The Function of the Male Gaze in Vertigo and Double Indemnity
The role and subsequent objectification of women in film have prompted extensive debate in modern media and film theory. In particular, many film critics focus on how the female body is often presented as a hyper-sexualized object for viewer pleasure. This phenomenon is dubbed the “Male Gaze”, which is the way women are objectified and viewed upon through the eyes of the camera itself. The Male Gaze is so prominent throughout traditional Hollywood that a test was devised to determine just how ingrained films were in this male fantasy: the “Bechdel Test.” To pass the Bechdel test, a film has to have at least two (named) women in it who talk to each other about something besides a man. Despite how staggeringly simple this test seems, a disproportionate amount of films fail to pass. In Vertigo, John Ferguson (James Stewart) is hired to follow Madeleine Elster (Kim Novak) and ends up falling obsessively in love with her. In Double Indemnity, Phyllis (Barbara Stanwyck) seduces insurance agent Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray), manipulating him to kill her husband after she secretly takes out an accident insurance policy on him. Not only do Vertigo (1958) and Double Indemnity (1944) fail the Bechdel test, but their female leads seem to only exist to further the narrative for the male protagonist and act as a sexual object for the audience’s aesthetic pleasure.
For both films the camera, while not intrusive, is set to represent a male perspective due to the way women are depicted on screen and the male point of view it often represents. Female beauty subsequently becomes about the individual parts of the woman, designed only to bring pleasure, completely devoid of any humanism. The audience therefore is viewing the plot and the characters within the film through the perspective of the protagonist male.As such, shots may linger on a woman’s form, pan across her body or show close-ups of certain features to portray women in an erotic way. When Scottie watches Madeleine in the flower store, there is a shot where she walks towards the camera, slowly turns and walks back in the opposite direction. This shot is reminiscent of a model on a catwalk, as Madeleine seems to be “showing off” her body for Scottie’s enjoyment. Throughout Vertigo Scottie falls obsessively in love with the image of a woman, not the woman in her entirety. While Scottie’s gaze over Madeleine is initially voyeuristic, in that he enjoys watching her from a distance, his gaze over Judy is more of a fetishistic gaze. When Scottie meets Judy, who looks similar to Madeleine, he tries to recreate her in the image of Madeleine—the image of Scottie’s perfect woman. Judy’s appearance in the story marks the point where the film shifts from a voyeuristic gaze to a fetishistic one. As Judy is being redone to look like Madeleine, the camera focuses on parts of her body—her eyes, lips, hair, hands. This tactic also appeared in the opening credits of the film, as the camera moves across the face of an unidentified woman, focusing on key parts of her face.In Double Indemnity, Phyllis, a “femme fatale”, is first shown looking seductive and alluring. She is dressed in nothing but her towel, skin bare save for the enticing anklet she wears. While Neff waits to speak with her, his fetishistic, controlling and erotic gaze is further evident when he narrates, “I was thinking about that dame upstairs and the way she had looked at me. I wanted to see her again, close, without that silly staircase between us.” The camera follows Neff’s gaze as he scans her body up and down, appraising her looks and form. Because Neff’s point of view is the spectator’s point of view, the spectator cannot escape the male gaze placed upon Phyllis. She is lit in a way that seems to emphasize her beauty and allure; a backlight causes her hair to glow brightly like a halo, which is an effect that becomes noticeable after the first cut to a medium shot of Phyllis. After this encounter, there is a scene that includes a narrative voice-over by Neff, recounting his version of the story. As Neff leaves the house, he narrates that he cannot stop thinking about her honeysuckle perfume. Her sexual image seems to be branded into even his olfactory memory. The vivid descriptions of Phyllis’ perfume are also for the audience’s benefit, providing one more dimension to the male viewer’s experience.
Scottie is the protagonist of Vertigo and rarely do we gain insight into other characters from a perspective other than his own. Even though we are first introduced to Madeleine in the 17th minute of the movie, we do not hear her speak until the 45-minute mark. In fact, Madeleine’s main function in Vertigo revolves around the way she looks and is presented to Scottie. She is initially compared to Carlotta through her identical hairstyle and supposed relation. In the second half of the film, every part of Madeleine and Judy’s appearance is placed under scrutiny to ensure that Scottie is creating his ideal woman, from the identical grey suit to the hair color and Carlotta hairstyle. Even the way Judy is ‘modeled’ must be perfect, with Scottie telling Judy to sit by the fire or the pair heading back to Ernie’s so Scottie can recreate his exact visual memory of Madeleine. The only shift in perspective we see in Vertigo is during the scene when Judy reveals the murder plot through a letter she writes for Scottie. However, these scenes still revolve around Scottie and the women’s motives are about wanting Scottie’s love, yet throughout the film, they do nothing to act on these feelings — they are passive.
Although it can be argued that Phyllis is somewhat of a less passive character, she is the one who initially devises the murder plot for her husband, she still ultimately falls under the control and power of Walter Neff. Phyllis is repeatedly objectified by Neff’s view of her, and as such, it is near impossible for the spectator to observe Phyllis’s body in a non-erotic way. In the first scene where Phyllis appears in nothing but a towel, Neff makes a somewhat crude remark about her not being “fully covered.” Rather than reacting negatively to his suggestive comment, or asking him to leave for his rudeness, she accepts the comment and agrees to continue speaking after getting changed. A few moments later we see Phyllis descending the stairs still buttoning her dress, giving him glimpses of the intimate act of getting dressed. She goes on to apply lipstick in front of him, while Neff gazes at her reflection in the mirror. It is obvious that Neff beholds her as a sexual object. Even as Phyllis attempts to manipulate Neff into murder for her personal benefit, she cannot escape the oppressive view of the male gaze.
From the very beginning of Vertigo the male gaze is evident, especially in the scene where Scottie first sees Madeleine. She is the only light blonde in a sea of brown-haired people, and her green clothing looks bright and extraordinary in a background of monotone colors. A slow tracking shot from Scottie’s point of view highlights his constant gaze, and the camera is drawn to Madeleine’s exposed back, showing how she is sexualized by her costume. There is an emphasis on her side profile which makes her look two dimensional, further transforming her into an aesthetic component of the scenery. Madeleine does not even get the chance to initially establish herself as a fully developed character with feelings and motivation, she is immediately characterized as a sexual object for Scottie to lust over.
Perhaps the most quintessential example of Madeleine’s role as a sexualized object comes in the transformation scene in the hotel room. Scottie coerces Judy to transform back into Madeleine, molding her hair, dress, and makeup to look exactly like Madeleine. Scottie is indifferent to her as a person, seeing Judy rather as an object he can use to recreate and act out his fantasies on of his “dead” love. Out of love and helplessness to do much else, Judy transforms herself for Scottie. As she emerges from the bathroom, Scottie’s face is overcome with lust and control, while Judy seems to be overcome with blank pain and sorrow, unable to please the man she loves as her authentic self. In many Hitchcock films, including Vertigo, the male gaze is not just evident — it also forms part of the film’s story. Scottie is hired to literally watch Madeleine and through this voyeuristic process, becomes obsessed with her based on her looks alone. Scottie has complete power over Madeleine, and when he loses some of that power as the murder plot unfolds for him, Scottie is completely overcome with anger and rage. He has finally completely lost his fantasy love, and his entire interpretation of reality has come crashing down. Madeleine is painted as a treacherous villain, willing to disrupt the social order of male power simply to make money.
The fact that the narrative is told through Scottie’s point of view is again of considerable importance; the events of the story thus far may not actually be “what happened,” but rather how Scottie has perceived them. It is of importance to note that there are scenes establishing Scottie’s mental instability, which might lead him to be an unreliable narrator. In a similar fashion, Neff’s final encounter with Phyllis is tainted by his lust and hatred for her. As Phyllis pulls a gun on Neff, he realizes he has been duped, and manipulated to her will. As Neff’s feeling of control over Phyllis slips away, his belief in her malevolence overrides his fetishization of her. Instead of viewing her as a sexual object, he views her as an object with a guilty secret, worthy of being punished. Subsequently, the spectator sees Phyllis Dietrichson through a voyeuristic male gaze as a guilty object that deserves to be punished. Of course, the spectator still views her as an erotic object as well. Phyllis is not only indirectly guilty of murder, but she is also guilty of betraying the patriarchal order of society by using her sexuality to seduce Neff and manipulate him into helping her murder her husband. In the scenes, during Neff and Phyllis’ altercation, Phyllis is literally and metaphorically lower than Neff. Neff, not Phyllis, is the one who actually killed her husband, yet the seductress is made to suffer the more definitive punishment despite the fact. Phyllis no longer seems like a glowing angel from above. Now, she is lit the same way as Neff. She shoots him, and this is when the camera once again embodies Neff’s gaze towards her: she is beautiful, yet menacing, bathed in shadow. The use of a phallic object (gun) by a woman in an attempt to disrupt the power imbalance should not go unnoticed. Neff reacts by taking the gun she dropped and then shooting, and killing her. She no longer has control of his fetishizing gaze.
Within Vertigo and Double Indemnity, women are viewed upon through the camera primarily through the male perspective, enacting the male gaze. These films encourage the male spectator to identify with the male protagonist as his on-screen surrogate through aligning the camera with the gaze of the male protagonist.The male gaze focuses on and objectifies the images of women, leaving women to largely function for aesthetic pleasure rather than compelling narrative progression. With Vertigo, the unreal, obsessive quality of Hitchcock’s blonde heroines does not show women as they are, but the woman as Hitchcock wished them to be. In Double Indemnity, Neff’s defense mechanism is to turn Phyllis into a fetish object, and there are several moments of erotic contemplation to prove this. Thus, though these films have different subject matter, the similarity in their plots and characters allow them to closely embody Mulvey’s theory of the male gaze in Hollywood cinema. Once we are aware of these themes as spectators, they lose their importance – they become nothing more than one aspect of an entertaining film, and, hopefully, remnants of a bygone era.
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