Vertigo is a thriller film directed and produced by Alfred Hitchcock that premiered in 1958. The film stars James Stewart as John “Scottie” Ferguson. Scottie is a detective who develops acrophobia (fear of heights) and vertigo after dangling from a building and watching a colleague (who tried to rescue him) fall to his death. According to, vertigo is “a dizzying sensation of tilting within stable surroundings or of being in tilting or spinning surroundings.” After this traumatizing event, Scottie’s vertigo debilitates him and is used by the antagonist to lure him in the cover-up of a murder. The antagonist is Scottie’s college acquaintance, Gavin Elster, who hires Scottie as a private investigator to follow his wife Madeleine (Kim Novak). Madeline had apparently started to display odd and concerning behavior. Elster loops Scottie into an eerie mystery and an obsession that unfolds throughout the course of the movie. The mood and motifs of the movie are echoed in the opening title sequence of Vertigo. The title sequence sets the tone for the overarching film and was designed by the iconic motion designer, Saul Bass.

Bass was known for his groundbreaking title sequences and responsible for building the stardom surrounding title design in film. Bass’s transition from print to screen is discernable in the title sequence through the way in which he works with type, use of modernist forms and static elements. Vertigo’s title sequence is an intense combination of graphics and live-action that communicate the unsettling nature of the film. It begins with an intimate close up of  Madeline’s expressionless mouth which then begins to quiver. The camera gradually pans up to her eyes and they nervously dart from side to side.

In this particular moment, I was sucked into an ominous space where I could sense the discomfort of the female character. Madeline is clearly on edge and not comfortable with the viewer’s’ gaze. This notion of watching and being watched is a consistent theme throughout the film. The use of close-ups to zoom into the physical features and idealized beauty of Madeline is used as a visual element throughout the film. It also foreshadows the unhealthy obsession that Scottie develops towards Madeline and hints at the theme of his unstable identity.

The title sequence is also dependent on the soundtrack as it points to the drama, suspense and thriller qualities of the film. As Madeline’s eyes widen, the camera finally zooms to one eye and the face turns red as the title emerges from the pupil. The soundtrack is also reflective of the series of geometric spirals that begin to emerge from Madeleine’s eye. The spirals recreate the experience of vertigo and the dizzying and nauseating sensation of falling. The spirals are also indicative of the complex layers that create the identity of the different characters in the film. Lastly, the spirals bring to mind the staircase that causes Scottie’s vertigo to flare up as well as the weaving roads of San Fransisco in which Scottie chases after Madeline.

At the end of the title sequence, the camera pans out, the audience views the eye once again and “Directed by Alfred Hitchcock” appears before the film begins. The first time I watched Vertigo, the title sequence left me curious with a lot of questions. It left me wondering about the potential of how disturbing the movie could be based on everything I’ve described in this post. Bass’s title designs definitely have a tendency to  manipulate the way in which the viewer is processing what they’re about to see.

Title emerging from the pupil of Madeline's eye.

Title emerging from the pupil of Madeline’s eye.

Title Sequence

Title Sequence

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock.

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

Geometric Spirals.

Geometric Spirals