Monday, 7 July 2008

Necklaces and Attentive Recognition 1: Hitchcock's Vertigo

A soon-to-be-forthcoming blog post will reveal the real reason for my rapidly developing interest in necklaces and attentive recognition in audiovisual culture. But, partly in order to pave the way for that discussion, I wanted to post this classic example of a Hitchcockian anagnorisis from his 1958 masterpiece Vertigo. Please forgive the Spanish dubbing (and the obvious plot spoilers if you haven't seen the film - for a full synopsis, click HERE), but this YouTube video clip shows the exact moment -- in a film in which recognition scenes of many kinds abound -- when Detective John "Scottie" Ferguson, played by James Stewart, sees in the mirror the necklace put on by Judy Barton, played by Kim Novak (here "imitating" Madeleine Elster), and then attentively recognises it (i.e. he recalls a virtual image of the necklace that Judy's necklace calls to mind, and then compares the virtual object with the one before him).

What is particularly interesting to me about this example of an attentive recognition scene is how underplayed it is, relatively at least. Vertigo is a film which doesn't otherwise shrink from highly expressive storytelling techniques; indeed, it is known for inventing some, such as the famous Vertigo shot. One of the reasons for the film's greater subtlety here is that, at this point, Scottie is choosing not to give away yet to Judy/Madeleine that he knows her secret; thus he contains his reaction to his memory of Carlotta's necklace.

Another explanation, however, is that an "excessive" heightening of Scottie's reaction is formally unnecessary, because this scene precisely isn't designed to cue exactly the same, shared moment of dawning with the film's audience. Despite the fact that Scottie is a detective, the film doesn't straightforwardly, or solely, employ what David Bordwell and others have labelled "detective narration", at least not throughout its whole duration. A "detective structure" is one in which (using Murray Smith's terms from his 1995 book Engaging Characters: Fiction, Emotion, and the Cinema: 152-154) the range of narration in a film is tightly restricted to the knowledge of an investigating character, so the audience doesn't generally know things in advance of, or long after, the protagonist but usually simultaneously with him/her. In the last part of Vertigo, following the sequence in which we see (and hear) Judy write a letter to Scottie -- torn up and thus unsent -- in which she sets out her deception, the storytelling resembles "melodramatic narration", a form characterised by "a high degree of subjective transparency across various characters": "[i]n a melodramatic alignment structure, the spectator knows much more than any individual character does" (Smith, 1995: 153).

In this case, the audience may or may not exactly remember Carlotta's necklace but, even if we do recall it, it will mean something different to us, compared with what it means to Scottie. This is because we know more -- about Madeleine's murder and Judy's motivation as an at least partially unwitting accomplice to it -- than what is revealed to Scottie by his recognition of the necklace. The particular composition of tragedy in Vertigo requires that Scottie remain ignorant of the "full facts", of which we are cognizant, at least until the very ending of the film. So, while Scottie is convinced at this "mirror stage" that he has fully recognised the necklace, the film's audience witnesses the scene as only a partial, characterological (not intersubjective) anagnorisis, and as an incomplete, if not exactly false, dawning.

© 2008 Catherine Grant

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