An analysis of the Opening Sequence of Vertigo (1958)
The purpose of an opening title sequence for a film is to establish the mood and
visual character of a film, to introduce the viewer to all or some of the following
The opening sequence of Vertigo does all of this. The film was made in 1958 and the
opening consists of two distinctly different sections. One is a mixture of live action
and graphics, which were designed by Saul Bass and the next section is just live
action and was directed by Alfred Hitchcock. It is the beginning of the narrative of the
film. The first part of the opening introduces the character of Madeleine, played by
Kim Novak and the second part of the opening sequence introduces John ‘Scottie’
Ferguson, played by James Stewart.
Saul Bass, who designed part one, is considered by many to be a pioneer of modern
title design and has worked on many iconic films including Cape Fear and Psycho, to
name just a couple. He was originally working in advertising but a move to working
on film publicity materials was the beginning of his work in film. Prior to Bass the
approach to promotional art usually consisted of brightly coloured photographs of the
stars but Saul Bass preferred the use of dramatic abstract images, deceptively
simple drawings and broken type, all designed to give an impression of the story.
Bass saw the purpose of an opening title sequence as a way of conditioning the
audience so that when the film began they already had an emotional response to it.
Saul Bass understood the importance of the first moments of a film.
The title sequence focuses on the physical appearance and beauty of Kim Novak,
this is introduced at the beginning of the film and is a theme that runs throughout the
narrative as James Stewarts character becomes increasingly obsessed by the image
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Although the title sequence played a central role in establishing the visual style for
the film its use in the marketing for the film was limited. A focus on the image of the
Hollywood stars was favoured.
A focus on the Hollywood stars images is used within the first part of the title
sequence. The face of Kim Novak is used to introduce both the genre of the film and
some of its overriding themes. The first view of her is a close-up of her mouth; it is
not a still image as the viewer can see her lips twitch nervously, thus introducing
anxiety and a close examination of this character as integral themes.
The use of close-ups to frame the details of the physical features of the character
played by Kim Novak is a feature of the cinematography that is used throughout the
film, it mirrors the obsession that James Stewart’s character develops.
As the camera pans up to her eyes they move from left to right in a slightly panicked
way, the woman is clearly on edge and not comfortable with the viewers scrutiny.
This enhances the creation of suspense, a key convention of the thriller genre. It also
highlights the notion of looking, being watched and being seen watching someone
else. This is another convention of thrillers.
Further evidence that this film belongs to the thriller genre comes when the image is
tinged with red and focuses in on one eye, from the centre of the pupil an
unidentifiable object appears and fills the screen to reveal the title of the film.
One of the themes often explored by films belonging to the thriller genre is identity.
The first part of Vertigo’s title sequence introduces this as a theme within this film.
The focus on the females face and then the way in which the viewer is brought into
the internal workings of her mind by the use of the graphics also indicate that her
own subconscious struggles with her identity will also play a part in the narrative of
The music changes and becomes more mysterious and discordant. The screen
becomes stained with red and this illustrates a change in focus from examining the
external signs of identity, such as facial features and moving on to focus on the
internal working of the mind, illustrated by the camera movement through the pupil
and the first appearance of the graphical geometrical images. The theme of unstable
identity is central to the narrative of Vertigo. The imagery of the pupil and the
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geometric spirals also communicates the sub-genre of the film, it is a psychological
What follows is a series of graphical geometric shapes that appear to come from a
distance to fill the screen, when one disappears another takes its place suggesting
the complex layers of a person’s personality, of their identity, again reinforcing it as a
central theme of Vertigo’s narrative. The spiral shapes also connote the
psychological workings of the mind and they mirror the characters hairstyle, which is
revealed as an important narrative device later on in the film. The animated spirals of
Bass’ title designs create an effect of dizziness at the very beginning. The shapes
also appear at times to be falling; this is another theme of the narrative.
The second part of the opening title sequence of Vertigo is live action and introduces
the second main character, Scottie. What is most important in that sequence is the
introduction of this hero’s flaw. The character discovers, from this event, that he has
acrophobia, he is scared of heights. This fear causes vertigo, dizziness. This is
illustrated in the sequence by a camera effect that combines both tracking and
zooming in oppositional movements, i.e. a forward zoom and reverse tracking shot,
thus mirroring the disorientation experienced by the character. This weakness
disempowers Scottie and is used by the antagonist to draw him into the concealment
of a terrible crime.
The panning shot of the San Fransisco skyline, following the chase across the
rooftops, introduces the location and re-enforces the theme of the film. San Fransisco
as a place is famous for the huge imposing sight of the Golden Gate bridge and its
undulating streets and steep hills are explored fully in the course of the film. It is the
perfect setting for a film concerned with the height, being at great heights and the
risks involved in being at a great height are central to Vertigo’s narrative and this is
first introduced in the opening chase sequence which ends with Scottie being left
suspended at a great height with a fear of impending death should he lose his grip
and plummet to the floor like his colleague.
As a thriller the opening sequence of Vertigo sets up an atmosphere of anxiety and
very importantly of suspense, as one of the central characters is literally left
suspended in mid-air. Another, as yet undiscussed aspect of the opening sequence,
is the music. The score was composed by Bernard Herrman and in a 2004 article for
Sight & Sound the director Martin Scorsese said of its impact:
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Hitchcock's film is about obsession, which means that it's about circling back
to the same moment, again and again ... And the music is also built around spirals
and circles, fulfilment and despair. Herrmann really understood what Hitchcock was
going for — he wanted to penetrate to the heart of obsession.
Many sections of the music, particularly in the opening sequence are looped to mirror
this theme of repetition and obsession with going around in circles to the point of an
Scorsese also said that the opening title sequence successfully set the mood of the
overall film, as well as the visual style.
The opening of Vertigo is a classic example of a thriller and its genius owes much to
the simplicity of its approach.
Sources: This presentation is influenced by the following sources:
Spiralling Aspirations: Vertigo, 1958 by Emily King
‘Why Thrillers Thrive’ (1936) by Alfred Hitchcock
The Women Who Knew Too Much by Tania Modleski
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