Vertigo’s signature move cost nearly $20,000 to pull off
The weather was good for Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo”. Dismissed as boring and mediocre by the 1958 reviews“Vertigo” was named the greatest movie of all time by Sight & Sound in 2012. Experimental films can take a while to receive accolades, and “Vertigo” is definitely one of Hitchcock’s most experimental films. He even invented a whole new type of shot for it.
In the film’s opening, Scottie Ferguson (James Stewart) hangs from a skyscraper and watches stories down to the alley below. When he does, the plane distorts and the buildings on opposite sides of the alley seem to stretch out. The effect was achieved by mounting a camera on a cart track, then zooming in on the lens while moving the cart backwards. As a result, the subject of the shot remained sharp while the background of the frame distorted. Although this camera trick is more accurately called a “cart zoom”, it is also sometimes referred to as the “Vertigo effect” as a nod to its origin.
The shot is used a few more times throughout the film to communicate Scottie’s vertigo to the audience. That’s not to say the shot wasn’t easy to create; it took some creative thinking and a pretty penny to achieve the Vertigo effect.
Remove zoom from cart
In François Truffaut’s famous Hitchcock/Truffaut book, the two eponymous directors evoke the origins of the dolly zoom. Hitchcock revealed he first came up with the idea for the shot while filming “Rebecca.” As Hitchcock explains:
“When Joan Fontaine passed out during the ‘Rebecca’ investigation, I wanted to show how she felt everything was going away from her before she tipped over. I still remember a night at the Chelsea Arts Ball at the Albert Hall in London when I was terribly drunk and felt like everything was drifting away from me I tried to introduce that into ‘Rebecca’ but they couldn’t .The point of view has to be fixed, you see, as the perspective is changed it extends lengthwise.”
According to Hitchcock, he clung to the idea of the plan but couldn’t think of a solution until “Vertigo”. On this shoot, the cameraman of the second unit Irmin Roberts designed the zoom + dolly combo, while Hitchock was able to drive the price down from the original cost estimate. Hitchcock says:
“They told me it would cost fifty thousand dollars. When I asked why, they said, ‘Because to get the camera up the stairs, we have to have a big device to lift it, counterbalance it, and maintain in place. space.’ I said, “There are no characters in this scene; it is simply a point of view. Why can’t we make a miniature of the staircase and lay it on its side, then take our picture walking away from it? We can use gunshot tracking and flat field zoom. That’s how we did it, and it only cost us nineteen thousand dollars.”
Considering the impressive shot, that $19,000 was money well spent.
The most famous cart zoom to follow from “Vertigo” is in Steven Spielberg’s “Jaws.” Here it comes during the film’s second shark attack, when young Alex Kintner (Jeffrey Voorhees) is killed just yards from shore. When Chief Brody (Roy Scheider) sees the attack, the scene cuts to a medium close-up of him seated. That’s when Spielberg and his cinematographer Bill Butler pulled off the dolly zoom.
The effect is even clearer here than it is in “Vertigo” because there is a human subject (Brody) in the center of the frame, who remains static even as the image around him distorts. Brody may be standing still, but his mind is moving at a mile a minute. This is all communicated by the contrast between his static face and the blurry background. John Williams’ score completes the moment, leaping from the shark’s “dun dun” theme to a higher string note, a la Bernard Herrmann.
Martin Scorsesewho praised “Vertigo” several times, used a slower-paced cart zoom in “Goodfellas”. Near the end of the film, an anxious Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) meets Jimmy Conway (Robert De Niro) in a restaurant, while suspecting that his old friend wants to shut him up. Scorsese and DP Michael Ballhaus begin with a center-framed medium-wide shot of the two men seated at opposite ends of the cabin, then slowly zoom in as the cart moves inch by inch, creating a subtle “effect dizziness” that lasts more than 30 seconds. The Irony: A Film Famous for Its Flashy Camera Moves and Barnstorming Style takes one of the most daring, mechanically-engineered shots of all time and plays it for subtlety.
Hitchcock had a specific use for the trolley zoom when he designed it, but his successors like Spielberg and Scorsese proved that there are different ways to use it.