Though it has been quite recently since movie industry switched from monochrome to color image, the latter has quickly become an efficient means to express the mood and atmosphere of the movie; Vertigo is one of the most graphic examples of how color can be used as an expressive tool. Although colors alone are often viewed as a means to convey the message, Hitchcock managed to turn colors into a thing in itself in Vertigo, therefore, assigning colors with specific roles and turning them into movie characters.
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The first and the most obvious choice for the discussion of colors in Vertigo is red. Indeed, even the poster for the movie was drawn in the threatening and at the same time enthralling red color. It is worth noting that the red color appears mostly in the moments when the leading character interacts with Madeline. For example, when Scottie first tries to spy on Madeline, he enters a restaurant with blood red wallpaper.
The rest of Scottie’s encounters of Madeline/Judy are also often in the red setting. Hence, analyzing the relationships between Madeline and Scottie, one can conclude that the red color symbolized the passion between the characters. Though the given choice of symbolism can hardly be called original, Hitchcock still manages to introduce certain uniqueness into the role of color.
For instance, in the course of the conversation between Madeline and Scottie, the lights on the red wallpaper start glowing, making the tint of red more intense and, thus, stressing Scottie’s confusion. Some might argue, however, that the red color is supposed to put the emphasis on the female lead and, thus, expresses sexuality: “In two Hitchcock’s films, Vertigo and Marine, the colors of red and red on white take on persuasive meaning in relation to female sexuality” (Allen 242).
Such an interpretation of the red color would sound rather reasonable for an average movie; for the Hitchcock world, however, such interpretation is at least incomplete. It seems that Hitchcock also tries to incorporate the concepts of passion and death in red color (Allen 242). Therefore, the role of red color in Vertigo is at least two-fold.
Another color that is used recurrently in the movie is green. In fact, the Maestro himself explained the choice of green rather vaguely, tying the choice of color to the specifics of the leading character’s personality, at the same time drawing a parallel between the colors and the music:
You see, here you had a man who was really a necrophile, i.e., he was going to bed with a dead body, hence the green light. He was waiting for the girl to complete her hair and everything, and he was in love with a dead woman. So you want to help that, and the music helped it, because he was going to bed with a dead woman. (Gottlieb 103)
Therefore, it can be considered that the green light was used in the movie to mark the line between the reality and the psychotic universe of the leading character. In the scene where July becomes Madeline, every single element of the movie including the actors remains relatively peaceful. The weird greenish, otherworldly color, however, almost shouts that something is going wrong – and, in fact, it is, since Scottie is obviously behind the breaking point at this moment: “Where is Judy?” (Hitchcock).
The blue color, which is also introduced at the very beginning of the movie, might be translated as an attempt to make a smooth transition between the scenes of tension and the “fillers.” It can be argued, however, that there are little to no fillers in Vertigo – each scene is intense in its own sense, and each has at least several thrilling seconds of tension between the characters or a moment of a self-reflection.
Finally, the violet color appears only two or three times throughout the entire movie yet leaves an indelible impression on the audience. The most memorable scene in violet is, perhaps, the scene in which Scotty has a nightmare. Violet, as a cross between the red and the blue, signifies a passage from the ordinary world into the world of madness and back.
As Allen put it, “in the context where blues and reds are combined in the film to evoke female sexuality in Vertigo, the color violet, as a cross between blue and red, is a variation of the theme” (Allen 242). However, it seems that Allen’s conclusion could be stretched even further; since red means passion, and blue represents the exact opposite, i.e., calm and stealth, violet can be described as a collision between the two and, thus, a descent into madness (Oliver 101).
Amazingly, the role of colors in the movie has changed once again from the means of marking the transgression between the moods and the scenes to actually influencing the leading characters. While in the previous scenes, red and green only served as a foil for the plot of the movie to unwind, in the dream sequence, they actually come to life. Swirling around Scottie, they drive him even crazier, if that is technically possible, and make him face his demons for once.
When it comes to the analysis of the colors in Vertigo, one might notice how hard it is to single specific colors out. Indeed, in the movie, they blend to create the necessary atmosphere; it is very rarely that one can see a single color, but when one does, the color becomes an integral part of the movie. Moreover, it helps create not only the atmosphere, but also a specific pattern, starting with teeth-grindingly bright red, then switching from dark greenish ad finally making the audience plunge into the world of crazy purple.
However, at some points, the colors switch fast to mark a dramatic moment; one of such scenes, the above-mentioned dream sequence is a perfect example of how colors can tell the story without the help of the actor or the narrator. As Scottie has his nightmare, the colors change rapidly as if he were in a kaleidoscope.
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Thus, the movie shows that Scottie is being thrown from one extreme to another, from a painful anguish to maddening fear. It is also crucial that the colors in Scottie’s dream almost never appear one by one; they mostly come in two or three, creating whimsical and at the same time
Although the effects in the movie might be considered somewhat dated, the choice of the colors remains brilliant. Creating a specific mood, these colors make the movie more dramatic and the plot more intense, each of the colors serves its purpose and brings logic into the creeping insanity of the movie. In fact, the color cast can hardly be judged on a regular basis – the colors look much like the scraps of someone’s dream, which already is very thrilling.
In addition, the fact that they actually match the mood of the characters and the atmosphere of the movie puts these colors on par with other nonetheless significant elements of the film, such as the plot, the setting and even the actors. In Hitchcock’s world, colors come to life and start playing a role of their own, which once again shows the brilliance of the author and the magnificence of the universe that he created.
Allen, Richard. Hitchcock’s Romantic Irony. New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2007. Print.
Gottlieb, Sidney. Alfred Hitchcock’: Interviews. Jackson, MI: University Press of Mississippi, 2003. Print.
Oliver, Kelly. Noir Anxiety. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota, 2003. Print.
Vertigo. Ex. Prod. Alfred Hitchcock. Hollywood, CA: Paramount Pictures, 1958.DVD.