Post World War II America was a society full of anxiety. In the late 1950s Americans were deeply troubled by so many social shifts. Major changes were occurring both internally and externally. They were in the midst of the Cold War, and were vastly approaching the atomic age. There was a communist scare and fear of Russian expansion. Joseph McCarthy was hunting down major celebrities for their communist involvement and the 'Red Influence' seemed to be everywhere. The move toward suburbia and the growth of multinational corporations were flourishing. People seemed to be pulled in every direction. Another change that would have a major impact on society for years to come was the re-identification of gender roles. In Robert Kolker's book, Film, Form and Culture, he states that, "During the time of the Cold War, the political and the personal, the power of the state, the workplace, the family and the sexual all became confused and self contradictory" (Kolker, 83). The gender confusion of the time would cause major conflicts and can be seen in many forms of popular culture from the mid-to-late fifties, from magazines to movies. By the time Alfred Hitchcock was starting production on his forty-fifth film Vertigo, gender had become a major issue. This is obvious through watching the film and looking at the main characters, both male and female. In Hitchcock's Vertigo, the struggle for socially recognized gender roles is acted out, mostly through a battle for sexual domination between Scottie and Madeline/Judy. The film also supports the idea of the submissive domestic female, through the character of Midge. This film is definitely a marker of its time.
The loss of male identity and sexuality was of major concern at the time. Articles in the popular Look magazine, gathered in a 1958 book called The Decline of the American Male, claimed that women control male behavior, from the early formation of men's psyches, to the kinds of jobs they take, to their competitiveness. Because women now demanded equal or greater satisfaction than the male, they were beginning to control his sexuality (Kolker, 84). Scottie is the perfect example of the 'weak' male of the 1950's. In the film Scottie and his friend Midge go to a local bookshop to try to find out more about the history of Carlotta. They find out that Carlotta had a child with her lover, and once she had it the man took the baby and tossed her aside. The shopkeeper comments that, "men could do that in those days, they had the power." Obviously he is commenting on the lack of male dominance and power of the day, and men are not what they used to be. In the final scene of the film Scottie finally beats his vertigo, and makes it to the top of the bell tower. The audience thinks that the male will succeed and he has made it to the top. However, once he makes it up there his world has once again fallen apart when Judy tumbles out the window, literally illustrating that women are men's downfall. The power that he processed in Judy is lost again and he is left with nothing. In an interview with Alfred Hitchcock's daughter, Pat Hitchcock from the documentary Obsessed with Vertigo, she says that, "I think Jimmy (Scottie) personified, for my father, every man. So that when they would see the picture they could put themselves in Jimmy's place. He (Hitchcock) wanted the audience to identify with Jimmy, which is exactly what they did." So Scottie was supposed to be representing the 1950's male. This is a representation of how confused society must have been and how big the issue of a lost male identity really was, since Hitchcock addresses males directly.
This 'gender confusion' did not happen overnight. It goes back to World War II, the men were overseas and suddenly women found themselves in the workplace. Finally women were liberated from their domestic spheres and enjoyed being free of their 'domestic duties.' Of course their carrier opportunities were not substantial, mostly in munitions factories, yet it was something different and women were supporting themselves. However, their newfound freedom would not last long. When the war ended and the boys came home a massive ideological retooling had to be put into place and women had to be reinserted back into their former routines (Kolker, 82). It was time for Rosie to put back her rivets and go back to the kitchen, but Rosie did not want to go. Now society was facing a problem. Who was the breadwinner if both men and women were in the work force? Further, the release of the Kinsey Report, which claimed that 'there was no normative sexual behavior', only increased the confusion and the downward spiral of a loss of gender identity, especially for males (Kolker, 84).
The gender problem and downward spiral of males is a major theme in Vertigo. There seems to be a battle for sexual dominance in the film. Madeline preys upon the weak minded Scottie. She plays on his insecurities and weaknesses to her advantage. This triggers Scottie to fight back and try to possess her. He attempts to control Judy to gain back the masculinity he lost with Madeline or never had in the first place. He obsesses to possess her and change her into what he wants. By doing this he then would have control over her identity and be the dominant figure. The decade's mostly conservative desire was to try to maintain a perfect imbalance of male domination and female subservience, but for Scottie this goal of dominance fell through (Kolker, 83). In the end he was left with nothing and probably more confused and broken than when he had lost Madeline.
The color scheme used in the films also expresses the sexual tension going on. In all of the major scenes in the film where Scottie and Madeline or Judy appear together the colors red and green are prominent. The color red usually evokes feelings of love or passion, where as green represents obsession or jealous. These colors appear together in several scenes in the film, for example, the first time Madeline and Scottie engage in conversation at Scottie's apartment, she is wearing a red robe and he is wearing a green sweater. These colors appear throughout the film when they are together, like the hallway of Judy's apartment building has a red carpet and green walls. When Scottie first sees Madeline in the restaurant the walls are covered in deep red wallpaper and Madeline has on a long green gown. Madeline's car is green. The door to Scottie's apartment is red. The light from the motel sign that shines in Judy's apartment is green. The costume and set design were meticulously planned so that these traces of color would come through without beating the audience over the head. These colors add great significance. This shows the tension between Scottie's love for Madeline and his obsession and jealousy of her power. More significantly, green and red are complimentary colors. They are across each other on the color wheel are in direct opposition with one another. The use of these colors in the film shows how neither character gels with the other. They are polar opposites and opposing forces.›
The three main female characters, Madeline, Judy and Midge, speak to women of the 1950's just as Scottie did to the men, if not more so. The character of Madeline is probably the strongest female in the film. She is cool, sophisticated, sexy, and unknowingly to Scottie, uses him to her advantage of setting the perfect bait and getting away with a murder. However, one thing that is very important is that Madeline is not real. No such person exists. This makes a comment to both genders. First for men, Scottie is fascinated with a woman that does not exist. Second, for women, the fact that she is powerful and imaginary shows that a strong woman is inconceivable. This makes the comment to women of this time that they may try to step out of their ideological gender roles, but it is not a reality.› Judy, Madeline's other personality, is quite the opposite.Unlike Madeline, Judy is completely submissive and, in my opinion, is the weakest of the female characters in the film. When she meets up with Scottie as herself, she does whatever it takes to please him. She lets him change her to fit his wants. She gives up everything for him, including her own identity. All she wants is for him to love her, but he does not love her until she is Madeline. He would not even kiss Judy until she had changed back into Madeline. This made a direct comment to women of the fifties telling them to be submissive, and showed men trying to counteract the control they thought women had on their lives by dominating them.
The character of Midge is a very interesting one. Midge is the spokesperson, not for, but to the women of the 1950's. She is what the ideal woman of that time was Žsupposed' to be, domestic. Even though she does have a career as a designer of woman's lingerie, she still holds the submissiveness that all women of the fifties were supposed to have and she would give her career up in a heartbeat if Scottie would just say the word. She is loyal to Scottie and says in the beginning žthere is only one man for me, Johnny-O." She is always there for Scottie to come crawling back. She is not permitted to be sexualized in the film, like Kim Novak's characters, and instead comes across as a mother figure. The color scheme surrounding her is yellow, which signifies friendship and comfort. When Scottie is in the hospital she comforts him and tells him, "You're not alone. Mother's here." This directly domesticates her, showing the audience that the only proper role for a woman is a mother. She also illustrates how women should not interfere with men's outer sphere or workplace. When she makes the painting showing her as Carlotta, Scottie shakes his head and condemns her. She stammers and says, "Johnny, I just thought..." That's exactly what is wrong. By thinking she has overstepped her boundary (LaVallee). Women should be seen and not heard.
At the beginning of the film, Midge and Scottie are in her apartment talking. Scottie is complaining about the corset that he has to wear because of his injury from his police work. Already this idea of him in a corset makes him less masculine and creates confusion of gender. But to help counter balance this, he says he want to take it off and "be free like any other human being," freeing him of feminine influence and confinement. All of this is going on while Midge is designing one of the most confining contraptions for women, a "brazier with revolutionary uplift." This scene is showing how men should take off the confining bind of women, while women should be the ones who are bound. However, even with Midge, whose submissiveness seems clear cut, there is some confusion. Here she does everything that a man could possibly want, however in the end she does not get her man. But some of this may have to do with the man she wants. Scottie is rather weak and does not have full control of his own sexuality or identity, therefore he is not everything a man 'should' be. Also, at this time since there was fear about the loss of identity for men, domesticity scared them. A family and a woman were seen as harboring to a man. This of course leads only to more confusion since the ideal woman is supposed to be domestic.
Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo is definitely a sign of the times. It directly addresses the sexual confusion of the late 1950's. It illustrates the power struggle for sexual domination through the characters of Scottie and Madeline, and also with the use of certain colors. Vertigo shows the loss of masculinity or the impotent male because of a lack of female submissiveness. The main image of the film is that of a downward spiral. This image perfectly illustrates the idea of women as man's downfall that is stressed throughout the entire film. Vertigo also tries to support gender norms for women with some of the female characters. This film is an ideal example of the sexual confusion and anxiety felt by much of American society at this time, proving that film is a cultural product.
Kolker, Robert. Film, Form and Culture. Boston: McGraw-Hill College 1999.
LaVallee, Andrew W. A. "'Can't You See?": Women and Aura in Hitchcock's Vertigo. http://nextdch.mty.itesm.mx/~plopezg/Kaplan/essays/aura.html