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American Imago (2009) - Mourning Vertigo




This paper sheds light on the psychological underpinnings of the enduring popularity of Vertigo location tours, and, more generally, on what people may be hoping to find or experience by visiting the literal remains of filmed fantasies. Those who desire to return to the places where Vertigo was filmed, it is argued, replicate the actions of its hero in the second half of the film. Scottie embarks on a futile quest to restore an unreal woman, an empty façade, an illusion created by Gavin Elster, trying to make a fictional image "real." Madeleine resembles what is described by Christian Metz as an "imaginary signifier" that is infinitely desirable but never possessible. Vertigo's convoluted plot plays out and replays a perverse scenario that brilliantly depicts the experience of melancholia, as theorized by Giorgio Agamben as a state in which "the libido stages a simulation where what cannot be lost because it has never been possessed appears as lost" (1979, 20). Scottie's behavior is likened to that of a child who has suffered an insecure attachment to a "dead" (depressed and therefore inattentive) mother and, as a result, never develops the capacity to love truly or mourn successfully. By leaving the viewer in a painful state of unresolved suspense about Scottie's fate at the end of the film, Hitchcock reveals his inability to resolve his own issues around fear of loss and aggression toward desirable women. Those who seek out the locations of Vertigo continue Scottie's doomed quest to make a fantasy real, to diminish the gap between representation and reality, and thereby cling to an illusory means by which to overcome loss.


Mourning Vertigo


Carlotta Valdez’s gravestone, a prop created for Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) and inserted in the graveyard of the historic Mission Dolores in San Francisco, was once a major tourist attraction. It was soon removed for not being “ ‘authentic’ enough to reside in the hallowed grounds of the Mission cemetery” (Kraft and Leventhal 2002, 101), but the remaining vestiges of Vertigo still attract tourists half a century after the film was made. “A Friend in Town Tours” advertises a full-day Vertigo trip, accompanied by the Bernard Herrmann soundtrack, that begins with a visit to all the remaining locations where Vertigo was shot: San Juan Bautista, Mission Dolores (even without the tombstone), the Palace of the Legion of Honor, Fort Point, the Palace of Fine Arts, Russian Hill, and Nob Hill.1 Ernie’s restaurant and the Portman mansion may no longer exist, but Vertigo fans can gaze at their photographic remains in Jeff Kraft and Aaron Leventhal’s book Footsteps in the Fog: Alfred Hitchcock’s San Francisco (2002), which includes a long chapter documenting the actual locations used in this famously haunting film (73–165).

Films have always elicited the desire of spectators to visit the real places represented on the screen. Fans of The Sound of Music flock to the environs of Salzburg, just as, more recently, tourism in New Zealand increased because the Lord of the Rings trilogy was shot there. Today there is a growing trend of choosing vacation destinations solely to see locations used in film and television productions. The trend even has a name: “Set Jetting.”2

What are people seeking in the locations where films were shot? What are they hoping to find or experience by visiting the literal remains of filmed fantasies? I will argue that Hitchcock’s Vertigo, a film that has inspired viewers to return to its locations decades before such tourism became trendy, is a privileged text in this regard, because it resonates with the very psychological impulses that compel film viewers to return to the scene of filmed fictions.

Vertigo tells the story of Scottie Ferguson (James Stewart), an ex-policeman who quit his job because he suffers from acrophobia (fear of heights), a weakness that contributed to the death of a colleague. Scottie is hired by an old school friend, Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore), to observe secretly the behavior of his beautiful, wealthy, blonde, upper-class wife, Madeleine (Kim Novak), because he fears she is possessed by a vengeful ancestor, Carlotta Valdez, who is luring her to her death. Scottie falls deeply in love with his charge and rescues her when she jumps into San Francisco Bay. But the next time she attempts suicide, Scottie is unable to save her. Paralyzed by his vertigo, he watches helplessly as she falls to her death from the top of the bell tower at Mission San Juan Batista. He is acquitted of responsibility for her death at an inquest (the verdict is suicide), but his guilt and grief lead to a complete mental collapse and hospitalization. His ex-fiancée and confidante, Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes), desperately tries to snap him out of a deep catatonia, but finally gives up.

In the second half of the film, Scottie leaves the hospital seemingly recovered, but he cannot stop searching for Madeleine. By chance he happens upon Judy, a common shop girl and a brunette, who nevertheless uncannily resembles his lost love. At this point in the film, the viewer is informed that Judy (also played by Kim Novak) is in fact the same woman Scottie fell in love with. She was not Gavin Elster’s wife, however, but his mistress, “made over” to resemble his wife. Her supposed death at the tower was a hoax to set Scottie up to witness his wife’s “suicide.” The real victim thrown from the tower was Elster’s actual wife, whose money he wished to inherit. Not knowing that Judy was a conspirator in a murder plot that nearly drove him crazy, and desperate to recover his lost love, Scottie begins a successful campaign to transform Judy into the image of the ersatz Madeleine. Judy reluctantly goes along with Scottie’s obsession because she has fallen in love with him and hopes to get him back. Once the transformation is complete, Scottie discovers her part in his deception. He drags her back to the top of the tower, forcing her to confess, unmoved by her pleas that she loves him. Startled by a nun, she trips and this time truly plunges to her death.

Despite the bizarre, unlikely plot, Hitchcock’s skill as a director succeeds in enmeshing spectators in the fantasy of the film, and especially in Scottie’s desire to recover a woman whom he believes to be dead. Those who desire to return to the places where Vertigo was shot, I contend, replicate or perform the actions of its hero throughout much of the second half of the film. Just as Scottie is unable to accept the loss of Madeleine, and instead obsessively embarks on a quest to find her, to get back what he has irretrievably lost, so viewers try to restore something of the eerie romance and mystery of Vertigo—the...

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Film Studies Program
University of California
Berkeley, CA 94720


  1. Visit http://www.toursanfranciscobay.com for the website of “A Friend in Town Tours.”
  2. See the website at http://gosetjetting.com.
  3. In a matte shot, images are photographed separately and combined in laboratory work.
  4. Not all spectators get caught up in the fantasy of Vertigo, of course. This essay attempts to account for the experience of those who do.
  5. There is ambiguity in the film as to whether Scottie’s vertigo results from his rooftop trauma, or whether a preexisting condition is responsible for his trauma. Midge, speaking as if the rooftop episode caused the vertigo, tells Scottie that the only way he can get rid of the symptom is to relive it. That the vertigo was a preexisting condition is implied in the same scene, however; when Scottie tells Midge that he had to quit his job on the police force because of his vertigo, he adds, “What a terrible time to discover I had it.”
  6. Donald Spoto (1983) also comments on the psychological resonance of Hitchcock’s use of a forward zoom and a reverse tracking shot. He sees it as “the visual equivalent for the admixture of desire and distance, the longing to fall and the fear of falling, the impulse toward and the revulsion from, that define the somatic and spiritual condition of vertigo” (396).
  7. I am here speaking of vertigo as a psychological symptom, as opposed to a physiological one. In the latter case, it is usually the result of a disease of the inner ear.
  8. That Scottie has a drinking problem is jokingly suggested in his first scene with Gavin Elster, when Scottie tells Elster that, as the result of his vertigo, “I can’t climb stairs that are too steep or go to high places, like the bar at the top of the Mark [Hopkins hotel]. But there are plenty of street-level bars.” When he first comes to visit Elster, there is drinking paraphernalia set out to which Scottie gives a meaningful glance. This, along with Scottie’s joking comment about his vertigo limiting him to bars at street level, motivates Elster to ask Scottie, “Would you like a drink now?”—a question that suggests Elster suspects Scottie is alcohol dependent. When Madeleine visits him at his home, anxious after having dreamed her sinister mirror dream, Scottie offers her alcohol for relief, telling her to “Drink this down. It’s like medicine”—showing that Scottie understands liquor as a kind of self medication. Spoto (1983) points to twelve Hitchcock films in which brandy or some form of alcohol is offered as medicine to someone in a state of shock or anxiety (239). Alcohol, of course, is known as a common form of self-medication for those who suffer from depression.
  9. In this British film, a warm, motherly woman, Miss Froy, befriends a young woman who has been injured and takes her under her wing. When the young woman wakes up, the motherly lady has mysteriously disappeared. Later, a sinister looking woman claims that she is Miss Froy. The disappearance of Miss Froy and her later reappearance as a stranger evoke the child’s experience of a dead mother, who is sometimes lively and available, but too often seems sinister, remote, and strange.
  10. Scottie also resembles a dead mother, this time in relation to Judy, when he abruptly turns cold and unresponsive after he discovers the tell-tale necklace and realizes she has betrayed him. Although his actions are clearly motivated by the plot (he realizes Judy has betrayed him and has genuine grounds for anger), the vulnerability played out on Judy’s face when her warm lover suddenly turns cold and distant recalls the “now I’ve got it, now I don’t” experience of the child psychically annihilated by the withdrawal of a desperately loved and needed object.
  11. For Hitchcock’s own description of how he created this scene, see Spoto (1983, 395).
  12. This is a paraphrase of an Oscar Wilde quotation that, according to Spoto (1983, 460), Hitchcock was fond of repeating while he was in the process of making The Birds, a film in which he subjected Tippi Hedren (the star of the film and with whom he was infatuated) to a dangerous shoot involving live birds tied to her clothing. A frightened bird made a deep gash on the lower lid of her left eye.
  13. Whenever I teach the film, I take a poll of the class. Inevitably, half of the students see Scottie as cured and half as forever shattered.

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