In Vertigo, Hitchcock wins sympathy for Scottie almost immediately as he dangles by his fingernails from a rooftop high above the street. The camera’s dizzying angle presents Scottie’s point of view as he hangs helplessly over the abyss. When the camera cuts to his face, it is powerfully engaging to see Scottie’s cold sweat and obvious terror. Our sympathy and identification with the protagonist are key to the film’s powerful impact.
After bonding with Scottie in crisis, we then get a sense of Scottie’s amiability, sense of humor, and desirability to women in the scene in Midge’s apartment. The fear of heights that he exhibits in the same scene is a common phobia with which many viewers can easily identify. When it leads to Scottie’s downfall, his pain can be felt all the more keenly.
These opening scenes position Scottie as an Everyman—someone with attractive character traits and some very human flaws. His career aspiration to become chief of police, his conflicted feelings about Midge, and his need to recuperate after a brush with death on the roof all serve to make him accessible and human. When he tentatively accepts a detective job from Gavin Elster, we can sympathize with his desire to feel useful and to immerse himself in his prior life as detective.
It is critical that we feel sympathy for Scottie by the time he begins to trail Madeleine because the dreamlike “detective work” scenes change every-day reality into a world that is harder to recognize or to compare to the real world. Hitchcock employs soft-focus camera work and Bernard Herrmann’s swirling music to create a world that facilitates Scottie’s ever-growing obsession with Madeleine. By the time Scottie and Madeleine profess their love for each other, we’ve been assimilated into this dream world and are as enchanted as Scottie is by Madeleine’s ethereal, haunted persona and as anxious to help Madeleine escape her “possession.” When Madeleine hurls herself off the bell tower of San Juan Bautista, Scottie’s helplessness and anguish are ours as well.
Hitchcock tests our sympathy for Scottie as his obsession for the dead Madeleine leads him to mold Judy into Madeleine’s image. But Hitchcock lessens the distastefulness of this monomaniacal behavior by first showing Scottie at his weakest and most vulnerable. Following Madeleine’s death, the catatonic Scottie is placed in a sanatorium and is completely unresponsive to Midge’s aid and care. The doctor reveals that Scottie suffers from “acute melancholia, together with a guilt complex.” Hitchcock even makes us privy to Scottie’s nightmares, which he depicts in a striking mix of cartoon and surreal photography. The dream culminates with the protagonist falling headlong into an open grave. By experiencing his dream, the viewer gains a visceral sense of Scottie’s identification with Madeleine and his subconscious desire to join her in death. While Scottie’s subsequent obsessiveness may still be distasteful, Hitchcock has ensured an understanding of the roots of that behavior. Hitchcock also strengthens the identification with Scottie’s obsession by filming many key scenes from Scottie’s perspective. When Judy emerges from her room completely transformed, the camera turns with Scottie to show what he sees: her figure bathed in a green light, her outline diffused in a ghostly glow.
By the time Scottie discovers Judy’s secret past as “Madeleine” and begins his maniacal return to the top of the bell tower, our feelings are as conflicted as his. We are horrified when he drags Judy up the stairs and simultaneously root for him to conquer his acrophobia and reach the top. We share the admixture of repulsion and attraction Scottie feels toward Judy/Madeleine as she attempts to explain her role in the death of Elster’s wife. Instead of providing a feeling of completion or catharsis, however, the final sequence of events resurrects the state of suspense: Judy has fallen to her death and Scottie stands in the bell tower, untroubled by acrophobia, but a shattered man in every other sense.