Overall, Scottie is one of cinema’s most complex and interesting antiheroes. He’s completely ensconced in a fantasy for almost the entire film, he’s racked with guilt and insecurity and he takes a lot of it out on (for all he knows is) an innocent woman. We aren’t given too much of his backstory, but just enough to piece together an impression. In some ways he’s an everyman we can project our own memories of longing, heartbreak and trauma onto, but in others he’s enough of his own person that he’s worth analyzing in the first place.
I really don’t think any actor but Jimmy Stewart could have pulled it off. His good guy, all-American image provided a perfect subversion of expectations and also softens our perception of Scottie perhaps more than he deserves. Stewart was criticized by some including Hitchcock himself for looking too old for the part. And, while the full head of gray hair maybe takes away from any believable sexual appeal from someone like Madeleine, I think his perceived age also helped sell the character. By looking older, it really gives the feeling that this is Scottie’s last chance at love, that without Madeleine it’s too late to find someone else. This angle helps sell his depression after she dies, and makes the ending feel 100x more defeating. If he were a young man, he’d presumably be able to move on eventually and meet someone else, so this wouldn’t necessarily be the defining experience of his life. Also, many of Scottie’s actions would be less sympathetic and seem more rude or hurtful if coming from a younger man. The way he gets short with people including Midge, Gavin and the McKittrick inn keeper for example. Finally, Scottie’s age may aid in Vertigo’s analogy of unequal relationships between the sexes; throughout history younger women were sought after by older men.
We never know Scottie at his best, because even at Midge’s apartment in the first scene, he’s had traumatizing nightmares and newly discovered acrophobia. Even beyond this debilitation though, he seems somewhat stuffy and repressed, which is the point of showing off his weird non-relationship with Midge. To bring the topic to the forefront, Hitchcock even has him look at a bra as a “doohicky” and “a hobby” rather than something alluring and invoking of passion. Midge outright calls Scottie the only man for her, and he makes an uninspired comment about his availability without taking the initiative—even choosing to change the subject and a few minutes later go home. All of these cues represent Hitchcock going out of his way to show us Scottie is lacking romantic passion, almost borderline asexual, even with a willing and decently attractive woman right in front of him.
It’s unclear whether Scottie just never met the right girl, or the right circumstances, but his sexual drive is currently nonexistent. Of course, the whole point of the movie is that there’s in fact a deep and powerful drive within him just waiting to be awakened by the right woman, and once ignited it engulfs himself and everyone around him. So in hindsight, Scottie claiming that tomorrow he will be “a free man,” after losing his corset, is ironic because that is when he will also see Madeleine for the first time.
It’s undeniable that Scottie took the assignment because he thought Madeleine was beautiful from the first and didn’t mind having an excuse to look at her all day. But a pretty face alone does not explain his obsessive fixation on her later in the film. I think part of the reason why Scottie imprints on Madeleine so much is because she’s an unsolvable puzzle, which as a detective must be intriguing to him. That, and saving her from the bay probably made Scottie feel powerful, important and like a man again especially after feeling guilty about his police colleague’s death. Traditionally men would be the hunters and protectors of the tribe, guarding their women from danger. In our modern lives this once essential role is more or less obsolete (or at least obfuscated and less carnally satisfying for all involved), so saving Madeleine could have tapped into a primal masculine role which most men only experience once or twice if at all anymore.
Scottie’s a decent guy as evidenced by several moments in the film. Firstly, he agreed to help Gavin out in the first place by watching over Madeleine. Scottie had no obligation to do so, especially considering his recent troubles, their dormant friendship and the enormous cost in time such a project would entail. A second point in Scottie’s favor is in how he saves Madeleine’s life and takes genuine personal interest in helping her overcome her fits of apparition after the fact. This is rising above the call of duty Gavin placed in him, which was merely to report where she goes so Gavin can explain the situation to a doctor. Technically speaking, after the second meeting with Gavin, Scottie’s work is done and he is under no moral or professional obligation to continue. Third, Scottie keeps Midge at arms length but does seem to enjoy her company and they have a good, playful back and forth. He doesn’t appear to be stringing her along as he plays the field, and he doesn’t expect her to wait around for him either. It’s not Scottie’s fault he doesn’t reciprocate her feelings, and for his part he seems to be totally unaware how strong her attraction is. (He even assumes her distorted picture of Carlotta is a joke rather than the romantic overture she intended it to be. )
All that said, there is a darker side to Scottie as well. The way he handles Madeleine’s unconscious form after saving her from the bay was always an uncomfortable detail for me since my first viewing. He undressed his friends’ wife and took a vulnerable woman to his apartment rather than call a medic or her husband. I don’t believe Scottie had any ill intent but it was certainly inappropriate. After her death, as understandable and sad as his longing is, it’s nonetheless creepy watching him prowling back to all the locations she used to go, almost like a single-minded stalker. Scottie’s treatment of Judy is also monstrous from the very beginning, barging in and interrogating her, taking her on a date when he wasn’t totally interested (and for all he knew, neither was she), making her economically dependent on him and of course remaking her in the image of his dead ex. Call it love, or lust, or limerence but whatever it was it turned the gentle, soft-spoken Scottie into an unsavory, aggressive figure.
One aspect that balances Scottie’s darkness and keeps him from becoming totally unlikable is that he’s just such a pitiful character as well. Scottie is the only one of three men who couldn’t make the jump between rooftops at the beginning, and our first look at the character has him clinging to a gutter for dear life. He spends the entire movie duped by a lie, unwittingly aiding in a murder and then reliving the dark story of Carlotta. Scottie’s two big heroic moments, saving Madeleine from the bay and solving the mystery of her recurring dream, were fake triumphs he was set up to have. His dream woman, as it turns out, only talked to him because she was put up to it by another man, almost like a sick practical joke.
In the second half, it’s not totally clear how much Judy actually still loves Scottie and how much of it is guilt, fear and pity that keeps her in the relationship. Scottie is very much a weak, impotent person at the mercy of forces he can’t control. The tower and his failure to climb it alone is a pretty direct metaphor for impotency. It’s also significant how random and almost comical it is that after he does conquer the tower and his vertigo that the nun should appear and lead to Judy’s death. In what should have been his one moment of power in the film, breaking free from the fantasy and solving the murder, he’s rendered impotent again by a hapless old crone of all things. It’s the ultimate insult, the final reminder of how weak and unlucky Scottie really is. In all these respects, Scottie is the embodiment of mens’ fears: looking weak or foolish (especially in front of women), being inadequate to protect or satisfy women and being duped or cuckolded by their partner.
At the climax of the story, Scottie becomes enraged at Judy’s deception. He has a right to be angry—she’s an accomplice to murder and her actions drove him into crippling depression for over a year. But on the other hand, he still abused Judy during their entire relationship, then forced her against her will to the tower, reliving her most traumatic memory. As a result, Scottie indirectly caused her death when he might have called the police. She was guilty of a crime but it was not Scottie’s moral or legal right to manhandle and emotionally torture anyone, and it’s worth noting Judy clearly regretted her actions and was trying to repent for them by submitting to Scottie’s desires.
Scottie lost sight of the fact that while his dream girl never existed, he had something better—a woman willing to do all that to herself in order to become his dream girl. Scottie seems to overlook the fact that Judy tricking him means in a sense he never lost the love of his life at all and that she obviously loved him as Madeleine and continues to now as Judy. The woman he’s with has seen him at his worst and willingly sacrificed her own identity to bring out his best again. The question becomes, why does that not register to Scottie? Why is his first thought to taunt and guilt her and make the same mistake twice by going back to the Spanish Mission? Why was he so dead set on this that, even through the long car ride, he never calmed down or reconsidered his plan or her feelings?
To answer these questions, I would say a lot of Scottie’s rage seems to stem from the fact that Gavin had her too, that she and Gavin were in cahoots and he (Scottie) was the stooge. This is somewhat hypocritical since for all Scottie knew he had done the same to Gavin by kissing and declaring love for Madeleine in the first place. Scottie’s reaction to Judy’s true identity is not logical or moral because it wasn’t supposed to be. All he can think about is his damaged sense of manhood: that he was tricked by a woman, that he was played for a fool when he meant to be (and—while he doubts it now—succeeded in) sweeping Madeleine off her feet.
On some level too Scottie must be wondering, if this girl actually loved him, how she could put him through so much pain, and how she could run off with Gavin over him. This happens all the time, where we judge ourselves by our best intentions and others by their actions. If Scottie’s overwhelming infatuation with Madeleine was born out of saving her and solving the mystery of her dream, in a sense it’s only natural that the death of this perception would cause his feelings to shift to equally impassioned retribution. It’s the same psychology of every man who’s been bitterly rejected or cheated on and violently lashed out at the object of their longing. (And this violence from spurned, jealous or inappropriately lustful men is in turn every woman’s greatest fear.)
When we leave Scottie, he is in perhaps the lowest position of any protagonist in the history of cinema. He knows Gavin is guilty, but his only source of evidence is dead, and nobody else will recognize or care about the significance of the necklace. He is now truly responsible for someone’s death, and not just someone but the love of his life in fact. This will certainly lead to an even worse mental breakdown. He is in a very compromising situation—there will be a lot of questions about why he’s been caught with a similar looking woman who died in the same place and in the same manner—Scottie may even be retroactively charged for Madeleine’s death. Certainly there will be gossip and slander that damage Scottie’s credibility should he choose to accuse Gavin, let alone try to live a normal life after all this. He’s too old and too broken to ever have a real opportunity for love again; any chance with Midge was lost just to get this far. He will never be the chief of police he always wanted to be. He basically has nothing he can do but follow after Judy—what else is there for Scottie to live for?
His final words are a rejection of Judy’s plea for love, and finally realizing he can never bring back Madeleine or those feelings.
I like to believe that Scottie eventually became a figure in another of those “many such stories” that Pop Leibel and similar men will tell for years to come, ”the small stuff, people you’ve never heard of.” And, like with Carlotta’s male abuser in the original tale, even Pop (or whoever will be telling the story then) won’t actually remember Scottie’s name as he relays the tragic and bizarre urban legend. That will be the sad legacy of John Ferguson.