Saul Bass’s title sequence to Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) gives the audience the closeup image of a white woman’s face that is combined with swirling, colorful, geometrical shapes, set to Bernard Hermann’s noisy (as usual) but still enjoyable score.
The woman’s face is very symmetrical: an object among objects. Her plump– but not too plump– lips are expressionless beneath the block letters of “JAMES STEWART.” Her round eyes look in one direction and then the other: long lashes, black mascara against white skin. The God-like camera of Hitchcock moves in on her right eye (on the left side of the screen) and suddenly it grows larger and the screen turns into a strange reddish color. “VERTIGO” floats out of her eye like a flying saucer in a low budget sci-fi picture, the letters growing larger and larger until the title moves out of the top part of the screen. A swirling purplish shape also grows and grows directly from the woman’s pupil, changing to blue and then into other hypnotically twirling shapes of alternating purple and blue.
The effectiveness of the title sequence to Vertigo relies on certain assumptions by audiences today as it must have done back in 1958.
The white woman must be assumed to be generically pretty. She must be read as cisgender. The large, closeup contours of her face, lips, nose and eyes suggest cisnormativity, and white cisnormativity. She–or perhaps one should say “it”– lacks any angularity which would threaten to dismantle Hitchcock’s relationship with his audience. An Asian woman– for instance, a Japanese woman– would change this relationship. The audience would be asked to assume some sort of exotic theme, a narrative where whiteness must be centered (as always), but now in relation to the foreign, the other. The image of a Black woman (transgender or cisgender) would be scrutinized differently by the intended audience, based on the darkness of her skin. The color of her skin and the shape of her face would be pinned to the screen by the white male gaze of the Director-“God”, like some rare and beautiful butterfly (or ugly moth).
The Director-“God” Alfred Hitchcock– white, male, cisgender– was a profitable craftsman within the white, male, cisgender confines of the Hollywood machine, a bourgeois (and at times feudalistic) institution within European imperialist capitalism.
Hitchcock, like nearly all the directors in Hollywood (auteurs or otherwise), relied on the assumptions of the white consumer of “mainstream” film: the majority of these films’ viewers were (or are) the only people the whitewashed industry (and the U.S. itself) will concern itself with in its mass production for ever increasing profits. Hitchcock relied on a generic audience (white and cis, patriarchal, bourgeois) to make assumptions about the generic characters that populate his meticulously controlled cinematic productions.
Jimmy Stewart epitomizes the generic “all American” type required by Hitchcock. Jimmy Stewart was very tall and had that unmistakable voice, with mannerisms that audiences still enjoy today. For Hitchcock, Jimmy became the “everyman”: white, cis, heterosexual, able-bodied. Of course, the necessity of a white, cis, hetero, able-bodied everyman is not unique to Hitch: it’s the master narrative of Hollywood, and the capitalist United States. But in order for Hitchcock’s signature style to work, and for his carefully manipulated visual adventures to take flight, the assumption of a generic white, cisgender, heterosexual, able-bodied (and middle class or wealthy) man is absolutely necessary. And Jimmy Stewart fit perfectly into this role, no matter which role he was playing for Hitchcock in their four films together (the only exception being the ugly experiment Rope). In Rear Window, The Man Who Knew Too Much and Vertigo, Hitchcock required the generically agreeable type epitomized by Stewart, who added (as he had with Capra) undercurrents of rage, and shades of misogyny, and (at times forced, but mostly natural) touches of eccentricity.
In the opening scene of Vertigo a cop is pursuing a criminal (or is he?) across the rooftops, along with plainclothes detective Jimmy Stewart. The backdrop to this chase is our first sight of perhaps the most interesting character in the movie: San Francisco. Jimmy slips and falls down the side of a roof, and, while he’s hanging on for his dear life, the cop reaches out to pull him up and falls to his death.
In the next scene we see Jimmy– he’s always Jimmy, no matter which picture he’s in– sitting in the apartment of his friend Midge, played by Barbara Bel Geddes. This thankless role is one of the most misogynistic characters that ever emerged from the curious imagination of Alfred Hitchcock. Midge is the– once again– generic white, brainy career girl, the nag, the “mother,” complete with eyeglasses and sensible outfits.
Jimmy is still wearing a corset from the injury that occurred in the first scene. He asks Midge if she thinks many men wear corsets. She seems to think so. One might assume this is the key moment of transphobia in a film that oozes cisnormativity. However, as a European (white) trans woman, my focus isn’t on this innocuous 1950s All American banter between two cis, hetero white people. Always the white people.
Black people– trans or cis, queer or straight– are completely banished from Vertigo. One can’t even catch the glimpse of a porter, a maid, or an elevator operator who is Black. This is unusual even for the sterile, whitewashed imagination of Hollywood and its audiences in the USA. As a European trans woman i’ll leave the Black feminist critique of this film (or anything else) to Black feminists. I want to focus on my feelings and reactions to themes and visuals in Vertigo that relate to my identity as a trans woman.
What strikes me most about Vertigo is how its cisnormative depictions of women not only erase the trans experience, but how the meaning of woman across the entire gender spectrum for women, becomes terribly restricted, and, therefore, incapable of authentic breath under Hitchcock’s control.
Hitchcock’s generic world may seem to work according to its own rules, but the life he chokes out of his women characters comes back to haunt this film. The ghosts of Vertigo show up at strange times, once the audience sheds its assumptions about the validity of its generic vision.
I have a love-hate relationship with Hitchcock’s movies– lately, more “hate” than “love.” And what i hate the most about Hitchcock is the way he doesn’t allow his characters to breathe as complete humans. This would be fatal in screwball comedy, which is why Mr. and Mrs. Smith (in spite of the wonderful pairing of Carole Lombard and Robert Montgomery) is so lacking in humor, or humanity.
The camera is everything in Hitchcock’s movies. People are merely props, inanimate objects to populate Hitchcock’s mental storyboard. The breathing actresses and actors during the actual filming process are too multifaceted, too unpredictable– too much like the “on location” shots that Hitchcock hated to shoot– for Hitchcock to have any patience for them.
Hitchcock got around this lack of humanity in his cinematic imagination by working with gorgeous stars like Cary Grant, Joan Fontaine, Ingrid Bergman, and Grace Kelly. Each of their resplendent faces was an entertaining story unto itself. Cary Grant’s coldness and detachment, and transcendent beauty, made him the ideal leading man for Hitchcock, just as Grace Kelly– also cold, plus “virginal,” blond, blue-eyed– was the ideal leading lady.
Vertigo is a film about a white, cis, heterosexual man who is deceived by a rather plain, brown-haired white girl (hired by Tom Helmore as Gavin Elster) who dyes her hair blond in a complex plot to murder Elster’s real wife. When this man– this everyman– who has been manipulated, used, and mentally busted to pieces, sees the brown-haired girl some time later, he follows her, recaptures the blond beauty in his hungry gaze, then transforms this imagined and remembered beauty by manipulating, sculpting, controlling the girl until she becomes … well, Kim Novak once again. But then (reminiscent of every woman in an opera by Wagner) Kim Novak must be killed off– made to pay. By falling to her death, at the very spot where her accomplice had thrown his murdered wife from the bell tower of the monastery, order is somewhat restored: the white, cis, hetero director focuses on his white, cis, hetero leading man who gazes down at the dead girl.
However, it feels to me like Kim Novak never really got to breathe and be alive in this film. And the same is true for Barbara Bel Geddes. Kim simply moves from white-woman-of-mystery to plain-working-white-girl back to white-woman-of-mystery.
Barbara moves on a straight line: too brainy, too brown-haired. She’s the girl next door (no doubt, next door in a segregated neighborhood surrounded by red lines on the realtor’s map) who now spends her days wearing big eyeglasses (too much reading) and expressing her sexual frustrations through outlets for white women of the ’50s, like painting, befriending bookstore owners, having a career of sorts, and nagging Johnny/Jimmy, with whom she is not so secretly in love. Hitchcock sufficiently humiliates Midge/Barbara when she tries to make a joke and paints herself as sad/mad Carlotta Valdes. Jimmy, by now entirely obsessed with Kim Novak, shakes his head and leaves the apartment. Midge then calls herself stupid (a few times), tears at her hair, takes a brush and defaces her face (the painting of it). It’s a scene that makes me sick to my stomach every time.
Vertigo is a movie about memory and desire. The object remembered, the object desired. And the object that is obsessively remembered and desired is viewed from the perspective of the white, cisgender man.
We see Jimmy Stewart driving on the streets of San Francisco as he follows Kim Novak. We watch him through the windshield: his blue eyes, narrow nose, the nonthreatening demeanor of the white man wearing a fedora, a suit and tie. Then the audience becomes Jimmy Stewart/Hitchcock/”God” and we are looking through the windshield in the opposite direction, our gaze directed at the beauteous object turning down this street then that in her expensive green car (she must be rich too).
The white cisgender man’s perspective– and what is considered to be desirable to him– is assumed to be important to the audience as well. Perhaps Vertigo would have been more interesting if it had been told from the viewpoint of Kim Novak, or especially Barbara Bel Geddes. The assumptions of the audience would be quite different if the man following Kim around San Francisco had been Latino or Black. Or a woman. Or homosexual. Or trans. Or any and all of these identities at their intersections.
Yet the view that specifically interests (and perplexes) me is when Jimmy Stewart is peering through a crack in the door at the back entrance from the alley, gazing into the high class florist shop. Jimmy spies on Kim Novak: statuesque, curvy (but not too curvy), desirable in gray with black pumps, her posture just right, her carriage feminine but classy too.
One might imagine if this white man were looking at a Black cisgender woman, and what this image would mean to the white consumers of motion pictures and popcorn. But my focus here is on the idea that the audience must assume that Kim Novak is alluring and mysterious: the sort of beauty who could drive an “everyman” to form an obsession. It is absolutely required that the woman be the ultimate object of desirability, a haunting figure whom the man– always the man, the cisgender man– will remember forever.
In this situation, any departure from cisnormative measures of beauty destroys the effect of the scene, and the assumption is that the audience must literally accept this beauty at face value. Any sign of an Adam’s Apple, or masculine-identified angularity to the jaw, or shoulders that are too wide, or hips that aren’t wide enough, and the object would be destroyed.
The object would be destroyed because the viewpoint is assumed to be that of the white cis man: Jimmy Stewart, the everyman. And not only is the trans identity erased, but all aspects of what it means to be a woman are narrowed down to the desirable, unforgettable object. The woman is exploited in order to sustain this bourgeois dream of a shapely possession, like the cars of the 1950s, all curves and shiny chrome, or like the curving hills of San Francisco: a white dreamland, a playground for white men’s fantasies, and the white women who climb into them in their white gloves and fur coats.
As Jimmy is following Kim to the various picturesque scenes of San Francisco, eventually they end up by the Bay, and Kim jumps into the water. Jimmy, the savior, jumps in after her and fishes her out, carrying her to her car, his eyes brimming with desire. In the next scene we see Kim in Jimmy’s bed and she’s completely naked, a brilliant white vision filling up the VistaVision of the screen. Jimmy has undressed her– she was wet, and cold– and tucked her in his bed, a precious, fragile jewel.
I imagine how this scene may have been worked if– in the process of undressing this woman who has been saved from great danger by the cisgender man– it was discovered that she had a dick. He probably would have thrown her back in the Bay. And it’s likely, having felt tricked by her, he would have beaten her first, and even killed her. The situation would have been played differently– very differently– if Kim were a trans woman.
I’m writing this from the perspective of a white trans woman, but imagine if Kim, being undressed in Jimmy’s apartment, were Black or Latina. The tender sentimentality and sexualized imagery of pure, white skin would be shattered, replaced by the harsh reality of patriarchal, racist, capitalist oppression.
For any woman in this situation– or any person– the key to its effectiveness is the exploitation value of the audience’s predetermined assumptions. Any deviation from the “tastefully” suggestive juxtaposition of the white cis man and the white cis woman would have given the situation a completely different reaction, based on the target audience’s assumptions. The white cis man is standing above the girl he had seen naked, and she looks up, agreeably startled, a kind of wild prize. The entire scene plays for the white cis man and the audience that roots for this man, and centers him and his desires.
If we go back to the florist, and recall Jimmy Stewart peering through the door, examining Kim Novak from head to toe (as the audience is doing the same), studying how she walks, and drinking in her profile, then we might consider this scene with a transgender woman as the object. Immediately, this close inspection from the male perspective locates the male as someone who is looking for a “different” sort of sexual experience. Yes, he’s interested in her. Intensely interested. Yet she is specifically desired as a trans woman, as an alternative to the “regular” choice of girls available to the everyman (who is no longer so everyman-ish, and is maybe a fag or a freak). You see, the whole scene hinges on the assumptions of the audience that Jimmy and Kim are generic people, people whose experiences are universal (easily packaged for mass consumption on Blu-ray by Universal Studios). They aren’t Black, or indigenous, or Arab. The aren’t gender nonconforming. So, even today, the Hitchcock formula is profitable. And, more than any other “mainstream” director, Hitchcock relies on these assumptions from the audience, to this very day, when his films– especially Vertigo— are considered among the greatest of all time.
As a white trans woman, it’s perhaps easier for me to identify with Kim Novak than it might be for a trans woman of color. And there’s a kind of studied quality to Kim Novak, an artifice to her whispering voice, and even an awkwardness to her that i enjoy and connect with as a transgender woman. In spite of Hitchcock’s controlling hand, there are qualities in Kim Novak’s screen persona that still manage to break free from his grasp, but then again maybe that’s why she often sounds out of breath when she talks. It seems to me that Hitchcock wouldn’t have allowed any gesture, any edge to the voice, which would have interrupted his dream– or the dreams of his intended audience.
Vertigo is a great movie, as far as movies go. It’s a lot of fun for me just to watch Jimmy Stewart driving around San Francisco to Bernard Hermann’s score (for once not just a rehash of Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at the Exhibition,” in Ravel’s arrangement, natch). I love old movies: film noir, gangster pictures, sex comedies, screwball comedies, James Bond, spy spoofs, and even a handful of movies directed by Hitchcock. Of course, all of these old movies (and most of the new movies too, i assume) are racist.
We might say that these older movies simply belong to their era. But the themes and images of Vertigo are more than mere “portals to the past” (in the words of Gavin Elster): they are windows to current assumptions in a white-controlled, bourgeois, patriarchal society. It seems to me that we need to break these assumptions, and in order to do this we must break the tiered structure of colonial capitalist society and rearrange it so that we can be free from systemic oppression. This means revolution. And part of the revolutionary process is centering the voices, ideas, identities and lives of those who are most marginalized by an oppressive system.
We need to hear more stories from trans women of color: Black trans women, and all trans, genderfluid and queer people of color, and we need to pay them for their work. It’s 2016, and the Jimmy Stewart everyman– it seems to me– simply should not work for audiences today. Hitchcock’s dehumanizing and (pardon my ableism) claustrophobic handling of people in his films, particularly women, is no longer the standard. There isn’t a standard. Terms like “classics” and “essentials” and lists of the “greatest films of all time” need to be thrown out the window. There are so many amazing trans and queer artists of color– African/Black artists– whose stories aren’t being supported, not because they lack talent or genius, but because capitalism will always value whiteness, heteronormativity and cisnormativity more than the creations and lives of colonized peoples.
As a European trans woman watching Vertigo again (for the fifteenth or twentieth time?), i find myself yearning for images of people who breathe with all the depth of the human experience. The treatment of the character Midge in Vertigo is disgusting to me. I dread watching the scenes with Barbara Bel Geddes. Jimmy Stewart is a long-time favorite, but it seems that in 2016 he is less of an everyman than just one man who used numerous gestures and vocal inflections to extend a very successful acting career in Hollywood, California (in occupied Mexico). Kim Novak is a cis woman i study to imitate because she awkwardly, endearingly seems to be playing the part of the cis woman, like me (being binary). But no actress or actor can be safe from the ever-tightening grip of that often imitated and superficially original genius: Hitch.