Palma has remade the film twice (Obsession [1976], Body Double [1984]), while it has been reworked or quoted in films such as Twelve Monkeys (Terry Gilliam, 1995), Basic Instinct (Paul Verhoeven, 1992), and Color of Night (Richard Rush, 1994). Chris Marker pays tribute to Vertigo (“a film I had seen nineteen times”) in his meditation on cinematic memory, Sans Soleil (1983), by making “pilgrimages to all the film’s locations,” following “Madeleine as Scottie had done”. Katie Trumpener argues that Vertigo “has long been the object of unusually obsessive, self-involved, often autobiographical commentary.”1 The publicity surrounding the release of the ‘restored’ version and the continuation of Vertigo tours in San Francisco indicate that the film still enchants people half a century after its release.2  This delirium also affects critics. In her 1991 article “Allegory and Referentiality: Vertigo and Feminist Criticism” Susan White contends that there is a critical fixation on the female victim in and around Vertigo that involves a “melancholy identification with female suffering and with the woman as lost object” (925).3 This article will examine the nature of this “melancholy identification” in order to highlight parallels between the position of critics and the film that have significant implications for understanding their obsession with Vertigo. 4

Susan White

White analyses the work of Vertigo critics such as Laura Mulvey, Tania Modleski Karen Hollinger, Robin Wood, Stanley Cavell, William Rothman, and Virginia Wright Wexman.5 White argues that these feminist, formalist and materialist commentators share a problematic tendency. Each of these writers displays a “nostalgia for an empirically-based history. . . upon which the ‘truth’ of the film or the ultimate reading of that film would rely” (910-911). White claims that this nostalgia for the real, or what Christopher Morris calls the “tenable”, is linked to the fascination of critics with the powerful and/or maternal figure in the text.6 Consequently, these critics regard the character of Judy/Madeleine “as a ‘real woman’”, rather than as a textual construct.7 Indeed, some go so far as to treat Carlotta Valdes as a “‘real’ historical figure” (918). White’s thesis involves tracing the operation of the “melodrama of the unknown woman” in Vertigo, drawing on the research of Stanley Cavell. Cavell proposes that a genre or subgenre of films exists in which a man encounters a woman he once loved and fails to recognise her until it is too late.8 In White’s opinion, the melodrama of the unknown woman in Vertigo “expresses something about the woman’s desire for (a perhaps impossible) reconciliation with the mother – or at least her need to resolve what her mother’s place is in her existence” (917).

White claims that in Vertigo criticism the connection between the unknown woman and maternity extends beyond those formalist critics who are influenced by Cavell. She emphasises the critical response to Judy’s suffering at the hands of men. White asserts that, “Wood, Rothman, Hollinger, and Modleski all focus on Judy’s privileged relation to the camera and her tragic knowledge of the conditions of her own existence” (915). Thus, for these critics the flashback sequence is a pivotal moment in the film because it articulates an experience of authentic female subjectivity in a film that is dominated by what Modleski calls the masculine fiction of “femininity by design”.9 Moreover, critics identify the figure of the unknown woman with “the position from which the truth of the narrative can be revealed” (White 919-920). The conflation by critics of the “real woman” of the text with the maternal figure serves an explicitly feminist or Marxist purpose (919-920). Although these political goals might be commendable, a dilemma emerges from this critical trend:

The bedrock of critical thinking on Vertigo is the notion, found in all of these critics, that somewhere here the real woman, a victim, is speaking. . . .It is this excavation of a single, dominating reality that knows itself, knows its priority, comes from a position that knows no blindness and seems to have no vested interest, one that is temporally anterior, not allegorical – this is where the danger might be found (924-925, 931).

White reminds us that all interpretations of Vertigo are discursively constructed and that none may claim priority over any other. Vertigo critics who assume that such forgetting is possible or even desirable risk constructing their own positions in the guise of the other-as-victim: whether this is the lower-class Judy, the dark and threatening Carlotta, or Kim Novak (that “fat Polack” as she was called derisively by studio executives), trapped in her dressing room on the set.

This article will focus on a related aspect of White’s thesis, the “melancholy identification with female suffering”. What does this phrase imply? In White’s terms, it entails identification with the female victim of the film. This is usually designated as Madeleine, Judy, and Carlotta or, outside the text, Kim Novak. Several interpretations, most notably Modleski’s, point to Scottie’s identification with this female victim. He seems to be e seems   HHe attracted to Madeleine because, like him, she is haunted by the past. As the film proceeds we realize that Scottie is victimised by a powerful man, as are the women in the film (and Novak by Hitchcock and studio executives). Thus a “melancholy identification with female suffering” suggests that critics also identify with Scottie. This has significant implications. The attempt by critics to recover the figure of the abject woman of Vertigo parallels one of its major narrative components: Scottie’s efforts to save Madeleine from madness and death. There are obvious parallels between his detective work that aims to cure Madeleine through grounding her story in a tangible past, and that of critics who seek to locate the victim or ‘real woman’ of Vertigo.

Midge and the Critics

The parallel between Vertigo critics and Scottie extends to the critical assessment of the character of Midge: they treat her in a similar manner to Scottie. For example, Scottie ignores or neglects Midge at various points in the film. William Rothman, Marian Keane and Leland Poague are all influenced by Cavell’s work on the ”unknown woman”. 10 However, they make few references to the character of Midge, despite the obvious irony. Perhaps the most extreme example of this neglect occurs in Elisabeth Bronfen’s feminist analysis of Vertigo in her monumental Over Her Dead Body. She never refers to Midge during her lengthy analysis of mourning and masculine aggression in the film. Some critics display the kind of anger towards Midge that Scottie expresses after viewing her caricature of Carlotta. Walter Poznar claims that “Midge is a woman playing with life, … a sardonic hedonist” who is guilty of “shallow realism” and thus condemned to “draw life, not live it.”11

The most common critical attitude towards Midge is to treat her as maternal or boyish. Robin Wood, for example, contends that Midge is a poor romantic option for Scottie because “she is too explicitly the mother” but also too independent to be dominated.12 Lesley Brill states that Scottie “is too old and eligible not to be married, but he is still sheltering behind maternal skirts. . . .Though he complains of Midge’s motherliness during his first sequence with her, Scottie seems content to maintain just that sort of relationship with his former fiancée.”13 (207). Feminist critics such as Karen Hollinger and Laura Hinton express similar views. Hollinger claims that Midge is, “a troubling and troubled character.” 14 (21). In her opinion, Midge is both a “boyish figure who wears plain sweaters with masculine-type collars and dark skirts”, and “an independent, practical career woman” who “is also a mother figure to Scottie” (21). Hinton describes Midge’s face in the portrait as “plump, maternal, grinning, and bespeckled [sic].”15 (16-17).  She says that Midge displays “caretaking maternity”, is “mother-identified” (17), and calls her “Mother Midge” and “an asexual mother figure” (18).

This interpretation of Midge as maternal or boyish may be popular, but it is also problematic. Is Midge labeled as “motherly” on the basis of a few snippets of dialogue?  Is Midge “boyish” because she is a feisty career woman? Are these critical assessments made on the basis of the obvious contrast between Midge and Madeleine? Some critics such as White, Modleski, Deborah Linderman and Garry Leonard treat the character of Midge in a sympathetic manner. Linderman, for example, proposes that

In a small way, Midge equilibrizes, she counteracts the vertigo, straitens [sic] the wandering, recuperates misalignment, mediates over- and under-stabilization, she restores limit. Her parodic portrait of Carlotta expresses just this limiting function, for the insertion of Midge’s own head on Carlotta’s body materializes border, difference, and blocks the chain of copies. Nevertheless, Midge is ideologically underpositioned by the text, and she stands outside its spirally economy of power and victimization in a subplot relation of parody.16

However, like Scottie, such critics underestimate the importance of Midge’s skepticism. A closer analysis indicates that Midge is an attractive, contemporary woman, and that her relationship with Scottie is one of equals, rather than mother and son. Scottie and Midge complement each other: he is the romantic, while she is the pragmatist who offers him stability. Let us look at Midge’s role in the film more closely.

Vertigo’s Other Woman

If we view Midge in general terms, we might agree with Wood: “One is immediately aware of the contrast between her [Madeleine] and Midge. Where Midge is an entirely known quantity, Madeleine is surrounded by mystery” (113). Indeed, when Spoto observes that Vertigo’s circular narrative wanderings around San Francisco are appropriate because the city is “poised between a Romantic-Victorian past and the rush of present-day life” (277), the comparison can be extended to the contrast between Madeleine and Midge. Madeleine’s appearance and movements are designed to persuade Scottie, and perhaps the audience, that she is literally living in the past because Carlotta haunts her. By contrast, Midge seems to embody a contemporary sensibility. She dresses modestly, paying little concern to her looks – she says she does not need a hat when she takes Scottie to see Pop Liebl. Midge also moves in an entirely different, more relaxed, manner from Madeleine. In the first scene in her flat she remains stationary at her desk to begin with – she is working while Scottie walks around the room. When she gets up her movements seem natural or spontaneous as she responds to Scottie’s interest in the brassiere or his plan to gradually recover from his acrophobia. Midge’s apartment also underlines her modern taste: she has a studio-cum-living room with spaces divided by bamboo blinds, while on the walls Miro prints are interspersed with fashion designs. Most significantly, though, it is her common sense and humorous skepticism that differentiates her from Madeleine, who is mostly serious, deferential and vulnerable.

Wood stresses that Scottie and Midge “come together only in the mother-child relationship; otherwise (and crucially in their discussion of their brief engagement and the possibility that it might be renewed) they are kept rigorously separated” (381). While he is correct in pointing to the spatial separation of the characters, his reading neglects the humour of the scene, and as a result it overlooks the subtlety of their relationship. The scene begins with Scottie complaining about his corset and cane. Midge comments, “No three-way stretch?  How very unchic Moments later Scottie asks, “Midge, do you suppose many men wear corsets”? She replies, “More than you think”, to which he rejoins, “Really, do you know that from personal experience”? The tone and comments of this exchange indicate a friendly banter between two people familiar and comfortable with each other. When Scottie chides Midge for being “so motherly” because she suggests that he should “go away” – surely a key piece of dialogue for those who follow the “motherhood” interpretation – he is not so much criticising as gently mocking her. It is all part of their verbal sparring as they discuss his future plans; the brassiere Midge is drawing, or their respective romantic eligibility. Thus shot 31 (when they begin discussing the brassiere’s design) is less an example of Midge demystifying femininity for Scottie than an instance of him feigning ignorance or innocence as a means of continuing the game. Scottie’s behaviour in the rest of the film demonstrates that Midge does not have to tutor him about women or sex. He is relaxed about undressing the unconscious Madeleine after her leap into the Bay and then drying her undergarments.  When he buys Judy Madeleine’s clothes the saleswoman remarks twice on his decisiveness, and it seems he has no trouble consummating his relationship with Judy (just before she puts on Madeleine’s necklace).

Wood’s interpretation of the close-ups of Midge when the engagement is mentioned (shots 36 and 38, the only close-ups in the scene) is too narrow. While it is true that, “The close-ups emphasize the troubled and enigmatic nature of her glances at Scottie”, Wood goes too far in arguing that “they suggest an inadequacy in him, an impossibility of a mature relationship, whose nature is unformulated” (381-382). This view presupposes Scottie’s childishness, whereas this part of the scene only points to the uncertain nature of their relationship. When Scottie switches conversation topics from the brassiere to Midge’s love life he becomes noticeably agile while relaxing on the couch, even though he has just been complaining about his corset. Midge is seated at her desk, looking over at him, and although she is higher up she does not dominate him spatially in the manner that Gavin does in the subsequent scene in the latter’s office. When Scottie refers to the engagement there is a CU of her head at 45˚ to the camera. She smiles and says, “Three whole weeks”. When he reminds her that she broke it off there is another close-up; this time she does not smile. There is an implication that the matter still irritates her. Although Wood correctly observes that the editing of the scene effects a demarcation of male and female space – the couch for Scottie, the work desk for Midge – he omits the underlying condition: the apartment ‘belongs’ to both of them. Of course, Scottie is more than comfortable here: he has his own key and fixes himself a drink when he returns there to ask Midge for information on local lore. Midge’s haste to visit Pop Liebl suggests that they form a team of some kind. She wants to be part of the adventure, as her humorous threat to force Scottie back into the corset if he will not reveal the details of Madeleine’s obsession with Carlotta demonstrates. The concern she expresses throughout the first scene in her apartment is that of a partner, not a parent. While she nurses Scottie after his plan for gradually alleviating his acrophobia fails, Wood is incorrect when he states that she “promptly takes over, fetching the set of steps.  In the ensuing shots . . . she will ‘push’ Scottie (verbally) to the point where he collapses with an attack of vertigo” (381). Rather, Midge assists him, for which he is grateful, cautioning him when he moves to the second step, and there is a shot of her looking concerned when he climbs on to the top step.

This scene designates Midge as the counter-balance in other ways. Wood’s analysis shows that Scottie and Midge are separated through an alternating editing pattern, except for shots 1, 31, 47, 48, and 62. They are shown together, parted, and reunited in a pattern that suggests elasticity. Regardless of any disturbance or separation into their respective, gendered spaces, equilibrium is restored eventually. The sense of balance is reinforced by the camera position in the opening shot: it is at 90˚ to the characters who are sitting directly opposite one another. Their dialogue is cut along the 180˚ axis in a manner that does not privilege either character. Notably, while Midge has two POV shots of Scottie, he has no strict POV shots of Midge here, and he has only one of her in the entire film. Vertigo indicates that Scottie and Midge are constructed as a couple. They are on the same plane: their proximity may vary, but they return eventually to stasis. It is a very different kind of partnership to that of Scottie and Madeleine or Scottie and Judy, but that is perhaps the point.

Midge’s humorous skepticism also offers Scottie and the audience a different perspective on his fascination with Madeleine. After Scottie and Midge have visited Pop Liebl she scoffs at his explanation of Madeleine’s obsession with Carlotta. Her decision to view Carlotta’s portrait for herself implies she understands that Scottie’s interest is sexual. Thus she undertakes a little investigation of her own. When she sees Madeleine leave Scottie’s apartment after the Bay incident, she comments to herself, “Was it a ghost, Johnny-O, was it fun”? Linderman observes that this “identifies the whole hoaky [sic] scheme of things, but since there are no other clues, it stands simply as a jealous remark” (72, footnote 14). However, are things so straightforward? Midge’s statement is linked to her suspicions about the Carlotta Valdes scenario, and to the forthcoming scene in which she shows Scottie the portrait of herself as Carlotta.

The portrait scene draws together all of the elements associated with Midge. It commences with a LS of Midge working on the portrait. There is a cut to Scottie entering through the door. On this occasion he does not get himself a drink. Apparently eager to please, Midge fixes it for him. Scottie refers to the note that Midge left for him, and a terse conversation ensues about his “wandering”, edited according to the alternation pattern of previous scenes. Scottie contends that there is an undercurrent in Midge’s behaviour, that she is motivated by jealousy. However, she has reason to be envious: she knows that his “wandering” is not only geographical, but also sexual. This exchange finishes when she hands him the drink and they discuss the painting. He moves to the easel and there is a CU of it from his POV that tilts up, indicating that he is taking in the spectacle of Midge’s head atop Carlotta’s body. There is a reverse shot of him shaking his head and then another POV shot, except this one contains the portrait on the right of screen and Midge seated to the left. This is a highly charged moment, and not only because it effectively ends their friendship. Midge has already been connected with doubt: by posing as Carlotta she inadvertently gestures to the way that Gavin has grafted Madeleine on to the story of Carlotta. Midge “blocks the chain of copies” by turning Scottie’s desiring gaze back at him. The split-screen effect of the shot doubles the figure of woman, contrasting the original and the copy, the real and the dream. Scottie is offered a clear choice. Does the shot of Midge alongside her portrait remind Scottie of what he has invested in his desire for Madeleine? Scottie’s rejection and abrupt departure signals that Midge has struck a nerve.

Scottie’s response here demonstrates his clear preference for Madeleine. On one level the choice is sexual. Robin Wood is correct in maintaining that one reason Scottie rejects Midge is her comparative availability (385). Scottie already has the key to Midge (putting things crudely, she is a lock he can pick at any time) whereas he struggles to solve the enigma of Madeleine. While his bond with Midge seems to go beyond friendship, especially for her, his attraction to Madeleine is overwhelming. If one of Midge’s intentions in creating the portrait is to rein Scottie in after what she thinks is a fling, then Scottie’s reaction can be read as one of resentment. But she does not understand the extent of Scottie’s involvement with Madeleine (she is not privy to all the facts), or just why her parody proves so hurtful.  Garry Leonard, following Jacques Lacan, argues that gender is a cultural construct functioning in oppositional terms: femininity is a masquerade that operates to confirm masculinity.

The woman who best represents the feminine to a given masculine subject will be loved . . . she will become a symptom for the man that will serve to ward off the subversive and fragmentary nature of his unconscious, and protect him from any painful awareness that the mastery of consciousness he presumes he has is a mythical construct. 17

Madeleine performs just this role for Scottie, whereas Midge, in both this scene and during the previous discussion about the cantilever brassiere, demonstrates how femininity is manufactured, and by implication how it salves the masculine ego.

However, in rejecting Midge, Scottie loses what Midge offers: balance and proportion. In this respect it seems worth considering Scottie’s slip from the stepladder more closely. Scottie is at least as high up as he was in the rooftop chase and his face displays his anxiety. However, the shot of the street coded to his POV is not the vertigo shot. This is significant because, apart from the death scenes and the stairs in the McKittrick Hotel, it is the only other instance of Scottie being confronted directly with an intimidating height. What also differentiates the scene in Midge’s apartment is Midge herself. On this occasion her presence enables her to catch Scottie and restore his equilibrium. We can contrast this with the way that Scottie’s mental dislocation is represented in his meeting with Gavin. At first Scottie is comfortable wandering around the room while making small talk with Gavin who remains seated, but when the topic switches to Madeleine’s haunting he becomes uneasy. The combination cut/camera movement as Gavin utters, “Someone dead”, is unlike anything in the previous scene where camera movement is minimal except for two pans when Midge collects the stepladder. Wood contends that this results in Gavin “dominating, imposing his story” (113). Gavin continues to loom over Scottie for the remainder of the scene, even though Tom Helmore is shorter than James Stewart, because he is shot from a lower angle than Scottie, or stands while Scottie sits or moves to a higher part of the room when Scottie stands.  Scottie is still psychologically fragile and vulnerable. Ultimately, Scottie’s preference for Madeleine, his object-choice, indicates his willingness to forego Midge’s reservations and accept the risks that falling in love with Madeleine entails. If he is later infected with the madness that seems to afflict her in his obsessive desire for her, then it is his own fault.  As Chris Marker points out, when Gavin and Madeleine appear to give up, it is Scottie who “takes the initiative and restarts the machine.” 18

Does the spectator share this reckless inclination for madness? Do we also fall victim to Gavin’s cunning or is it Hitchcock who deceives us? Spectators experience the difference between Scottie’s relationship with Midge and with Madeleine visually. The comparative absence of strict POV shots, and the editing of dialogue in an alternation pattern, places the relationship between Scottie and Midge on the plane of reality, whereas Scottie’s obsession with Madeleine is experienced voyeuristically through his numerous strict POV shots. Madeleine has only three brief POV shots in the film. They are coded to her troubled mental state, but otherwise do not seem to possess much narrative importance.19 What we know of her we learn as Scottie does.

Significantly, on three separate occasions we share Midge’s position, but Scottie does not. Given that so much of the first segment of Vertigo is narrated from Scottie’s perspective, these instances are important for understanding how far spectators might identify with Scottie and whether there are opportunities to question that alignment. In the first scene in her apartment she has two close-ups while they discuss the circumstances of their brief engagement. The second is when Midge sees Madeleine leaving Scottie’s apartment. Midge’s observation that Scottie’s motivation is sexual (“Was it a ghost, Johnny-O, was it fun”?) is a continuation of the alternative version of events offered to the audience.  The third is after Scottie has spurned her because of the portrait. After he leaves Midge castigates herself and attacks the painting before she turns and flings her paintbrush at the window. There is a cut here to a shot of the window in which both the night lights of San Francisco and a weak, almost ghostly reflection of an angry Midge can be seen. This spectral image points to her looming absence from the film. The scene concludes with a shot of her tearing at her hair, that part of Madeleine’s anatomy that so absorbed Scottie. It is a complex moment. Certainly Midge engages in self-flagellation for her failure to represent herself successfully as the object of Scottie’s desire, but it is also a comment on the power of the illusion that Madeleine represents to overcome doubt or reality.

Midge’s self-portrait is a key feature of the film for spectators because it functions in a similar, if more subtle, manner to Judy’s flashback and confessional letter. The audience has been provided with opportunities to question Scottie’s attraction to Madeleine (and, after all, the Carlotta scenario is preposterous). If we do not entertain some doubt, don’t we risk succumbing to the same fantasy as Scottie? In rejecting Midge as he does, do we not similarly lose our balance and also become entrapped by the lure of the past, the power of romantic love, all that Madeleine signifies? We must be quick to seize the chance: Midge’s destruction of the portrait destroys the clues it contains about the (dangerous) nature of Scottie’s desire and Gavin’s manipulation of the Carlotta story. The shot of Midge’s vanishing reflection can be read as a metaphor for the fading of normality in the film, and the skeptical spectator. There is an echo of this in the last shot of Midge in the film, which occurs after she leaves an inconsolable Scottie in hospital. As she walks down the corridor slowly, the shot fades to black (recalling the content of Madeleine’s dream which had plagued Scottie in his nightmare), the music emphasising the poignancy of the moment. It is true that there are occasions in the second phase of the film when our identification with Scottie is interrupted and we are encouraged to have sympathy for Judy.20 However, these reinforce the fantasy that Scottie and Madeleine can somehow be reunited despite her involvement in the crime, particularly as the reality that Judy represents is rapidly subsumed into Scottie’s project to restore Madeleine.

Although Midge is marginalised in Vertigo, her importance goes beyond the “subplot relation of parody” as Linderman suggests. Midge is also a participant in the dichotomy of victim/victimiser that Linderman herself proposes. One of Linderman’s aims is “to understand how the binarism upheld by the manifest diegesis, victim/victimizer, results from a deadly male aggressivity directed by the latter against the former in the effort to uphold phallic transcendence” (53). She asserts that in the operation of this dichotomy “the narrative sustains a strict separation of genders” (68). Thus she does not classify Scottie as a victim or Judy as a victimiser, or accept Judy’s complicity in her own fate, which is at odds with the film. Midge’s responsibility for her own victimisation – nothing compels her to keep loving Scottie except her own desire – places her on a level with both Scottie and Judy, further demonstrating that Vertigo both sustains and destabilises the gendered aspect of the dichotomy.  Second, Scottie’s rejection of her is integral to his growing involvement with Madeleine, the obsession that starts the cycle of “power and victimization”. Last, it is arguably our rejection of Midge, and the distanciation from our identification with Scottie that her parodic or balancing function provides, that ensures that we yield to the romantic fantasy, thereby becoming victims not of the text, but our own textual desires.

Reading Vertigo Criticism

If Scottie’s rejection of Midge unbalances him psychologically and predisposes him to his obsession with Madeleine, then what does this say about the critical fixation with Vertigo? Midge does not seem to belong to the set of Madeleine, Judy, Carlotta or Kim Novak because she is coded as normal and real.21 The marginalisation of Midge in the narrative opens the way for Scottie to select Madeleine. As Donald Spoto suggests, the audience resents Midge’s attempts to make Scottie see sense (284). Characterising Midge as motherly or boyish reinforces the notion that she is somehow an inappropriate object-choice for Scottie. This permits critics, like spectators, to construct and maintain Scottie and Madeleine as the ideal heterosexual couple. This has interesting implications. We can infer from the critics’ identification with Scottie that, irrespective of their actual gender, they occupy the masculine position in the couple. The real woman conflated with the maternal figure is placed in the feminine position.

This identification also leads critics to reproduce the victim/victimiser dichotomy proposed by Linderman, with critics in the masculine position of victimiser. White argues that:

In Vertigo the male subject investigates, adores, abhors, bonds with, and finally abjects (in the Kristevian sense) the feminine. The fascination with the mother may indeed only be invoked in order to permit a more decisive casting off than was earlier, only partially accomplished (919).

This casting off continues at the level of the critic. Recovering the real woman conflated with the maternal figure in Vertigo criticism is just such an invocation because the abjection of this ‘woman’ is a necessary precondition of much of that criticism. While it is true that the melancholy character of critics’ identification with Scottie suggests a continuing attachment to this female figure, it is in fact to the woman-as-victim that their desire is bonded. Such a figure thus speaks only as a victim. The construction of the feminine as a victim in Vertigo criticism preserves, in however a fragile manner, the implicitly masculine position of the critic who attempts to rescue ‘her’ from Scottie, Gavin, Carlotta’s lover, Hitchcock or the faceless studio executives. Is this not just how Lacanian psychoanalysis theorises the function of femininity, to reflect male desire back to itself in a way that confirms the fictional unity of masculinity? If we posit an analogy between Gavin’s construction of the murder plot around the deception of the compelling figure of Madeleine and Hitchcock’s design of Vertigo around Kim Novak, then the behaviour of critics can be understood as an attempt to avoid the symbolic castration of being deceived and manipulated by the film by transferring it to the (illusory) figure of the female victim.

In order to understand the full implications of this critical trajectory, I will turn to the work of Cynthia Chase, Neil Hertz and Paul de Man on the performativity of texts. Chase claims that:

if a term such as “matricide” or “abjection” is imported into an account precisely not of specific cultural manifestations but of universal linguistic structures or of intra-linguistic activities, the question arises as to whether the writer is not enforcing the misogynistic gesture – is not killing the mother by finding her already dead. Such writing may enact the performative gesture on which it seeks to comment. It thereby confronts the reader with a problem of ethical as well as critical judgment.22

Chase is referring to Neil Hertz’s essay on Paul de Man, “Lurid Figures”. Hertz is interested in the various ways in which de Man’s work both identifies and performs “lurid” rhetorical figures operating in assorted Romantic texts. These figures appear at the disjuncture between a text’s performance and its cognition. In The rhetoric of Romanticism de Man calls this disjuncture “the wound of a fracture that lies hidden in all texts.”23 Hertz argues that de Man’s remarks on Benjamin are unsettling because they add “the pathos of uncertain agency. A subject is conjured up – perhaps a killer, perhaps only the discoverer of the corpse – who can serve as a locus of vacillation: did I do it? Or had it already been done?” (86). White contends that the Vertigo critics she discusses “are themselves telling stories that arise out of a failure of language (to make reference, to enact itself performatively)” (930).  Is it not possible that the fallen woman whom Vertigo critics seek to rescue is such a lurid figure?  Thus, a question seems to arise: who kills the woman in Vertigo – the text or the critic?

As previously discussed, the gender rigidity of the victim/victimiser dichotomy is destabilised in Vertigo in several ways. Madeleine/Judy and Midge occupy both roles (even if Midge harms only herself), and so, most significantly, does Scottie. In the context of the film, Scottie is constructed as feminine by his passivity and in his desire for death. His manipulation by Gavin arguably results in his feminisation. He reacts to this by punishing Judy for both her part in the crime and his own entrapment.  In underestimating this in order to establish that the real of the text is a female victim, critics effect a displacement that resembles that which occurs in the text: the woman is punished instead of Scottie. However, in the process critics apparently forget that the irony of Vertigo is that the real woman does not exist, that she is a fiction within the frame (or a discursive construct outside it in the case of Novak). They also seem to forget that one of the consequences of Judy’s flashback/confession is that it destroys the fiction of Madeleine, and does so in a way that renders the text inherently slippery. For example, after the revelation, it is difficult to re-read the first part of Vertigo without trying to guess which aspects of Madeleine’s ‘performance’ derives from Gavin’s training and which represents Judy’s error of falling in love with Scottie. Similarly, it is hard not to notice the ambiguity of several of Gavin’s comments. The very ability to differentiate the real from the fake is definitively erased through the abolition of the character whose function is to gesture to the possibility of being deceived.

It is around the (ultimately impossible) desire to stabilise the meaning of Vertigo that I would like to suggest that much of the critical fascination with the text could be located. The search by critics for the key to the text, for its master reading, can be interpreted as a melancholic attempt to avoid the loss of the critical object. What could be a more emblematic melancholic denial than that of critics who dismiss the revelation that not only does the beloved in Vertigo die (not once but twice!), but that she was only ever a fabrication? Critics seem to forget that the two ‘real’ female characters in the film, Midge and Judy, are complicit in their own fates, and then proceed to hunt for clues for their own truth of the text regardless. In their (interminable?) attempts to differentiate themselves from Scottie, to succeed where he failed, to avoid his victimisation and feminisation, they dwell in their own melancholy identification with female suffering. Thus Vertigo critics become re-viewers. In their relentless search through the maze of Vertigo for the real of the text they wander the streets of San Francisco nostalgically with Scottie and Carlotta, looking for the always, already lost object. And, eventually, they are left only with memories.24

Does this critical fixation emerge from Vertigo itself, since the film explicitly deals with romantic obsession? Linderman and Trumpener contend that Vertigo is a mise-en-abîme. Sigmund Freud argues that, “the complex of melancholia behaves like an open wound, drawing to itself cathectic energies . . . from all directions, and emptying the ego until it is totally impoverished.”25 Although we might be tempted to attribute the repetitious qualities of Vertigo criticism to the film, to see it as chain of self-reflecting mirrors that has entrapped us all, ‘naïve’ viewers and critics alike, if Vertigo haunts or hypnotises some critics and spectators, then it does so because of their own narcissism or suggestibility. The wound is theirs: in miming the text they re-make it according to their own desires.26 As White states, the film indicates “that a materialist history may not resemble our desire and fear of being engulfed by the victim/all-powerful mother who constitutes the ‘real,’ and that it may be our own desire that reconstitutes the woman-as-victim, the racial other whom we also want to appropriate as our own” (932).

I have argued that Scottie ignores, willingly, Midge’s pointed suggestions about the credibility of Madeleine’s story. I have also claimed that while Vertigo tempts spectators and critics to yield to the same fantasy that engulfs Scottie twice, the film discourages them from doing so at various moments and in subtle ways. As such, in Vertigo form does not coincide precisely with content. The question of the “pathos of uncertain agency” that occurs at their disjuncture is resolved on the side of the critics: it is they who kill the victim by finding her already dead. Some may object that Vertigo critics preserve the figure of the mother through their melancholia, and that it is my reading that has produced the ‘lurid figure’ of her death by exposing her non-existence. I do not exempt myself from this process because I cannot. Hertz observes that “de Man has shown how and why readers cannot help forcing their texts, but (or rather: and) this awareness in no way prevents him from forcing his text” (95). Hertz adds that,

The attempt to dwell, speculatively, on the difference between language as meaning and language as performance cannot issue in a coolly univocal discourse: instead the effort will trigger what I earlier called a pathos of uncertain agency, in which questions of intelligibility will be reinscribed as questions of activity or passivity, guilt or innocence and play themselves out in compulsively repeated figures (100).

This is as true for my reading of Vertigo criticism as it is for that criticism itself. I have also forced texts and attempted to stabilise their meanings. In arguing for a closer reading of Midge’s role in the film I have also suggested that she is the real woman of the text whom we ignore at our peril. However, Midge is no less a (textual) dream than Madeleine, just more prosaic. Scottie rejects her and she disappears from Vertigo down a darkened corridor (to return decades later, as Marker impishly notes, as the Ewing matriarch in Dallas).


Brill, Lesley. The Hitchcock Romance: Love and Irony in Hitchcock’s Films. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988).

Bronfen, Elisabeth. Over her Dead Body: Death, Femininity and the Aesthetic. (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1988).

Cavell, Stanley. ‘Psychoanalysis and cinema: the melodrama of the unknown woman.” Images in our Souls: Cavell, Psychoanalysis and Cinema. Eds. Joseph H. Smith and William Kerrigan. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987): 11-43.

Chase, Cynthia. “Primary narcissism and the giving of figure: Kristeva with Hertz and de Man.” Abjection, Melancholia and Love: The Work of Julia Kristeva. Eds. John Fletcher and Andrew Benjamin. (New York and London: Routledge, 1990): 124-136.

Cunningham, Douglas. “‘It’s all there, it’s no dream’: Vertigo and the redemptive pleasures of the cinematic pilgrimage.” Screen 49.2 (Summer 2008): 123-141.

De Man, Paul. The Rhetoric of Romanticism. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1984).

Felman, Shoshana. “Turning the screw of interpretation.” Yale French Studies 55/56 (1977): 94-207.

Freud, Sigmund. “Mourning and melancholia.” The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. Trans. and ed. James Strachey et al. 24 vols. (London: The Hogarth Press and London Institute of Psychoanalysis, 1953 – 1974) 14: 239-258.

Groves, Tim. “Melancholic criticism: primary identification, the critic, and the film.” New Zealand Journal of Media Studies 10.1 (October 2007).

Hertz, Neil. “Lurid figures. Reading de Man Reading. Eds. Wlad Godzich and Lindsay Waters. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989): 82-104.

Hinton, Laura. “A ‘woman’s’ view: the Vertigo frame-up.” Film Criticism 19.2 (1994-1995): 2-22.

Hollinger, Karen. “‘The look,’ narrativity, and the female spectator in Vertigo.” Journal of Film and Video 39.4 (1987): 18-27.

Keane, Marian. “A closer look at scopophilia: Mulvey, Hitchcock, and Vertigo.” A Hitchcock Reader. Eds. Marshall Deutelbaum and Leland Poague. (Ames: Iowa University Press, 1986): 231-248.

Kofman, Sarah. The Enigma of Woman. Trans. Catherine Porter. (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985).

Leonard, Garry. “A fall from grace: the fragmentation of masculine subjectivity and the impossibility of femininity in Hitchcock’s Vertigo.” American Imago 47 (1990): 271-291.

Linderman, Deborah. “The mise-en-abîme in Hitchcock’s Vertigo.” Cinema Journal 30.4  (1991): 51-74.

Marker, Chris. “A free replay (notes on Vertigo).” Projections 4 1/2. Eds. John Boorman and Walter Donohue. (London: Faber and Faber, 1995): 123-130.

Modleski, Tania. The Women Who Knew Too Much: Hitchcock and Feminist Theory. (New York and London: Methuen, 1988).

Christopher Morris, “Feminism, deconstruction and the pursuit of the tenable in Vertigo.Hitchcock Annual (1996–1997): 3-25.

Poague, Leland. “Engendering Vertigo.” Hitchcock Annual (1994): 18-54.

Poznar, Walter. “Orpheus descending: Love in Vertigo.” Literature/Film Quarterly 17.1 (1989): 59-65.

Ravetto-Biagioli, Kriss. “Vertigo and the vertiginous history of film theory.” Camera Obscura 25.3 no. 75 (2011): 101-141.

Rothman, William. “Vertigo: the unknown woman in Hitchcock.” Images in our Souls: Cavell, Psychoanalysis and Cinema. Eds. Joseph H. Smith and William Kerrigan. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 198: 64-81.

Shaffer, Lawrence. “Obsessed with Vertigo.” Massachusetts review 25 (1984): 383-397.

Spoto, Donald. The Art of Alfred Hitchcock: Fifty Years of his Motion Pictures. (New York: Hopkinson and Blake, 1976).

Trumpener, Katie. “Fragments of the mirror: self-reference, mise-en-abyme, Vertigo.” Hitchcock’s Rereleased Films: From Rope to Vertigo. Eds. Walter Raubicheck and Walter Srebnick. (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1991): 175-188.

Wexman, Virginia Wright. “The critic as consumer: film study in the university, Vertigo, and the film canon.” Film Quarterly 39.3 (1986): 32-41.

White, Susan. “Allegory and referentiality: Vertigo and feminist criticism.” MLN 106.5 (December 1991): 910-932.

White, Susan. “Vertigo and problems of feminist knowledge in feminist film theory.” Alfred Hitchcock: Centenary Essays. Eds. Richard Allen and S. Ishii Gonzales. (London: British Film Institute, 1999): 279-306.

Wood, Robin. Hitchcock’s Films Revisited. (London and Boston: Faber and Faber, 1989).

1 Katie Trumpener, “Fragments of the mirror: self-reference, mise-en-abyme, Vertigo.” Hitchcock’s Rereleased Films: From Rope to Vertigo. Eds. Walter Raubicheck and Walter Srebnick. (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1991): 186.

2 On Vertigo tourism, see Douglas Cunningham, “‘It’s all there, it’s no dream’: Vertigo and the redemptive pleasures of the cinematic pilgrimage.” Screen 49.2 (Summer 2008): 123-141.

3 Susan White, “Allegory and referentiality: Vertigo and feminist criticism.” MLN 106.5 (December 1991): 910-932.

4 Some aspects of my arguments here appeared in a condensed form in “Melancholic Criticism: Primary Identification, the Critic, and the Film.” New Zealand Journal of Media Studies 10.1 (October 2007).

5 See the bibliography for further details.

6 Christopher Morris, “Feminism, deconstruction and the pursuit of the tenable in Vertigo.Hitchcock Annual (1996–1997): 3-25.

7 White, 918.

8 Stanley Cavell, “Psychoanalysis and cinema: the melodrama of the unknown woman.” Images in our souls: Cavell, Psychoanalysis and Cinema. Eds. Joseph H. Smith and William Kerrigan. (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1987): 11-43.

9 See Tania Modleski, The Women Who Knew Too Much: Hitchcock and Feminist Theory. (New York and London: Methuen, 1988): 87-100.

10 See Marian Keane, “A closer look at scopophilia: Mulvey, Hitchcock, and Vertigo. A Hitchcock Reader. Eds. Marshall Deutelbaum and Leland Poague. (Ames: Iowa University Press, 1986): 231-248.

11 Walter Poznar, “Orpheus descending: Love in Vertigo.” Literature/Film Quarterly 17.1 (1989): 60.

12 Robin Wood, Hitchcock’s Films Revisited. (London and Boston: Faber and Faber, 1989): 385.

13 Lesley Brill, The Hitchcock Romance: Love and Irony in Hitchcock’s Films. (Princeton: Princeton University Press): 207.

14 Karen Hollinger, “ ‘The look,’ narrativity, and the female spectator in Vertigo.” Journal of Film and Video 39.4 (1987): 21.

15 Laura Hinton, “A ‘woman’s’ view: the Vertigo frame-up.” Film criticism 19.2 (1994-1995): 2-22.

16 Deborah Linderman. “The mise-en-abîme in Hitchcock’s Vertigo.” Cinema Journal 30.4 (1991): 70.

17 Garry Leonard. “A fall from grace: the fragmentation of masculine subjectivity and the impossibility of femininity in Hitchcock’s Vertigo.” American Imago 47 (1990): 272.

18 Chris Marker, “A free replay (notes on Vertigo).” Projections 4 1/2. Eds. John Boorman and Walter Donohue. (London: Faber and Faber, 1995): 124.

19 Rothman disagrees. He imbues Madeleine’s POV shots on the drive to San Juan Bautista with great significance, but part of his argument is that we are seeing Judy’s anxiety about her role in the murder plot, and it therefore assumes that we have already seen the film.  See Rothman, 68-71.

20 On these instances, see Modleski.

21 The possible exception here is Judy. She is similarly coded at first. Both women love Scottie and are also linked to the spectator’s distrust of identification with him. However, Judy’s identity is erased quickly by the makeover and becomes necessarily submerged into her performance as Madeleine to the extent that we are unsure about her authenticity in every respect.

22 Cynthia Chase, “Primary narcissism and the giving of figure: Kristeva with Hertz and de Man.” Abjection, Melancholia and  love: The work of Julia Kristeva. (Eds. John Fletcher and Andrew Benjamin. (New York and London: Routledge, 1990): 133.

23 Paul de Man, The Rhetoric of Romanticism, (New York: Columbia University Press, 1984): 120.

24 See Marilyn Farbe, “Mourning Vertigo.” American Imago 66.3 (Fall 2009): 343-367.

25 Sigmund Freud, “Mourning and melancholia.” The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. Trans. and ed. James Strachey et al. 24 vols. (London: The Hogarth Press and London Institute of Psychoanalysis, 1953 – 1974) 14: 253.

26 In this regard, my analysis has affinities with Shoshana Felman’s classic account of critical deception in literary criticism, “Turning the Screw of Interpretation.” Yale French Studies 55/56 (1977): 94-207.

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 →