Gavin: “Do you believe that someone out of the past, someone dead, can enter and take possession of a living being?”
Gavin Elster asks Scottie this question in his attempt to hire Scottie to trail his wife. Elster is referring to his belief that the long-dead Carlotta Valdes has taken possession of his wife, Madeleine. For the first two-thirds of the film, both Scottie and the viewer come to believe that it is indeed possible for someone dead to take possession of a living being, as Madeleine glides around San Francisco apparently haunted by Carlotta, even driven to suicide by her ghost. But Madeleine is not the only one in the film possessed by a dead person. After Madeleine’s apparent suicide, Scottie, too, becomes possessed. As he wanders about the streets of San Francisco after her death, he is continually convinced that he sees Madeleine in other women. When he meets Judy, he is certain that he has found her.
Judy also spends much of the film possessed by a dead person. The Madeleine whom she impersonates comes back to “haunt” her when Scottie insists that she assume the dead Madeleine’s identity in both appearance and behavior. Eventually, Judy loses herself to a kind of possession by the dead woman. As Scottie drags her up the stairs of the bell tower at the end of the film, Judy answers sometimes as herself, sometimes as Madeleine, no longer certain of her true identity. When she sees the shadowy figure of a nun at the top of the bell tower, she panics and falls, fearing the apparition may be the dead Madeleine returning to avenge her murder.
Pop Leibel: “He [Carlotta’s lover] threw her away. Men could do that in those days. They had the power and the freedom.”
These are Pop Leibel’s words as he shares the tragic story of Carlotta Valdes with Scottie and Midge, the woman who supposedly possesses Madeleine Elster. Significantly, Pop Leibel echoes the words “power” and “freedom” that were used by Gavin Elster when he spoke nostalgically with Scottie about the San Francisco of the past. This power and freedom are precisely what Gavin Elster desires, and in the murder of his wife, he achieves this desire in much the same manner as Carlotta’s lover. Ironically, Judy, in playing the role of Madeleine possessed by Carlotta, eventually shares Carlotta’s fate. She, too, is “thrown away” by her lover, Elster, once she has served his needs. And while Judy does not commit suicide like Carlotta, her death is the result of her submission to and exploitation by men who claim to love her—both Elster and Scottie.
Scottie: “What are you thinking about?”
Madeleine: “Of all the people who were born and died while the trees went on living.”
Scottie: “Their true name is Sequoia sempervirens—always green, ever living.”
Madeleine: “I don’t like it . . . knowing I have to die.”
This dialogue between Scottie and Madeleine takes place in the giant sequoia forest at Big Basin. The thematic tension between fearing death and desiring its release comes to a head here, as Madeleine apparently grapples with an irresistible drive toward suicide and a simultaneous fear of her own demise. In retrospect, it is Judy’s true voice speaking here. It is in this forest that Scottie and “Madeleine” profess their love for each other. The Judy within Madeleine realizes that once she fakes her suicide, she will no longer exist for Scottie and their love affair must end. The trees’ scientific name and meaning foreshadows Scottie’s later preoccupation with the dead Madeleine and with keeping her “ever living.”
Judy: “If I let you change me, will that do it? If I do what you tell me, will you love me?”
Judy: “Alright then, I’ll do it. I don’t care anymore about me.”
This exchange takes place in Judy’s apartment after Scottie spends an entire day attempting to transform Judy into Madeleine. Judy has finally given in to the romantic delusion that has already destroyed Scottie. Until this exchange, Judy has tried to convince Scottie to love her for her true self. But it is now clear to her that he will love her only as Madeleine. Judy’s surrender provides a clear understanding of what motivates her: an overwhelming desire to be accepted and loved. She is willing to delude herself and live in Scottie’s world of fantasy and illusion to attain that goal. Undoubtedly, the same motivation must have originally led her to accept the role of Madeleine at Gavin Elster’s request. Her conscious decision to stop caring about herself opens the door to the disintegration of Judy’s identity. She so successfully adopts the persona of Madeleine that she makes the fatal mistake of putting on Madeleine’s “Carlotta” necklace. By the time Scottie drags her to the top of the bell tower, she is no longer certain of her own identity, speaking to him alternately as Judy and Madeleine. Judy’s willingness to abdicate her own identity and her ultimate disintegration is realized in her death at the bell tower.
Scottie: “He made you over just like I made you over—only better. Not only the clothes and the hair, but the looks and the manners and the words . . . And then what did he do? Did he train you? Did he rehearse you? Did he tell you exactly what to do and what to say?”
Scottie spits these words at Judy as he drags her up the San Juan Bautista tower. Here he conveys the full measure of his rage, disappointment, and bitterness. For the first time, Scottie sees the parallel between himself and the evil Gavin Elster. Just as Elster trained and groomed Judy to be the Madeleine who could entrance and manipulate Scottie, so Scottie dictates all elements of Judy’s appearance in order to transform her into Madeleine. The comparison of the two men here is Hitchcock’s way of conveying that the seeds of evil reside in everyone, no matter how well intentioned one might be.