The Primal Drive of Fear and Desire in Hitchcock’s 'Vertigo' and 'The Birds'

by C.E. McAuley

22 June 2010

A moment of fear in Vertigo 

Like opposite sides of the same coin, fear and desire are portrayed and shared throughout Alfred Hitchcock’s many films. In much of eastern philosophy one state cannot exist without its opposite; there can be no desire without fear and no fear without desire. This theme is explored to perfection in Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) and The Birds (1963) – though in a somewhat different manner in each film.

In Vertigo, ‘Scottie’ Ferguson (Jimmy Stewart) is a former police officer whose fear of heights begins when he witnesses another cop fall to his death. Leaving the force, Stewart enters into an abyss of psychological suspense and terror when he is hired to tail Madeleine (Kim Novak), the wife of an old college friend Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore) – only to find that his vertigo can be used against him to deadly effectiveness.

With Madeleine behaving strangely and Elster wanting answers, Scottie sets off on her trail. Madeleine has been having strange, unexplained lapses in memory with apparent long stretches of missing time during the day. She disappears to someplace that no one—not even her—knows where. It appears she may even be possessed by the disembodied spirit of Carlotta, a long-dead San Franciscan. Adding to the eerie mystery is the fact that this potential possession was, in fact, a suicide. Could Madeleine be headed for suicide, as well?

Following her from the museum at the Legion of Honor – where Madeleine sits before a portrait of her “past self”—to a graveyard in the city, Scottie begins to fall prey to Hitchcock’s creepy scenario. Despite being an inherent rationalist, all the evidence points to a conclusion that seems impossible. Indeed, it must be that Madeleine is the reincarnation of a suicide victim who intends on killing herself once again. While in a seeming trance, Madeleine throws herself into San Francisco Bay and Scottie is there to save her – at least this time. The darkness of the supernatural seems to have descended upon Scottie’s world – but the alluring Madeleine is a damsel in distress that Scottie can’t resist.

Fear is the initiating emotion of Vertigo. Without fear there would be no great motivating factor behind Scottie’s actions. First, Scottie’s fear arrives as he witnesses the death of his fellow officer. There is the fear Elster, apparently, has for his wife’s safety. There’s the fear Madeleine has about descending to her death by possession.Fear for Madeleine’s safety compels Scottie to intervene to save her. What he doesn’t count on is falling in love with Madeleine, and that’s where desire comes in.

Scottie and Madeleine begin an apparent love affair that’s based in fear and fueled by desire. The desire presented in the film is not only sexual, but also of a psychosexual nature. Madeleine is highly attractive physically, but she is also compelling in terms of the mystery she represents – a final case for Scottie to solve and someone to save as amends, perhaps, for when he could not save his fellow officer. Scottie will become Madeleine’s savior, thereby saving himself.

The switch-up in the film happens when Scottie is unable to prevent Madeleine from apparently jumping to her death from a bell tower. His vertigo once again gets in his way, this time leading to the death of the woman he loves. Scottie’s fear and desire collapses upon him. He then finds himself lost, institutionalized in a catatonic state for over a year – where both fear and desire are deeply internalized and threaten to destroy his mind. 

After he recovers sufficiently to leave the hospital, Scottie is walking the streets of San Francisco when he discovers a woman who appears to be the late Madeleine’s double. This is Judy Barton (also played by Novak). Other than her hair and clothes, this could be Madeleine.

Scottie begins to romance Barton, then obsessively turns her into the image of Madeleine; insisting she change her hair color and style and her clothes. It is only when he sees Barton wearing Madeleine’s old necklace that his police detective instincts click back into place and all of the pieces come together. Barton was only pretending to be Madeleine Elster so that she and Gavin could make off with Madeleine’s money.

The real Madeleine has been killed by Scottie’s old pal. Knowing of his vertigo Gavin Elster used Scottie as a witness to an apparent suicide that was actually an elaborately plotted murder. Elster is long gone and Barton received her share of the payment—but the one thing she didn’t count on was falling in love with Scottie.

To prove a point, an enraged Scottie eventually pulls Barton up to the top of the bell tower –overcoming his vertigo and confirming all of his suspicions. However, startled, Barton falls from the tower to her death bringing forth another tragic twist to this psychological drama. Hitchcock leaves us with Scottie peering out from the tower to her body below. Barton is dead and so too is the fantasy and reality of Madeleine.

In Vertigo, audience members are left to ponder the intertwining nature of fear and desire without resolution. In this sense, Hitchcock does not pronounce judgment on the nature of either state; he only very accurately explores them in a heightened sense and shows their dangers. Vertigo – and Hitchcock’s films in general – can be considered Buddhist cautionary tales. Audience members might draw the conclusion that only by transcending fear and desire will enlightenment truly be possible. Otherwise, they are caught between either extreme. 

In Vertigo, Scottie is left staring into the abyss of death that was crafted from his fear and desire. What will become of him? Audiences may speculate on this forever because Hitchcock doesn’t provide a definitive answer. This conclusion and handling of disparate psychological states are both part of the film’s terror and elegance.

In a shift, however, The Birds presents audiences with another problem of the fear and desire paradigm. What happens when the evoked fear is symbolic of the great libidinal, shadowy psychic realm of which many are not consciously aware; in this case manifested in flocks of killer birds attacking and killing the residents of Bodega Bay, California?

Practical joker Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) decides to deliver a couple of love birds from San Francisco to Bodega Bay as a way of toying with Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor). The love birds are caged and ultimately, they are the only birds in the film that don’t attack. This does not, however, necessarily mean they are benign.

Why is it they are the only birds who do not attack and do not exhibit signs of strangeness? Could Hitchcock be implicating these caged birds as a motivating factor for the broader attacks? Or connecting the “love” birds with hidden libidinal forces that are “caged” within human beings?  Thus, in the conclusion of the film, when the still caged love birds accompany the survivors out of harm’s way, are their caretakers merely taking their troubles – in the form of unresolved psychic conflicts—along with them?

In this cinematic masterpiece of horror, Hitchcock presents desire in front of fear – a departure from Vertigo. Desire is the jumping off point. Hedren is the merry-prankster driving 60 miles, renting a small motorboat and secretly depositing love birds for Mitch’s kid sister’s birthday in their home – birds he had wanted to buy but that were not available when he was in the pet store where they met, days earlier. Though their relationship began antagonistically, in an unseen minor legal dispute that takes place prior to the pet shop encounter, their desire for each other is quite obvious very early on in the film. Alas, the avian community has other intentions for the two would-be lovers.

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