Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
In the opening scene of Vertigo, Scottie is moments away from death as he dangles from the roof of a tall building. His fear is palpable, and while he is overcome with terror watching his comrade fall, letting go seems to be the only way out of the situation. Madeleine is the embodiment of this fear of and attraction to death. Supposedly possessed by a woman who took her own life, Madeleine wanders San Francisco, drawn to the idea of suicide and yet fearing death. One day after attempting to drown herself in the San Francisco Bay, she and Scottie wander among the ancient Sequoia trees and she expresses a dread of death. “I don’t like it, knowing I have to die,” she tells him, and she pleads with him to take her into the light.
This confusion of impulses manifests itself on a more figurative level when Scottie attempts to mold Judy in Madeleine’s image. While Judy initially fights the annihilation of her real self—a kind of death—she eventually embraces it as a way to claim Scottie’s love, saying, “I don’t care anymore about me.” Scottie enacts these contradictory impulses when he drags Judy to the top of the bell tower with the apparent desire to kill her, and then reacts with horror and despair when she plummets to her death.
The mask-like qualities of appearance are suggested during the opening credits of the film, which feature a woman’s expressionless face and a shot first of her lips and then of her nervously darting eyes. The depths of emotion and experience in this woman are unknowable to us. In the scene in Midge’s apartment, Scottie appears to be a balanced man on the mend from a traumatizing experience, but it does not take long to realize that his healthy exterior masks a burgeoning madness. And while Midge is pragmatic, unromantic, and controlled in her responses, her exterior hides the soul of a passionate person. After her failed attempt to break into Scottie’s dream-world by painting her own head on Carlotta’s portrait, she flies into a surprising rage, flinging paintbrushes at her own reflection in the window—an attempt to shatter the mask that Scottie sees and mistakes for her whole identity.
Madeleine’s character is nothing but appearance. She is a fabrication loosely based on the legend of a dead woman, and Scottie’s attempt to understand and penetrate that appearance is what leads to his downfall and the downfall of Judy/Madeleine. After assuming Madeleine’s appearance at Scottie’s insistence, Judy has difficulty penetrating her own mask. By the time Scottie drags her up the steps of the bell tower, she no longer has a firm grasp on her true identity and alternates between speaking as Judy and as Madeleine.
While Scottie’s acrophobia is his most apparent Achilles’ heel, his true tragic flaw is his penchant for romantic delusion. He fools himself, and is easily fooled by others, into believing in illusions that are romantically gratifying to him. Hitchcock presents Midge as a highly sympathetic character and prompts viewers to root for her in her vain attempts to woo Scottie. Midge is the antithesis of romantic delusion, firmly grounded in the real world and able to offer Scottie a mature kind of love. But this is the kind of love that Scottie rejects in favor of the illusive, dreamlike love he finds with Madeleine. And it is his decisive submission to delusion that ensures the film’s tragic ending. Judy pleads with Scottie to accept her as she is, to try to move beyond the dead Madeleine, but this is something he cannot do. Judy’s startled fall from the bell tower is the film’s final example of the folly and danger of romantic delusion. When the shadowy figure of a nun appears behind Judy and Scottie in the tower, Judy seems to be overtaken by the romantic notion that it may be the ghost of the real Madeleine returning to the scene of the crime.
Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
Power and freedom are held up as privileges men had in the past, but presumably do not have in the present. While discussing his nostalgia for the San Francisco of the past, Gavin Elster tells Scottie that he misses the days when men had “power [and] freedom.” Later, when Scottie is researching the story of Carlotta Valdes, the bookshop owner and historian Pop Leibel tells him that the wealthy man who abandoned Carlotta and kept her child was able to do so with impunity because men in those days had “the freedom and the power” to do such things. Scottie yearns for the time when he felt he was the master of his own destiny, before his brush with death on the rooftop. The words freedom and power again are spoken by Scottie as he drags Judy up the stairs of the bell tower.
Tunnels and corridors repeatedly represent the passage to death. The first tunnel image appears when the camera reveals Scottie’s perspective as he clings to the rooftop gutter. The camera shoots straight down the side of the building, creating a tunnel effect. While visiting the sequoia forest, Madeleine shares a recurring dream in which she walks “. . . down a long corridor.” Nothing but darkness and death await her at the end of the corridor. She also dreams of a room in which there is a corridor-like open grave. When Midge walks away from Scottie for the last time, it is down a long sanatorium corridor that darkens around her. This passage marks a kind of death for Midge as she loses hope of rekindling her romance with Scottie.
Hitchcock turns the tunnel-to-death motif on its head in the corridor outside Judy’s apartment. Judy emerges at the end of the hallway after her transformative trip to the beauty salon. Rather than retreat down the corridor, she comes forward as Madeleine in a kind of resurrection scene. The next tunnel Judy travels through is in Scottie’s car, when he takes her back to San Juan Bautista to retrace the steps of her crime. As they drive toward the mission, tall trees on either side of the road combine with dusky lighting to give the impression of a tunnel.
In one scene, Scottie follows Madeleine to a flower shop, where she purchases a small nosegay. Its fragile perfection is an ideal representation of Madeleine herself. The bouquet appears again several times, most notably when Madeleine stands at the edge of San Francisco Bay, plucking petals from the flowers and tossing them into the water. The destruction of the bouquet mirrors Madeleine’s fixation on self-destruction as she prepares to drown herself in the bay. After Madeleine’s death, Hitchcock provides a graphic depiction of Scottie’s nightmare in which a brightly animated bouquet swirls about and then violently disintegrates—a symbolic representation of Madeleine’s death. When Scottie spends the day with Judy before her transformation into Madeleine, he buys her a single flower to wear as a corsage, not a replica of Madeleine’s signature bouquet as we might expect. It is a visual reminder that Judy does not possess the ideal perfection of Madeleine, but merely a small seed of it.
Spirals evoke the literal and figurative feelings of vertigo that hound Scottie and Madeleine/Judy. The opening credits feature a spiral emerging from a woman’s eye. When Scottie looks down from the roof at his fallen colleague, the dead man’s limbs are splayed in the shape of a spiral, indicating that events have spiraled out of control.
As Scottie observes Madeleine in the museum sitting in front of Carlotta Valdes’s portrait, the camera zooms in on the back of her head to reveal a tightly wound spiraling bun, an exact replica of the style worn by Carlotta. The spiral foreshadows the dizzying chaos into which Madeleine will lead Scottie. The most physically jarring spiral is the one formed by the winding stairs of the bell tower as revealed from Scottie’s perspective. As he chases Madeleine up the stairs attempting to halt her apparent suicide, his acrophobia takes over and the camera shoots straight down the stairwell. His vertigo has made him powerless to save the woman he loves. The very structure of the film suggests a spiraling circularity: Scottie falls in love with Madeleine, loses her to death, then falls in love with Judy/Madeleine again, only to lose her to death as well.
Symbols are objects, characters, figures, or colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
Scottie and Madeleine’s visit to the forest of sequoia trees is one of Scottie’s last attempts to return to a healthy worldview. He tells Madeleine that the tree’s scientific name means “always green, ever living,” making explicit the idea that sequoia trees symbolize life in the film. However, the trees remind Madeleine of her own mortality. In response to this immense life force, she says, “I don’t like it, knowing I have to die.” The couple looks at the cross-section of a felled tree, which shows how old the tree was when it was chopped down and suggests that the tree would have gone on living forever had it not been for human intervention. Madeleine’s response to the trees is complex. She appears simultaneously to be afraid of dying and afraid to embrace life. Ultimately, she runs away from the forest, feeling alienated from life and wanting to die.
The color green appears frequently throughout the film, typically in association with eerie or uncanny images. For example, when Scottie first sees Madeleine in Ernie’s Restaurant, she stands out vividly from everyone else in the room because of her dramatic green stole, giving her a startling and somewhat unsettling appearance. In his apartment, as he becomes more withdrawn from the outside world and immersed in a dream world, Scottie wears a green sweater. Judy, who seems to be the ghost of Madeleine, first appears wearing a green dress. Her room is illuminated at night by the building’s green neon sign, and when she emerges into Scottie’s view as the fully transformed Madeleine, she is bathed in the green light, making her look even more like the specter of the dead Madeleine. Thus, while green sometimes symbolizes life, as in the sequoia forest, it also symbolizes the ghostly or uncanny. Both associations with the color green are traditional and can be seen in the earliest folktales. For example, because green can represent the spring and the rebirth of nature, it is also associated with the life after death embodied by ghosts and spirits, as in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.