David Lynch’s Vertigo

Ten ways Hitchcock’s 60-year-old masterpiece Vertigo shaped Lynch’s universe.

• Buy tickets for Vertigo at BFI Southbank from 13 July

Stephen Puddicombe
Updated:

Vertigo (1958)

Vertigo (1958)

It’s been 60 years since Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece Vertigo premiered at the Stage Door Theatre in San Francisco, on 9 May 1958. Following an initially mixed response, its reputation has grown and grown to the point that it was voted the greatest film of all time by Sight & Sound in 2012. Its influence has permeated through the cinematic landscape in that time, inspiring filmmakers from Brian De Palma to Chris Marker. None more so, however, than David Lynch, on whom its dreamlike vision of subconscious anguish, fluid identities and overall strangeness has left an indelible mark.

Here are 10 aspects of Vertigo that are typically Lynchian.

  • Spoiler warning  The rest of this feature gives away aspects of Vertigo’s plot

1. A doubled female character

Vertigo (1958)

Vertigo (1958)

In his casting of Sheryl Lee as both the deceased Laura Palmer and her cousin Maddy in Twin Peaks, Lynch achieves the same eerie illusion of the dead resurrected that we experience with the first glimpses of Kim Novak after the apparent death of her character in Vertigo. The doubling of female characters is something Lynch has compulsively returned to ever since, exploring the fracturing of identities in increasingly surreal ways through the unexplained transformations of characters in Lost Highway (1997), Mulholland Dr. (2001) and INLAND EMPIRE (2006). 

Mulholland Dr. (2001)

Mulholland Dr. (2001)

2. Lurid colour schemes

Vertigo (1958)

Vertigo (1958)

One aspect that gives Vertigo such a dreamy, fantastical feel is its strikingly bright colours, and Lynch uses a similarly lurid palette to enhance the unreality of his own otherworldly conceptions. The garish wallpaper and carpet in the restaurant where Scottie and Madeleine first meet, for instance, would not look out of place in the extradimensional Red Room of Twin Peaks. The way its reds clash with Madeleine’s green dress has a similar effect to the way primary colours are juxtaposed in the many staged performances that abound in the Lynchian universe – a memorable example being the red background and blue lighting of Club Silencio in Mulholland Dr.

Twin Peaks: the Return (2017)

Twin Peaks: the Return (2017)

3. Narrative structure

Hitchcock’s most famous upending of narrative convention might be the premature demise of Janet Leigh in Psycho (1960), but the way the climactic sequence in Vertigo of Madeleine (seemingly) falling to her death off the bell tower occurs midway through, and is recreated again at the end, is similarly radical. The impression of time repeating itself informs the time loops in films such as Lost Highway and Mulholland Dr. where Lynch disrupts our sense of continuity further still by altogether obliterating logical narrative coherence, using time, like in Vertigo, as something that circles around specific traumatic incidents rather than taking a linear direction.

4. Dreams

Vertigo (1958)

Vertigo (1958)

David Lynch is famed for the way his films so strikingly take on the appearance of a dream – or, perhaps more accurately, a nightmare. It’s possible to locate some of the techniques he uses to generate this feeling in Vertigo’s startling dream sequence of disquieting abstractions, bright colours and Bernard Hermann’s frenzied score – most explicitly, the camera’s zoom into the all-encompassing darkness of an open grave. This sequence ends with Scottie waking up bolt upright in his bed, but in Lynch’s work there is usually little to discern between dreaming and waking states.

5. Close-ups and zooms in

Vertigo (1958)

Vertigo (1958)

The very first moments of Vertigo appear to have had a profound effect on Lynch, as both The Elephant Man (1980) and Dune (1984) open with a similar extreme close-up of a woman’s face looking directly at the camera. The way the camera pans across her face and zooms in yet closer on its features also brings to mind the signature Lynch technique of rendering an object uncanny by zooming in to adopt an unfamiliarly immediate perspective. In fact, perhaps his most memorable use of this technique also examines a body part in the form of the ear at the beginning of Blue Velvet (1986). The grotesque difference in this case being that said ear is disembodied.

The Elephant Man (1980)

The Elephant Man (1980)

6. The darkness beneath Americana

Vertigo (1958)

Vertigo (1958)

James Stewart built his star persona around being a decent, honest, morally dependable all-American hero, something that Hitchcock subverted with relish by casting him as a troubled, obsessive voyeur in Vertigo and, before that, Rear Window (1954). By robbing such a loved cultural icon of his innocence, Hitchcock confronted his audiences with the suggestion of a darker side to the American ideal – a strategy that Lynch has expanded on throughout his career. “I don’t know if you’re a detective or a pervert,” says love interest Sandy (Laura Dern) to the hero Jeffrey (Kyle Maclachlan) in his provocative parody of 1950s American values, Blue Velvet, a line that encapsulates how he, like Stewart’s Scottie, blurs the line between conventional heroism and something more troubling.

Blue Velvet (1986)

Blue Velvet (1986)

7. The supernatural

Vertigo (1958)

Vertigo (1958)

As in many of Hitchcock’s films, for a time supernatural factors are teased as a possible cause of the mysteries in Vertigo, first when it’s suggested that Madeleine may be possessed by her great-grandmother, then later when she appears to have returned from the dead. Similarly mysterious happenings abound in Lynch’s work, often in a comparatively noirish world of hardboiled detectives and convoluted crime. Where the two directors diverge, though, is that Hitchcock always ties everything up with a rational explanation, while Lynch deepens the enigmas and defies all reason.

8. California setting

Vertigo (1958)

Vertigo (1958)

Vertigo is a film synonymous with its San Francisco setting, shot on location amid some of the town’s most evocative backdrops, including Golden Gate bridge for the scene in which Scottie rescues Madeleine from drowning. Lynch may never have set a film specifically in San Francisco, but he captures the same distinctly woozy Californian sunshine in his Los Angeles-based films, such as Lost Highway and Mulholland Dr., where bright exteriors and sometimes oppressively glowing sunlight contrast sharply with the monochrome industrial landscapes of his earlier films Eraserhead (1977) and The Elephant Man.

9. Voyeurism

Vertigo (1958)

Vertigo (1958)

Few directors have been more attuned to the voyeuristic appeal of cinema than Alfred Hitchcock, who examined and scrutinised the allure and dangers of scopophilia via neurotic characters in films such as Psycho and Rear Window. Vertigo is said to be his most personal film on the subject, with Scottie’s behaviour an admission of the director’s own compulsion to control, craft and fix a woman in his gaze. The legacy of his work can be keenly felt in Blue Velvet, where Lynch confronts us with his own voyeuristic preoccupations by having the protagonist Jeffrey look on passively from a closet, simultaneously aroused and disgusted as two other characters partake in bizarre, disturbing sexual activity.

Blue Velvet (1986)

Blue Velvet (1986)

10. The repetition of trauma

Even this late in his career, Lynch continues to be preoccupied by Vertigo, once more again grappling with its main themes in the astonishingly unsettling final scenes of Twin Peaks: The Return (2017). It’s not just how its driving scenes have the same languid intensity of the similarly elongated sequence in which Scottie follows Maddie in his car; it’s the way Kyle Maclachlan’s Agent Cooper, like Scottie, finds himself obsessing over a woman who looks identical to another (in his case Laura Palmer), who he leads to the site of a trauma in the hope of some kind of cathartic resolution, only for that trauma to be horribly experienced once more.

Read more

Back to the top

See something different

Subscribe now for exclusive offers and the best of cinema.
Hand-picked.