On Disequilibrium

In the film Vertigo, Hitchcock begins by showing you a chase across San Francisco rooftops. Jimmy Stewart and a uniformed cop chase a criminal. Stewart slips on some tiles, clutches a flimsy rain gutter and goes numb. The cop bravely tries to help, reaches his hand out, but falls. It’s more chilling than we care to admit, this small unknowable death that begins the film: the body plummets from the roofs to the ground below as Stewart clings to the edge of a building. And so begins the source of his titular malady: the full disequilibrium of the mind inside the body, the perception that the world is in constant motion around him.

Stewart hangs by his hands. Hitchcock invented the technique to signify his sudden dizziness: the track-back zoom. The background retreats while the foreground moves closer to the viewer. To do this, Hitchcock used a backward tracking dolly shot coupled with a zoom-in shot. It cost $19,000 to do this single shot in 1957.

Spatial distortion is the hallmark of true vertigo.

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