The implicit spectator in Vertigo

Mulvey describes Hitchcock in relation to “the investigative side of voyeurism” (14); Jason, in lecture, explained this as the way in which Hitchcock complicates the straightforward and unquestioned voyeurism that is featured in other Golden Era Hollywood films. This struck a chord for me, as watching Vertigo there were several instances where I found myself feeling uncomfortable and guilty, even, at the very apparent voyeurism in the film. This functions on the level of the plot: Scottie, while at first tasked with observing Madeleine, goes on to become obsessed with her; observing her from afar becomes his guilty pleasure, and the spectator who is given Scottie’s point of view takes a part in this. The same effect is produced through the film language in Vertigo. Rather than simply watching Madeleine, we watch her for so long and in such an obtrusive manner that we cannot help but become self-aware of the fact that we are watching her. A concrete example is the short clip shown in lecture when Scottie first sees Madeleine in the restaurant. As she is leaving, she passes Scottie sitting by the bar and the spectator is shown a close-up of her side profile, which is held for quite a long time. In my experience, we rarely see a person (in a film or real life) from so close-up and for such a long time unless we are engaged in dialogue with them; the shot therefore has the effect that the spectator is expecting or even yearning Madeleine to turn and make eye contact with the camera, while at the same time dreading this outcome because we understand that she is not meant to see Scottie. What results is that the voyeuristic pleasure becomes entwined with a sense of guilt.

Straightforward voyeurism, what Mulvey would describe as fetishistic scopophilia, is grounded in the fact that the person being watched is unawares of the fact. Within films, this functions in such a way that a spectator, by watching the film, is given ‘permission’ in their role as a voyeur. They are able to take part in the pleasure of looking in innocence and without the fear of repercussion. Yet Hitchcock does not allow his spectator to remove themselves from the responsibility of their voyeurism, in a manner that Mulvey attributes to directors like Sternberg. This works on several levels. For one, the fact that Scottie is in and of himself a voyeur in the film casts attention to the illicit nature of the act. As the film progresses, shots such as the one in the restaurant described above constantly remind a spectator of the fact that they are practicing voyeurism; Hitchcock does not allow the spectator to commit the act subconsciously or innocently. These constant reminders achieved through the film language also have the effect that the reader becomes implicit in Madeleine’s fate at the hands of Scottie. Jason also showed examples of when Madeleine breaks the fourth wall to look into the camera. Her expression as she does this is despairing and imploring, as if she is asking the spectator to help her, to save her from the fate that Scottie -and the spectator with him – is creating. These shots stand incongruous to the element of straightforward voyeurism whereby the person being watched is unaware; once again, the spectator is reminded that they are committing voyeurism, and being forced to take on responsibility.

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