• Watch Vertigo and make notes about how Mulvey’s analysis stands up

Mulvey has accepted Freudian analysis as the basis for male/female dynamics and the film’s narrative can be viewed as an expression of that particular metaphor which is hardly surprising given both the film’s (1958) and the essay’s (1973) timing . I suspect Mulvey might have rejected some of Bowlby’s emerging Attachment Theory as it did not sit comfortably with feminism (Holmes,1993:45) and was criticised for placing too much burden on the mother alone (Holmes, 1993;45). However, later theorists find ways to embrace feminist ideals and value the idea of a maternal secure base and a primary care model for infants, including an acknowledgement of an evolutionary history of shared care. Watching Vertigo today, it is possible to see Mulvey’s analysis as well as applying further theory to the way in which the male gaze plays out in the film. Attachment Theory, like many newer analytical models places less emphasis on castration or penis envy, than Freud did, and tend to see other aspects as equally or more important when describing how relating develops and functions. All of which point to an analysis of a how a social relationship with ‘mother’ and the Oedipal complex is incredibly striking in the film.

At the end of my notes for this project (previous blog post) I said, “The passive (female) and active (male) signifiers we see in films described by Mulvey are recognisable in the argument that men are socialised towards narcissism and women towards co-dependency”. In an article by Anthena Staik, Ph.D., we are told, “The overall tendencies for women and men in couple relationships toward some degree of codependency and narcissism respectively, may best be understood looking through the lens of socially approved gender roles…(and)… In the meantime, a codependent’s overzealous attempts to please and appease the narcissist are also destabilising and addictive.” (Geddes’ character – note her reaction to his displeasure with her painting.)

The narcissistic mindset tends to lead to people seeing others as either all good or all bad, especially under stressful conditions. The character played by James Stewart is stressed by his vertigo experience and subsequent early retirement, and that affects the lens through which we see his story unfold. Splitting, which was identified by Freud, is described as a defence mechanism, typical in narcissistic minds, which makes people see only good or bad, putting “their partners on a pedestal and then knock(ing) them down”. (Eddy and Kreger, 2011;15) Although the protagonist is not typically portrayed as narcissistic, he matches an ideal-ego image identified by Mulvey, and which male spectators can pin their own identification to. Narcissistic people see themselves as very good and cannot cope with a non-idealised self image. Stewart, or rather his character, can be seen as a victim throughout the narrative, pulled into situations by outside malevolent intentions, not of his doing. (It’s not your fault… he is repeatedly reassured) This is also typical in narcissistic self narrative. Women in an audience might wish to ‘mother’ him whereas men can identify with the way in which aspects of their own lives are not in their own hands.

Stewart’s character is surrounded by various symbols (symbolic order) as characters. His client can be viewed as the distant father. The wife (Novak) his idealised mother, emphasised not only by her beauty but also the music that accompanies every view of her for the first quarter of the film, before she speaks (pre-verbal stage). The music is haunting, beautiful and nostalgic, evoking a lost time of perfection (Eden). As well, the are often minor keys interwoven, giving hints of a threat. (Possibly castration, annihilation or abandonment depending on which model you choose to follow). Stewart’s character effectively climbs into bed between his parental symbols, pointing to the Oedipal complex he needs to overcome in order to navigate the threat to his virility which has manifested itself in his vertigo. He is also friends with an ideal mother in the Geddes character, and it is no accident that she designs bras for a living, a container for breasts – symbolising the maternal. She exhibits co-dependent traits, which may also be described as Echoism (Malkin, 2015) However, in the ‘normal’ course of development, Stewart can only recognise good and bad mother objects, never the ‘good enough mother’ who will eventually return. This is explored by Melanie Klein, described by Jeremy Holmes, “The satisfying, nourishing, comforting breast is the prototype of the good object; the absent, withholding, empty breast is the ‘bad object’; containing not only the actual failures and unresponsiveness of the mother; but also the infant’s reactions to those failures, projected into and attributed to the ‘bad breast’” (Holmes, 1993; 63) as object relations. Once he loses the idealised version of Novak’s character, he is faced with the reality of a bad mother object, which he must eventually recognise and ideally integrate into his notions of mother, and therefore women in general. At the end of the film, she literally falls off the pedestal on which she was originally placed. Stewart stands strong on the edge of the tower, and can move forward having overcome the threat to his virility in his internal recognised self, having internalised the father object, unhindered by the now redundant mother. Does he go on to synthesise the different mother objects eventually accepting an idea of ‘good enough’ mother? We never find out but it seems unlikely given the symbolism of the ending.

The film shows a clear description of socially defined narcissistic and co-dependant structural gender roles, along with various symbols of the sorts of characters that can be recognised within that paradigm. Mulvey’s identification of the male gaze, through which women and men are assigned specific and often limiting roles has had an enormous influence on art and further film and TV. Looking out for representations that challenge those structures still operating as the norm in society seems immensely important

Below are notes taken as I watched the film;

  • Vertigo – titles gives make sadist the opportunity to inspect close detail of frightened woman’s eyes
  • Opening sequence establishes male as fragile potentially harmed – male spectator can empathise with terror of protagonist
  • Geddes designs underwear for women
  • Supportive maternal
  • Bra – signifier for women sexuality. Isn’t this interesting,, that it should be included and the basis of Geddes’ employment? The presence of the bra, a container of breasts – see Bowlby and Klein,
  • The fragile male, in need of mothering, seeks that out from Geddes’ character
  • Virility questioned with presence of vertigo
  • Tap into make spectators fear of inadequacy
  • Vulnerability
  • Geddes holds him maternally
  • Client needs to protect wife, save her from terrifying malevolent ‘force’
  • We like James Stewart – v likeable, charming, immensely likeable
  • Describes wife as if she’s been ‘overtaken by an other’
  • Client, describes his spying of his wife as if perfectly acceptable and normal, no question in language it might be ‘wrong’
  • Music as Stewart first sees Novak is idealised, angelic, includes minor key strains
  • Described visually as an enchantress
  • Stewart is dragged into story, reluctant participant
  • Music that accompanies his view of Novak is always delicate, nostalgic for something lost, ideal and fantastical
  • Each time, edited with anxious strains (threat)
  • ‘Splitting’ evidence with music (as well as characterisations of women)
  • Good object /bad object in Novaks character and between Novak and Geddes
  • She doesn’t feel Stewart’s gaze? That trigger alarm bells about her authenticity
  • Whilst husband works, spends day visiting galleries and shopping
  • Narrative describes an expression of female ideasl as, coquettish enticing, manipulative, in the hairstyle too –
  • When the child only recognises himself as bad and cannot see the good object in him, projects that onto the woman (mother)
  • As opposed to the homely, wholesome Geddes character
  • Not threatening to the male, like a sister (Geddes) desexualized, despite the bra
  • Bookseller laments the days when men could throw women away
  • Story of Carlotta going mad, like in Blue Jasmine, and destroying herself
  • Suspecting of the ‘crazy hurt’ woman, self destructive
  • She’s never heard of Carlotta – infantilised, in need of saving, look at borderline characters? Waif, Witch etc….
  • Woman must necessatrily carry the disorder through her bloodline line is reinforced, but at same time she needs to be protected from it  – the male is justified in all sorts of behavior in a bid to do that
  • No speech from her for first section of film
  • (Like an infant) (see blonde hair vs. brown hair)
  • Music again speaks of nostalgic, idealised beauty
  • Facial features of Novak after being saved adheres to notions of ‘infant’
  • Vulnerable blonde woman
  • She’s enticing and evocative eyes as she talks to him in his dressing gown
  • He’s enchanted by her, she’s a seductress
  • She literally gives him run around in car on streets of San Francisco
  • She’s ‘owned’, much younger than her husband (26)
  • We (girls) grow up thinking that behaviour of hers, a she seduces Stewart is real, sultry enticing lips and eyes
  • Love story music – she offers potential fulfillment of the lack
  • Possessed by woman who was spurned
  • “Hell has no fury like a woman scorned… Congreve play – ghost taking over and making future generations commit suicide
  • Red floor of forest with old tress
  • “Fragments of a mirror”, in the speech about memory about what happens when Carlotta takes over, lack of wholeness – is what she remembers
  • The hug by the sea
  • She tempts him like Eve
  • He becomes a fallen man
  • He’s receives some form of emotional injury when Midge paints herself as Carlotta, Midge portrayed as foolish
  • In order to save her he must overcome his vulnerability be have his manhood saved
  • She robs him of that opportunity when she leaps from the tower
  • We feel the need to protect Johnny
  • We feel sorry for him, Blue Jasmine again  – the woman is the malovalent force and it is her weakness that threatens male virility
  • Virility entirely questioned
  • Midge supportive, the wholesome maternal figure is steady and always present, perfect mother ideal
  • He looks at women on street and same nostalgic idealised music plays as he looks at women who remind him of her, scopoliphic gaze
  • How do women feel when they watch this? Want to mother the Stewart character
  • Female view is directed by the male lens
  • Maternal abandonment
  • He’s the wronged child, baby
  • As the real her, she’s slutty and cheap, whore in contrast to the idealized person
  • He’s the perfect gentleman though
  • The relationship becomes perfect picture – unhealthy fantasy, until it descends into obsession
  • Then he gets to buy her clothes and become ‘paternalistic gift giver’
  • Adam and Eve story
  • She’s weak at the end
  • He’s left strong
  • And the threat to the symbolic father is removed
  • The fantasy literally falls from a pedestal


Vertigo. (1958). [BFI Online] Hollywood: Alfred Hitchcock.

Staik, A. (2016). Codependency, as an Out of Balance, Addictive Relating Pattern, 2 of 2. Psych Central. (Accessed on September 25, 2016)  http://blogs.psychcentral.com/relationships/2016/08/codependency-as-an-out-of-balance-addictive-relating-pattern-2-of-2/

Eddy, W. and Kreger, R. (2011). Splitting. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.

Holmes, J. (1993). John Bowlby and Attachment Theory. London: Routledge.

Malkin, C. (2015). Rethinking Narcissism. New York: Harper Collins

Evans, J. and Hall, S. (1999). Visual culture. London: SAGE Publications in association with the Open University.

Image: http://www.theimaginativeconservative.org/2016/01/madness-and-despair-hitchcocks-vertigo.html, Published: Jan 23, 2016





2 thoughts on “Project 4.4 (i): Vertigo

    1. I’ve always wondered about that, with certain films especially – are they aware of the messages they are sending? The ideas they’re playing with? I can just never get over the parallels between the film and US ideology vs Other ideology in How to Train Your Dragon; that to me looks so obvious. And all those sci fi films in the 50s that are such clear allegories referring to the cold war which must have been made with propaganda in mind.


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