(NOTE: Although the following only hints at the twists and turns of Vertigo, if you’ve never seen the movie -- well, you’re in for a hell of a treat, and you might want to put off reading this until after you’ve taken the plunge.)
Alfred Hitchcock’s "Vertigo" (along with Michael Powell’s "Black Narcissus)" is certainly one of the most ravishing Technicolor films ever made -- all the more so in the new  VistaVision-to-70mm restored version. And color plays a key part in the mystery, and psychology, of the film.
I first saw "Vertigo" on network television in the late '60s or early '70s, shortly before it was withdrawn from release. I think I was somewhere between 12 and 14 years old -- I know I saw it by myself on my parents’ new 19-inch color TV one night when mom and dad went to some neighborhood grown-up party -- and I’m sure I didn’t understand the half of it. But it stayed with me -- haunted me, you might say -- between that fateful evening and its re-release in the mid-'80s. By then, "Vertigo" had become, if not quite the Holy Grail of the American Cinema (after all, "Rear Window" and "The Manchurian Candidate" had been tantalizing forbidden fruit, unavailable for years, too -- and a great deal of "The Magnificent Ambersons" is still at the bottom of the ocean, perhaps the ultimate unreachable cinematic treasure), then at least one of its most coveted hidden gems.
In 1982, shortly before its re-release, the 100 international critics participating in Sight & Sound’s decennial poll named "Vertigo" one of the 10 greatest films of all time (it was sandwiched between "The Magnificent Ambersons" and the 10th-place tie of "The General" and "The Searchers"). By 1992, its reputation had floated it up to No. 4 (after "Citizen Kane," "Rules of the Game," and "Tokyo Story"). A parallel 1992 poll of leading international directors placed "Vertigo" in a three-way tie for No. 6, along with "The Godfather" and "Modern Times."
I knew "Vertigo" was a great movie the first time I saw it. It mesmerized me, even though I was too young to understand why. To put it in some sort of perspective: to call the restoration/re-release "the best movie of 1996" would be not only trite, but a laughable understatement; quite simply, nobody orchestrates colors, compositions, music, gestures, language quite like this anymore. But the thing I remember most about "Vertigo," the thing that imprinted itself indelibly on my brain, was something simple and powerful: the color green. Say "Vertigo" and I see green. For the color green is associated with Scottie Ferguson’s vertigo and, especially, its underlying cause: the dizzying fear of falling, and of falling precipitously, deliriously in love.
Scottie (James Stewart) is a middle-aged man (Stewart was 49 when the movie was shot) who lives alone ("Some people prefer it") and has never married, a former police detective who has retired after the terrifying discovery that he suffers from vertigo -- a fear of heights that indirectly leads to the death of a fellow policeman. (This nightmarish episode forms the movie’s prologue, and Scottie is literally left hanging; as critic Robin Wood has noted: "We do not see, and are never told, how he got down…; there seems to be no way he could have got down. The effect is of leaving him, throughout the film, metaphorically suspended over a great abyss.")
Although Scottie and his friend Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes) have an easygoing rapport, there’s something passive, distant, disconnected, about Scottie. Midge is obviously head-over-heels for him—a love that expresses itself more maternally rather than romantically—but either he doesn’t realize it or doesn’t choose to reciprocate beyond friendship.
While Midge flirtingly discusses the architecture of the brassiere (her banter is bright but all on the surface, despite her deep feelings; she’s "a known quantity," in Wood’s words), Madeleine is introduced as a mystery woman. In a blood-red restaurant (rather womb-like, if you ask me—a place in which a romantic obsession is born, surrounded by a bright red warning signs) Madeleine appears, walking through a doorway in a deep-green stole and pauses in profile like a mysterious work of art, in a way that Hitchcock scholar François Truffaut later echoed with Jeanne Moreau in his "Jules and Jim." (Madeleine often appears through a doorway, indicating that there’s something behind her, in her past, that is only partially visible to us, and to Scottie.)
In this manner Madeleine, and the color green, are introduced into Vertigo, and Scottie’s subconscious. (The preceding three scenes—the vertiginous prologue, the scene at Midge's loft, and the scene in Elster's office, are virtually without green, with the exception of a potted plant that appears behind and between Scottie and Elster, just as the latter says, "Still the hard-headed Scot." That plant—in its latency in the frame, yet to fully grow and bloom—is a portent of Scottie's romantic obsession with Elster's wife Madeleine....)
And so, green is associated with Madeleine, and with the romantic environs of San Francisco. Madeleine's car, which Scottie so obsessively tails, is green (and there's a spendid moment of disconcerting, schizophrenic foreshadowing when Scottie spies two identical green cars rounding a curve; we'll later be left wondering just how/where/if the paths of Madeleine and her look-alike Judy have diverged). And there's the green expanse of lawn in front of the Palace of the Legion of Honor art gallery, where she goes to sit in front of the portrait of Carlotta, the greenery of the florist's shop and its vibrant green boxes (also associated, in Scottie's thrillingly up-close surveillance of Madeleine, with her image in a mirror), the garden/graveyard where he follows her, and the deep green-blue waters of San Francisco Bay into which she plunges.
After her "suicide attempt," Madeleine reprises her initial entrance in Scottie's apartment, coming toward him (and the camera) in a red robe that reminds us of the decor of Ernie's restaurant in which we first spied her. On a table to the right of the frame is a striking green box (an ice bucket?) reminiscent of those at Madeleine's florist —so green it's somewhat distracting. The color scheme—red suggesting Scottie's fear/caution/hesitancy when it comes to romance, and its opposite green, suggesting the Edenic bliss (and/or watery oblivion) of his infatuation with Madeleine (or, from Midge's point of view, jealousy)—seems to be indicating perhaps that Madeleine may appear to be one thing, but may actually be another. After taking the plunge for Madeleine (in more ways than one), even Scottie switches from his usual blue/gray and wears a gray-green sweater. He's undergoing something of a sea change. Later, after Madeleine abruptly and mysteriously disappears, Scottie opens the bright red door to his apartment (his CAUTION—KEEP OUT sign) and finds himself bathed in a greenish porchlight, the afterglow of Madeleine's presence.
The scene in which Scottie and Madeleine really fall for each other takes place in deep, dark green of the California Redwoods (there's that juxtaposition of opposite hues red and green again). These are indeed the Trees of Mystery (as bumper stickers proclaim them a ways up the coast), and they provide the atmosphere for Vertigo's most mysterious, haunting, and erotic scene in which Madeleine ruminates on the insignificance of human beings in a timeless landscape. "Always green, ever-living," is Scottie's interpretation of the trees' name, but for Madeleine they are reminders of the intrasigence of human life—and particularly of her impending "death," which will also mean the inevitable death of the romantic illusion she now finds herself sharing with Scottie. The scene ends with Madeleine and Scottie embracing near the crashing surf of the rocky Northern California coast, a reminder of the waters of San Francisco Bay.
Before we continue with the green motif, let's talk some more about red, and about blue, yellow, and purple, which also figure prominently in Vertigo's palette. As we've seen earlier, red is the opposite of green—a cautionary color, suggesting Scottie's reluctance to get involved with members of the opposite sex. The red door of Scottie's apartment is a huge warning, a STOP sign for women. He prefers to live alone. Midge is wearing bright red when she attempts to put a stop to Scottie's romantic illusions about Madeleine, by painting a parody portrait of herself as Carlotta (complete with large tourtise-shell frames). And Carlotta's ruby necklace becomes the red flag that finally shatters Scottie's romantic illusions about Madeleine/Judy. (The dialog in the moments before this vertiginous epiphany is subtly brilliant. Judy asks him to help her fasten her necklace. "How do you work this?" he wonders. "Don't you see?" she asks. And then, chillingly, in the mirror, he does see—for the first time.)
Blue is associated with Scottie's guilt (and to a lesser, more indirect extent with Gavin Elster). Of course, there's the blue of James Stewart's piercing, pained eyes; this is a movie about seeing, about appearances—the title itself emerges from a woman's eyeball. And the screen is drenched in blue in the prologue, the scene of Scottie's guilt in the death of a fellow officer; in the azure day for night visit to the mission, the source of Scottie's vertigo-related guilt over his inability to prevent Madeleine's suicide leap; and on his return to the Mission with Judy, where Scottie attempts to face the truth of what happened, and purge himself of guilt, and of his vertigo.
Scottie wears a blue suit and tie when he first visits Elster, who is dressed in gray-blue. And in the new print of "Vertigo," the suits of Scottie and some of the other men in the tribunal who put the official, damning stamp on Scottie's guilt, are so black-blue that they almost glow. The confirmation of his guilt leads to Scottie's breakdown, after which he sits almost catatonically in his room in his guilty blue sweater.
Midge is associated with yellow, tan, and cream colors. Her studio, like her personality, is sunny, light, and airy—no mysterious shadows here. When Scottie attempts to show he's mastered his vertigo, he climbs up on Midge's yellow stool, and then collapses into her arms, which is right where she'd like to have him. The creaminess of her soft, cream sweater, and the emphasis on her breasts, both in the brassiere dialogue and the way she's photographed, emphasize her womanly, maternal feelings for Scottie.
Judy is introduced wearing Madeleine's green—and with a green florist's vehicle parked at the curb behind her. But when she tries to assert her own identity (i.e., not Madeleine), she chooses a lavender outfit. A bold and distinctive (if somewhat garish) statement of her selfhood, it fits Judy's slightly trashy personality perfectly. Near the climax of Scottie's nightmare, his disembodied head floats amid flashing colors of green and purple; he hasn't met Judy yet, the one who will remind him so strongly of Madeleine, but his dream seems to be a portent of his confusion between them: green, purple, Madeleine, Judy… When (in a radical departure from the structure of the source story) Hitchcock tips his hand and explains the mystery to us, but not to Scottie, two thirds of the way into the movie, it's through Judy—who's wearing the green associated with Madeleine.
In Scottie's dream, Hitchcock splashes the screen with saturated colors that represent the conflicting psychological forces at war within Scottie, bombarding him (and us) with splashes of pure color and emotion: blue/guilt, red/caution/danger, green/Madeleine/romance/illusion, purple/Judy, yellow/Midge... Carlotta's bouquet turns into a whirling Escher graphic that flashes green, a taunting and torturous reminder of Madeleine. And after his breakdown, the greenery outside his window seems to loom hauntingly behind him, like the ghost of Madeleine in the forest ("This is where I died…."), as unconsoling as Midge's anti-depressant prescription dosage of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. A bouquet of roses—green growth tipped with garish bursts of blood red, the false promise of romance bursting at the ends with red flares of warning—seems to mock Scottie's pain, but he sits in the corner, helpless.
Judy's purple willpower doesn't last long. After a couple dates, she decides to let Scottie make her look "just a little" like Madeleine. Her vibrant purple outfit is replaced by a green skirt with a tan blouse, as Scottie searches for the exact gray suit Madeleine wore when she was killed. From Scottie's point of view, Judy's become kind of a half Madeleine and half Midge at this point. But what about Judy herself? Scottie basically refuses to acknowledge Judy's right to exist.
Hitchcock told Truffaut that he had Judy live in the Hotel Empire because of its big, green neon sign. From inside Judy's room, the whole room is suffused with that green light, filtered through fine-mesh curtains. As Judy emerges from the bathroom, competing her visual transformation into Madeleine, she is bathed in green and shot through a hazy filter that recalls the soft, dreamy lighting of the garden sequence. Once again, Scottie has withdrawn from reality and into a romantic fantasy. As he kisses Judy/Madeleine, the camera circles dizzyingly—vertiginously, you might say—around them and the whole world bursts into green—green, the color of rebirth, of growth. Everything seems to be complete for Scottie once again—except for a disturbing blue flashback to the Mission. But Scottie shrugs it off and obsessively embraces his Madeleine—even though she's really Judy. Green floods the frame once again. At this point, Scottie is more responsible for snuffing out Judy than he is for Madeleine's death. Indeed, he's smothered Judy to death with Madeleine.
Scottie can't deal with reality -- with a real flesh-and-blood woman. In the movie's most heartbreaking scene, Judy senses that Scottie prefers an illusion: "You can't even touch me!" And then, when Scottie begs her to change the color of her hair (color is a vital part of Scottie's obsessive fantasies; everything must be just so, from the suit to the coiffure), she asks: "If I let you change me, will that do it? If I let you change me … will you love me?" Like the artist in Edgar Allan Poe's , Scottie is so obsessed with creating his "work of art," that he doesn't even notice that he's draining the very life from his subject:
And in sooth some who beheld the portrait spoke of its resemblance in low words, as of a mighty marvel, and a proof not less of the power of the painter than of his deep love for her whom he depicted so surpassingly well…. And when many weeks had passed, and but little remained to do, save one brush upon the mouth and one tint upon the eye, the spirit of the lady again flickered up as the flame within the socket of the lamp. And then the brush was given, and then the tint was placed; and, for one moment, the painter stood entranced before the work which he had wrought; but in the next, while he yet gazed, he grew tremulous and very pallid, and aghast, and crying with a loud voice, 'This is indeed Life itself!’ turned suddenly to regard his beloved:—She was dead! (Edgar Allan Poe, The Oval Portrait)
In the end, Scottie is "cured" of his obsessive fantasies, his romantic illusions -- and, simultaneously, of his vertigo. But it’s a cure that leaves him on a precipice, staring directly into the "great abyss."