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.