Constructing Fantasy in Hitchcock's Vertigo
The amount of critical analysis surrounding Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo is itself dizzying, but as the film has recently been restored, it seems appropriate to provide it with a fresh critical reading. The purpose of this paper then, is to draw this film out of the past with a reading that offers not only a new way of understanding it, but a close look at the culture that produced it. Specifically, Vertigo offers its most exciting ideas when contextualized in a culture of consumerism. Consumerism shaped the film, and also shapes the way we view it. The desire of the consumer is the driving force behind not only our economy, but our mode of seeing the world, and seeing films. As consumers, we are always looking for, and looking at, new commodities, especially clothing. We gaze at clothing in shop windows. We purchase it and wear it, making it visible to others. Indeed, the desire to buy clothing is linked closely to our desire to show it off. We shop in a visual economy, a visual culture of consumption. To understand this culture it is important to understand the historical figure of the flâneur. The flâneur is a wandering male consumer of images who is, and was, particularly in the nineteenth century, the visual and economic agent at the center of consumer culture. He is also at the center of Vertigo, personified in the main character, Scotty.
The flâneur is an inveterate urban wanderer and voyeur who is at home in the public spaces. In the words of Baudelaire, "for the perfect flâneur, for the passionate spectator, it is an immense joy to set up house in the heart of the multitude, amid the ebb and flow of movement" (qtd. in Brand 5). Walter Benjamin, in his work on the Paris arcades, was even more explicit about the public life of this figure: "The street becomes a dwelling for the flâneur; he is as much at home among the facades of houses as a citizen is in his four walls" (qtd in Glebber 54). But the flâneur is as much alone in a crowd as he is at home in it (59). He is detached from the world around him. According to Anke Glebber, "the necessity of this solitary perambulation corresponds to the flâneur's predisposition for states of melancholy, a melancholy from which he seeks escape in a deluge of images -- searching in these images for points of orientation, markers of life" (59-60). He wanders the city, financially independent and with time on his hands, casually observing urban life. His haunts are those markets and arcades which, particularly in the nineteenth century, provided a new public space for strolling and shopping. But the flâneur also has an earlier manifestation in the eighteenth-century figure of Addison and Steele's Mr. Spectator. It is here, that the character Scotty has his cultural roots.
Steele's Spectator no. 454 is particularly important in this discussion because of the instructive similarities it reveals between Mr. Spectator and Scotty,...