The scene in Midge’s apartment reveals that Scottie was a fairly average man firmly rooted in reality before his near-death experience. Scottie was a lawyer who joined the police force as a detective in hope of one day becoming chief of police. But Scottie has become acrophobic and is so disturbed by his condition that he quits his detective job. His restlessness and aimlessness are so palpable that when he takes a job sleuthing for Gavin Elster, he is perfectly positioned to get caught up in the world of dream and illusion that Elster and “Madeleine” create for him. He yearns for his life before the accident on the roof, and Madeleine’s apparent possession by a figure from the past is attractive to him, despite his initial skepticism.
By the time Scottie attempts to re-create Judy in Madeleine’s image, it is clear that he has become completely lost in the world of illusion and fantasy—so lost that he can no longer articulate rational reasons for his behavior. When Judy asks him what good it will do for her to “become” Madeleine, Scottie answers very genuinely that he doesn’t know. And yet he is driven to make the transformation happen, even at the risk of driving away Judy. The revelation of Judy’s true identity shatters Scottie’s illusion. Rage at the dissolution of his dream and at Judy’s trickery now possesses him.
The Madeleine character of Vertigo is a fabrication from the start, a fact that is not known until two-thirds of the way into the film when it is revealed that Judy impersonated Madeleine in a scheme to murder the real Madeleine Elster. It is a fact that unmoors viewers as it means that “Madeleine’s” apparent motivations, haunted dreams, memories, and even mannerisms have been externally created by Judy in collaboration with Elster. “Madeleine” is the perfect representation of the world of romantic illusion to which Scottie is tragically attracted. It is difficult to discuss what motivates “Madeleine” because she is no more than a projection. Judy, on the other hand, is a real person, complete with imperfections, complex feelings, and motivations. Where “Madeleine” represents the unattainable ideal, Judy represents the real. The only point at which Judy and Madeleine converge is in their love for Scottie.
Judy’s manners are unrefined, even a bit coarse. In short, she is the antithesis of the refined, ethereal “Madeleine.” But Scottie recognizes some echo of Madeleine in Judy and relentlessly quizzes her about her identity. At first, Judy defends her true self, repeating her name, the name of her hometown in Kansas, and her occupation. In retrospect, we see that she is probably desperate to reclaim her true identity after having played the role of Madeleine for so long. When it becomes clear to Judy that Scottie will never love her for her own attributes, she consciously surrenders herself and allows him to transform her into Madeleine. Indeed, by the time her transformation is complete, it seems that rather than playing a role, Judy has actually taken on Madeleine’s identity, a fact that would account for her unthinking and fatal choice of Carlotta’s necklace when she dresses for dinner.
Where Madeleine represents a romantic, otherworldly ideal, Midge stands for its opposite. The bespectacled Midge is practical, competent, realistic, and well adjusted. An artist by training, she applies her skill to prosaic ends, creating advertisements for women’s undergarments. Throughout the film, she attempts to keep Scottie’s feet on the ground. First, she tries to change Scottie’s mind about giving up his detective job and works on helping him overcome his acrophobia. When he begins his job trailing Madeleine, Midge attempts to unmask the improbability of the situation. Her constant attempts to make Scottie discuss the case reveal her desire to ground the mystery in reality and his unwillingness to do so. Scottie considers Midge’s treatment of Madeleine’s world to be a kind of blasphemy, and it becomes clear to Midge that she will find no entrance into that world. It is significant that the last shot of Midge is of her retreating down the hall of the sanatorium. She has been unable to bring Scottie out of his catatonic state and back to reality. He is now firmly entrenched in the world of illusion, beyond the reach of the “real world.”