Time has been kind to Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo”. Dismissed as dull and mediocre by critics from 1958, “Vertigo” was named the best film of all time by Sight & Sound in 2012. Experimental films can take a while to get their due praise, and “Vertigo” is definitely one of Hitchcock’s more experimental Movies. 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 the stories down to the alley below. As he does so, the shot distorts and the buildings on either side of the alley appear to stretch. The effect was achieved by mounting a camera on a dolly track and then zooming in on the lens while moving the dolly backwards. As a result, the subject of the image remains in focus while the background of the frame is distorted. Although this camera trick is most accurately called a “dolly zoom,” it is also sometimes called the “Vertigo effect” in a nod to its origins.
The shot is used a few more times throughout the film to communicate Scottie’s, well, giddiness to the audience. That’s not to say the shot wasn’t easy to make; it took some creative thinking and a pretty penny to pull off the Vertigo effect.
Pulls off the dolly zoom
In François Truffaut’s famous “Hitchcock/Truffaut” book, the two eponymous directors discuss the origins of the dolly zoom. Hitchcock revealed that he first had the idea for the shot while filming “Rebecca.” As Hitchcock explained:
“When Joan Fontaine passed out during the trial in ‘Rebecca’, I wanted to show how she felt like everything was moving far away from her before she fell over. I always remember one night at the Chelsea Arts Ball in the Albert Hall in London when I got terribly drunk and I had a feeling that everything was going far away from me. I tried to get that into ‘Rebecca,’ but they couldn’t. The point of view has to be fixed, you see, while the perspective changes as it stretches along.”
According to Hitchcock, he held onto the idea for the shot, but couldn’t think of a solution until “Vertigo.” On that shoot, second cameraman Irmin Roberts developed the zoom + dolly combo, while Hitchock was able to bring the price down from the original cost estimate. Hitchcock recounted:
“They told me it would cost fifty thousand dollars. When I asked why, they said, ‘Because to put the camera at the top of the stairs we have to have a big apparatus to lift it, counterbalance it, and hold it up on the stairs. room.’ 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 put it on the side, then take our shot by pulling away from it? We can use a tracking shot and a zoom flat on the ground.’ So that’s the way we did it, and it only cost us nineteen thousand dollars.”
Considering how impressive the shot is, that $19,000 was money well spent.
The most famous dolly zoom to follow from “Vertigo” is in Steven Spielberg’s “Jaws”. Here it comes during the second shark attack in the film, when young Alex Kintner (Jeffrey Voorhees) is killed a few meters from shore. When Chief Brody (Roy Scheider) sees the attack, the scene cuts to a medium close-up of him sitting. That’s when Spielberg and his cinematographer Bill Butler pull off the dolly zoom.
The effect is even more apparent here than it is in “Vertigo” because there is a human subject (Brody) in the center of the image, who remains static even as the image around him distorts. Brody may be quiet, but his mind is moving at a mile a minute. It’s all communicated by the contrast between his static face and the blurred background. John Williams’ score compliments the moment, jumping from the shark’s “dun dun” theme to a higher-pitched, Bernard Herrmann-esque string note.
Martin Scorsese, who has spoken highly of “Vertigo” many times, used a slower dolly zoom in “Goodfellas.” Near the end of the film, an anxious Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) meets Jimmy Conway (Robert De Niro) at a diner, suspecting that his old friend wants to silence him. Scorsese and DP Michael Ballhaus start with a mid-frame medium-wide shot of the two men sitting on opposite ends of the booth, then slowly zoom in as the dolly tracks out inch by inch, creating a subtle “Vertigo effect” that lasts over 30 seconds. The irony: a film known for flashy camera movements and bar storming style takes one of the most daring, mechanically elaborate images ever and plays it for subtlety.
Hitchcock had a specific use for the dolly zoom when he conceived it, but his successors such as Spielberg and Scorsese proved that there are different ways to use it.