Vertigo (1958) Dir. Alfred Hitchcock
A commentary on Scottie’s state of mind.
The final scene of Vertigo strikes as puzzling. When Judy jumps at the site of a nun, we might jump to a conclusion she has been a ghost, an apparition that only Scottie could see. Since the nun enigmatically says, “I heard voices,” she scares Judy, the ghost, away. I believe we could go even further than that and interpret Vertigo as a movie about apparitions. In my view, the only scene when actual events occur is the first scene of the police chase. Then, we meet Scottie – an impaired ex-detective, who witnessed a fellow officer’s death, and had a near death experience himself. Vertigo, or acrophobia, seems like a small price to pay for such a trauma. What if Scottie’s mind suffers from more than just a fear of heights? I believe Scottie went through a mental breakdown so deep that his mind was lost. Moreover, his mind, restless and disturbed, projects things that do not exist. In other words, Scottie imagines both Midge and Madeleine/Judy – neither of them lives, or is real, for that matter.
Everything what happens to Scottie resembles a fairy tale: he is like Alice in Wonderland, chasing the white rabbit (Madeleine). The case he gets, following his friend’s estranged wife, is actually a flashback from his previous work – his mind, although in a crazy state, still works as a mind of a detective. To prove, Scottie wanders the streets of San Francisco, presumably following the wife. In truth, he drives around alone. Moreover, the locations he finds himself in strike as quite old-fashioned. For instance, Gavin Elster’s office appears as a room from the past: old paintings on the walls (SF Bay 1849, to name one), classic furniture. Nothing about it feels up to date. I find another proof in a hotel scene. Scottie clearly sees Madeleine walk inside, yet the hotel manager claims Madeleine has not visited the hotel that day, at all.
Let me begin with Midge. She signifies a mother type (an echo of Psycho’s “a boy’s best friend is his mother”). When we meet Midge for the first time, we witness a contrasting image with the opening scene. Midge and Scottie are at her place – a little, comfy apartment, bright, colorful, with soothing music in the background. It is almost an idyllic moment – perhaps a first hint she is not real. Besides, Scottie seems to feel safe and comfortable with her. After all, she is very protective and loving like a mother. She takes care of him, helping him to overcome his phobia. It is best presented in a mental hospital, after Madeleine’s death, when Scottie turns up in a virtually catatonic state. Midge stands firmly by his side, whispering to his ear, “Mother’s here!” Another suggestion that Scottie does not live in reality – he hears voices. There is also a pattern of Midge and Madeleine showing up. Whenever Scottie spends time with one of them, the other is out of the picture. He can imagine only one woman at a time. Besides, Midge is envious of Madeleine as any mother might be of her son’s girlfriend, especially a mother in a Hitchcock’s movie (another echo from Psycho). One last proof of Scottie’s crazed mind comes when Midge shows his her painting, the collage of herself and Carlotta. It proves Scottie’s mind starts confusing even his own imaginings.
As for Madeleine, she is even more obvious to be Scottie’s projection. She represents a lover type. First, she has been inspired by Carlotta’s portrait in the museum Scottie visits occasionally. Scottie’s mind imagines Madeleine uncannily similar to Carlotta: a picture perfect woman, with a beautiful, enigmatic face, suspiciously neat hair, and perfect silhouette. Second, in the restaurant scene, Madeleine wears a long, old-fashioned dress that gives her a ghost-like quality. She does not walk, she glides. When Scottie follows her, she never notices. It can only be explained that she cannot because being Scottie’s imagination he does not want her to see him (the backdoor of a flower shop raises curiosity – he can be seen quite clearly, yet she does not spot him once). Furthermore, Scottie wanders after her to all kinds of strange and gothic places: cemeteries, museums, churches, old missions (all places likely to be haunted by ghosts). She can disappear as a ghost, as well. When they visit a sequoia forest, she disappears out of sight all of a sudden. At this point, Scottie cannot control his imaginings. Lastly, Madeleine knows exactly what Scottie knows. When he starts talking about the Spanish mission, he describes it exactly as she has seen it in her dreams. Madeleine lives only in his mind so she clearly knows everything what he knows, not more, not less.
The third projection of Scottie’s sick mind is Judy. She comes into his life after the mental breakdown and Madeleine’s death. Scottie has a dream in the form of animated, flashing images of falling and Madeleine’s empty grave (Scottie symbolically gets deeper into his sickness). The question remains why Judy is so different from Madeleine. Unlike ephemeral Madeleine, Judy is a vamp type. She fights and argues with Scottie, but only to a point where she eventually yields to his will. Scottie’s mind clearly needs this kind of stimulation. He transforms his perfect woman only to transform her again. With a perverse pleasure, he shapes her into Madeleine. It seems his way of dealing with his madness, as it can be called at this stage. It is perfectly displayed in a shop scene. The saleswomen ignore Judy totally, as if she was not there. And then, despite her aggressive, independent nature, she accepts and agrees to everything is being done to her. One more proof we see in their conversation when he says she can go, leave him if she wants to, but we already sense she will not. After all, she is a part of his imagination so it is impossible for her to get separated from Scottie.
The last scene confuses the viewers. Why does Scottie have to witness the death of his beloved twice? Why does Judy become so frightened of the nun? The only logical explanation is Judy being an apparition, a thing made up in Scottie’s mind. The nun somehow exorcises Scottie’s sick mind, driving the demon away. We do not see Judy’s dead body, only Scottie looking down at her. Will it help Scottie to find peace and mental harmony? That is a question for another discussion.
Long days, pleasant nights,