Vertigo, Color, and Identity

A video essay explores how hues reveal the fantasies and obsessions of Hitchcock’s characters.
Vertigo Color
Paramount Pictures
By  · Published on December 1st, 2016

Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo is jam-packed with intriguing elements, from the symbolism of spirals and flowers, to the use of specific camera techniques like the dolly zoom or point-of-view shots to heighten suspense, to themes of duality and possession; but perhaps the most intriguing element of the film is how it attaches color to its characters and their obsessions then plays with those colors throughout the characters’ changing relationships.

For example, Jimmy Stewart’s character, Scottie Ferguson, is represented by red ‐ his clothing, the furniture that surrounds him, the door to his apartment ‐ while Madeline, the object of his obsession, is represented by the hue directly opposite red on the color wheel, green ‐ her dress the first time we see her, her car, the sea she plunges into causing Scottie to rescue her and initiate their relationship. As these two characters come together and grow closer, so too do their colors co-mingle. After Madeline’s suicide attempt, Scottie takes her to his apartment, where amidst all his cherrywood furniture he dons a green sweater, taking her color as she has taken his heart. When she awakens, he hands her a red robe to put on, thus taking possession of her, metaphorically, by dressing her in his color. And this is really just the tip of the iceberg.

There’s Midge, Scottie’s ex-fiancé, who is associated with yellow but wears red on occasion in the hopes of making herself Scottie’s fantasy again, and Gavin, Madeline’s husband, who is represented by the cold, bland tones of gray, and of course, there’s the Scottie-nightmare sequence with its vibrantly-animated palette.

But beyond conveying traits of character and charting the skewed course of relationships, Hitchcock also used color ‐ particularly the red and green of his leads ‐ to relate the themes of his film: obsession, star-crossed love, crippling fear, and how these things can cause a divergence from reality.

Exactly how this is accomplished is the subject of this erudite video essay from society of geeks that in eight succinct minutes breaks down the color scheme of Vertigo and what it means. This is must-watch work.

Novelist, Screenwriter, Video Essayist