“Cold Sweats” (or “Vertigo” in VO) is one of Alfred Hitchcock’s most famous films. For this film, the director was finally able to develop a camera effect he had been thinking about for years: the Vertigo effect.
Cold sweat, A Destroying Passion by Alfred Hitchcock
Alfred Hitchcock was one of the most important directors for modern cinema. A reference for many filmmakers. We often remember his mastery of suspense. William Friedkin will even say of him that he has “invented suspense in cinema“. But above all, Hitchcock has always known how to find the perfect balance between tension and humour, between his author’s vision and a cinema of entertainment. If among his most famous films we think of Psychosis Where The birds, Cold sweat remains one of his most beautiful and tragic. A film that plays with our expectations and our relationship to the main character played by James Stewart. A false hero, a time motivated by a form of romanticism before revealing himself as manipulative as he is manipulable.
The story follows John Ferguson, a former policeman who quit his job after a tragic rooftop chase. Since then he is dizzy as soon as he finds himself a little too high. He is still hired by an old comrade who asks him to follow his wife because he believes she is possessed by the spirit of his great-grandmother. John will therefore observe Madeleine (Kim Novak) and finally get closer to her. Only, despite their feelings, Madeleine decides to commit suicide from the top of a steeple. John attends the tragedy, unable to save her because paralyzed by his acrophobia in the stairwell of the bell tower.
What is the Vertigo effect?
This moment so important in the film, where James Stewart becomes paralyzed on the stairs and cannot reach Kim Novak, was immortalized by the Vertigo effect used (also called upset dolly or Dolly Zoom). A camera effect that gives the feeling of stepping back while bringing the front elements closer together. To do this, all you have to do is travel backwards combined with a zoom in.
Alfred Hitchcock imagined this while thinking back to an evening, at the Chelsea Art Ball at the Albert Hall in London, where he “terribly drunk” as he explained in interview with François Truffaut. He then had the feeling that everything was moving away from him. Like what, although alcohol is to be consumed in moderation, it is sometimes good.
How Hitchcock created it?
In itself, the effect is quite simple to achieve. It’s just moving the camera backwards while zooming in with the lens. But, at the time, it was not so obvious. Hitchcock even put fifteen years doing it since he had initially thought of it for the film Rebecca (1940).
By filming Rebecca, when Joan Fontaine must faint, I wanted to show that she experiences a special feeling, that everything moves away from her before she falls. I wanted to obtain this effect in Rebecca but in vain, because here is the problem: the point of view remaining fixed, the perspective must lengthen. I thought about that for fifteen years.
Finally, it was in 1958, for Cold sweat, that the director was able to engineer this effect, but not without a bit of mischief. Indeed, having this time a Dolly (which allows to put a camera on rails), the filmmaker could at the same time use the zoom. However, the cost for such an operation was still too expensive because the plan in question is filmed in the bell tower stairwell.
I asked: how much will it cost me? Fifty thousand dollars. Why ? Because we have to put the camera at the very top of the stairs and build a whole system to lift the camera, hold it in the air, establish a counterweight, etc.
And that’s where Hitchcock showed some ingenuity in responding to his technician:
There is no character in this scene, it is a point of view. Why not build a mock-up stairwell, lay it horizontally on the floor and do our dolly-zoom shot flat? It only cost nineteen thousand dollars.
Quite a discount, and the Vertigo effect is born, thus making Cold sweat a bit more legendary. Although visible only a few seconds in the film, it was a reference for the directors who followed and used this same method. For example Steven Spielberg in Jaws.