The Vertigo Hair Spiral

Posted by Brandy Dean August 16, 2012 7 Comments 16316 views

I really love Vertigo. I wrote a little piece for the Toronto Film Scene about the Vertigo hair spiral. I’m not entirely sure it makes a lot of sense. Did I mention that I really, really love Vertigo? So much that it gives me a headache? Read on – if you dare!

Film Essentials: The Vertigo Hair Spiral

Here’s how I think of Vertigo. It’s like one of those 1950s American cars – gorgeous and shiny, beautiful down to the last detail. But also well built – engineered to a tee, built to last. Vertigo is timeless and stylish, and not for nothing, was recently named by Sight & Sound magazine as “The Greatest Film of All Time.” Just like those classic Detroit cars, it’s a precision machine. Each delicate part of it functions smoothly with every other part to create a perfect engine of a movie. Just to belabour this point – there’s the Vertigo spiral.

Fashion and Control

With hindsight being 20/20, it’s reasonable to say the defining characteristic of Hitchcock the director (perhaps also of Hitchcock the man?) is control. Self-reflexive is not a term typically applied to his work, but with a little armchair psychology, Vertigo might read that way. Hitch with his obsession for blondes and the hyper-voyeurism examined across his body of work reaches a kind of symphonic apotheosis in this film. In Vertigo, Hitchcock stitches together all the threads of his own fixations into a cinematic master work.

Hitchcock’s heroines were icy goddesses, meant to be untouchable. Fashion in a Hitchcock film, Vertigo included, is a kind of armour. There’s nothing literal. The ladies didn’t don chain mail. Rather, they were perfect, too perfect for spoiling. As Madeleine Elster, Kim Novak is dressed in the finest, yet most tasteful, fashions of the era. There is nothing ostentatious about her wardrobe, there’s no over the top couture of Grace Kelly in Rear Window. Rather, she is put together, perfectly. Poor Judy Barton, of course, doesn’t have the same wardrobe of class and privilege. Yet, even Judy remains the picture of Midwest sensibility. Only Midge turns up in a cotton smock signalling that she is attainable, thus not worth the effort.

The Vertigo Hair Spiral

The movie is named Vertigo, of course. There’s your first clue that the spiraling, out of control, slightly nauseating feeling of vertigo is a key motif in this movie. The famous spiral appears in the promotional poster, the seminal kiss scene, and in multiple camera “spiral” shots including the deadly bell tower scene. The vertiginous aural spiral recurs throughout Bernard Herrmann’s score. It also appears in Kim Novak’s hair (as well as Carlotta’s) and then makes a scattered and disjointed appearance as a fringe of baby spirals framing Judy’s face. One can get dizzy just thinking about the spiral.


Kim Novak’s hair isn’t just pretty. As Madeline, it’s an unnatural shade of blonde and it’s styled in a meticulous spiral, just like Carlotta’s. As Judy, Novak’s hair loses its studied precision, our first clue that perhaps Judy isn’t quite what she seems. Judy’s face is framed with a mess of little uncontrolled spirals, with more than a hint of the mythical Gorgon. Of course, that chaos becomes the crucial linchpin in Scottie’s transformation of Judy into Madeline. As our stand in for Hitchcock, Scottie directs Judy’s life. Every detail must be perfect to complete and maintain his fantasy. When Judy’s wild spirals are contained and Madeline’s perfect spiral is back in place, all is well. And not well at all.

The Void at the Centre

But what’s a spiral, really? A spinning form, with snaky arms extending out from some implied, but still mysterious, force. Yet, at its centre, a spiral is nothing, a void. Scottie embraces Madeline, itself a kind of spiral, but empty at its heart. Those bell tower stairs are a dizzying spiral, empty in the centre. Judy’s hair is styled into Madeline’s spiral, empty because Madeline is an illusion, and Madeline’s hair spiral was a cipher in the first place, a fake haunting from Carlotta. In the end all of the spirals spin out into nothing, uncoiling into a void. And we realize, we just got played by a master.

For those who love Vertigo, the spiral makes a final appearance, though this time as exegesis. The final spiral is the vertigo Hitchcock invokes for us the viewer. The final spiral is the vertiginous feeling that comes from examiningVertigo too closely. You find a glimmer of meaning, a moment of clarity, but then it whirls away just out of your grasp. Scottie is the victim, Scottie is the villain.  Madeline is a ghost, Judy is a cipher. Gavin Elster goes free. But who are we the viewers? The screaming, plummeting Judy, the psychedelic spinning Jimmy Stewart head, the supernaturally cool Madeline? Or are we the nun – there to ruin the illusion with a stubborn insistence on logic and reason?

This piece was originally published in the Toronto Film Scene.

About Brandy Dean

Social media consultant, blogger for hire, and lover of classic movies and silent films.

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There are 7 Comments

    - August 17, 2012
      -   Reply

    Maybe I just need to go back and watch “Vertigo” again — I haven’t seen it in its entirety in a long time. I enjoy much of Hitchcock, but a cheesy self-consciousness and what I perceive as contempt for his audience spoils alot of his films for me. Having said that, I love “The Birds” (Suzanne doll, please!) and “Psycho,” probably because both are so over-the-top that they transcend any inherent faults. They might make my top fifty if I was inclined to make lists, but to me lists are silly. So are titles like “The Greatest” anything. And a list in which only 20 percent of those polled mention “Vertigo” on their ballots doesnt’t mean anything to me except that 20 percent of 700-plus people have Vertigo as one of their favorite films. (See article from wsj below):

    Time to sign off before I get crabbier.

    • Pretty Clever Film Gal
      - August 17, 2012
        -   Reply

      Well aren’t you just peeing on my fun list parade. I love a list. I organize my life in lists. Thus, lists are awesome.

      I understand where you’re coming from with Hitchcock and his touch of contempt (Stage Fright, anyone?). But Vertigo – ah Vertigo! I think, in one way, Vertigo slipped away Hitchcock to become something far deeper and more revealing than he might have intended. On the one hand, it’s incredibly controlled filmmaking. On the other hand, I think it’s wildly personal, something Hitchcock never, ever is.

      So I stand behind my “Vertigo is a perfect engine of a movie statement.” Huzzah!

    - August 18, 2012
      -   Reply

    Sorry if I was temporarily incontinent. I should clarify that I don’t think that lists, per se, are silly (and neither are you for organizing your life by them). It is the “ranking” that bugs me. It turns art into a contest. What I DO find interesting and at least partially worthwhile is what these lists/contests tell us about the voters and their interests/values. The poll results change with time and each generation of viewers/voters. “No shit!” you might say.

    The earliest Sight and Sound and other such polls that I’ve seen over the years, polls from the 1940s and 50s, were filled with silent films and dominated by what were considered “the classics” at that time, particularly European directors, many of whom, such as Pudovikin, Rene Clair, Pabst, and so on, who are not held in as high regard now as they once were.

    When I first became interested in movies, Frank Capra was the darling of the academic set. No longer. Now it is Hitchcock who has captured the fancy of the current generation. I’m not saying this is wrong or right, it just seems to be a generational preference, and it may have more to do with the fact that Hitchcock spans such a huge period, from silent, b&w and 1.20:1 formats to CinemaScope and Technicolor — in other words, there’s something for everyone. Does that make him the greater filmmaker? Could be. But the poll or the “list” isn’t about that.

    While the focus of these polls naturally is on “the winner”, the actual result of naming something as “the greatest film of all-time” just seems to have absolutely no value in itself, and is less interesting than what it says about the voters themselves.

  3. - January 10, 2013
      -   Reply

    Leave it to Hitch to weave hair into the story. Never even noticed it, but then, I think the last time I saw it was in a retrospective approximately 20 years ago. I’ve been wanting to watch all of his films again in chronological order. Now, I’ll be looking at the hairstyles too. Interesting post. Good to meet you on Twitter @CinemaProfound. Now that I’ve been here, I’ll return the follow.

  4. Pingback The power of a hairdo | Pencil of the Sun

  5. - September 12, 2013
      -   Reply

    I loved this post. I’ve put a link to your essay on a post I made about Madeline’s hairdo and a photo taken by William Eggleston in a diner in Memphis. Again, nice writing, thanks.

  6. - March 10, 2014
      -   Reply

    I, also, love movie lists. I’ve been keeping track of every film I’ve ever seen since the age of 11. I’ve seen 8744 so far. My own lists break these down into genre, year and decade.

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