Vertigo: 3-act structure


This post is part of the Background to the series
Learning from Alfred Hitchcock — for writers, movie makers, and viewers

Kim Novak in Alfred Hitchcock Vertigo

I think that Vertigo exemplifies all three of the kinds of structures I’ll eventually be discussing in this series of posts:

  • 3-act structure,
  • 2-act structure, and
  • chapter structure.

To begin with, it has the 3-act structure I’ve talked about in Star Wars, Lets check over the criteria and definitions I gave. 

There certainly is a protagonist: Scottie Ferguson (James Stewart).

According to Criterion 1, in the previous post, the first act should end when Scottie “makes a commitment that leads to the main action of the movie: Acts 2 and 3.”

He does this so many times that our only problem would be selecting the one that seems best. I have my own nomination, selected more because I have a gut feeling about it than because it fits any after-the-fact rationalizations.

After Madeleine (Kim Novak) jumps into San Francisco Bay and Scottie fishes her out and brings her to his apartment, they have what, for me, is one of the most unusual conversations ever filmed. I mean, here she wakes up nude in a strange man’s bed only to learn that she’s fallen into the bay and he’s rescued her. The two of them pretend they don’t know each other, yet they immediately begin speaking in a civilized, intimate tone — almost like colleagues, fellow conspirators in some plot they’re both eager to see succeed. He’s obviously in love with her, and perhaps she could be with him, but with no apparent effort he repeatedly, gracefully sidesteps the fact that their love might present a conflict of interest in his relationship with her husband, Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore), who’s in constant phone contact.

Some 7 1/2 minutes into that conversation, Madeleine says that it’s her first time jumping into the Bay. It’s the first time for Scottie, too. He offers her more coffee, reaches for her cup, and touches her hand instead. They have an instant of recognition — interrupted by the ringing of the phone.

Although Scottie has previously agreed to help Madeleine, and although he’s previously acted like he’s in love with her, I think this moment is the decisive one in which he first consciously knows that he loves her and that solving her problem and protecting her is the most important thing in his life. He commits — totally.

I think the first act ends with the end of that sequence: at time 49:41 after the end of the credits.

This is the first turning point, and it’s foreshadowed and prepared by two series of scenes.

In Elster’s office, Scottie at first refuses the job of following Madeleine. Then, he offers to find somebody else to do it. Finally, he agrees to do it himself. I suppose this is some kind of commitment. But a stronger commitment comes later, at Scottie’s second meeting with Elster, after he’s followed Madeleine for a day and heard Carlotta’s story.

This series of previous refusals, evasions, and grudging and wholehearted agreements makes the depth of Scottie’s later, complete commitment at the first turning point so powerfully clear.

There is another series of scenes that foreshadows the first turning point. First: the nearly wordless, visually elaborate and eloquent sequence where Scottie first sees Madeleine, at the restaurant, Ernie’s. Second: after Scottie drops Midge off, he sits in his car and looks at Carlotta’s picture in the catalog from the art museum, and he has a reverie leading to a dream sequence. In both of these sequences, the storytelling is eloquent: Scottie may not know it yet, but he loves her. For me, the first turning point is the moment when he does know it, and the foreshadowing makes it stronger and psychologically deeper.

What about the second turning point, the end of the second act?

It should be a moment that immediately brings on the final series of events.

For me, again going on my gut feeling more than on my rationalizations, it has to be the moment when Scottie starts remaking Judy into Madeleine: in the dress shop, when he has to have the exact same gray suit.

You could reasonably argue with this choice. Was it the decision to remake Judy that led to Scottie’s recognition that she really was Madeleine and that he’d been tricked? Or would he have eventually somehow discovered it anyway?

So, here’s my diagram for the 3-act structure of Vertigo.

3-act structure for Alfred Hitchcock Vertigo

I hope you feel there’s some justice to what I’ve been saying — but that you’re not completely satisfied with the analysis yet. Because I’m not satisfied with it either.

I do think that Vertigo has 3-act structure — but I don’t think that’s all. It has other structures, and their interaction is what makes this movie so especially brilliant and effective for me. More about this after introducing 2-act structure, and again after chapter structure.

This post is part of the Background to the series
Learning from Alfred Hitchcock
— for writers, movie makers, and viewers


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