On the Case
Scottie Ferguson is a mess.
In quick succession, Scottie's lost his job, his health, and his confidence. A former lawyer-turned-police-detective who almost died during a rooftop chase, he watched a fellow officer fall to his death while trying to save him. He's crushed with guilt.
Scottie's not feeling like a powerful guy at the moment. Ever since he was left hanging onto a gutter for dear life, his fear of heights has become so severe that he had to quit his job. He can't walk up a flight of stairs without freaking out. He walks with a cane since his accident, and he has to wear a corset (like a back brace). He broke off his engagement to his girlfriend Midge and doesn't know quite what to do with himself.
At this point, though, he's still a pretty reasonable and rational man—he's a detective, after all. He's determined to overcome his fear of heights and isn't feeling too sorry for himself. He tells Midge:
SCOTTIE: I think I can lick it.
SCOTTIE: (on a small stepladder) I've got a theory. Look, if I can get used to heights just a little at a time... progressively see?
It doesn't work. On the stop step he faints into Midge's arms.
We could conclude that Scottie has PTSD from his near-death experience and the trauma of feeling guilty for his colleague's death. For now, though, let's just call him…vulnerable. His character arc from rational policeman to delusional lover is Vertigo's basic storyline. Hitchcock sets us up to see that Scottie's at a crossroads in his life, and something's gotta happen.
That something is a sexual obsession and romantic delusion in the person of Madeleine Elster, the stunningly beautiful and mysterious wife of Scottie's old college classmate, Gavin Elster. Seems she's been acting very strange, going into trances, disappearing for the day, and being generally weird. Gavin suspects she's been possessed by the ghost of her great-grandmother, Carlotta Valdes. Gavin begs Scottie to investigate, to follow her around for a day and see where she goes.
When he first hears about Madeleine's plight, he's skeptical to say the least:
ELSTER: Scottie, do you believe that someone out of the past, someone dead, can enter and take possession of a living being?
ELSTER: If I told you I believe that his happened to my wife, what would you say?
SCOTTIE: I'd say you'd better take her to the nearest psychiatrist, psychologist, neurologist, psychoanalyst, or plain family doctor. And have him check you both.
However, Elster's desperate, and nice guy that Scottie is, he agrees to look into it. He follows Madeleine for a day as she wanders around the city visiting graveyards and museums, and you can see his fascination growing. At the end of the day, he tails her to a park under the Golden Gate Bridge, where she jumps in. Scottie dives in after her and drags her out of the water. He brings her back to his apartment and gets her out of her wet clothes. She wakes up naked in his bed, talking gibberish and looking at him anxiously. He's in deep.
Love is Blind
Little by little, Scottie becomes convinced that there must be something to the whole story about Madeleine being possessed by the spirit of poor Carlotta Valdes. Scottie sees her trances and hears her talking as if she's someone else. Plus Madeleine's just too beautiful and charming, and Scottie falls hard in love with her. His infatuation leads him to suspend his critical judgment; he caves in a little too quickly. When Elster tells him that Madeleine is 26 and that Carlotta killed herself at 26, he becomes obsessed with keeping her from hurting herself. He finally feels like a man again; he has someone to rescue.
Problem is, it's hard to have a relationship with a woman who thinks she's someone else, so job one is to help her exorcise her demons. Fortunately, Madeleine hands out some serious clues about what happened to her as Carlotta, and Scottie recognizes Mission San Juan Bautista as the scene of the action in her dreams and trances.
SCOTTIE: You're going to be all right now, Madeleine. I've got something to work on now. I'm going to take you there—to the Mission—this afternoon. And when you see it, you'll remember when you saw it before, and that will finish your dream and destroy it. I promise. You'll be free!
Cue the liebestod music. As they get to the Mission, they kiss passionately. Then Madeleine dashes up the steps of the bell tower with Scottie in hot pursuit. Climbing the stairs, he's attacked by waves of vertigo because of his fear of heights. He can't catch her and watches helplessly as she throws herself off the bell tower and falls to her death.
Scottie's exonerated of guilt at the coroner's inquest—it was determined to be a suicide—but he's tormented with guilt and nightmares and has a nervous breakdown.
"Severe melancholia [depression] with a guilt complex" is the psychiatrist's diagnosis. Midge visits him in the hospital and sees him in an unresponsive state, almost catatonic. She tells the doctor that Scottie's in love with Madeleine, and the doc agrees that this complicates the case. He'll be in the sanitarium for a long, long time.
Eventually he's released, and he wanders the streets in anguish, visiting places they went together, seeing Madeleine wherever he goes. So far, that's not too strange—the loss of his beloved is still pretty fresh, and he's grieving her death. He's trying to get better, deal with the reality of Madeleine's death, but then something stops his recovery right in its tracks.
Enter Judy Barton, a woman Scottie spies on the street who's the spitting image of Madeleine. A lower-class brunette image, that is—dressed plainly, a little too much makeup, not that same classy, graceful look. Scottie's stunned; he follows her home and knocks on the door. She looks a little scared, but lets him in, one hand on the phone just in case. He presses her for details about her life.
SCOTTIE: Just let me talk to you.
JUDY: What about?
SCOTTIE: Because you remind me of someone.
JUDY: I've heard that one before, too. I remind you of someone you used to be madly in love with, but she ditched you for another guy, and you've been carrying the torch ever since, and then you saw me and something clicked.
SCOTTIE: You're not far wrong.
It takes a lot of convincing for Scottie to believe that she's really a salesgirl from Salina, Kansas, and not the lost Madeleine. He's still living in a dream world, but he's compelled to see her again and asks her to dinner. He's extremely forward, almost aggressive, with her, a side of him we hadn't seen before in his relationship with Madeleine. However, they don't get intimate.
After he leaves, we get the big reveal that Judy Barton is in fact the same woman we knew as Madeleine, that she pretended to be Madeleine as a part of Elster's plan to kill his wife—the real Madeleine. Scottie's in the dark, though. Judy decides to string him along; she falls in love with him for real and hopes he'll be able to love her back, this time as her real self.
However, Scottie's obsessive love for Madeleine doesn't allow that to happen, and we see a man in the grip of some seriously deluded thinking. He can't love or be aroused by Judy. He forcefully tries to make her over into Madeleine by buying her the exact suit and evening dress that Madeleine wore, and he wants it delivered that night. Even the saleswoman is freaked out by his domineering behavior.
Judy's terrified but he ignores her protests. He forces her to dye her hair blonde. It's very creepy and frightening. He doesn't want her to just look like her, he wants her to be her.
It's sad and unsettling to see this decent man acting more and more domineering and cruel.
Judy dyes her hair, but the style isn't quite right.
SCOTTIE: It should be back from your face—with a bun at the neck. I told them. I told you.
The guy is clearly losing it, but Judy, desperate for his love, gives in. When she finally emerges in that eerie green glow with the right clothes and the right hairdo, he can finally sexually possess her. You can see his libido come back to life—he visibly gulps when he sees her. We can see him in the grip of his Madeleine delusion as they embrace, and the scene of Judy's apartment morphs into the Mission San Juan Bautista where he kissed Madeleine. The illusion is complete.
Later that evening as Judy gets dressed, she puts on a necklace that looks familiar. Gasp! It's Carlotta's necklace, the one that Madeleine had owned and that Scottie had seen in the painting of Carlotta. Hitch zooms in on the necklace and then zooms to a close-up reaction shot of Scottie's face.
Change of plan: he decides to drive to the Mission instead of going to dinner.
Judy doesn't know what's happening, but he's a man on a mission, pun intended. His illusions are crashing down around him as he realizes he's been the victim of a terrible charade. Scottie has been living up to this point in a kind of dream world. Now he can't maintain his dream of bringing Madeleine back, because she never even existed. He's been pursuing a fantasy. He decides that he can get rid of his obsession with the past by re-enacting the scene of "Madeleine's" death.
Uh-oh. Isn't what he thought would work with Madeleine?
JUDY: Where are you going?
SCOTTIE: To complete my cure. One final thing I have to do, and then I'll be rid of the past, forever.
He gets her out of the car at the Mission. She doesn't know what he wants, because she doesn't know that he knows.
SCOTTIE: I can't do it alone. I need you, to be Madeleine for a while. Then, when it's done, we'll both be free.
Scottie proceeds with the re-enactment; he tells Judy the story of him and Madeleine (like she doesn't know). From this point on, he's an angry madman. He pushes her into the church and up the stairs of the bell tower. It's a terrifying scene as he forces her confession.
SCOTTIE: Did he train you? Rehearse you? Teach you what to say and what to do?
SCOTTIE: And you were such an apt pupil! What fun you two must have had, playing games with me! Why me? Why did he pick on me?!!
JUDY: Your accident...
SCOTTIE: Ah, yes! I was a set-up. I was the made-to-order witness.
Scottie suddenly realizes he's made it to the top of the bell tower without a bout of vertigo. He's solved that half of the problem. Judy begs him to forgive her and love her for herself, but he says, "I loved you, Madeleine," and kisses her passionately. Just then a nun, hearing the voices from the tower, appears out of the shadows. Judy, terrified, jumps out of the tower window.
Scottie's recreated his Madeleine, alright. As he stares down at a second "Madeleine," the music rises and the movie ends. We don't know if he jumps off, too. If he doesn't, he's going to be living in a world of pain and guilt. He might even be prosecuted this time. Scottie hoped that recreating Madeleine's love would save him, but instead it's destroyed him again.
We're left with plenty of questions, but no answers. Why does Scottie fall so hard for Madeleine, and why does this make him drop his skepticism and start believing in ghosts? Why does he insist on returning to "the scene of the crime"? Is he driven more by guilt or by desire? Does it matter? Does Judy's death result in a one-way ticket back to the sanitarium? Since the big reveal totally changes our perspective on the plot, we're too busy re-orienting ourselves to be able to answer these questions as we're watching the rest of the film. That's why audiences are drawn back to re-watch Vertigo over and over again.
Art Imitates Life
Can you imagine anyone who would be so obsessed that he would try to make his beloved into the image of another absent woman, right down to the hair color?
Yes you can.
We can't leave this story of obsession and identity without mentioning that many film critics think that Hitchcock intended this story to be in part autobiographical. Much has been made of Hitch's fetish for cool, elegant, blonde actresses. They've been described as having "platinum blonde locks, big blue eyes, impeccable style and a cool, aloof manner that suggests—and betrays—a sinister secret," and their cool exteriors masked their ability to explode in passion (source). Hitchcock once said, "Blondes make the best victims. They're like virgin snow that shows up the bloody footprints" (source).
Hitch considered Grace Kelly to be the epitome of this look, and when Kelly dropped out of Hollywood to marry Prince Rainier of Monaco, he felt betrayed, and he seemed compelled to turn all his subsequent leading ladies into his image of Kelly. According to his biographer, Donald Spoto, he became more and more controlling of his actresses, intruding into their personal as well as their professional lives.
Check out the 2012 film, The Girl, which recounts the story about how Hitchcock treated Tippi Hedren, star of The Birds and Marnie. Hitch fell mad in love with Hedren (mom of Melanie Griffith and grandma of Dakota Johnson, btw), and when she rejected his amorous advances he stalked her and did what he could to make her life a nightmare. During the filming of The Birds, he allowed her to be pecked relentlessly by real birds, leaving her with permanent scars on her face. In Marnie, he filmed a rape scene so brutal that she refused to work for him again.
Hitch, then, was very familiar with the theme of the domineering man who tries to shape his women into what he needed them to be. Maybe that's why Scottie's descent into domineering madness is so effectively scary.