A Freudian Analysis of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo

If you thought the last entry was a stretch . . . well, this one is just pure sleaze. I don’t think that anyone will seriously deny that a lot of this is in the movie, though. Alfred Hitchcock was a big fan of Sigmund Freud. Consider yourself warned.

Oh, yes . . . and of course there will be some spoilers in here. I’ve tried to keep them to a minimum, but . . . You know.

Vertigo is basically the wild ride of a textbook cynic who gives in to sentimentalism and has two (technically three) relationships destroyed by his dysfunctional emotions and obsessions. And, of course, there is the title character, Scottie?s phobia, waiting in the wings to lend a hand if Scottie?s life looks like it might be stabilizing at any point in the movie. Anyway, I decided I wanted to take a closer look at some of the ideas we were playing around with after class with Watson and the Hitch Lady, so this is a look at the movie using what I understand of Freudian psychology, plus some entertaining input from the Vengeful Cynic. (We disagree about the way the movie ends, but I went with his view because Freud would disagree with me as well.)

At the very beginning of the movie, we see Scottie vaulting across rooftops, struggling to keep up with the policeman ahead of him as he realizes that he is afraid of heights. He is, of course, suffering from castration anxiety. The ability to chase down criminals is important to his work, which is tied directly to his role as a male, providing for himself (he is not married . . . I’m getting to that). If he is unable to perform adequately, it will signify that he is impotent. When he fails to save the life of the policeman who is trying to save him, he is effectively castrated.

There is, at this point, one woman in his life, and soon there will be a second. The first, Midge, threatens his already repressed sexuality, but her relationship with him also conflicts with that threat. She often attempts to operate as a mother figure (later in the movie she will come directly out and identify herself as such: “Mother is here.”), but she is also very much the liberated woman in the story. She is self-sufficient, supporting herself from her own work and even, in many ways, more able to cope with life than Scottie. She was also the one to break off their engagement when they were in college (even though she wants to pick up the pieces now), and perhaps he has never gotten past the effects of that rejection. She doesn?t have any real ?issues,? and even as I watched the movie I couldn?t help but think that she is the only well-adjusted character in the movie. Unless, of course, someone wants to make the usual case for penis envy. Personally, I’m leaving Freud’s theories about women alone.

Then Madeleine enters the scene. Scottie is asked to follow her and protect her from the very beginning of the relationship, long before they ever meet face to face. Far from threatening his sexuality, Madeline gives him another chance to make up for his ?castration? experience. An important part of the job is, at first, to maintain distance between them. This makes him feel safe. The availability of this second chance to perform his task becomes more and more apparent to him as he sees how much help she needs, culminating in her throwing herself into San Francisco Bay. Here is something that Scottie can deal with, and he does. He feels that he has taken a step towards redeeming himself and regaining his virility through the rescue of this lovely, helpless young woman. And now he has undressed her and placed her in his bed. Is it any wonder that his sexuality, and even his sanity, becomes tied directly to her very existence? Or that he becomes totally enamored of her?

But she isn?t safe yet, and he isn?t fully redeemed yet, either. He must continue to protect her as the attraction grows and he becomes more obsessed with finding out what is causing her madness. Then, disaster strikes. Before he is ready to confront the act of regaining the full measure of his sexuality, she dashes ahead of him, running up the bell tower. And, yes, the tower is tall and thin and otherwise generally phallic in nature. Duh. He is unable to follow her all the way to the top and she plummets to her death. He is now totally devastated, and the slimy guy presiding over the inquest into her death (or whatever it is) certainly doesn?t help his perceptions of himself.

And so, he finds himself in an asylum, shutting the entire world out. Midge certainly can?t break through the barrier and she sees that he is still “in love” with Madeleine. It takes an indeterminate amount of time for him to slowly come out of his depression. As he slowly revisits the places where he had previously encountered Madeline, he begins to strongly manifest the classic symptoms of a phallic fixation (some symbolically, some literally). Then he meets Judy, immediately notes the resemblance, and the fixation becomes dominant. He is so obsessed and desperate to work through his repression and regain his lost virility that he treats Judy like an object, ignoring her feelings in order to ?do her up? like Madeleine.

And when he is shocked to discover that this actually is Madeleine, he firmly and instantly takes the initiative this time. He drives her out to the bell tower and roughly forces her to the top (against her will), where there is a brief but intense burst of passion between them. Then she is scared off of the pinnacle by the arrival of a nun (symbol of female chastity) and plummets to her death. He moves to the edge, now unafraid of the terrible height and not threatened by the presence of the chaste woman behind him, exhausted in every way, but satisfied as the bells toll behind him. As the movie ends he is finally able to stand triumphant high above his conquest.

Aw, crap. I’m never going to be able to watch a Hitchcock movie the same way again. That really bites . . .

~ by Jared on May 24, 2004.

One Response to “A Freudian Analysis of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo

  1. Because of your title, I’m not sure how much of this is tongue-in-cheek, but I’ll assume that you are serious on most of your points. I think you have some good insights (you know, for a Freudian analysis). I’ve always viewed Freudian readings as a bit of a stretch in most cases. In this instance, you make a good case for the majority of your arguments. Why do English majors tend to revel in phallic and yonic symbols (real or imagined)? I used to think it was just a JBU thing, but I guess it’s universal. Next time, try a Marxist analysis! Literary theories are great!


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