At first glance, the poster for Vertigo doesn’t look like much. The movie was made in 1958, and the poster is simplistic in its design. This simplicity, though, is the hallmark of both genius graphic designer Saul Bass, who created the poster, and Alfred Hitchcock, who directed the film. Hitchcock is a household name, but Bass would go on to be revered in his own right by designing logos for products with which we still interact every day: AT&T, Kleenex, and Dixie cups all bear his work. Together, though, Hitchcock and Bass would become known for forming an almost seamless experience that -even today- is unforgettable.
The poster features a stark red background, which serves to draw the viewer in, and a jagged, skewed black font bills James Stewart and Kim Novak (both huge stars at the time) as the headliners. In only marginally smaller letters underneath, the film is sold as “Alfred Hitchcock’s Masterpiece.” Our Logos decodes the font: this movie, while expertly crafted, will leave us in the midst of chaos and disquiet.
Even in a time with no CGI or special effects, Hitchcock was known for his ability to tell a story with his lens so detailed that the viewer felt like they were a part of the story. At times, his camerawork is so immersive that the viewer is the main character. Nobody was more adept than Hitchcock at using the camera to guide the viewer through the story, always keeping them on edge, making them feel uneasy, and filling them with a sense of dread. His films would later influence modern directors including Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese.
The immersive experience that he created, though, began before the viewer ever saw his camera work. It started with that stark, red poster; Bass designed the poster with a large amount of red negative space to catch the reader’s eye, but the eye is then immediately drawn to the center of the poster where thin white lines form a spiral. A man in a business suit is pictured in silhouette, and he appears to be holding the hand of a wispy, ephemerally drawn woman… Or is he reaching for her? They are falling, and you are falling with them. You are helplessly being pulled toward the same fate as the couple on the poster. Before the movie begins, you already feel an impending sense of what is to come.
The movie opens with a title sequence also designed by Bass. The spirals are moving now, sucking you in even deeper. You feel again that sense of doom.
Jimmy Stewart plays John “Scottie” Ferguson, a police detective who retires from the force after his partner is killed in a chase. Scottie falls, and while hanging from a gutter is paralyzed by a sudden fear of heights. When Scottie’s partner tries to rescue him, his partner slips and falls to his death.
Weeks later and on the mend, Scottie is summoned by an old college acquaintance. Scottie’s friend tells him that he believes his wife Madeline is possessed by the soul of another woman, and that she leaves for long stretches before returning confused and unable to remember where she’s been. He asks for Scottie’s help as a detective. Scottie finds the story ridiculous, but he is restless and in need of intrigue, so he agrees to take the case.
Scottie first sees Madeline (played by Novak) in a restaurant, where Hitchcock juxtaposes bright red walls reminiscent of the poster with Madeline’s green dress. Green will come to accent the object of Scottie’s obsession throughout the film, which is quickly demonstrated by a change in music and an open-mouthed stare which lets the viewer know that Scottie is infatuated.
Scottie becomes more intrigued with Madeline as he follows her, and he begins to believe that she may be possessed by a woman in a painting that she stops to see at a museum. The spirals from the poster make another appearance, as in the museum scene both Madeline and the woman in the painting have their hair up in a spiral shape. The viewer again feels sucked in.
Despite her mental illness, Scottie and Madeline begin a torrid love affair. The viewer wonders if Scottie is descending into madness with Madeline. Green now also features prominently in Scottie’s shots. Does green symbolize madness as well?
Scottie and Madeline’s affair culminates in the bell tower of a Spanish mission. In order to save Madeline, Scottie is forced to climb the stairs of the tower, but his fear of heights prevents him from getting to the top. As he looks back down the stairs, you look down with him. The visual motif of spirals reveals itself again as you look back down a red spiral staircase. You feel nauseous from the height. To achieve this effect, Alfred Hitchcock pioneered a camera technique called the track and zoom shot, where the camera is lowered while the lens is zooming out. Hitchcock was the first to use it in a film, but it has been used in horror movies ever since.
The track and zoom shot serves as a fitting climax, and it remains an iconic piece of film history. It would not have had such a lasting emotional effect in the film, though, if it were not for the suspense that began building with Vertigo’s poster. With the same command that Saul Bass would later use in the creation of simple structures that embody AT&T and Kleenex’s Ethos as kind and familiar corporations, he uses the stark red on the poster because it feels harsh against the white spirals. Bass uses our Pathos against us, making us feel dread for the simple outlines of the falling couple.
Alfred Hitchcock’s genius manifested itself not just in his camerawork, but in his talent for finding artists like Saul Bass who could help him begin the story before the viewer was even in their seat. With a few simple lines, Bass conveyed motifs seen time and again throughout the film: spirals disorient and bewilder the viewer, and the red background symbolizes the harshness of reality.
Vertigo will forever serve as a testament to Alfred Hitchcock’s genius, but without Saul Bass’ poster the experience is incomplete. Together, and only together, they form an experience that is still haunting to this day.
|Saul Bass Logo Designs|
|Track and Zoom Shot, Vertigo|