Camera work in VERTIGO by Hitchcock Essay
Camera work in VERTIGO by Hitchcock
For essay option two, I will discuss Vertigo and two ways the camera is used in the film. Although Hitchcock uses the camera in additional ways, for this purpose of this essay, I will cover how camerawork helps initiate an underlying sense of danger in the opening sequence and how camerawork, in the famous dolly-zoom shots, communicates the vertigo experienced by Scotty. Part I will talk about the opening sequence, touching on the first use of the famous dolly-zoom shot. Part II will offer more detail about the dolly-zoom and how the technique reappears twice in the film, expressing Scotty’s vertigo with camerawork. PART I
The opening sequence has at least two purposes. One is to prepare the viewer for the sense of underlying danger that becomes an undercurrent throughout the film. Another is to give the viewer a glimpse into Scotty’s vertigo so it can be referenced later with just a quick downward shot. In this section, I will discuss how camerawork is used to achieve these purposes in the opening sequence.
After the intro, that shows spiraling graphics, the movie starts with a close up of a metal bar. Only the bar is in focus. When one hand and then the next grab on to the bar, the viewer gets a sense of “hanging on” to avoid falling. This theme is important in the film; not just falling physically, but also falling mentally. By creating a CU, where only the bar is in focus, this heightens the effect for the viewer. By using a shallow depth of field, the background out of focus, one gets the feeling: to let go of the bar would be to slip into the unknown. This is a dramatic way to start a movie and gives the viewer the idea there is much more drama to come. The choice of camera setup, on the opening shot, sets the tone for the entire film.
Afterward, quickly, the camera zooms out increasing the depth of field, and we see a man climbing up a ladder being chased by two other men. The background, of buildings, also come into view and into focus, as well as the roof tops, establishing the scene. By not starting with a typical
establishing shot of the roof, and instead starting with the CU of the bar, Hitchcock emphasizes the idea of “hanging on” and a fear of falling. Since his goal was to evoke emotion in the viewer, his opening shot jars the viewer and creates a sense of uneasiness, which is confirmed later when Scotty is hanging from the roof.
The next shot in the sequence is a slow wide pan from right to left. The wide shot temporarily distances the viewer from the action, almost saying: the danger of the first shot has passed. However, that comfort is only temporary as the viewer is soon again sucked into a close shot of the roof gap. The camera choice of close shot, wide shot, back to close shot gives the viewer a quick dose of fleeting security, ending in again in insecurity.
Our book says that a left to right pan discovers or surprises while a right to left pan confirms or completes. This idea seems to fit with Hitchcock’s camera work. The wide pan right ends with a confirmation of the feeling created by the first shot. The men are jumping over a great height and the last man, who doesn’t make it, is hanging on much like the opening shot suggests. To the viewer, this seems like his or her initial fears, created by the hands hanging on the bar, are confirmed. To explore this shot further, I imported the scene into AVID and reversed the image.
With the pan going from left to right, I was more likely to believe everyone would get up and over to the right. This coincides with the theory that a left to right pan discovers. Watching it reversed, I was more concerned with where the man being chased was going rather than Scotty hanging off the roof. Hitchcock’s right to left pan, before the static roof shot, gave the impression that static roof scene was an important scene rather than a scene leading up to something else. It’s as if is saying, “That brief fear you felt at the opening shot IS real, in fact it’s worse than you thought.”
Another use of camera technique to help achieve the dramatic effect of the opening sequence is, once again like the bar in the opening shot, using a shallower depth of field to help focus the viewer’s attention. When the other cop stops because he realizes Scotty has not made it over the gap, we can see the first man escaping in the distance. Hitchcock chooses to use a
depth a field that allows the man to leave focus as he shrinks and gets away. By allowing the man to leave focus, this technique helps communicate to the viewer that the man has escaped and is not longer important; he or she can now focus on the man hanging from the roof. The scene with Scotty and the cop at the ledge is more impactful because the viewer is no longer concerned about the other man. Because of skilled camerawork, the viewer can focus on the intensity of the scene.
The shots in the opening sequence so far have set the table for the famous shot. It is a powerful shot, even more so considering the technique first appeared in Vertigo. When Scotty looks down, while hanging from the roof, the viewer gets a taste of the same effect that will be used later when Scotty looks down the stairwell of the church. By distorting perspective, Hitchcock gives the viewer a sense of the terrible fear Scotty feels looking down while hanging from the roof. Although the first dolly-zoom shot is an integral part of the opening sequence, it is more than just a piece of the sequence because the technique is used again later in the film. I will cover the mechanics of this shot and how the desired effect is created in the part II, when I discuss the two repetitions of the shot. The later uses of the technique, in the church stairwell, are stronger because it reminds the viewer of this first shot. The second and third dolly-zoom shots have more meaning because it references the first.
Further on in opening sequence, with effective use of the camera and good framing, even after the cop falls, the viewer has a sense of threatening downward motion in the downward shot. This is accomplished by an awareness of the vectors created by the buildings and the position of the cop after the fall. When the cop falls from the roof and lands on the cement, he is positioned in the vanishing point of four strong vertical lines created by the two buildings. This emphasizes the downward motion of the fall. Looking at the image frozen on the screen, the viewer is likely more afraid of falling after the man because of the perspective lines creating vectors in that direction. They remind the viewers that they could be next, following the same path.
When the opening sequence is over, and Scotty is in a cozy workroom, there is a feeling that the coziness is only temporary and precarious. Repeating the techniques used to create the dolly-zoom shot, help Hitchcock bring the viewer back to the fear experienced on the rooftop. In part II, I will discuss the mechanics of the shot and also the way the techniques are repeated later. PART II
Not only does the does Hitchcock’s dolly-zoom shot, in the opening sequence, help give the viewer the impression that danger will always be lurking, it also allows Hitchcock to easily reference that fear later on by using similarly constructed shots. Later in the movie, there are two scenes where Scotty is ascending the wooden spiral staircase. In each, Hitchcock uses the same camera technique to evoke the dramatic opening sequence and also to communicate to the viewer the fear that Scotty feels at each moment.
The famous dolly-zoom shots in Vertigo are created by dollying the camera back while zooming in. A dolly-zoom can also be done the opposite way, dollying in and zooming out. In both cases, by cross-controlling the camera, the subject can be kept the same size in the frame while the viewer experiences perspective distortion. In the opening sequence when Scotty is hanging from the roof, we see him look down. This cut sets up the dolly-zoom shot and lets the viewer know it’s from Scotty’s POV. By distorting the perspective, it gives the viewer a dizzying feeling. This gives the viewer a sense of the vertigo Scotty experiences.
The first repeat of the dolly-zoom shot is right before Madeleine dies after falling from the church tower. Part of Vertigo’s plot, is that Mr. Elster fabricates his plan to kill his wife with the knowledge that Scotty will not be able to make it up the tower to stop Madeleine. In the scene, the skillful choice of camerawork furthers the story in two ways. First, reminds the viewer of the underlying fear established opening sequence. Second, it helps the viewer better understand why Scotty cannot climb the stairs quickly. Without the intense earlier introduction to Scotty’s vertigo, it would be too cumbersome to explain it in the middle of the scene. The fast pace created by the quick cuts, as they enter the church,
would be lost.
Again, the technique is repeated when Scotty is climbing the stairs with Judy. The third dolly-zoom is almost identical to the second. The camera is moved up and away from the floor while the lens is zoomed in keeping field of view from increasing. The change in depth of field and the change in perspective again create the same dizzying, disturbing sensation. In addition to the effect the current shot produces, the viewer instantly remember s the feeling created by the opening sequence and the previous staircase dolly-zoom. The viewer is given a strong sense of the discomfort and fear felt by Scotty.
In order to help the viewer connect the stairwell dolly-zoom shots to the dolly-zoom shot in the opening sequence, Hitchcock makes sure the perspective lines are similar. In each shot, four distinct lines descend to the vanishing point. Furthering this effect, similar music is played in each of the three scenes.
Although the second and third dolly-zooms are very similar, Hitchcock makes sure the third dolly-zoom scene still packs punch. The last stairwell scene is at night and creates a more ominous feel. The last look down the stairwell is almost void of color and has a cool color scheme closer to the original dolly-zoom in the opening sequence.
The camerawork in Vertigo is an integral part of the film. Hitchcock used many techniques to amplify the intended effects of the story on the viewer. This is expertly done since none of the techniques overpower the story or distract the viewer. In Vertigo, there are too many great camerawork techniques to discuss in one essay. The shot in the opening sequence and the later repetition of the dolly-zoom shot, covered in this essay, are great examples how camerawork is weaved into the story, advancing the intended effect on the viewer. In the opening sequence, thoughtful camerawork creates an underlying sense of danger that lasts throughout the film. With the dramatic dolly-zoom shots, Hitchcock creates a feeling of disorientation in the viewer.
By duplicating the same technique later on, Hitchcock is able evoke the same fear later, just as Scotty experiences it. Hitchcock was ahead of his time. Many of his techniques, like the famous dolly-zoom, have been adopted by other directors and are often seen in films today. Hitchcock’s impact on his audience in 1958 was surely even greater since some techniques were being used for the first time. Some movie goers, watching Vertigo in 1958, probably felt like as if they were hanging from the roof instead of Scotty; just what Hitchcock intended.