Friday, February 3, 2012

Hitchcock’s Most Beautiful Shot Ever; Or, A Single Frame So Good, 2000 Words Don’t Do It Justice

by guest contributor Joel Gunz

Practically every frame of every movie Alfred Hitchcock made could be blown up and hung on a museum wall. He had such a clear sense of composition that you can turn off the sound, forget the story and set your DVD player to slo-mo, letting the images parade by.*

Among the many iconic pictures that his camera has captured, the one pictured above is arguably the most sublime.

Practically everything that happens in the first half of Vertigo is carefully designed to lead the viewer to Madeleine’s (Kim Novak’s) trip to Fort Point, at the foot of the Golden Gate Bridge. Let’s take a closer look at this single frame from the movie.

Self-consciously artful, the shot is as architecturally balanced as the bridge it depicts. The lighting, the colors, the framing, the composition and, of course, the subject matter leave nothing to chance. For instance, the graceful curve of the bridge draws the eye downward to the lone figure standing before us in the frame’s Golden Mean, while its vertical lines accentuate her statuesque femininity. Likewise, the balance between the man-made (the bridge and sidewalk) and the natural (the bay and mountains) seems to be deliberate as well, signifying Madeleine’s entrapment between these two worlds. Such a composition demanded precise camera placement, blocking and timing to capture the right light. That—among other things—seems to be the point. Vertigo is Hitchcock’s most sustained and deeply felt meditation on the art of film and this shot is its pièce de résistance.

The scene is observed from Scottie Ferguson’s (James Stewart’s) point of view. For two days now, he has been following Madeleine at a discreet distance, gradually moving closer as he becomes emboldened by her apparent obliviousness to his presence. Yet, he is still far enough away that he could plausibly deny having anything to do with her if she was to turn and question him. He is as close to her as any voyeur would dare get.

The difference between this framing and what Scottie would have actually seen, however, is worth noting. In real life, Scottie’s field of vision would have been much higher and wider. But here, that’s been cut off by the edge of the frame. (Conversely, because of our capacity to focus on small details at a distance, the framing could have been much tighter. And, if all Hitch wanted to do was further the story along, he would have used a lens that allowed Madeleine to fill the frame, but that’s not the case, either.) In other words, though we look through Scottie’s eyes, we are seeing what Hitchcock has decided to show us. The interchangeable relationship between Hitchcock’s protagonist and his camera—always a fluid proposition—has never been more apparent—or transparent. We may share Scottie’s eyesight, but we’re granted Hitchcock’s vision.

But the beauty of this picture! Before we go any further, let’s take a moment to let it simply be. Look again. 

This is the moment that VistaVision was made for. Until this point, we have been driving around with Scottie as he follows his charge up and down the streets of San Francisco. Now, however, the camera comes to a full stop at the city’s lowest point: sea level. The camera goes still, along with the actor and even time itself. Now is the time to freeze the frame. It’s as if Hitch was saying to us, “let’s take a bit of time to relax and enjoy the scene I’ve selected for you.”

Filmed in the late afternoon, Madeleine’s visit to Fort Point occurs during what photographers call the Magic Hour, that special time when shadows deepen and the lowering sunlight results in softer contrast, bringing the subject into almost 3D relief, while the sunset’s golden hues bring out the colors to dramatic effect. (As Dan Auiler notes in Vertigo: The Making of a Hitchcock Classic, shooting wrapped at this location at 5:25 PM.) Even if you’re a hack, it’s almost impossible to take a bad picture during the Magic Hour. If the artist is Hitchcock—and the cinematographer is Robert Burks—it can be a masterpiece.

Yet, for all its beauty, the Magic Hour is also a melancholy time of day. A lull in the final minutes of sunlight, it’s a prelude to dusk and nightfall, a perfect correlative to Madeleine’s doleful mien.

In fact, everything in this picture is a projection of Madeleine’s character.

Starting with the bridge. As I said earlier, almost everything in the movie up til now is part of a carefully laid plan leading to this moment. The first scene of the film—the rooftop chase—gives us a view of the Golden Gate Bridge at night, enticing us to want a better look. Later, at Midge’s apartment, Scottie muses over the new strapless brassiere that’s modeled on the cantilever bridge. (History nerds will note that the Golden Gate is a suspension bridge. While the original design called for two cantilevers, one at each end, it was rejected because they were as visually unappealing as the cantilevers in Midge’s prototype bra!) In Scottie’s mind (and in the mind of any San Franciscan), the Golden Gate Bridge is the greatest height someone could conquer—or fall from. So, as Scottie pulls out a footstool to stand on in hopes of devising a cure for his acrophobia, he quips to Midge, “Where do you want me to start, with the Golden Gate Bridge?” These moments hint at the scene we’re examining now. As does, of course, Gavin Elster’s yarn (performed by Tom Helmore) about Madeleine’s obsession with Carlotta Valdes and his need for Scottie’s help.

But look again at the framing. While, at the beginning of the film, Hitchcock’s nighttime camera objectively records the entire length of the bridge, this time the nearest end juts out of the top of the frame and the far end is hidden behind a distant suspension tower. As a result, our view of the Golden Gate takes in only its midway point. In effect, it is without beginning or end. And the viewpoint, from underneath, is emphatically subjective.

Such a formal composition emphasizes the artifice before us: sure, Vertigo is only a movie, but the events unfolding before us once actually occurred for the benefit of Hitchcock and his film crew. It connects the internal reality of the movie with the external fact of its very real location.

Further, the bridge hanging unanchored in midair echoes Madeleine’s suspended condition, caught halfway between the physical world and the spiritual one toward which she hastens. She is neither here nor there. If the Golden Gate Bridge is a masterpiece of suspension, it is a fitting symbol for Hitchcock, the Master of Suspense. I interpret it to be a symbolic cameo appearance by the director, looking down on his creation. At the very least, it is a signature touch, in the fullest sense of the term.

The scene is classical, formal, idealized. A tip of the hat to such 19th century Symbolist illustrators as Maxfield Parrish or R. Atkinson Fox, with all the goofball Blavatskyesque spiritualism fully intended:

R. Atkinson Fox, "Dawn"
In Sigmund Freud’s dream world, bridges are phallic symbols, standing for the male organ that unites man and woman. Deriving further meaning from that basic symbol, Freud added that a bridge “acquires the meaning of something that leads to death, and … at a further remove from its original sense, it stands for transitions or changes in condition generally.”

While those phallocentric interpretations might be outdated, I believe there is a great deal of truth in what he had to say. (And I don’t think it’s much of a leap to suggest that the bridge in this scene is, in fact, phallic.) Bridges carry similar import in the Tarot deck, taking on additional meaning as harbingers of spiritual transformation, linking the earthly world and the spiritual.

The Golden Gate’s looming presence also emphasizes the low point at which Scottie and Madeleine have arrived. Looked at in this way, the water carries less of an erotic charge than it does the hellish. This is the level on which the diabolical shipping tycoon Gavin Elster operates.

Classical Chinese shan shui art conceives of bridges as a route to the (inaccessible) divine. The landscape painter Shitao (1641–1720) strove "to express a universe inaccessible to man, without any route that led there,… where only the immortals can live, and which a man cannot imagine. That is the vertigo that exists in the natural universe. To express it in painting, you must show jagged peaks, precipices, hanging bridges, great chasms." (Italics mine.)

Hitchcock’s Vertigo is filled with all sorts of references to Chinese wisdom, and I wouldn’t put it past him to have been aware of, if not inspired by Shitao’s aesthetics, perhaps even this painting, which could be read as a schematic diagram for the film’s conceptual design: (look for the tiny bridge)

At the very least, Hitch participated in this tradition in a general sense.

Not long after it opened in 1937, the Golden Gate Bridge gained notoriety as a favored spot for suicides. In 1956-57, while Vertigo was in development and production, no fewer than six people jumped from its heights into the bay, to their death. Thus its status as San Francisco’s most famous landmark is tarnished by this reputation, and Scottie’s earlier crack takes on a darker tone than we might at first have imagined. As such, the location itself points forward to Madeleine’s “suicide,” as well as back to the suicide of her grandmother, Carlotta Valdes.

For a journeyman Symbolist like Hitchcock, all of this was old hat. Here are a couple more symbols, lifted whole from the Romantic art that provides so much inspiration for the film:
  • the bay itself, representing Madeleine’s fathomless subconscious; her sexuality; her feminine mystique and
  • the distant mountains rising voluptuously above the bay, as inaccessible as Madeleine herself.
Adding to the somber mood is Madeleine’s navy blue dress, with its high collar and tea-length hem, fit for a funeral. And notice the lavender scarf tied around her neck that drifts and curls in the breeze like ectoplasm, riffing on the multicolored spirals, many of them lavender, that accompany the opening credits. On one level, it enhances Kim Novak’s beauty, who was promoted by Columbia Pictures as a “lavender blonde.” On another level, in Hitch’s color scheme, the color is often associated with death (recall the  lavender “Rest in Peace” ribbon that florist Phillippe Dubois attached to a funeral wreath in Topaz, prefiguring the lavender dress Juanita de Cordoba wore at her death, which was staged to resemble a blooming flower). So much of Vertigo is rooted in 19th century history that it comes as no surprise that in Britain at that time, lavender was, along with black, the color of mourning.

Special attention seems to have been given to her shoes. With her feet placed one directly in front of the other, we can’t help but get a good look at them. It’s an odd pose, flattening her profile and drawing our attention downward. The camera angle emphasizes the length of the heels and their sharp edges. There’s a hint of danger or fetishism or both. Later, as she is dragged up the stairs of the bell tower, we’ll see those same feet upended by the man who idealized them in this shot.***

And what is there to say about the nosegay she holds? It’s the bouquet of a bride in mourning.

As beautiful as this shot is, then, upon closer examination, it acquires ominous overtones. You may or may not agree with everything I’ve written above. But on one point we can agree: this picture is at once achingly beautiful and profoundly sad.

Let’s take a closer look at Madeleine herself. We see her in profile, just as we first saw her at Ernie’s Restaurant and at the museum (and, later, bathed in green light, at the Empire Hotel). Shadows in the foreground nearly reduce her to a silhouette, yet in the distance the blue sky also places her out in the open for all to see. The truth about Madeleine hides in plain sight.

Significantly, her body language duplicates the pose she struck moments earlier while standing before the portrait of Carlotta—feet and all:

A classical stance, it shows off the beauty of her form while revealing nothing else. Madeleine displays her surface beauty to Scottie while concealing her true self, intentions and identity. As William Rothman writes in his chapter on The Lodger in The Murderous Gaze:

“It is characteristic of Hitchcock to frame a figure in profile at the moment of his or her most complete abstraction and absorption in an imagined scene to which we have no access. In such a profile shot, the camera frames its subject in a way that does not allow the figure's interiority to be penetrated. Indeed, such a shot declares that impenetrability; it announces that we have come to a limit of our access to the world of the film.”

As beautiful as the Fort Point image is and as rife as it is with meaning and symbol, it is ultimately unknowable. Scottie, for whom “there is an explanation for everything,” has met the limits of his knowledge of Madeleine Elster, of women and perhaps of human nature. Unless something new and dramatic takes place, he, along with us, can do nothing more for Madeleine but watch her. If the plot is to move forward, she needs to make a big splash.

Hitchcock’s lesson, delivered from the other side of the bridge, is that, despite the books, the articles and, yes, the blog posts, at the end of the day, we are no closer to the truth than Scottie Ferguson. Watching, always watching, but rarely seeing, until it’s too late.
*If you think this is an exaggeration, drop by 1000 Frames of Hitchcock, where you’ll see Dave Pattern’s massive frame capture project, where he copied 1000 high-quality frames from all 52 of Hitchcock’s extant movies and posted them on the Alfred Hitchcock wiki for scholars, students and fans to peruse and use.

**Hitchcock framed bridges similarly in previous movies, notably The 39 Steps (1935), which depicted the Forth Rail Bridge, one of the world’s great bridges and one of the greatest achievements of Victorian British engineering. In a way, this was at the time the Golden Gate Bridge of Britain.

Just as Freud suggested, for Hitch, bridges often signify psychological, emotional or spiritual transition. It is at this bridge that Richard Hannay escapes from the train to evade the police and is fully transfigured into his role as a fugitive from the police. It’s generally assumed that Hannay jumped into the river. However, I don’t think that’s the case. For one thing, from his perch, as is clearly shown in the movie, such a leap would have landed him at the concrete base of the bridge and killed him. Even a jump into the water from that height would have been too risky. Instead, I believe that he remained hidden until the train left and that he simply walked off the bridge. The reason I bring this up now  is that, up until this point, we’ve tracked Hannay’s movements very closely. So, from whose point of view is this shot taken? It probably isn’t Hannay’s. Instead, it seems to be Hitchcock’s own view, a case of author intrusion into the story. As such, it anticipates the similar framing of the Golden Gate Bridge being discussed here. As in the 1958 film, time stops for a moment. In this case, it gives us a chance to catch up with the action and Hannay’s radical transformation away from an ordinary bloke as he inhabits his extraordinary new role as fugitive, sleuth and espionage agent.

In the shot immediately following, Hannay crosses a small bridge whose ancient stones are a marked contrast to the ultra-modern Forth Rail Bridge previously shown. The previous montage hints at a spiritual journey comparable to that suggested by Madeleine and Scottie’s destined appointment under the Golden Gate Bridge, but with a very different outcome.

***While making Rear Window (1954), Hitchcock spent half an hour arranging a shot of Grace Kelly's shoes. When assistant Herbert Coleman asked why, Hitch remarked blandly, “Haven't you heard of the shoe fetish?” Unfortunately, it was never used in the film.


Noted for its fresh perspective and first-rate scholarship, Joel Gunz's has been described as the "best Hitchcock blog on the Internet." Meanwhile, its social center,, enjoys an enormous and passionate international following. Joel is preparing to publish his next book, Notes from an Alfred Hitchcock Geek. Watch for it!


  1. Thank you, Joel, for a great post, which basically sums up much of Vertigo by analyzing a single frame of the film. No easy feat!

    It immediately struck me, when I started looking at the shot above, that Novak was in shadow. A previous poster here wrote about San Fran signifying the descent of Scotty by always going downhill, all the way to sea level under the bridge. But this shot takes it even further. By taking Novak's deceptive character out of the light, she is plunged into the dark world that she chose to inhabit when she started helping Elster.

    Your post will stay with me as I now watch other Hitchcock films. This Month of Vertigo has been a real eye opener.

  2. Fantastic post. I enjoyed this very much. The degree to which you've explored the symbolism is intriguing.

  3. "Ultimately unknowable" . . . a very beautiful post, Joel. When it comes to capturing the mystery of "Vertigo" your vision is as sharp in the inner world as it is in the outer. You've hit upon so much. This film draws deeply from the creative imagination, and when it comes to the imagination I agree with William Blake, who saw it as endless - "the body of God". Everything under the sun has not been conceived of, and never will be. You did a great job.

  4. Joel, a most impressive job of intensive analysis. And you can't get much more intensive than this, analyzing a single shot and using it as a microcosm of the film's themes. I particularly liked your discussion of the symbolism of bridges. Also the significance of Madeleine's posture in the shot: "Madeleine displays her surface beauty to Scottie while concealing her true self." It's interesting to note that this shot is followed by some very different shots--including a close-up of Madeleine tossing the bouquet into the water and also the shot of Scottie jumping into the bay to save her (obviously shot in a studio tank and in typical Hitckcock fashion seamlessly blended with the location shots). I've always been aware of Hitchcock's affinity for staircases (including the crucial one in the mission bell tower in "Vertigo") but had never really thought of his use of bridges before. The shot is an instance of its hypnotic surface perfection and the GG's universal association as the symbol of San Francisco keeping us from deeper analysis of the spatial and symbolic components which you so thoroughly explore.

  5. Great post Joel and a wonderful explication of the symbolism used in Vertigo, to which I wholly subscribe. From my perspective, Madeleine/Judy is unknowable because the point of view is Scottie's. He may waiver in his behavior and attitude, he may be weak, conflicted, and selfish, or even psychologically damaged, all of which may make him unsympathetic, but the dilemma in this film is essentially all his.

  6. Joel, this analysis of perspective and setting choices is brilliant. When I watched the film at the end of the month, I noticed all the details talked about in this series, but next time I view the movie, I will pay attention to the details you have unearthed. I think its interesting that Hitchcock used bridges during transition scenes, as bridges physically bridge one part of land to another, proving transition for the traveler.

  7. Joel,

    This is such a beautifully written and illuminating piece. You remind me that a good part of VERTIGO's great appeal for me has to do with its limitless potential for interpretation - and discovery. Your assessment illustrates that point perfectly - and your concept, to analyze the entire film through a single well-chosen frame, is brilliant.

    Thank you for adding so much to "A Month of VERTIGO."

  8. Fascinating article Joel with some skillful insight. Your points about filming during the so called "magic hour" are spot on. It's a more soothing light that adds a calmer layer to the image. "Vertigo" is filled with visually stunning shots throughout, as are all of Hitchcock's films. He would have made a great still photographer!

  9. Wonderful in-depth look at how a single image can capture so many themes and meanings.

  10. Holy cow, guys! I didn't see ANY of these comments until, randomly, I discovered them here a year later. Thank you so much for all of the encouraging and thoughtful words. Hell, thanks for reading!

    Joel Gunz