In the late fifties and early sixties, at the zenith of his cinematic career Alfred Hitchcock was aptly referred to as the Master of Suspense. Within numerous Hitchcockian masterpieces it is not merely his witty cameo appearances which add that famous idiosyncratic flair to already engaging plotlines, but the manner in which recurring themes are combined with awe-inspiring camera angles to produce pioneering shots. Films such as North by Northwest(1959), Psycho (1960) and The Birds (1963) are well-known for a reason, and it becomes a kind of thrill for the viewer to identify these motifs and to speculate upon the possible reasons behind their inclusion.
Voyeurism and the significance of sight is one such theme, present within many, if not all of Hitchcock’s pieces. While this, in conjunction with his experimental employment of the chiaroscuro technique in black-and-white films, elevates them as well as his unique style, the same can be said for his innovative use of colour on later projects.
It is common knowledge that the colour green carries both positive and negative connotations; while it can stand for growth, strength and vitality, it can also be used to represent unachievable or distorted circumstances. For instance, Gatsby’s green light signifies hope, longing and to some extent, comfort, yet when examined in terms of the power that Daisy possesses over him, it is transformed into an emblem of derangement and dissociation from reality.
In Vertigo, a 1958 Film Noir psychological thriller directed and produced by Hitchcock himself, the colour green is put to similar use. While its primary function is to illustrate worth, status and financial stability, it is equally a vessel for deception and betrayal. Nevertheless, as with Fitzgerald’s tale, this is only the case when green is combined with the presence of the feminine.
Vertigo is a story of romantic obsession, manipulation and fear. In the wake of the sudden, horrifying death of a fellow officer, detective John Ferguson develops a crippling fear of heights and is forced to retire. Re-hired as a Private Investigator, his female target is eventually killed in a freak accident, yet after some time he begins to see an identical woman in different parts of the city. He decides to befriend and subsequently transform this new woman, which sparks an unfurling of hidden agendas, treachery and hysteria.
In the opening credits, colour is established in relation to the theme of femininity through optical illusions of varying hues, immediately followed by a close-up of a woman’s eye which is then immersed in red. In this manner Hitchcock unifies the concept of danger with gender, while simultaneously emphasising the importance of colour from the onset. As the story unfolds, it becomes evident that there are four major depictions of green in the film: Madeleine/Judy’s clothes, her car, the natural landscapes within which she and Johnny often find themselves and finally Judy’s hotel.
Clothes and Identity
It is important to note that 75% of Hitchcock’s representations of green are closely linked to the concept of materialism, none more than the clothes Judy wears. On four separate occasions she is consistently apparelled in different shades of green, which is indicative of the way in which clothes are readily available to her – so much so that she is able to choose a distinct colour for herself. For the most part Judy’s clothes are used to highlight her role as a pawn, with men frequently dressing her in their preferred items of clothing. It is therefore safe to assume that the colour green is equally a channel through which she may demonstrate and assert her own freedoms. However, the fact that when Johnny is presented in his home, he too is surrounded by green, implies that there is still some degree of influence that the male presence possesses over the central female character, even when it seems as though the woman has her own voice. As a result, Judy can never truly be communicated as independent from Johnny or Mr. Elster. Thus, green is simultaneously a symbol of strength and defiance, and an indication of manipulation.
The Car as a Vessel
Whenever we see Mrs. Elster’s car on the move it is being followed closely by Johnny, ultimately leading him to some kind of crucial revelation. This is important for the progression of the plot as it illustrates the way in which the car is both a deliberate cinematic device and a symbol of mystery. It is one of the very first uses of the colour in the film, and serves as a key factor for the establishment of the notion of secrecy, as well as the act of surveillance. Moreover, by its very nature the car is a mobile invention, and so green is depicted as not merely passive, but possessing an active role in the advancement of the story, especially with regard to the theme of mystery.
Landscapes and Greenery
Perhaps its most logical representation, the gardens and forests in which Johnny and Madeleine frequently encounter one another are brimming with vibrant flowers and vegetation. Nonetheless, Hitchcock employs an inversion of the colour’s primary function. In these instances, while one would be forgiven for thinking that green symbolises growth and life, the inclusion of a graveyard within the garden and the impending possibility of Madeleine’s death which is discussed in the forest, means that the natural connotations of the colour have been purposely transformed to better suit the needs of the plot. Green in this case is utilised sinisterly; where there is an ostensible display of life, we find subtle implications of death hanging in the air.
Finally, through Judy’s hotel we see that green is a mechanism for both concealment and discovery. While the Empire hotel seemingly hides Judy from the curious Johnny, it is here that he eventually finds her. Similarly, while preparing to meet him she tucks away the famous grey suit which threatens to give her away, and yet in the same hotel Johnny eventually reveals the truth about her identity.
Vertigo is not merely about one type of phobia but an array of anxieties, and the significance of the colour green is just as vital for the efficiency of the storyline as these fears themselves. Its eminence can be deciphered from the title alone, within which the French ‘vert’ manifests as a critical foreshadowing of its subsequent recurrence.
Author’s Note: Next time you sit down to a movie, endeavour to recognise as many colour-related thematic devices as you can; not only is it incredibly satisfying, it is also one of the most effective ways to exercise the brain.