Jump to: navigation, search

Hitchcock Annual (1993) - Delusions and dreams in Hitchcock's Vertigo




Vertigo (1958) is Alfred Hitchcock's most troubling meditation on love. Love of a delusional kind, to be sure, for the protagonist, Scottie, goes further than most of us in shaping his loved one in the image of his dreams, but love nonetheless. First, in falling in love with the seemingly death-obsessed Judy/Madeleine, then in acting so as to cause Judy's death after he seems to have succeeded in recreating her in the image of the woman he thought of as Madeleine Elster, Scottie's behavior is shaped by delusion.

Delusion I define, after Freud, as a way of seeing the world entirely as a reflection of one's fantasies. Freud offers two somewhat different definitions of delusion. In the early essay "Delusions and Dreams in Jensen's Gradiva" (1907), his first extended consideration of a work of art, Freud defines delusion as a state in which there is no "direct effect upon the body but [the delusions] are manifested only by mental indications," and in which "phantasies have gained the upper hand — that is, have obtained belief and have acquired an influence on action."1 The second definition, offered in one of Freud's last essays, "Constructions in Analysis" (1937), stresses the same two factors, "the turning away from the real world and its motive forces on the one hand, and the influence exercised by wish-fulfillment on the content of the delusion on the other."2 The later definition clarifies the content of the delusion as wish-fulfilling fantasies. The earlier one, however, with its emphasis on action, indicating that the furthest limits of delusion are reached when the subject acts to shape the real world in accordance with his fantasies, brings us close to the second part of Vertigo in which Scottie believes he has made a woman into an exact replica of one who has died.

The protagonist of the film is a detective who destroys his world by solving a crime. Hired by Elster to watch his ostensibly suicidal wife, Madeleine, Scottie is caught in a plot by Elster to murder her by flinging her from a church tower while Scottie is immobilized by his vertigo. Judy Barton had been hired by Elster to pose as his wife, who is doomed to repeat the tragic history and suicide of her great-grandmother Carlotta Valdes. After the plot succeeds when Scot...

[ to view the rest of the article, please try one of the links above ]

Donald O. Chankin is an associate professor of English at Queensborough Community College and a psychoanalyst in private practice. He is also co‑curator of the Camera on the Couch film program for the National Association of Psychoanalysis.


  1. Sigmund Freud, "Delusions and Dreams in Jensen's Gradiva" (1907), Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud (London: Hogarth, 1953), 9, 44-45.
  2. Freud, "Constructions in Analysis" (1937), Standard Edition 23, 267.
  3. Robin Wood, Hitchcock's Film's Revisited (New York: Columbia University Press, 1989), 111.
  4. William G. Simon, "Hitchcock: The Language of Madness," in Walter Raubicheck and Walter Srebnick, eds., Hitchcock's Rereleased Films (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1991), 111.
  5. Hitchcock by Francois Truffaut, Revised Edition (New York: Touchstone, 1985), 244.
  6. Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, D'entre les Morts [translated as The Living and the Dead] (New York: Ives Washburn, 1957), 43.
  7. Donald Spoto says that this exchange shows "exploitation (disguised as love) and self-annihilation (disguised as self-sacrifice)." The Art of Alfred Hitchcock: Fifty Years of His Motion Pictures (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 294.
  8. Julia Kristeva, Black Sun: Depression and Melancholia (New York: Columbia University Press, 1989), 45.
  9. Freud (1907), 80.
  10. Freud, "The 'Uncanny,'" (1919), Standard Edition 17, 227.
  11. For a photograph of the Gradiva hanging on the wall of Freud's consulting room, see Berggasse 19, Sigmund Freud's Home and Offices, Vienna 1938: The Photographs of Edmund Engelman (New York: Basic Books, 1976), Plate 12.
  12. Wilhelm Jensen, Gradiva: A Pompeiian Fancy (1903) in Sigmund Freud, Delusion and Dream and Other Essays (Boston: Beacon, 1956), 148.
  13. Jensen, 196.
  14. Jensen, 230.
  15. Freud later said that Gradiva "has no particular merit in itself" (Autobiographical Study [1925], Standard Edition 20, 65).
  16. Jensen, 235.
  17. Wood, 71.
  18. The falling motif in Hitchcock's films is examined by Leonard J. Leff, Hitchcock and Selznick (New York: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1987), 125.
  19. Salomon Resnik, The Theatre of the Dream (London: Tavistock, 1987), 130.
  20. J. Laplanche and J.B. Pontalis, The Language of Psycho-Analysis (New York: Norton, 1973), 318.
  21. Judy is the fallen woman whose condign punishment is death by falling. The falling/fallen correlation is suggested by Freud in The Interpretation of Dreams (1900): "If a woman dreams of falling ... she is imagining herself as a 'fallen woman' " (Standard Edition 4, 202).
  22. Freud, "Hysterical Phantasies and Their Relation to Bisexuality" (1908), Standard Edition 9, 162.
  23. Wood, 386.
  24. "A Talk by Samuel Taylor, Screenwriter of Vertigo," in Raubicheck and Srebnick, 293.
  25. The script of May 1, 1958 is prefaced by a page entitled "RE: VERTIGO" giving instructions for the insertion of the new material, pages 6 and 7 of Reel 6A, consisting of the confession (letter-writing) scene which begins with the flashback to the murder in the tower.
  26. Resnik, 132.
  27. Freud, "A Special Type of Choice of Object Made by Men" (1910), Standard Edition 11, 165.