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.


  1. Cool! I had no idea that shot had any real relationship to true vertigo. I've always just seen that shot as an illustration of optics and the flattening of space you get as you move from wide angle to telephoto. I'm going to rewatch Vertigo this week.

    We watched Persuasion again last night. It's a beautiful film, and I love the variety of camera angles and lighting effects it uses. They all play very naturally except one, and it bugs me every time. Yup, in the kitchen, when Anne sees her lost love for the first time in eight years, her disorientation shows with a classic pull out/zoom in shot. I always thought the detail of her hand on the chair was much more telling.

  2. just make sure you wash my tatoo after wearing it and before returning it. and wash it with like colors. thanks.

  3. he stole that shot from cocteau who used it all of his films (but not as precisely as hitchcock).

  4. Vertigo is my favorite movie. Ever.

  5. This reminds me I haven't watched it in a while... Excellent, excellent movie.

    I tried a while back to write a poem about Midge but it didn't quite come together.