Love Gone Wrong: A Philosopher’s Take on “Vertigo”

By Robert SinnerbrinkDecember 8, 2019

Love Gone Wrong: A Philosopher’s Take on “Vertigo”

The Philosophical Hitchcock by Robert B. Pippin

IN A 2012 POLL run by Sight & Sound magazine, and surveying 846 distributors, critics, and academics, Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) was voted the “greatest film of all time.” In doing so, it finally ended the reign of Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane (1941), which had held the crown for several decades. Vertigo has long enjoyed critical acclaim as Hitchcock’s greatest artistic achievement, and has been described as “the most studied and analyzed film of Hitchcock’s career.” What could a philosopher add to understanding such a celebrated and analyzed film? Robert B. Pippin’s book takes up this challenge, offering a remarkably lucid, stimulating, and enlightening foray into the aesthetic, philosophical, and moral complexities of Hitchcock’s masterwork. Recognized internationally for his work on a “non-metaphysical” approach to German idealist philosopher G. W. F. Hegel, and for his books and essays on the philosophical problems of modernity, modern art, and culture, Pippin brings a philosopher’s eye to the moral dimensions of Hitchcock’s work, and a cinephile’s passion to reflecting on Vertigo’s cinematic achievements.

Indeed, over the past decade, Pippin has emerged as one of the major voices in philosophical film theory (or cinematic philosophy), having authored books on the Western as political psychology, the idea of fatalism in film noir, and other essays on cinematic philosophy. The Philosophical Hitchcock consolidates and confirms this contribution, showing how philosophically informed, close analysis and critical interpretation of individual films not only can open them up as films, but also reveal the ways in which they might contribute to our philosophical understanding.

A skeptical reader might ask: In what ways can a film about love, obsession, depression, and murder be philosophical? Can such a film really offer a “cinematic philosophy”? Pippin’s response to this question is part of a broader debate in the field of philosophical film theory over the idea of “film as philosophy”: Can cinema contribute to our philosophical understanding via cinematic means? Or are cinema and philosophy simply different media with diverse aims, methods, and effects? Do philosophical “readings” of a film reveal important but hitherto neglected dimensions of a work? Or are they expressions of an overly zealous philosophical approach eager to “impose” philosophical meaning on such works? Philosophers like Stanley Cavell, Stephen Mulhall, Thomas Wartenberg, and others have argued that films can contribute something valuable to philosophy, via cinematic means, provided we take a generous, rather than narrow, view of what philosophy means and of what counts as a philosophical contribution.

Pippin’s own contribution to this debate belongs to the Stanley Cavell/Stephen Mulhall school of thought, according to which the best way of arguing such claims is to turn to the films themselves, offering complex and sophisticated philosophically informed interpretations that provide practical evidence for the claim that we can do “cinematic philosophy” via critical engagement with particular films. Indeed, narrative arts might offer rich and challenging ways of posing philosophical questions and exploring the complexities of philosophical problems, particularly those with a moral-ethical slant. They have the advantage, moreover, of not only exercising our (philosophical and moral) imaginations, but of engaging our emotions as well as our intellects in responding to and reflecting on the drama unfolding on screen. How does this work in the case of Vertigo?

Pippin offers a marvelous close reading of the movie, from a virtuoso analysis of the opening credits — an important way of not only framing what the film is about, but of suggesting ways of thinking relevant to what follows — to a compelling analysis of the complexities of love relationships, of sexual and romantic passion, the risk of self-deception inherent in such experiences, and the possibility of moral manipulation arising from the intersection of personal passion and social convention. The central philosophical issue explored in the film is the problem of knowing oneself or another person, which also entails the possibility of being unknown to oneself or unable to know the other — taken together, we can call this the problem of unknowingness. Indeed, unknowingness in its various forms constitutes, for Pippin, something like a “necessary condition of the possibility of Hitchcock’s world.”

It is difficult to imagine a Hitchcock film without these forms of unknowingness, and certainly hard to make sense of Vertigo in the absence of such considerations. So many Hitchcock films explore characters in various states of unknowingness, and the challenges facing those who disturb the complacent confidence that things are largely what they seem, who fail to see the “shadow of a doubt” pervading the everyday world, or the predicament of those who “know too much.” Suspense, Hitchcock’s trademark, is an experience of the tense, anxiety-inducing (vertiginous) balance between what we know and what the characters do not; what they think they know, which we know (or anticipate) will turn out badly for them, even fatally, in a situation they only partially know or perhaps fail to understand. The varieties of unknowingness explored in Hitchcock’s world turn on questions of moral evaluation, insight, and experience, situations for which there is no readily available ethical resolution (situations of betrayal, deceit, manipulation, or impersonation, for example). A world of moral, psychological, existential vertigo, focused on the forms of unknowingness — or to put it in Pippin’s (Hegelian) terms, the struggle for mutual intelligibility — that can beset romantic relationships with their intoxicating but disorienting combination of erotic passion, psychological fantasy, and moral self-deception.

Pippin’s ability to combine philosophical reflection with close film analysis is amply displayed in his discussion of the opening credits. He offers an impressive shot-by-shot analysis of the intriguing interplay between image, text (credits), and musical score, paying particular attention to the seemingly deliberate mismatching of an unknown woman’s facial features, actors’ names, film title (Vertigo), musical score (Bernard Herrmann’s fusion of romanticism and suspense), and visual motifs (the “Lissajous” spiral). All of these elements are artfully combined to signal the film’s recurring themes of mystery, romantic passion, moral manipulation, and vertiginous unknowingness. The book proceeds with a detailed breakdown of the main sequences in the narrative, from the opening chase scene (with Scottie’s [James Stewart’s] famous moment of visualized vertigo, literally hanging, paralyzed, from a rooftop, and thereby indirectly causing a policeman’s death); the introduction of sensible friend and former flame Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes); the strange meeting with Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore) that lures Scottie into the dubious plot to follow Elster’s troubled wife, Madeleine (Kim Novak), hinting at her apparent fantasy “possession” by tragic distant relative Carlotta Valdez; Scottie’s apparent romantic obsession with Madeleine and their ambiguous affair; and the traumatic revelation of the sinister deception to which he had been subject all along.

Pippin’s analyses and reflections on plot and themes are powerfully illuminating, but it is his attention to film form that really makes the case for his claim that Vertigo engages in cinematic philosophy. To list some representative examples, there are the carefully choreographed movements of characters and camera when Scottie first meets Gavin Elster; the mesmerizing tracking shot of Scottie’s first vision of Madeleine at Ernie’s Restaurant, as she leaves her table, gliding by, in profile, a transfixed Scottie; the recurring visual motifs of spirals, curls, circular movement, coupled by the Herrmann’s musical score, evoking Wagner, but also expressing the transformation of romantic obsession into melancholy loss, erotic passion into psychological despair. There is the film’s remarkable color palette, combining reds, greens, and browns in coded ways so as to direct our visual attention, set mood, evoke passion, and express character emotion. There are also illuminating reflections on the complexity of romantic relationships: the fact that there is never just “a couple,” but what each person takes the other to be, how each person takes themselves to be, and how they imagine the other takes them to be, and so on. Such insights are then carefully matched to close analyses of scenes that we witness, but are also invited to reflect upon, demonstrating how performance, costume, lighting, music, and dialogue combine to suggest both passion and ambiguity, obsession and detachment, romance and self-deception.

As Pippin demonstrates, Vertigo brings these elements together in ways that enable both aesthetic enjoyment and philosophical rumination. A case in point is his analysis of Scottie’s dream sequence. As Pippin shows, the sequence is carefully composed so as to suggest Scottie’s “lucid” dreaming recognition of the fact that he may have been duped. It starts with a depiction of his emotional turmoil, guilt, and confusion, the “artificiality” of the animated sections suggesting some kind of unreality or inauthenticity. It then moves to linking Carlotta with Elster, suggesting a deception, Scottie’s puzzled expression upon discovering Carlotta’s empty grave, again underlining the possibility of foul play. We see the black silhouette of possibly Scottie himself (rather than Madeleine) falling from the bell tower, suggesting both his unknowingness and his being a victim of the plot. The sequence concludes with a memorable close shot of Scottie’s shocked and frightened “awakening” from a nightmare that now comes to stand in for his tragic situation. Pippin’s impressive analysis of Scottie’s dream skillfully articulates how concrete meaning is expressed through visual form, adding philosophical complexity and aesthetic density to this celebrated sequence.

The disturbing turn the film takes with Scottie’s rediscovery of the “ghost” of Madeleine in her “true” guise as Judy Barton is another case in point. The are many ironies and ambiguities in these scenes: Scottie’s obsessive desire to “knowingly” recreate Judy into Madeleine, for example, and Judy’s apparent willingness to allow herself to be “directed” to play the perverse fantasy figure again (the parallels between Scottie’s obsessions and Hitchcock’s own are well observed). At the same time, Judy hoping against hope that, if she submits to his obsessive demands, Scottie will somehow see through the fantasy and come to love her “for herself,” which of course ends in fatal tragedy for her and recurring trauma for Scottie. Pippin offers thought-provoking reflections on both these sequences, examining the ambiguous relationships between romantic desire, personal identity, sexual passion, and psychological self-deception at play in the film. The revelation of Elster’s devious plot to deceive Scottie (thanks to Judy’s “careless” lapse in wearing her striking “Carlotta” necklace), luring him into playing the role of unwitting “witness” to a fake suicide concealing a real murder, also hint at a darker dimension to Hitchcock’s world: a tragic vision in which the hope for moral resolution, romantic fulfillment, or an overcoming of unknowingness through the pursuit of truth or desire for recognition can only succeed partially, ambivalently, at great cost to those concerned.

Pippin’s discussion of the film aims to show the complexity in Hitchcock’s exploration of unknowingness when loves goes wrong, the self-deception that shadows romantic passion, and the vulnerability of psychological fantasy to manipulation in social reality. One of the peculiar and fascinating features of the film is the manner in which it seems to invite “moral suspension” on the part of the viewer, not just the traditional loosening of moral evaluation in the interests of narrative drama, cinematic aesthetics, or imaginative involvement. Rather, Pippin suggests that there is a deeper, more philosophical point at issue here: the way in which the film shows the inadequacy, even inappropriateness, of applying moralizing judgments in respect of complex social situations or psychological conditions. Romantic relationships are a case in point, but Hitchcock’s films suggest this more broadly about many social experiences.

The lesson of the film? That in the complex dynamic of romantic passion, psychological insight, and mutual recognition, we are always subject to varieties of unknowingness; that the desire to enter into the fantasy world of erotic passion is always coupled with the possibility of psychological and moral deception; that in the relations between the sexes the role of fantasy and ambiguity of mutual intelligibility makes such relationships at once life-defining and psychologically ambivalent. All of these insights are conveyed in ways that are both artistically satisfying and philosophically perplexing. The reader of Pippin’s book, like Scottie at the end of Vertigo, is left “suspended” between psychological insight and aesthetic mastery, being reminded, in both philosophical and cinematic terms, of our tragic fallibility and mutual unknowingness. Anyone enthralled by Hitchcock’s masterwork, but also perplexed by its aesthetic and moral meaning, could ask for no better guide than The Philosophical Hitchcock, one of the most satisfying, provocative, and enlightening books on cinema that it has been my pleasure to read.


Robert Sinnerbrink is associate professor of Philosophy at Macquarie University, Sydney. He is the author of three books on film and philosophy.

LARB Contributor

Robert Sinnerbrink is associate professor of Philosophy at Macquarie University, Sydney. He is the author of Terrence Malick: Filmmaker and Philosopher (Bloomsbury, 2019), Cinematic Ethics: Exploring Ethical Experience through Film (Routledge, 2016), New Philosophies of Film: Thinking Images (Continuum/Bloomsbury, 2011), and Understanding Hegelianism (Acumen, 2007/Routledge 2014). Photo from Macquarie University.


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