Study Guide

Vertigo Hero's Journey

Hero's Journey

Ever notice that every blockbuster movie has the same fundamental pieces? A hero, a journey, some conflicts to muck it all up, a reward, and the hero returning home and everybody applauding his or her swag? Yeah, scholar Joseph Campbell noticed first—in 1949. He wrote The Hero with a Thousand Faces, in which he outlined the 17 stages of a mythological hero's journey.

About half a century later, Christopher Vogler condensed those stages down to 12 in an attempt to show Hollywood how every story ever written should—and, uh, does—follow Campbell's pattern. We're working with those 12 stages, so take a look. (P.S. Want more? We have an entire Online Course devoted to the hero's journey.)

Vertigo's "hero's journey" is complicated. Hitch, in fact, appears to toy with our expectations of how a hero would act and what he would do. Rather than emerging victorious at the end of the film, for example, Scotty's "resurrection" is followed by his greatest defeat.

Ordinary World

Scottie's still in the ordinary world when Vertigo begins. This is the importance of that first scene in Midge's apartment, before Scottie's meeting with Elster: This lets us glimpse the detective's everyday life. He's laid up and in early retirement on account of his phobia. Otherwise life goes on unremarkably; after all, Scottie's still among the living, not the dead.

Call To Adventure

The call comes from Gavin Elster, who tells him that his wife's been acting strange and asks urgently for Scottie's help. Scottie's mixed feelings about the ghost-story are understandable, but so is his heeding the call to adventure. After all, he's a detective by profession, and there's something irresistible about Madeleine's story.

Refusal Of The Call

Scottie at first thinks Elster's insane—or at least that his wife is. This first reaction of Scottie represents his early refusal of the call to adventure that he receives from Elster. As we've seen, though, his reluctance is short-lived, and once he sees the beautiful Madeleine with his own eyes, there's no turning back.

Meeting The Mentor

Poor Scottie doesn't really have a mentor. He's left alone to deal with all the strangeness. There's a moment when a mentor-figure seems like he might materialize, but this amounts to very little. The would-be mentor is named Pop Liebel, and even though he offers key information about Carlotta Valdes' backstory, Scottie's not really after Carlotta; he's pursuing Judy, who's both pretending to be Madeleine and pretending to be possessed.

Crossing The Threshold

Scottie reaches the point of no return when he rescues Madeleine from the Bay. Before this, he's looked at her from afar, but now he's in it. He's determined to solve her mystery so she can let the past go and be cured of her possession.

Tests, Allies, Enemies

Madeleine's multiple suicide attempts are tests, and Scottie's able to pass these with flying colors at first. Not only does he save the beautiful Madeleine; he also starts to win her over, and his prize is her love and gratitude. However, there are enemies at large that Scottie can't see, because he's being manipulated in ways he doesn't suspect and can't recognize until the very end of the film. Although Scottie has an ally in Midge—his sidekick and reliable friend, supportive to the end—he doesn't take advantage of her help. He's too caught up in his romantic illusion. He thinks Madeleine is his ally in his attempts to fix her.

Approach To The Inmost Cave

The Mission at San Juan Bautista represents Vertigo's inmost cave: it's the place where all the film's secrets converge. This inmost cave is a deadly place—Madeleine's suicide sends Scottie spiraling downward.

Ordeal

Scottie's ordeal after Madeleine's death begins at the trial to determine whether she was a suicide. It continues through the trippy nightmare sequence, and ends when he leaves the mental hospital. On the other hand, maybe it doesn't end at that point; maybe it doesn't end at all, in fact. Hitch's very last shot shows Scottie not triumphant, but still reeling after a second tragic loss. We're getting ahead of ourselves, though…

Reward (Seizing The Sword)

In an odd way, Judy—as Madeleine—is Scottie's reward. It's what he gets after having suffered so much after Madeleine's suicide. He's mourned, he's searched high and low and he finally possesses the resurrected Madeleine. These scenes are deeply disturbing, and the undercurrent of creepiness gives us a clue that the reward in Vertigo, unlike in classic hero-stories, will be an illusion, too. Even though she seems to be the sword that Scottie seizes, it's hard not to conclude that Judy's in fact yet another source of punishment for the long-suffering Scottie.

The Road Back

At this point, the drama has become increasingly psychological, and the road back is a journey in Scottie's mind back to the time he first kissed Madeleine.

Resurrection

Madeleine's very briefly brought back to life before his eyes and ours. Novak looks as shiny as she did at the very beginning of the film, and for a moment we think that maybe she and Scottie will live happily ever after. The resurrection is an illusion, though,  because Scottie still doesn't know the truth.

Return With The Elixir

When, thanks to a last bit of detective work, Scottie finally does discover the truth, he's devastated and decides it's "too late." At this same moment, back at the Mission San Juan Bautista, Judy falls/jumps to her death. Scottie, at the top of the tower he couldn't reach before, has overcome his fear. In that sense he's healed, but in every other sense, he's a broken man. The elixir that he obtains is a heavy dose of reality, but that reality is now an unbearable future.

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