Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
In many Hitchcock thrillers it feels the protagonist gets caught up in some sort of plot bigger than himself, but he still never loses sense of himself. In Strangers on a Train, Guy Haines has everything working against him, but he’s constantly battling back, representing the clear good against the clear evil. I guess the same could be said for Birds and The Man Who Knew Too Much or Rear Window. The Hitchcock hero is the ideal hero (Cary Grant, James Stewart), fighting against almost unimaginable, twisted evil. In Vertigo, though, our hero becomes much more involved in the mystery, not only losing himself, but causing the tragedy that ends the film.
Scottie (James Stewart) is a retired police detective suffering from vertigo. He is called on by an old friend, Gavin, to act as a private detective and follow Gavin’s wife. Gavin seems to think that his wife, Madeleine (Kim Novak), is occasionally possessed by a spirit. Scottie is skeptic, but Gavin insists he follow his wife just so he can see for himself. Scottie does, and he learns that Madeleine might be possessed by the spirit of Carlotta Valdes, a woman who committed suicide at age 26 by jumping out of a bell tower in 1857. Scottie follows Madeleine to a small hotel, and when he asks to see Madeleine, the woman at the front desk says that she hasn’t returned. Suddenly the mystery is much more eerie and surreal.
Gavin tells Scottie that Carlotta is Madeleine’s Great Grandmother and implies that Madeleine is suffering from the same madness that gripped Carlotta. The danger is established: Madeleine might do something drastic and violent.
Scottie later follows Madeleine to the base of the Golden Gate Bridge where she throws herself into the ocean. Scottie jumps in and saves her life. He will later tell her that he believes when you save a life, you’re responsible for that person’s life.
It’s clear that Scottie is infatuated with Madeleine. She stays in his apartment, and he pesters her with direct questions about her ‘madness.’ The case isn’t over, and Madeleine appears to be seriously afflicted with visions of Carlotta’s death. She explains a dream she had about a Spanish mission, and Scottie recognizes that she’s speaking of a real place, San Juan Baptista.
They go to the mission where Madeleine convinces him to let her go to the bell tower on her own. This is a horrible idea, and Scottie hesitates just long enough to allow her to get ahead. He hurries up to follow her, but his vertigo prevents him from moving fast enough to catch her. He hears a scream and sees her fall to her death.
Some time passes and Scottie is in a catatonic state. There was a short hearing to determine the cause of death to be suicide and to ensure that Scottie is blameless. Gavin doesn’t seem to distraught, and he reminds Scottie that only the two of them know the real cause of death (Carlotta).
It’s at this point that the case seems to be over, and it is. The only loose thread is Scottie’s guilt. It was his job to save Madeleine, and he didn’t. He begins to retrace his path earlier in the film, driving around San Francisco to places where he first saw Madeleine. Then he comes across a woman whom he thinks looks just like Madeleine.
I’ve seen this film twice now, and I still don’t think this woman looks like Madeleine. Her name is Judy, and she, like Madeleine, is played by Kim Novak. That’s because, as we later learn, Madeleine was really Judy all along, playing a part as Gavin’s wife so Gavin could kill his wife and pass it off as a suicide. It’s a truly elaborate, mad man’s plan, but it works.
Anyways, that information is revealed later. Scottie approaches Judy and asks her out, but it’s clear he only sees Madeleine in her. It’s unclear why Judy goes along with him, other than I suppose she kind of loves Scottie, but I don’t really buy their love.
Scottie becomes more and more obsessive about making Judy look like Madeleine. He makes her wear the same shoes, the same gray suit, the same makeup and ultimately the same bright blond hair. It’s a bit unsettling to watch this man, consumed with the idea of an idealized dead woman, try to make Judy into what she’s not. We learn that Judy really was Madeleine, however, before we see the full extent of Scottie’s madness. In one scene she remembers the way Madeleine’s death really unfolded: “Madeleine” ran up to the top of the bell tower where Gavin was waiting with his real wife, dressed in the same gray suit. He then pushes his wife off the edge while holding onto “Madeleine.”
We see that Judy feels horribly guilty about this, but that doesn’t explain why she went along with the plan to begin with. She will later tell Scottie that she was trying to save Madeleine but didn’t get there in time.
So it’s important that we see this scene before Scottie goes crazy, because then it better contextualizes Scottie’s madness. He’s no longer quite as ‘mad’ because we know he’s right. But I think the film might be better off if we didn’t know he was right and just saw him start losing his mind.
Scottie sees a familiar necklace and begins to suspect that Judy really is the same person as Madeleine. He insists they go to San Juan Baptista where they can reenact Madeleine’s death. Scottie wants to do it over again so that this time he can save Madeleine and move on from the past. He is consumed with this idea, and it frightens Judy, who looks just like Madeleine. They go to the top of the bell tower late in the evening in an ominous setting. Then a nun shows up from the shadows and frightens Judy who falls to her death.
Poor Scottie, the end.
The more I think about this film, the more I want to know. Like what was going on with Gavin that he was willing to create such an insane, well-researched, ploy to fool his old friend? And how did he convince Judy to pretend to be his wife for long periods of time just to help facilitate Madeleine’s murder? What about Scottie’s friend Midge? She loved Scottie. Poor Midge.
Anyways, this film clearly has a tragic ending. Of all the other films I’ve seen from Hitchcock, I think this is the only film that has such a tragic ending. I’ve seen Psycho, and Madeleine is famously shower-murdered halfway into the film, but the climax of that film follows two other people as they catch Norman Bates and he’s left to sit in prison when the film ends. There is at least redemption in that story.
In Birds, they leave Bodega Bay and head home, finally safe. In Strangers on a Train, Guy proves his innocence and in The Man Who Knew Too Much, the McKennas get their son back.
Hitchcock is known for creating a feeling of dread, terror and heightened suspense. I’d say Vertigo in the first half of the story is just a mystery, without any of those sensations. There is a question posed of the plausibility of Madeleine’s possession. There is, I suppose, some dread within that question, and when we realize there might be truth to her madness, it’s a little unsettling. But most of this part of the film deals with shots of Scottie driving quietly, just following Madeleine while she buys flowers, goes to museums, goes to a cemetery, etc. It’s hardly exciting, but it is engaging.
Once Madeleine dies, however, the film completely turns and becomes more dreadful. Scottie looks like he could snap and kill someone at any moment, and hey, he kind of does in the end. But the real feeling of dread is that Scottie doesn’t feel like Scottie anymore. He’s possessed like Madeleine was allegedly supposed.
I guess the story is already tragic because Scottie has basically been thrown into a plot bigger than himself and been effectively lobotomized, though that was never Gavin’s intention, I believe. James Stewart’s characters, from my experience, are cool and collected with a good sense of humor. He, like many movie idols, is an ideal version of the average man. He’s bigger and better, and that’s why he’s on the big screen.
So when we see Jimmy Stewart in a movie, probably like with George Clooney or Brad Pitt, we expect a certain type of person, someone who is confident and driven and probably some sort of womanizer because he can’t help it.
But Scottie loses all of what made him Scottie in the first half of the film. He no longer jokes and flirts with Midge or has any sense of duty. He pursues Judy only because of this guilt inside him, eating him alive. He’s like the kidnapper from Room, but he just happens to look like Jimmy Stewart.
In the second half of the film there’s only really one moment where Scottie feels like he’s himself again. It’s after he has successfully remade Judy into Madeleine’s image and right before he sees a clue that Judy might actually be Madeleine. Before that moment he is determined and crazy, and after that moment he is crazy and dangerous.
In the end who is to blame for Judy’s death? Her death to a degree feels inevitable just like Madeleine’s death would have been inevitable if she really was possessed by Carlotta Valdes, which of course she was not. This film, then, successfully creates an eerie atmosphere where certain things, deaths feel inevitable when really they never were. I suppose that’s dread.
Scottie, at the end, has been eaten up and spit back out. He will probably never get over this one, but hey, at least his vertigo is gone.