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Emma Bamford on reimagining Hitchcock’s Vertigo from a female protagonist’s perspective

Emma Bamford on reimagining Hitchcock’s Vertigo from a female protagonist’s perspective

Twenty-six years ago I watched Alfred Hitchcock’s 1958 masterpiece Vertigo for the first time and I’ve been haunted by what I saw ever since. A print of Saul Bass’s iconic film poster has moved home with me countless times, while the English language translation of Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac’s thriller The Living and the Dead, on which Hitchcock’s film was based, has an established slot on my bookshelves.

More than 60 years on, Eye of the Beholder is my tribute to that movie, a kind of warped reverse adaptation, because it seems to me that Vertigo’s themes of looking and being looked at, of surfaces and depth and the natural versus the man-made are just as if not even more relevant today.

For those unfamiliar with the film, it tells the story of John “Scottie” Ferguson, a retired police detective suffering from severe vertigo, who is hired by an old friend to follow his wife, Madeleine. The friend tells Scottie that Madeleine is mentally fragile and that she believes she has been possessed by the ghost of her ancestor, Carlotta. Scottie and Madeleine fall in love, and he is devastated when she dies. Months later, following a stay in a psychiatric hospital, he is walking the streets of San Francisco when he sees a woman, Judy, who bears a likeness to his lost love, and a twisted obsession begins.

I first saw the movie as an undergraduate in the 1990s, and our professor used it as an introduction to the theory of the ‘male gaze’ in cinema. Film theorist Laura Mulvey argued in 1975 that classical Hollywood used the camera to objectify women and define them in relation to the (typically heterosexual male) lead character, director and audience member. Think of all the close-ups of women there are in movies and films… Alfred Hitchcock is a famous example of the voyeuristic male director – his film Rear Window, for example, opens with a very long, very close shot of Grace Kelly waiting to be kissed by James Stewart (the same actor who played Scottie in Vertigo).

When I came to write my second psychological suspense novel, I knew I wanted to pay tribute to Vertigo, but I was interested in seeing what would happen if I inverted the genders of the main characters.

In Eye of the Beholder, Maddy Wight is a ghostwriter who thinks she’s finally got her big break when she is hired to work on the memoirs of a renowned cosmetic surgeon. Sent to the doctor’s remote glass-walled home in the Scottish Highlands, she meets the doctor’s enigmatic and troubled business partner Scott, and her own twisted obsession begins.

The novel is told in first person entirely in Maddy’s point of view, and as I was writing her repeated “I saw… I looked… It seemed to me” made hers the eye behind the novel’s camera and subverted the male gaze into a female one.

There are various theories about what the “female gaze” means. Is it a straightforward flipping of the male gaze, meaning a woman objectifying a man? Does it signify that the woman doing the looking has agency, or that a woman identifies with another woman she is looking at? Or can it also convey the idea that the female gaze contains a less voyeuristic, more caring way of looking at the world and the people in it?

Maddy’s female gaze is a mix of all of these. When she looks at Scott, she often zooms in on the small, physical details of him:

In repose, his dimple has gone and in its place is a tiny curved line, no bigger than the impression a thumbnail might leave if pressed into the skin.


He stays lying on his back, lit sideways by the low lamp, which colours in his body like contours on a map, or like photos sent back from the familiar-strange surface of Mars: golden highlights for his brow bone, the mound of his shoulder, the tip of his nose; dark, unknown hollows for the sockets of his eyes, the underside of his hand.

Then, on a trip to the gym, when working out next to a younger woman, she muses:

This is where it differs from the male version, the female gaze: yes, there can be desire in it, and objectification, particularly when assessing a potential sexual partner, but there’s also comparison and even a turning of the gaze onto the self, especially when looking at another woman. How do I measure up, it asks, next to her? What do I lack; where do I stand? And there’s empathy in it, too, alliance. I see you; I see how you feel. I feel how you see me.

When Hitchcock made Vertigo in 1958 there was no social media. Now, everyone is looking at everyone else all the time, everywhere, judging and being judged. My book’s title comes from the aphorism ‘Beauty is in the eye of the beholder’, meaning that the perception of beauty is subjective. It was a conscious decision to make Maddy’s ghostwriting client a cosmetic surgeon and to delve into the beauty industry and the stratospheric rise of aesthetic tweakments. It was also a conscious decision for most of the cast of characters to be women, from antagonist to ally, threat and best friend – although they all have agency and are in no way mere ‘objects’ presented in that old Hollywood way merely for male viewing pleasure.

Much has been written of how Hitchcock turned his leading women, especially Vertigo’s Kim Novak, into the stereotypical WASPy blonde – cool, beautiful and ever-so-slightly out of reach. And in Vertigo, there is a scene in which Scottie does precisely the same to Judy – dressing her, taking her to have her eyebrows groomed, her make-up done, her hair bleached icy light. Hitchcock directs the camera to focus its Vaseline-smeared lens for a long time on Judy after she undergoes this metamorphosis; as Scottie’s gaze lingers greedily on her now that she is the reincarnation of his lost love, so does ours, the viewer’s. It’s a doubling trick that makes the audience greedily complicit in the control.

I may have kept the names in tribute to Vertigo, but I made my female character the more active of the two, while turning the male into the fragile, haunted object. And while I happily leaned into the film’s themes of doubles and doubling, from that borrowing of names to recreating the mise en scène on the page, I like to think that the eye behind my novel’s camera – Maddy’s, mine, the readers’ – is far more nuanced than those that were typical back in the “good old” Hollywood days.

Eye of the Beholder was published by Simon & Schuster on 4 July 2024

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  • I love your analysis, which is filtered in a different way from how I see it. Except for the opening chase scene, I see the characters as ghosts existing in the space of not accepting the truth of their deaths. Both in and out of objective reality.
    Scott’s fall from onto the sidewalk would most certainly have led to his death, just like the policeman. He just couldn’t accept it as he couldn’t accept his retirement from SFPD.
    I’ll never forget the scene of Kim Novak entering the restaurant, resplendent in her perfect gown and perfect hair, gliding across the floor, floating to her table.
    When seen as a gateway to the spirit world, the fuzziness of the plot line becomes less important than the confusion of the spirit characters.

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