The plot of Vertigo is in many ways an implausible mess. The script has elements of paranormal, film noir, psychological thriller and romantic melodrama, but somehow it all comes together in a way that makes sense. The mastery of the storyteller and all elements of his craft working together allows the audience to suspend their disbelief enough that they remain invested. It’s the perfect example of how an audience expects to be entertained and will suspend disbelief to let that happen as long as the journey is interesting enough to hold their attention.
The film begins with Scottie attaining acrophobia after witnessing a friend’s death. Midge explains to Scottie that only another “emotional shock” can cure him of his new affliction. At first Scottie is naively certain he can best his handicap one step at a time, on his own terms. This doesn’t work and our protagonist faints into Midge’s arms, foreshadowing that he is completely unprepared for what’s ahead of him. Scottie finally beats acrophobia in the final scene, however, this seemingly triumphant accomplishment is completely overshadowed by what it took to get there. In this way, Vertigo is the story of Scottie overcoming one trauma while gaining another through all the heartbreak and guilt he’s endured along the way. This causes the audience to question which is more crippling and whether it was all worth it. It’s the ultimate bittersweet character development.
Asking the Right Questions
On the surface Vertigo is supposed to be a mystery: first it’s a question of whether ‘Madeleine” is truly possessed and then in the second half, it’s about resolving her murder and uncovering the deception. However, in truth the mystery is only the setup to Scottie and Judy, who I would call the most tragic and dysfunctional romance of all time, without any hesitation. During my first viewing I was somewhat disappointed that the ghost story I’d gotten invested in for an hour had suddenly became an off-putting romance. Yet, upon later screenings I realized I’d never been promised a ghost story, so much as a possession story in the first half. And needless to say, Vertigo delivers that in spades. It subverts our expectations because, like Scottie, we are expecting a demonic otherworldly possession, but instead we get to see the ways in which grief and abusive attraction fulfill the same niche in the world.
The Judy flashback that “spoils” the mystery and left me sighing in frustration so many years ago is in fact the crux of the plot. It’s where the seductress is forced to live out the possession she was merely feigning before, as her identity is completely consumed by a dead woman’s. Scottie is now forcing her hand, becoming the very force of possession he originally sought to protect Madeleine from. It is my favorite role reversal in all of cinema, and a less talented team of actors would not have been able to pull it off. One is an abuser and the other is an accomplice to murder—they’re despicable and even pathetic people whom we have no reason to like. It only speaks to the direction of Hitchcock as well as performances of Stewart and Novak that we sympathize with the two despite their deep flaws. We,the audience, relate to Scottie and Judy but would never want to admit it. They remind us of all the horrible things we’ve done, or allowed others to do to us, in the name of love.
Through Scottie and Judy, Vertigo is a parable for relationships and how men and women hurt each other romantically. With Madeleine we see how women can sometimes put on a phony persona to attract men—wearing makeup, heels, push up bras, corsets, hair dye, playing dumb or helpless to seem “cute”…whatever the case may be. We see her playing hard to get and leading him on, both of which are common ways women can frustrate men. Finally, she ghosts Scottie (leaves with no word) robbing him of closure and breaking his spirit. With Scottie in the second half we see inappropriate aggressiveness as he barges into Judy’s apartment and interrogates her. He makes Judy economically dependent on him so she can’t easily get away. Scottie forces her to act out his “fetish” (for lack of a better word), subordinate her identity to his standard of beauty and generally submit to him. He puts the old Madeleine on a pedestal and objectifies Judy, all of these being ways men can hurt women. When she displeases Scottie, he angrily tortures her psychologically, manhandles her, and indirectly kills her. Outside of Judy/Scottie, Gavin and Midge also represent the ways men and women can hurt each other. With Gavin, it’s through promising to leave their wives for their mistresses while continually stringing them along. With Midge, it’s how people sometimes keep a “plan B” consolation prize waiting in the wings in case something better never comes along.
By the same token, looking at the sympathetic halves of the relationship in parts 1 and 2, we see a breakdown of expected gender roles and why they are often harmful as well. In the first act, Scottie finds meaning in himself, and fixates on Madeleine as a result, once he’s rescued her from the bay. It’s at that point when he goes from passive observer and becomes active wanna-be savior. Scottie becomes the archetype of what men are traditionally expected to be in relationships: saving their woman from harm, sheltering her when she’s vulnerable, taking her on “dates” to exotic locations, comforting her when she’s emotional, etc. When Scottie fails to live up to this ideal and Madeleine dies on his watch, he suffers an emotional breakdown as a result of his failure in this perceived manly duty. Judy, as a woman, is expected to submit to the man in her life in all matters. Especially back then, that included economically and sexually. Her suffering is more straightforward—it’s also more obviously toxic as she’s miserable in just about all of her scenes. In this way, Vertigo is an egalitarian movie, challenging the status quo of gender norms and demonstrating them in their most extreme.
Overall, I believe this is why Vertigo has endured and resonated with viewers on a deeper level while many mysteries, noir, and wish fulfillment romances have faded over the years. It’s a mystery where the question isn’t “whodunit” since the film willingly spoils the answer at the halfway point. The mystery is actually the same question Gavin first asks Scottie—“do you believe someone out of the past, someone dead, can enter and take possession of a living being?” Then it teases the straightforward understanding of that concept (supernatural possession) before examining the more oblique but realistic scenario the viewer wouldn’t immediately consider. That scenario being romantic possession, motivation through personal grief, and obsessive fixation, when we witness the once rational and calm Scottie descend into a single-minded, dead-eyed vessel while Judy takes the place of a dead woman. The first half is the extended setup for the last 40 minutes, where our affirmative “no” (delivered through Scottie by proxy) is shown to have been wrong.
Differences from Script to Screen
With two exceptions, all of the changes to the film from the script are for the better. The script seems to make Scottie a little too earnest and sentimental while at the same time too creepy and over the top in other places. The movie balanced him out better, where he rides the line between sympathetic and abusive (being played by Jimmy Stewart certainly helped as well). The script also adds these weird moments that make Madeleine too wide-eyed and childlike rather than the serene and perplexing femme fatale she is in the film. Gavin is a lot more long-winded and the other characters talk about him more, where in the film he’s basically a means to an end. Film-Gavin’s basically a tool for the plot to create this impossible, fucked up romance, and then he drops out of sight and mind quickly.
Finally, the script has the opening credits playing out over a static shot of the San Fran rooftops, while the film gave us maybe the greatest opening credit sequence of all time, with a woman’s face and stylistic vertigo swirls. And yet, all things considered, this script is still really close to what ended up on screen for the most part. The vast majority of dialogue is word for word. Already we have famous visual cues spelled out, such as Madeleine’s car described as being green and the famous darkening of Pop’s bookstore as he describes Carlotta’s history.
The scene where Gavin gives Scottie the assignment to follow Madeleine. Scottie warms up to the idea faster, and asks where he can see Madeleine. Gavin also goes into a long monologue afterwards that plays into the next scene. In the movie, Gavin has to throw the suggestion of seeing Madeleine at Ernie’s at Scottie in a desperate ploy to convince him. Scottie only very reluctantly decides to go along with it, and comes off a lot more impatient and hostile to the whole crazy idea. In my opinion, this initial reluctance has the benefit of making the next scene all the more powerful, since all he needed was a glance at the beautiful wife to warm up to the idea of following her around for awhile.
The rest of Gavin’s monologue, carried on from the previous scene. This scene works so much better silent as it is in the movie. We see this gorgeous woman in green, standing out from the crowd, right along with Scottie. We see her face in profile, the background blurs into a red haze behind her…it’s awesome. And then without a word, Scottie begins following her around in the next scene–all he needed was that one look to want more. It’s romantic and also kinda humorous in that regard. Having this monologue with unnecessary information would have ruined the whole thing. Sometimes less is more. Besides, what Gavin describes here, the feverish love of San Fran, seems somewhat out of character for Carlotta and the possessed Madeleine. The latter is always cool, coy and fatalistic, and the former should have no particular love of San Fran given her backstory.
Pop Leibel explains the Carlotta story to Scottie. This is mostly unchanged except here he remembers the name of the man who used and then discarded her. A small divergence, but I’m glad it was cut. The man himself is totally irrelevant, and works better as an unnamed, unseen force of nature. The idea to me was always that Carlotta was a victim of man’s unrestrained power and freedom, just as Judy will become in the end of the film. We don’t need to know his name because it could have been any man that heaped such abuse on Carlotta. I always assumed that was the point.
I always liked the idea that this will be the ultimate fate of Scottie and Judy, as the “small stuff, people you’ve never heard of” being told in an old bookstore somewhere, and Scottie won’t even be remembered by name. To me that brought another, unspoken element of tragedy to the story. It’s like in the Sequoia forest where the span of Carlotta/Madeleine’s life is so small and insignificant compared to the trees. What’s important is the eternal cycle of miscommunication and betrayal between the sexes, rather than each individual actor involved.
Some cut dialogue after Scottie and Madeleine agree to go wandering together. My issue with this is that it frames Madeleine incorrectly. Madeleine is supposed to be distant, mysterious, and fatalistic. This wide-eyed innocent, happy-go-lucky character here isn’t the Madeleine in the rest of the movie. It would have completely thrown off the tone, and just before one of the most understated sinister scenes in the whole film. Plus, I always assumed that Scottie suggested they go to the Sequoia forest to her. He knows a lot about San Fran landmarks as evidenced by a later scene, and it’s a relatively safe place so she can’t hurt herself. It makes more sense to me than her cheekily going there for no reason.
More cut dialogue in the Sequoia forest. Again, Madeleine comes off too childishly naive and happy-go-lively. It ruins the buildup to her disconcerting line when they look at the tree rings, appears to fight against apparition, and then describes the dreams that haunt her. The trees they see and talk about have a purpose in the story–they establish the meaning of all the green in the film “always green, ever living” and give Madeleine an excuse to show her possession again. A random stream and birds though? Just a waste of time.
This is actually a change I wish they had kept. Mostly the same dialogue here, but Madeline asks if Scottie will keep saving her forever. I prefer this change because I think it plays into that “masculine hero saves the damsel in distress” idea which I always believed was part of why Scottie imprinted on her so strongly. She made him feel like a man, made him feel important and strong for once in his life. And on some level I wonder if Gavin intended for that as well. I also like that line because it shows that, even if the Madeleine Scottie thought he knew was real, why a relationship with her would never work. You can’t save someone forever. Eventually, she’d succeed at killing herself, and Scottie would have had his breakdown all the same. There’s another difference here, where she unnecessarily explains that the person in her dream is Carlotta, something that should be obvious anyway.
This is where Madeleine comes to Scottie’s apartment to explain her new dream. There’s a really awkward bit of dialogue where Madeleine melodramatically yells “no!!!” when Scottie goes into the kitchen to get her some brandy to calm her down. I get that it’s supposed to show how vulnerable she is and foster that protective instinct in Scottie, but it’s not as if he was asking her to come back later or something; he just went into the next room for a second. Like, calm down.
Scottie also asks about her husband, and again, this bothers me. I always felt the point of this scene was that by now they’d fallen for each other and both knew it. As a result, Gavin is completely irrelevant to them, barely even a thought. Scottie reminding the audience she’s married ruins the romance of this moment where Madeleine is at her most vulnerable with him. It keeps Gavin there as a wedge during what should be one of their few intimate scenes together, (this in turn is crucial for Scottie’s obsession later). Plus, its just an unnecessary question, “where’s your husband?” The very fact that Madeleine’s now coming to Scottie for comfort and not Gavin says it all. She doesn’t know or care where he is and neither do we; she wants Scottie now and for the purposes of the plot that’s all we need to know.
More cut dialogue from the same scene, again, discussing Gavin. I admit the first time I saw this film, the fact that Scottie had kissed and was now comforting another man’s wife bothered me. It seemed wrong and was one of the things that made me feel removed from the characters and story. But on repeated viewings that didn’t bother me at all because I knew then that the heart of Vertigo was the interplay between Scottie and Madeleine/Judy. The plot’s convolution became an afterthought to the emotions and character-interplay it sets up. So, this about-Gavin dialogue might have eased my mind on the first viewing, but I think it would have ruined the subsequent viewings where I was more willing to suspend disbelief. At the end of the day, Gavin is little more than a plot device to set things in motion and bring the two together. I think the writer felt the need to explain where Gavin is and how they tiptoe around him to rectify the “moving in on the married woman” angle for the audience, while Hitchcock realized this movie is supposed to be surreal and work on an emotional, dreamlike logic.
This change also bothers me because Scottie telling Madeleine how to lie and work around her husband just comes off as skeevy and out of character for him. He’s supposed to be an honest, all around good guy before his breakdown. While he’s guilty of many sins by the end, deliberate lying and premeditated maliciousness aren’t among them. In the first half of the movie, his love for Madeleine is supposed to be touching and pure, not like a sneaky home wrecker crafting a web of lies. Even in the second half, it’s more that Scottie became a slave to his overwhelming passion and lost sight of what he’s really putting Judy through rather than any willful nastiness. For all intents and purposes, Scottie’s possessed by the memory of Madeleine Elster, and I always believed that if the Scottie of the first scene could see himself one year in the future, he’d be just as disturbed as we are. This script destroys that careful balancing act of sympathy and disgust we as the audience need to feel towards him, by making Scottie out to be a sleaze-bag from early on.
Here’s the scene just before Madeleine goes up the tower. Whats different is, at the top of the page Scottie is about to reveal to Madeleine that they didn’t meet by chance, and he was following her at Gavin’s request. And at the bottom of the page, he gives her a melodramatic monologue about their togetherness. I always loved how both Scottie and Judy seemed to completely forget about the man that brought them together in this moment. Scottie isn’t concerned about reporting to Gavin anymore, he’s absolutely engrossed in the role of protector, which he’s now carrying out on his own terms. It’s almost like Scottie has forgotten his old life before, and the circumstances of meeting Madeleine, because he’s so enraptured by her. The bottom lines are just too sappy and melodramatic. The simpler “no one possesses you, you’re safe with me” and “we’re together” tell us all we need without drowning us in sugar. Those lines are delivered so sincerely that less is more.
Very small change here, just Scottie stuttering out a response to Gavin at the coroner’s inquest. I love the idea that Scottie was completely catatonic in this and the following two scenes. I also like to think that in the filmed version, Scottie wasn’t even trying to say anything here, and Gavin just eagerly ran through every canned “concerned husband and friend” phrase he’d rehearsed to get out of dodge quickly. That is to say, Gavin’s so ecstatic that his plan worked that he’s running through the final act of his macabre little play, getting just a touch sloppy with his own performance in the home stretch.
After their first date, Scottie creepily turns off the lights and forces Judy to sit still while he gazes at her profile against the window. This just comes off as over the top, almost like a parody of Scottie in an SNL skit or something. There’s no way this scene wouldn’t be unintentionally hilarious or else way too creepy verging into uncomfortable if it had been kept in. The genius of Stewart’s performance is his ability to make the abuse come off as more pathetic and sad than scary, so that Scottie remains at least somewhat understandable despite what he does to Judy. But I don’t think even he could have pulled that off with this dialogue. It works much better in the film, where he just happens to catch a glimpse of Judy’s profile naturally, with the camera zooming in on her as if from his perspective and doing all the explaining for us. That’s the magic of cinema–show don’t tell.
Cut dialogue from the clothing store. Here, it seems like Judy’s objections stem from the fact that Scottie wants her to dress like “someone dead” rather than his old girlfriend. I’d think it’s the idea that he’s creepily trying to recreate his ex that would bother a woman, not necessarily that the ex is dead. It’s just another example of the script drifting a bit over the line into melodrama and self-parody. What she says in the film works much better and feels like something a real woman would say in that situation.
I didn’t include a picture of the script page for this next one. In any case, back at Scottie’s apartment, rather than ending that scene with him forcing Judy to sit by the fire (as Madeleine had) he instead takes her home. I prefer the previous scenario with the fire–it’s more fitting with the scene itself by emphasizing his obsession. This way, literally every act Madeleine did in the first half is recreated in some way during the second. It’s also pretty creepy without dwelling on itself for too long. I mean, exactly how much time did Judy spend sitting there in silence while Scottie leered at her?
A small change, but incredibly significant. In the movie Judy disappears from sight and dramatically reappears from another room, shrouded in an unearthly green mist. She slowly steps towards Scottie, emerging from the emerald haze as if coming back from the afterlife, stepping in from another world. It’s the magic of cinema–a scene like that would never work the same way in a book or radio drama. Having her just turn around from the mirror would have diminished that surreal imagery and visceral impact it evokes in the viewer. Otherwise this is essentially the same scene.
The finale. Here in the script, Scottie admits that he too is scared. A very small change, but it completely alters the mood of the entire scene. What does Scottie have to be scared of? He’s in control here–it’s just him and Judy, whom he can easily overpower. Sure Scottie has horrible memories with this place, but so does Judy, and not only does he know this but he brought her here to guilt and emotionally torture her. This is Scottie’s misguided attempt at revenge. While the abuse of Judy has mostly been played as pathetic/sympathetic up to this point, here he’s truly crossed the line into outright scary. Scottie manhandles her to go up the stairs, and follows her with a chilling single-minded anger etched on his face. Their romantic kiss and Judy dipping in his arms in the previous scene is mirrored at the top of the tower with Scottie almost strangling her. She openly asks “what are you going to do?” and closes her eyes as if expecting to be hit. We are meant to fear Scottie in this scene, not the other way around. You don’t undercut your antagonist/threat in the same scene they’re supposed to be the most threatening.
Another change in this scene (script page not shown) occurs when Scottie asks where Gavin is now and Judy replies “Switzerland.” Maybe it’s me, but this just sounds really stupid, and besides who cares where Gavin is–the focus should be on these two lovers and the terrible climax of their relationship. Gavin only exists as the “other man” that had her first, a source of betrayal and perceived infidelity in Scottie’s mind. Which brings us to the last change: Scottie says “what fun you two must have had, playing games with me!” I like that line and wish it were kept. It succeeds in humanizing him even at his most menacing where that earlier “I’m scared too” line failed. I think it helps us sympathize with Scottie’s anger here, even though he has the same woman as before and she’s willing to go through so much to please him. Scottie fell in love and for all he knew Gavin and Judy may have been laughing about it and talking about his feelings behind his back the whole time. That line helps frame the movie properly as a parable about all the ways men and women hurt each other socially as well as romantically. It makes Judy’s deception feel almost similar to infidelity in Scottie’s POV, which in turns makes his anger more understandable to the audience without diminishing it. It’s worth noting though that this also makes Scottie more of a hypocrite, because for all he knew he was doing the same with Elster’s wife. It’s just a great line that adds a lot more weight to the scene.
Production Code Ending
It’s not in the script, but a dumbed down ending was filmed where Scottie returns to Midge’s apartment after the whole incident on the tower. Thankfully Hitchcock was able to subvert the studio/production code and leave the ending as intended. This scene is atrocious on multiple levels and would have completely neutered the film’s emotional impact. It diminishes the significance of Midge finally getting fed up with Scottie and deciding to live her own life; apparently she’s perfectly happy to wait in the wings and be his bronze medal after Madeleine and Judy. How romantic.
Not to mention, it’s unrealistic that the cops would believe Scottie and hunt Gavin down across continents. The only witness to the murder plot is dead, and the necklace by itself doesn’t prove anything. (Gavin could easily say that he sold it after his wife’s death because it was too painful to look at.) Scottie would not be considered a credible witness after his history with mental breakdowns, and now being caught in a compromising situation with an identical woman dying on his watch in the same way. Any competent defense attorney would tear Scottie to pieces on the stand, providing the DA even bothered to go to court again on his word alone. Finally, the question of whether Scottie could bear to go on after losing Madeleine/Judy a second time is one of the most powerful concepts in the movie. It leaves the audience with something to debate in their minds forever, and to destroy that ambiguity ruins the gravity of losing Judy in the first place.