Being a musician and not a painter or an interior decorator, I don’t know exactly what is an accepted relationship in film and theatre of what emotions and colours match, or what colours have what meanings.
For me, however:
Red means Danger. Caution. Beware. Stop.
Green is inviting. It says Come. Go. Life. It beckons - it’s the predominant colour of nature.
Blue is tranquil. It is the colour of the sky on a sunny, cloudless day. It is the colour of the ocean on the same kind of day.
Brown is also natural, like green. It’s the colour of the things that grow out of green grass and of the branches from which leaves grow.
Black is Death. Sin. Evil. The absence of goodness.
White is Innocence or an appearance of Goodness. It can also be bland.
Black and white together indicate extremes.The combination of black and white – grey - indicates something that doesn’t make a statement, that’s neutral, that allows other colours to shine.
A certain type of Green, however, can also mean something bad. It is the colour of envy and greed. Or of mould or something that is infected.Pink is the colour of a healthy human life.
Purple or mauve is none of the above. It’s beautiful – and the only personal but truly innocent colour.
Yellow is happy.
Orange is the colour of something that begins or ends, like the start or finish of a day.
Flowers come in all colours except – in rare cases – black.
Flowers mostly signify, life and happiness. Roses, in particular, illustrate feelings of love, and flowers are never more abundant than in Spring or at weddings.
Flowers also appear at funerals. Flowers don’t necessarily mean happiness. Flowers dress a church for a funeral and are placed on graves.
Circles are rings which signify something that is endless. A wedding ring signifies something to someone getting married.
A spiral is also a circle of sorts, except that it either diminishes or expands. It can be positive or negative. A spiral also signifies something out of control. It’s getting bigger or smaller. It leads to something intense and overwhelming or it leads to something that gets smaller and smaller until it disappears.
A spiral could be a life where emotions take over as it grows in size, overwhelmingly.
A spiral could be a life growing smaller, becoming more introspective, until it finally becomes nothing.
Eyes are one-dimensional circles or three-dimensional spheres, like our planet which hosts life. There is life in a living person’s eyes. When the light goes out of someone’s eyes, we describe that as death.
Eyes reveal the world to us and allow us to evaluate everything that goes on around us, which we then judge and accept or reject as true or false. Not only do they reveal every object in the world to us, someone at some point thought, if we can see out of our being, through our eyes, what can someone see inside our being, if they looked into our eyes. Phrases were invented like, “Eyes are the window to the soul”; or “Trust me. Look into my eyes and you’ll see I’m not lying, you’ll see I’m faithful, trustworthy and good.”
Mirrors are a reflection. They show someone who looks like us but isn’t us. We are the person standing in front of the mirror. We aren’t the person in the reflection. The reflection is a deceiving reproduction of what we look like, and therefore, instinctively, revealing who we aren’t, but who we may seem to be.
Mirrors reveal what we look like but they don’t reveal who we are inside. Mirrors aren’t windows to the soul. Mirrors reveal a secondary person, the person which we make ourselves out to be. They reveal the expression we choose to show on our face and they reveal the face with all our make-up and lipstick: artificial.
Movies are entirely made up of projections of people, men and women, made up to look beautiful and glamorous, in the most beautiful clothes, with the most beautiful hair, lips, eyelashes and contact lenses. Movies have no more important task than to make something that isn’t real, look real, and achieve a level of deception through creating something that looks enough like what is actually real, that the viewer gives themselves over to the characters the actors are performing, suspends disbelief, believes in it, then embraces the storytelling gene our bodies have had since the first time someone drew a picture on a wall.
All of these things are part of the film, Vertigo, which starts in black and white, as the Paramount logo appears. Then we see a mouth, and a nose, and then the camera moves in on one eye to show an extreme close-up of a human eye, which fills most of the screen.
A pupil looks like a perfect circle. An eye is the part of us by which most humans receive most of their information. It is the most dominant of the five senses for most people. It is a camera and a window. Suddenly the female eye on the screen is saturated by the colour red.
The title Vertigo comes out of the eye from far in the distance until it overwhelms the dimensions of the screen. Then we see spirals of pink and turquoise which are subdued reds and greens. Then a vivid green and turquoise again and then a yellow which becomes golden and orange and then completely red. The spiral goes back to yellow, and it spirals away into nothing. The screen is filled by the eye again, with black eyelashes, and every thing onscreen that would be flesh-toned or white or have colour, is saturated by the red.
In striking white letters, DIRECTED BY ALFRED HITCHCOCK, seen deep within the pupil, becomes larger and larger until it also overwhelms the dimensions of the screen.
The next thing we see is an iron bar. It is night time. A hand grasps the bar and pulls up the body attached to it. All colour is muted. Because of darkness anything seen at night is not revealed with all its flaws as it would be under the sun’s dispassionate glare. The dominant red of the main titles reveals that there is danger ahead, but also shows there are less worrying aspects to the story, with the pastel colours of pink and blue and green.
The opening chase - at night - shows that there are things which will be obscured in what we’re about to watch, just as night doesn’t reveal anything significant about the degree of Scottie’s imminent, or subsequent, peril. All the colours are muted. No patches of red. There are insignificant red dots from the signs in the City of San Francisco in the distance.
Scottie wears a dark suit and a neutral tie. Midge has red-rimmed glasses. A few colours of red are seen, very red, but so far away they’re also, almost, insignificant. Yellows, light blues, burgundy and dark brown are the main palette. The only hint of the danger is in Midge’s glasses.
Immediate warning signs are given with the extensive red carpet and the dark red chairs. There is reason for Scottie to be cautious, to be suspicious of Gavin, even to stop. The colour red doesn’t overwhelm the screen but it is sometimes very significant as we see the carpet in the frame in relation to where Scotties is in the frame. Sometimes red is less important and sometimes it is just a patch of red, like the back of a chair. The floor is danger red, but not the chairs. The bottom of a model boat is extremely red as Scottie casually leans on it whilst listening to Gavin’s second pitch to involve him.
Scottie is intrigued and sits down in a deep red chair on red carpet with a slice of red on the right of the screen from the bottom of the model boat. Scottie is surrounded by red, indicating danger and the number of different red objects, which create different angles against Scottie's figure, are significant in the way they visually oppose the position of Scottie's body. Scottie also is seen deep within the frame, the red colours of physical objects surrounding his humanity.
Reverse shots of Gavin have him surrounded by browns. As Scottie listens to Gavin’s second attempt to lure him into working for him as a private-eye, Scottie is sitting in an overwhelming ocean of red. It is Danger Danger Danger.
A shot which is angled up at Gavin, so much so that we can see the ceiling behind and above him, with him pointing a figure at Scottie, shows him dominating the conversation, commanding Scottie to accept his proposal. Scottie’s tie is blue.
An establishing shot shows the colour red through the glass on the doors to the restaurant, Ernie’s. Inside, the walls, the floor, and the backs of chairs are ridiculously red to the point of craziness. All the warnings are there for the viewer to become aware of the danger, and the unspoken words: "Stop!" "Don’t Take the Job!"
Scottie has quite a lot of red in his tie, on an angle. A nice colour in his tie is broken up by slashes of red.
Madeleine is in a black dress – death, evil, darkness - a warning about the character of this women eating dinner with Gavin. She has a vivid green shawl which is welcoming and says Go! or Come! The walls and floor say Stop! As Gavin and Madeleine leave the restaurant, they walk past a mirror which shows their reflection. It reveals subconsciously to the audience not neither of them are really who they appear to be. They are not husband and wife. She is not Madeleine even though she appears to be.
Scottie Following Madeleine
Madeleine leaves her apartment building and gets into a very green car, which says, Go! Come on! Follow Me! It's enticing. Scottie, wearing a different red-striped tie, follows her. Madeleine goes to a flower shop dressed in a black shoes and a grey suit, blending gently with her platinum blonde hair. The different colour of the flowers are an overwhelming array of yellows, pinks, purples – all colours – plus a significant patch of red.
The Church and Graveyard
Flowers. Scottie follows Madeleine, his tie - as he drives - with it's red slice warns us something is wrong. In the church the alter has a lot of red. Then in the garden/graveyard, there are other colours, but red patches of flowers accompany Scottie’s view of her.
Madeleine has a pink bouquet of flowers. So does the painting. In shots of Scottie there are small patches of vivid reds in the other paintings seen in the same shot, adding more red to the colour surrounding his body, building on the red of his half-red half-blue tie. Scottie sees the spiral in her hair and the spiral in the hair of the Painting of Carlotta which has a necklace with red in it.
Scottie follows Madeleine to a hotel, accompanied by his tie. Inside, there are lots of browns and nothing very vivid. As always, there are flowers on the wallpaper and on the bedspread - there are flowers everywhere in this first half of the film - with a little bit of red.
Large windows show the world of San Francisco, exposing everything. It’s as if Hitchcock is saying, Everything’s on show and there’s nothing to hide. What you see is either what it is or not what it is, butyou, the viewer, has to be able to tell what's real and what's not.
Midge takes Scottie to a bookshop to talk with a man who knows local history. To Scottie’s right in the frame are numerous consecutive books of red. As the reverse shot shows the bookseller, there’s thirteen red books followed by an equal number of green books to his right. As Scottie listens to him there is a red sign in the street, deep in the background. The light in the store gets dimmer and dimmer. It’s a warning. He exits the store, a passer-by walks across with a vivid red muffler. Suddenly the lights in the store go back to full light behind him. Scottie – obviously - carries, unwittingly, darkness and bad fortune with him. Behind him we can see a tiny patch of a couple of red books and the slashes of red on his tie, and Midge’s red-rimmed glasses.
Scottie takes Midge home and the danger is less in the subdued light of night-time. It’s just the two of them with the now almost non-existent red of her glasses, his red tie, and the dull red of the Golden Gate Bridge behind them.
Browns and crimsons and creams. And Scottie’s red tie. The chairs aren’t red, they’re crimson.
A shot of Scottie shows the carpet on the floor has red in it, so he is still surrounded by patches of red.
Green grass in the establishing shot. Madeleine is in black. Not a muted colour. He watches her. Then green grass again outside the museum. The grass is enticing. Green means go. It means Follow Me, because something significant is going to happen now, that is significant. In the background as his car follows her car we see the red Golden Gate Bridge.
Golden Gate Bridge
Inside the Presidio we see the magnificent expanse of the bridge. The red of the bridge is vivid, but angular, If it wasn't so beautiful and natural, it would be disconcerting, except it doesn’t overwhelm the palette. It is a stroke of genius that allows the bridge to be second in importance to the human event which Scottie rescues her from. She has purple/mauve accessories and a black dress.
Scottie’s Apartment has a bright red door. He no longer has a tie with red in it. Now he wears something green, a sweater that says that personally, he is welcoming and to be trusted - inviting her to come to him because – even if he hasn’t admitted it to himself – he has fallen in love with her. Red has disappeared from the colour scheme in this scene except for one item. Madeleine is no longer in black and neutral colours. She wears a red robe that is the most dominant colour in the scene. It says Danger. Now red doesn’t say, Scottie, be afraid, there’s danger about. It says, Scottie, this woman is what is dangerous. Scottie green sweater says, I’m available. I’m giving you the green light. She, however, Madeleine, is the danger. When he’s on the phone to Gavin she leaves. The red door, a patch, shows against the green of her green Follow Me! car.
Scottie Follows Madeleine Back to His Place
There is very little deceit in this scene but Scottie has a different red tie which signals he is still surrounded – around his neck in fact – by danger. Madeleine in her white coat, black gloves, black handbag and black dress, is death. Her white coat tries to disguise who she is really is underneath the outward appearance.
Surrounding Scottie are the pink of his little fence and the turquoise colours of his door jam. Not too green or too red. She’s going for a drive and he wants to come. She reminds him that he hasn’t shut his red door while she’s sitting in her green car.
In the woods, it is dark and there are four main colours. Her white coat, his dark suit, his red tie, her white hair, her black dress, red flowers at the base of a tree and green foliage. It’s a seen of terrible foreboding with sun diffused through the trees. It’s very dark; and light – truth – is sparse, shown through rays between the shadows created by the trees.
Madeleine is black and white in her coat and dress, along with her hair and eyebrows. The world is muted. Anything that is honest is absent. She has her dull red lipstick which is always the same and she speaks her lies to him. She makes him afraid for her safety and they kiss for the first time with his red tie now completely muted. All colour is muted. This is, finally, just what is. Now things are cold and harsh. What should be passionate, their embrace, is seen in the context of a framing of their bodies entirely composed of coldness.
Midge wears a bright red top and Scottie wears a red tie. She’s painted a picture of Carlotta with her own face and the red necklace, and he is hurt by it. She is furious with herself. Everything in the scene is a warning to Scottie and us. The danger for Scottie is that he's about to abandon the one person in the story who has feelings for him. Midge has intense feeling of love, the red of her top, both a warning to us of his dangerous situation, as he falls into a a crazed obsession over a woman he should be dispassionate about, who should just be someone he is following, Madeleine, and a statement about Midge's red-hot feelings for him. The red of Midge's top is possibly the most vibrant of any reds in the film. It's contrasts the lack of colour in the previous scene with Madeleine, where the kiss that should be electric - and is for Scottie - is in reality completely lacking in warmth.
Exterior shot of his apartment with no other colour than a green walk sign and a red stop sign. Madeleine in a black dress and a grey and white-flecked coat, black gloves, arrives. This is where she entices him completely into loving her. The final seduction happens without any patch of red, just a dishevelled tie of dangerous red around his neck.
The Spanish Mission
Madeleine has a grey suit, white blouse, white hair, grey eyebrows. His tie doesn’t have a patch of red. Her red lipstick is dull. She runs to the stairs. In the church there is red panelling at the altar as he follows her. She plummets from the building. His vertigo is so bad he wasn’t able to follow.
There is only a tiny amount of red in the flag and red in the tie of two members of the jury. Scottie wears a grey and blue tie.
Scottie’s nightmare has purple and red in it at various times.
Establishing shot. A black car and a red car in the distance, and a red top to a mailbox. Otherwise neutral colours. In the room, pink roses and Midge’s red-rimmed glasses. Muted. Scottie is in a blue sweater. Nothing is very red. Just shades. The pink flowers in the room aren’t a warning. They’re a dull reminder of what was once vivid. Midge and the doctor talk. Muted colours. When she leaves, the corridor is just blue and grey.
San Francisco Panaroma
Madeleine and Gavin’s apartment
Scottie is wandering the spots where he first spied on her. The green car is there but owned by someone else. He goes to Ernie’s restaurant and the museum. Similar images of women make him see Madeleine, but his eyes deceive him. Everywhere he goes things remind him of her, including flowers. Then he sees a woman on the streets, all in green, a dark redhead. The green is more overwhelming than any other use of green so far. It says follow me. But this time it isn’t an enticement or recognition of a signal.
It is an emotional and psychological reaction of recognition. A deep-seated attraction. There are still leaves on the wallpaper and when she proves her identity, the purse is bright red, introducing the dangerous colour into their scenes again.
She remembers what really happened which informs the audience. There’s no colour of red or green. She thinks of leaving but her entire body, including her eyes, now, are green, as well as her bedhead. Dull pinks elsewhere. She writes a letter to him then tears it up. There is more red in her lipstick than when she was Madeleine. A slight red in a garment hanging in her closet.
The room is overwhelmingly red as they eat. She’s in mauve.
Lime green reflecting everywhere. Scottie wants to see her again. Black silhouette. He has red striped tie. She is bathed in green but her lipstick is now mauve/purple like her dress. Deceitful. A witch.
Exterior – Walking – Green
Judy's in a green skirt and yellow top, then a mauve dress, dancing.Then red enters again in the street. An awning, a vehicle, flowers. She’s in a brown top and green skirt.
Scottie makes her over into Madeleine.
He’s obsessed and she’s distressed and there’s no red, but pale green’s everywhere in his flat.
Pale pink red in the parlour. Then hints of blonde. And hints of her lipstick.
Green light comes in through the window. Red lids of boxes of clothing he’s bought her create horizontal red slashes in the colours of her room. Her bathroom door is bathed in green. We see Judy and Scottie in the mirror, and neither of them is who the reflection shows they are. She's not Madeleine even though she's dressed up to be. She's Judy, but she isn't really Judy anymore because she's sold herself to Gavin, and become complicit in a murder. Likewise, Scottie isn't Scottie. He's not acting like the Scottie we know him to be inside. He's manipulative and controlling and mean.
He sends her into the bathroom to completely become Madeleine by fixing her hair the same way Madeleine wore it.
Then an Extraordinary Use of Back Projection
As they kiss the camera moves around them and it goes from the background of the apartment and becomes the background of the Mission instead of the apartment and then back to the apartment. It’s subtle, circular, and brilliant.
She comes out dressed in black. Total death. Scottie has green behind him. She puts on a necklace in front a mirror, and he sees it, and the red comes into the frame again, in the necklace, and he realises it is the same one with the red square and the three red tear drops. He realises the deceit. This time, and for the only time in the film does Scottie realise the significance of the red that shares the frame with him. This red is the giveaway of the game she has played.
Driving to the Mission
He takes her to the scene where Madeleine died. He’s obsessed.
Devoid of reds. Everything is dark or black except their skin and her hair. He makes her climb the stairs.
Scottie makes her go up to make her suffer for her sin. He puts his hand around her neck and is angry with her. He drags her up. He’s inwardly crazed whilst staying outwardly calm. In the clocktower, the necklace is dull and there is no red from it at all in the scene. They kiss. It seems like he will forgive her. But the director and screenwriters haven’t.
A nun suddenly surprises them and as he realises he isn’t suffering from the agoraphobia, the apparition of the nun forces Judy to back away in fright. She falls to her death. Her complicity in the deception of Gavin means that has now died to pay for her sins, and Scottie is, for a third time, the unfortunate victim of an overwhelming series of escalating emotions with which he is unable to cope.
God have mercy, says the nun.
Vertigo is not the Hitchcock film I have seen the most. That would probably be The Birds, North by Northwest, To Catch a Thief or Notorious. It's also not my favourite Hitchcock film. It's also not necessarily the film of his which I think is the most superb, although it is definitely one of his best.
When I was a kid growing up I found it to be one of his most inaccessible films, whereas I loved the Cary Grant ones, The Birds, Marnie, Suspicion, Foreign Correspondent, The 39 Steps, Rope, Psycho, Dial M For Murder and The Lady Vanishes. I watched those Hitchcock films again and again.
The one that I came to regard as his darkest film as I became older was Notorious (1941). The position that Ingrid Bergman's character is placed in is awful and she is terribly unhappy. At a certain point in my twenties I started to see that Kim Novak's character is placed in an awful predicament as well and that James Stewart's character becomes similarly nasty - like Cary Grant in Notorious. When I realised just how controlling and manipulative Stewart's character, Scottie, becomes, I started to dislike his growing intensity and obsession with the character of Judy. The way she suffers at his hands in the second half of the film always draws a lot of empathy from me.
In the last six months I was surprised to discover how highly it is regarded by many critics and directors. When I embarked of the 100 Great Films Ever project, I welcomed the chance to see it again. It would have been twenty years since I saw it last and this time I appreciated it the most of any time I've seen it. It's superb on many levels and I specifically looked out for circles, rings, spirals and the use of colour in every scene.