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.