After making my quick tour of 1970s movies — which I feel was far too abrupt, by the way, I have a list of about a dozen other movies of that era I’d like to watch/rewatch/write about — I was scanning though my way-too-many subscription streaming services and noticed that “Vertigo” is on Peacock. So I sat down with Bogey, who laid on my stomach almost the entire movie, and watched it on my iPad.
There’s so much to say about this movie that I barely know where to begin. The one thing that struck me about it, which I want to approach from a purely humanistic level, is how overwhelmingly sad the movie is. I’ve been knocked off balance by it most of the week. Scottie is put through some terrible manipulative losses in the first half of the movie that make everything he does in the second half completely understandable and, in a sense, justifiable. I still can’t help feeling, however, that “Vertigo” is basically a monster movie, just like “Taxi Driver.”
Scottie/Johnny/John (he has just as many games as (Madeline/Carlotta/Judy) is dealing with two traumas by the film’s second half. He’s now been blamed for the death of two people, and his personal illness and/or weakness is the cause. His self blaming is overwhelming, but it’s nothing compared to his sense of loss. When he meets Judy, he couldn’t help but fit her into the mold of Madeline. As viewers, we aren’t sure whether he’s doing this because he’s heartbroken and wants her back exactly as she was or if he’s still skeptical and trying to unravel a mystery.
The answer turns out to be both, actually, and even when he overcomes his neurosis and reaches the top of the bell tower with Judy, he has a chance to just accept what has happened and give her the benefit of the doubt — maybe even find happiness in a relationship with a woman who took substantial risk to make amends with him and tolerated incredible demands.
But Scottie tells her that it’s too late, nothing can bring Madeline back. This is the real closing line of the film, everything that happens afterwards is pure denouement. He cannot forgive Judy for killing Madeline even though Madeline was a fictional character. Her accidental fall off the bell tower — making Scottie’s body count three — is the inevitable outcome.
I am hesitant to call Scottie’s actions cruel, but they are certainly cold. He reveals himself in that final scene as more interested in unraveling the mystery that doing what is best for real people, himself included. I assume most people who watch “Vertigo” feel this way — let me know if you feel otherwise. And I know that the movie was a self confession from Hitchcock about his own obsession with his actresses, but that doesn’t seem all that important to me.
What matters to me in this film is that Judy, as terrible and manipulative as she was in the first half of the movie, did everything possible to set things right in the second half. You could argue that she would have helped Scottie more by telling him the truth as soon as possible, but I think Judy was just as heartbroken as Scottie, making her efforts to create a new relationship not just understandable, but kind of heroic. She was willing to put herself in danger and be turned into a character again to prove her love, and she did it over and over, even to the point of following Scottie into the site of her crime/trauma.
In all of this analysis, I’m not suggesting that anything about the story be change — I think “Vertigo” is damn near perfect from beginning to end. I feel sorrow for both Scottie and Judy in the end, Judy more because she lost her life. The experience with Madeline, however, probably robbed Scottie of the capacity to love again. He may get over his vertigo and his guilt, but he will never free himself of the loss. That is what makes the movie tragic, in both the classical and contemporary forms of the word.