What were the artistic influences on what some critics have called Hitchcock's most personal film: Vertigo?
"The real reason was that I wanted to convey the dreams with great visual sharpness and clarity, sharper than the film itself. I wanted Dali because of the architectural sharpness of his work. Chirico has the same quality, you know, the long shadows, the infinity of distance and the converging lines of perspective." --Alfred Hitchcock, from his 1962 interview with François Truffaut
Hitchcock was a collector of modern art and his private collection included several paintings by the German Expressionist Paul Klee, as well as a drawing by the Surrealist painter Salvador Dali. It was Dali, of course, whom Hitchcock commissioned in 1945 to create the dream sequence for his psychological thriller Spellbound. So Hitchcock was no stranger to Surrealism and Expression, and the influence of both artistic movements can be seen in what is arguably his most visually stunning psychological thriller.
Two of de Chirico's works, "The Mystery and Melancholy of a Street" (1914) and "Big Tower or Nostalgia for the Infinite" (1913-14), bare a remarkable resemblance to scenes in Hitchcock's Vertigo.
The Greco-Roman arcades and towers that de Chirico depicts in these paintings look like stylized storyboards for the San Juan Bautista Spanish mission building and bell tower. In fact, Hitchcock had a bell tower painted into the set of the San Juan Bautista mission (the original had burned down long ago) when he decided to change a key scene location from the Pigeon Point Lighthouse to the church bell tower.
Yet the one painting in particular that provided the greatest impetus for the visual mood of Vertigo was Salvador Dali's painting by the same name, "Vertigo" (or "The Tower of Pleasure", 1930), that shows a couple in a struggle on top of a decaying high-rise. The two sexually engaged figures are dwarfed by the towering structure, and appear almost indistinguishable.
Freud had observed in his essay on "Mourning and Melancholia" that the loss of a beloved object can cause its "shadow" to fall across the suffering mourner's ego, engendering a pathological love/hate relationship to subsequent objects of desire. This seems to define Scottie's relationship to Judy Barton.
From the Surrealists, Hitchcock borrows dehumanizing urban architecture and haunting, desolate streets. These elements, as Freud suggested in Civilization and Its Discontents, contribute to the feeling of alienation in modern man.
Expressionist painter Vasily Kandinsky's manifesto, On the Spiritual in Art, a book Hitchcock most likely read prior to 1946, credited the new expressiveness of color in art as the next step in an evolving global consciousness that tended toward the abstract and spiritual, over the concrete and material, as the ultimate good. Another Expressionist painter, Franz Marc, emphasized gender associations with certain colors. To Marc, yellow represented the extroverted female and blue the introverted male. Yellow he saw as earthy while blue had spiritual connotations. Kandinsky, however, thought a mixture of yellow and blue suggested madness, and he associated dark blue with grief. This explains the yellow motif of Midge Wood's (Barbara Bel Geddes') apartment. The walls and her hair and sweater are all varying shades of yellow. Even her step stool, which Scottie uses in an attempt to overcome his vertigo, is chrome yellow. Midge's unrequited love for Scottie turns her into a maternal figure that represents another aspect of the feminine yellow. Early in the film, Scottie calls Midge "motherly" and later, Midge whispers in his ear: "Mother is here." It is in that scene that Midge (while comforting Scottie) is wearing a light blue sweater, and Scottie, a navy blue cardigan. On the curtains behind them are yellow and blue flowers which, on an Expressionist's palette, intimate both male and female and, when mixed together, madness.
Some critics have also noted that Hitchcock was heavily influenced by the early Technicolor productions of Walt Disney's Silly Symphonies and Victor Fleming's The Wizard of Oz. Not only is Scottie's dream sequence animated but it begins with a dancing swirl of flowers (a la Fantasia) and, as critics have rarely noted, is a nightmare saturated by flashing neon. The enormous green neon sign of the Empire Hotel is clearly linked to the ghostly shade of green that appears throughout the picture, but here it represents the shift from natural to mechanical. In the same way that the Emerald City rises out of the poppy fields of Oz, the green neon is symbolic of the mechanized big city. If comparisons between The Wizard of Oz and Vertigo seem far-fetched, then consider that "Judy" is also from Kansas, and is now in a big city undergoing a major transformation. When she appears for the first time, fully transformed into the girl of Scottie's dreams, she is bathed in the glow of green neon.
Additionally, the spiral dreamscape that dominates Vertigo also appears in the "dream" that is Oz: Starting with Judy Garland's (Dorothy Gale's) first steps on the yellow brick road, which begins in an outwardly expanding spiral.
“Spiral: The path of a point (generally plane) which moves round an axis while continually approaching it or receding from it; also often used for a helix, which is generated by compounding a circular motion with one in a straight line. The spiral form is an apt illustration of the course of evolution, which brings motion round towards the same point, yet without repetition.”
-The Encyclopedic Theosophical Glossary
(The definition would likely have been known to the author of The Wizard of Oz, L. Frank Baum, as he was a practicing Theosophist.) Also, the mention of the helix puts one in mind of the artwork used in the opening title sequence of Vertigo.
In a final comparison to Oz: When Jimmy Stewart follows Kim Novak down a dark alley, she disappears into a doorway. When Scottie opens the door, we see from his perspective the intense colors of the Podesta Baldocchi flower shop. Similarly, in Oz, Judy Garland opens the door to her Kansas home to reveal the flower-filled Technicolor spectacle of Munchkinland.
Even without the parallels to The Wizard of Oz, it is difficult to regard the image of Kim Novak, portrayed as a tiny, melancholy figure in the shadow of the towering, sun-lit Golden gate bridge, a structure which seemingly tapers off into infinity, as anything other than a true work of Expressionism.