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Vertigo (1958): A Question of Identity Sixty Years Later

September 16, 2018 | By

“Vertigo is a classic example of portraying the woman as one who can easily be manipulated by men, as one who bears it all even at the cost of her identity.” Shoma A Chatterji revisits the Hitchcock classic, sixty years later.

A scene from Vertigo

Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) was not a commercial success when it was first released. But over time, it has been considered as “American cinema’s supreme treatment of romantic obsession” (as proclaimed by Martin Rubin) and has been explored, dissected, critiqued and analysed ad infinitum by viewers, critics and film scholars. Vertigo forms a segment of what is termed the “Golden Period” for Hitchcock as a filmmaker after a rather fallow response to his works in the 1940s. This began with a series of box office hits among thrillers like Strangers on a Train (1951), Rear Window (1954), North by Northwest (1959) and Psycho (1960) considered to be his best film.

Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958)

Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958)

Here is the story in brief sourced from IMDb. Gavin Elster, a wealthy shipbuilder approaches Scottie, an acquaintance from college days. He is a retired police detective who has arrived in San Francisco. Elster asks Scottie to follow his beautiful wife, Madeleine. He fears she is going insane, maybe even contemplating suicide, he believes she is possessed by Carlotta, a dead ancestor. Scottie is sceptical, but agrees after he sees the beautiful Madeleine. John “Scottie” suffers from acrophobia (a psychological fear of heights) from which the film gets its title. The highly sophisticated and beautiful Madeleine with her air of mystery and intrigue, mesmerises Scottie, introduces him to the elite crowd of San Francisco. He falls in love with Madeleine and she too, apparently falls in love with him. But soon after, she dies as she falls off the church tower’s roof. Is it suicide, murder or accident?  Scottie, a victim of vertigo, witnesses the fall and goes into shock.

That is not quite the point. The completely broken Scottie, who his fiancé Midge tries to console, suddenly chances upon a young woman who bears a strikingly identical resemblance to Madeleine. But she dresses and behaves differently. Her name is Judy. Scottie, now takes it upon himself to give Judy a complete makeover with the hairstyle, the ornaments, the make-up and the dress that Madeleine used so that he can “get back” his lady love. He does not feel the need to ask Judy whether she agrees to this makeover. After all, he is a decision maker on what a woman should wear or not wear, how she should speak, how she should braid her hair and all that stuff. Judy turns into putty in his hands though we can see that she is intrigued by the behaviour of a man she feels she had fallen in love with. Hitchcock shows firstly that Judy is prepared to do anything for money and secondly, she is prepared to do the bidding of the man she believes might love her. In other words, the woman is beautiful, but she lacks spine, character and decision-making powers.

Even the painting of Carlotta in the Legion of Honor Madeleine/Judy pretends to be mesmerised by is another ‘object’ meant to excite the audience and also Scottie. Judy as Madeleine pretends to identify with Carlotta. Carlotta, though a painting, is also unstable and fleeting; her face in the portrait differs from that of the figure she becomes in Scottie’s nightmare, and in both, her hair is arranged in the same fascinating spiral style. As D.A. Miller writes in his piece on Vertigo in Film Quarterly (Winter, 2008-09, Vol. 62, No.2.) that through “a series of shots at the Legion of Honor in which Scottie looks at Madeleine while she is looking at the portrait of Carlotta; he sees the posy at Madeleine’s side, then sees it held by Carlotta in the portrait; he sees Madeleine’s cyclopic coiffure, then sees it on Carlotta, too. These shots seal Scottie into the belief that Madeleine is, or thinks she is, possessed by Carlotta’s spirit”. At the same time, Hitchcock has cleverly reduced the woman in the painting into an object of beauty to be looked at, admired and be mesmerised by.

Martin Rubin writes: “The concept of the femme fatale, central to the hard-boiled detective and film noir traditions on which Vertigo draws is examined and undercut – the film is explicitly about how men, out of their own anxieties and for their own convenience, create mythic images of women.” (Thrillers, Cambridge University Press, 1999, p.116).

As I mentioned in the article ‘60 Years On, Hitchcock’s Vertigo Still Reminds Us Of Some Hindi Movie Heroines’ in Women’s Web magazine (30 August 2018) – “Vertigo is a classic example of portraying the woman as one who can easily be manipulated by men, as one who bears it all even at the cost of her identity. The female protagonist in the film is split into two distinct personas – the first one is Madeleine, a sophisticated, beautiful woman of class that Judy performs to order and the second is Judy as her real self, of mainstream class sans aristocracy of the delicacy of speech or costume like the Madeleine she portrays. The real Madeleine remains off-screen and the hero Scottie as well as the audience is cleverly tricked into believing that Madeleine is the woman who committed suicide by jumping off the roof of an ancestral place.”

Mental image in Vertigo

We realise that it was actually Judy who was hired by the real Madeleine’s scheming husband Gavin Elster to play “the part of Madeleine” who we never get to see. Scottie is made to believe that Madeleine “committed suicide” and Judy is her look-alike.  So, this is not a case of “denial of identity” but rather, stripping Judy of her identity first, when Gavin Elster hires her to play the role of his wife Madeleine and then by Scottie who coerces her to dress, behave, wear her hair and walk and talk like “his” Madeleine. But Madeleine does not exist.

Judy is always “performing”, either as the fake Madeleine because she needed the money that came with the “job” or, as Judy, surrender to the dictates of Scottie who rejects her for what she is and forces upon her, the identity of a woman who does not exist! Did Judy then, have an identity to begin with? Or, was she, like Midge, Scottie’s plain-looking, plain-dressing artist friend who is presented by Hitchcock as a counterpoint to Judy/Madeleine’s beauty not even aware that she had an identity of her own?

James Stewart and Kim Novak in the woods scene in Vertigo (Pic: IndieWire)

As part of a round-table discussion at the Philoctetes Center, New York, on November 6, 2010 on ‘Finding Equilibrium in Hitchcock’s Vertigo’ the group agreed – “The film concerns a mysterious case of “possession”—a staged fascination with death—played out in a series of silent tableaux, each of which aestheticizes and eroticizes the Madeleine figure” at the cost of depriving Judy of her identity, and also reduces Midge to a boyish figure sans sex appeal to highlight the erotized beauty of the fake Madeleine. They conclude that “The film’s narrative structure is circular and repetitive; it’s been suggested that the film itself represents a distinct form of madness. ‘Vertigo is just a movie. But no other movie I know so purely conveys the sealing of a mind within a scorching fantasy,’ writes Stanley Cavell in The World Viewed”.

In Kim Novak, who plays the “dual” characters of Madeleine and Judy, “Hitchcock projects the femme fatale as victim and victimiser, and from a feminist perspective, this binary of victim/victimiser originates from a fatal male aggressiveness in the film. In the dual Madeleine/Judy role,  her character is a tragic victim of the men who fashion her into a sexual object,” writes Pradipta Mukherjee in ‘A Kaleidoscopic view of genres’ in The Statesman (14 July 2018.)


The women in Vertigo have roles that rely heavily on Patriarchy. Women in Vertigo have no real power and cannot exist without men. In one scene, when Scottie is commanding Judy to “change” for his sake, she raises a pathetic question: “If, if I let you change it, will that do it? If I do what you tell me, will you love me?” This question diminishes the role of women and increases their reliance on men. This also points out that at the end of it all, Judy as Judy or as Madeleine, lacks self-esteem as underscored by the misogynist we know as Alfred Hitchcock. Sixty years later, have things changed for the better for women, in cinema or out of it?

More to read on Alfred Hitchcock

Alfred Hitchcock’s Early Career

Love as Obsession: Reading Alfred Hitchcock’s The Paradine Case

Alfred Hitchcock and The Lady Vanishes

A Case-Study of Vertigo – Hitchcock & Mental-Image

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Dr. Shoma A Chatterji is a freelance journalist, film scholar and author based in Kolkata. Her focus of interest lies in Indian cinema, human rights, media, gender and child rights. She has authored 24 books mainly on Indian cinema and on gender and has been jury at several film festivals in India and abroad. She has won two National Awards - for Best Film Critic in 1991 and for Best Book on cinema in 2002. She has also won four fellowships over the past 10 years.
All Posts of Shoma A Chatterji

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