Three Colours Hitch…

Still thinking about “Vertigo” and just why it is considered so important, and has been so influential. A lot of the films on the “Greatest Films” list are not necessarily the easiest to watch, and yet they do all bear repeated viewing and each time you see them they reveal new things.

What struck me on watching Vertigo again this time was the use of colour. So much has been written about the symbolism and imagery in the film and there are plenty of theories about Hitchcock’s use of colour and what it might mean.

But I wonder whether Vertigo was the first film to make colour such an important element. Douglas Sirk, Vincente Minelli, and in particular Nicholas Ray, used colour to enhance psychological effect in the 1950s and 60s – as had Powell and Pressburger in the late 40s and early 50s.

Yet I’m trying to think of a director who used colour in such an emphatically coded way before Vertigo – certainly there were plenty afterwards. Some of our members’ own “greatest films” lists reflected this, with directors as diverse as David Lynch, Krystof Kieslowski, Wes Anderson and Jean Luc Godard.

You see the powerful use of colour in the first few meetings between Scottie and Madeleine, when he first sees her dressed in emerald green in a room with scarlet wallpaper. This is where his fantasy and obsession begin. The colours are so intense that they go beyond merely decorative or stylish – in an otherwise pastel palette of dreamy wistfulness they are visceral, you feel there is something symbolically loaded about them. He follows her green car and as we spiral inwards into the mystery we focus on the red stones in the dead Carlotta’s necklace. Later on, after he fishes Madeleine out of the San Francisco Bay, the love affair begins as colour identities reverse and merge – he wears a green pullover while she wears his red dressing gown. Even Stewart’s eyes seem to become greener as he gets drawn further and further into the intrigue and his own obsessive inner quest.

When Midge jokingly unveils her self-portrait as Carlotta, she wears a red cardigan, as if unconsciously trying to enter his world – but it doesn’t work. However hard she tries, she will never be part of his fantasy.

But after Madeleine dies, there are scarlet red roses in his room at the convalescent home – a reminder that even in his catatonic state, the fantasy still has a hold on him.

When Scottie first sees Judy in the street, she is also dressed in emerald green. She’s with a crowd of other girls but you don’t notice them. We stare at her with the same mesmerised gaze as Scottie, as everything else melts into the background.

Later, her transformation into “Madeleine” is lit with unearthly green light, from the green door and the hotel’s neon sign – and then brought back to reality when Scottie sees the red gem in the “Carlotta” necklace that Judy had kept.

There is of course the practical consideration that the film was out of legal circulation until the mid 1990s and the original colour separation had deteriorated so much that it had to be restored. So the quality of the colours has been disputed – are they too exaggerated, are we even seeing something  Hitchcock had not intended? However, the restorers were so attentive to detail that they referred to motor archives to get the exact tint of the green Jaguar right, so we can be fairly certain that this was as Hitchcock meant it to be.

What do you think? Was this the first use of colour in such a deliberately symbolic way? Where do you see other directors use the same ideas? There are so many points of reference. As ever – we’d be really interested to know what you think…..

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Mike Atkins says:

    I can think of a couple of examples off the top of my head. Spielberg’s Schindler’s List and The Sixth Sense. both using red to signify something connected. Vertigo certainly had a lot of references from films that came along after, but maybe he learned from earlier films. I am thinking of Powell and Pressburger’s Red Shoes and Black Narcissus which both used colour to highlight something for the viewer to look out for.

  2. Mel says:

    Yeah, I think Powell and Pressburger are the obvious ones before Hitchcock – only ones I can think of anyway. Unless you count Abel Gance’s “Napoleon” going into red and blue tints for the Tricoleur. After Vertigo, there’s also “Rumblefish” which did the red in a black-and-white film thing before “Schindler’s List”. And probably lots, lots more….

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