Greek and Roman Mythology
Perhaps the most obvious mythological influence on the film is the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, in which the musician Orpheus loses his wife, Eurydice, to death and ventures into the underworld to rescue her, only to lose her again. Vertigo plays off of two central themes of this story. First, Scottie’s Orpheus character attempts to save Madeleine, the Eurydice character, from drowning in the San Francisco Bay. He succeeds, only to lose her in a “suicide” off the bell tower. He then gets a second chance to save Madeleine from death, this time by recreating Judy in Madeleine’s image. He achieves this resurrection, but then loses her again when she plunges from the bell tower. And just as in the Orpheus myth it is Orpheus’s fault—his failure to follow the instruction not to look back at his beloved as he leads her out of Hades—that he loses Eurydice again, so in Vertigo it is Scottie’s flaws that lead to his losses: his acrophobia causes him to lose Madeleine and it is his insistence on recreating a dead woman that leads him to lose Judy.
The Roman myth of Pygmalion and Galatea is also a clear influence on Vertigo. The sculptor Pygmalion (Scottie in the film) uses his art to create a sculpture of the perfect woman (Vertigo’s Madeleine) and then tragically falls in love with his creation. George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion, which was later adapted into the musical My Fair Lady, also echoes here, particularly in the scenes in which Scottie, as a Pygmalion Professor Higgins, attempts to transform Judy, his Eliza Doolittle, into a proper lady, but without any of the comic effects of the play.
Scottie can also be seen as Tristan, the ill-fated lover of the medieval legend Tristan and Isolde, who marries a second woman named Isolde when the true Isolde of his passions weds another. That legend ends with the death of Tristan and the suicide of his beloved, just as Vertigo ends with Judy/Madeleine’s accidental death and Scottie’s living “death” in the wake of tragedy.
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