“On one level, Vertigo bewitches us with eerie fascination; on another, it leads us on a wild goose chase in search of Scottie’s character. But could the latter really have been Hitchcock’s intention?”
Alfred Hitchcock took a certain prankster’s liberty with his films, delighting the audience and, no doubt, himself with his unpredictable and amusing cameo appearances. But would he have subverted an entire film’s dramatic structure to the requirements of a more elaborate joke, a joke intended solely for his private delight? And not just any film, but the celebrated Vertigo, widely considered one of his, and cinema’s, greatest masterpieces? The 1958 film possesses a strange symmetry that raises the question of whether Hitchcock had ulterior, perhaps mischievous, motives to his direction.
Vertigo opens with a policeman and a detective (James Stewart) chasing a fugitive across the tops of San Francisco buildings. Scottie, the detective, slips down a steep roof and ends up dangling from a flimsy rain gutter. The policeman tries to rescue him but instead falls to his death. The scene ends with the horrified Scottie left hanging by his fingers.
In the following scene, Scottie discusses his recuperation with Midge, an old friend, but his escape from the dangerous predicament of the prologue is never explained. Scottie’s cane and references to his corset are evidence of unspecified physical injuries, but it’s his psychological injury, his vertigo, that entices our curiosity, strongly enough to allow incidental acknowledgment of his physical injuries to satisfy us, if indeed we question them at all. But on analysis Scottie’s physical injuries seem disproportionate to the danger; his escape by no means a certainty. It appears unlikely he could have pulled himself up alone without the gutter tearing away from the building; and there was no one else on the roof to provide timely assistance. If he had dropped the six stories to the pavement – the same fall that killed the policeman – he would at least have broken bones.
The only further references to the accident are deliberately vague. Midge jokingly warns Scottie not to “go diving off another rooftop,” an unrevealing exaggeration; Gavin Elster, the old acquaintance who hires Scottie to trail his wife, calls the accident “that thing in the paper.” Since a means for Scottie’s escape can be easily imagined, these would be petty observations were they not evidence of Hitchcock’s imprecision. Not only is Scottie literally left hanging in the opening, the viewer, too, is “left hanging” by the subsequent lack of explanation. And that forms one side of the symmetry, the set up.
The remainder of the first half of the film is sustained by the mystery of Madeleine Elster’s (Kim Novak) relationship to the long-departed Carlotta Valdez, and Scottie’s falling in love with the seemingly haunted Madeleine. The section culminates with Madeleine’s fatal fall from the Mission San Juan Bautista tower. The mystery unfolds to expose “Madeleine” as an imposter, Judy, hired by Gavin Elster to trick Scottie and allow the murder of the real Madeleine to go undetected. As has been widely discussed (and harshly criticized, particularly on Vertigo‘s original release), Hitchcock lays out these startling revelations midway through the film. The bold tactic breaks the formulaic structure we expect from a murder mystery, in which solutions always come at the end. It risks unsettling the viewer, particularly on an initial viewing of the film. However, by dispensing with formula, Hitchcock shifts the emphasis of the story from murder to character, a potentially deeper subject than the typical whodunit conundrum. Scottie’s behavior and motivations replace the enigmatic “Madeleine’s” as the focus of the story. “Madeleine” was strange, Scottie was earthbound; now they switch. “Madeleine” becomes the commonplace shop clerk, Judy, even reverting to unrefined speech; Scottie goes through a period of bizarre behavior, including complete mental withdrawal.
Back on his feet, Scottie’s motivations are complex. He becomes obsessed with remaking one woman (Judy) in the image of another he believes dead (“Madeleine”). Can this really be love? we think. Or is Scottie infatuated with the appearance of women but blind to substance? Or does he seek the unattainable in order to perpetuate desire? In any case, Scottie’s feelings are intense, his actions in remaking Judy, imperturbable. In the climax of the story, when Scottie finally discovers that Judy is “Madeleine” his choices become even harder to fathom. The woman he has labored to remake suddenly becomes, in the flesh, the woman he has idealized. If his deepest desire is fantasy, will achieving the concrete destroy his feelings? Compounding the dilemma, the new Judy that Scottie discovers has treated him treacherously, subjecting him to the grief of lost love, the public humiliation of the inquest, and a nervous breakdown.
Against all this is the possibility they really love each other. Hitchcock sustains our curiosity for the final outcome, and perhaps our hope for romance, by moderating Judy’s character. Despite her likely guilt as an accomplice to murder, her moral failure may be less severe. In her narrated letter (and the accompanying flashback of the real Madeleine’s plummet from the tower), we are left with the impression Judy did not realize murder would be the result of the scheme to trick Scottie. She appears genuinely shocked when Gavin throws Madeleine from the tower; Gavin must stifle her screams. Mitigating her responsibility in this way gives Scottie room to maneuver emotionally. If he can discover the truth, he may have grounds for compassion and forgiveness.
(These are the considerations of Scottie, betrayed lover. Additional questions arise about Scottie, the career lawman who once imagined becoming Chief of Police. Will he put his passions above the law and overlook Judy’s crimes? Will he risk his own innocence by keeping quiet about the murder?)
The conditions are complicated, but Scottie has the freedom to make a choice. Indeed, the story accelerates toward the crucial moment in which he will shape his future and define his character. As Scottie and Judy struggle to the top of the tower, criminal and emotional deceits disintegrate in the heat of exploding truth. There is anger, yet passion. The time to choose has arrived. But, disappointingly, chance forestalls choice. The pair is startled by a nun ascending into the tower. Judy falls from Scottie’s arms and out the tower to her death, depriving Scottie of his decisions.
Superficially, this conclusion provides some satisfaction, subjecting Scottie and Judy to equal measures of poetic justice, the ironic working of fate, or some other intangible force. Scottie loses two loves to identical tragedies; Judy dies in the manner of the victim she helped murder. Assuming that Hitchcock did not structure the film as a joke, this interpretation leaves the conclusion in contradiction with the earlier direction of the film. In the long sequence in which Scottie trails “Madeleine,” we are led to suspect some supernatural force – reincarnation, ghostly possession, perhaps – as motivating “Madeleine’s” strange behavior. But the film disavows such forces by resolving the mystery with a rational explanation, grounding the story in the worldly realm where suspense more naturally results from the indeterminism of free will, as dramatized by Scottie’s uncertain choices, rather than the possibility of some karmic comeuppance, irrelevant in its random nature. To fall back on fate after establishing the independence of freedom is a retreat.
The closing scene thus mirrors the opening, completing the symmetry. Again, we are “left hanging,” this time by the inconclusive ending. The final shot strands us at a height, showing Scottie on the tower ledge staring down, stunned, to where Judy has fallen. The many interesting questions the film raises about Scottie’s choices will not be answered. The double entendre of Hitchcock’s opening scene, which ends with a rather similar shot, has set us up for his magnificent cop-out – warning us, in effect. On one level, Vertigo bewitches us with eerie fascination; on another, it leads us on a wild goose chase in search of Scottie’s character. But could the latter really have been Hitchcock’s intention? It’s impossible to say for sure, but if we revere Hitchcock for his mastery over the medium, the benefit of any doubts should accrue. It should also be noted that other Hitchcock films of the period – e.g. Rear Window, North by Northwest – have jokes similarly embedded in their structure. Such tricks are all too consistent with Hitchcock’s frequently perverse sense of humor and air of indifference. Is it too much to imagine him using Scottie’s heart as the ultimate MacGuffin?