Critic Robin Wood has termed the last third of Vertigo one of the most painful movie-going experiences Hollywood has ever offered. What might he mean by this?
The audience can identify with the attraction that Scottie feels for Madeleine and the tragic sense of loss that overcomes him when she dies. Even though this attraction is already verging into the darker corners of obsession, it remains normal enough to create audience identification. By the point at which Scottie has moved over into unquestioned neurotic obsession with recreating Judy in Madeleine’s image, the identification has begun to crumble. Add in the element of dramatic irony in which we know what is really going on, but Scottie doesn’t and the film ramps up its emotional disconnection with the audience to a degree that eventually becomes untenable for most viewers. We may not guess that the story is heading right back to its most shocking moment to be replayed again, but it isn’t hard to realize that this train wreck is not moving toward a happy ending. The typical viewer has been placed in a situation in which he must now work hard to feel sympathy for Scottie while also being deprived of the chance to transfer identification over to Judy; she’s not going to win any Nobel Prize for humanitarian behavior, either. The final third of the film relentlessly test an audience’s capacity of empathy with both its main characters in a way that was almost unheard-of at the time it was made.
In the novel upon which the film is based, the revelation that Judy/Madeleine are the same person is delayed until the end and serves as the surprising climax. Hitchcock shifts the reveal to the middle while still keeping it from Scottie. How does this change affect the story?
It all goes back to Hitchcock’s perspective on mystery versus suspense. Putting the reveal at the end of story makes it a mystery in which the solution is the central focus. By letting the audience in on the solution, the tone of the film for the viewer changes from mystery to suspense. Suspense in this case means knowing the solution, but not knowing how the characters are going to react once they discover the solution. The effect is to remove any focus that may be wasted by wondering what exactly is the deal with Judy and placing it squarely upon what is the film’s real concern anyway: Scottie’s deteriorating state of mind as he inches closer to outright psychosis.
Is it fair to accuse Scottie of possessing—at some unconscious level he is likely completely ignorant of—fetishistic desire a dead woman?
As far as Scottie is concerned, Madeleine is dead. He watched in paralyzed horror as her body flies past the window in the tower. The police arrive and an investigation is conducted and the State of California agrees that Madeleine Ulster is deceased. So Judy cannot possibly be Madeleine but merely a woman who—with a little help—can be made to look exactly like Madeleine. Who is dead. Scottie may work obsessively to get Judy’s resemblance to Madeleine absolutely perfect, but no matter how perfect it may be…Madeleine is dead. Dead and buried and gone. Judy can only be—again, as far as Scottie knows—an imitation when what Scottie really wants is the real thing. So, yes, at a certain level, among the many problems facing Scottie is that at some level his obsession with Madeleine can fairly be described as possession at least some unrecognized overtones of necrophilia. To have sex with Judy will be the closest thing to having sex with Madeleine.
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