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Written by Timothy Sexton
The Absence of Vertigo in "Vertigo"
The first irony of Hitchcock’s movie is that his main character does not actually suffer from the titular disorder. Vertigo is not directly related to a fear of heights and a fear of heights does not necessarily cause sensations similar to vertigo. It is safe to say that Scottie does suffer a paralyzing fear of heights, but if he truly suffered from vertigo his crippling fear of heights would likely have prevented him from climbing more than five or six steps, much less an entire flight of stairs. Indeed, he probably would have trouble just walking the streets of San Francisco. To make things perfectly clear: vertigo is used here metaphorically to describe the state of Scottie’s psychological well-being and not as a medical condition that affects his physical state.
The Cure for Acrophobia
Now that we have clarified the issue of Scottie’s health, the ultimate irony of the film is that he seems to have finally cured his fear of heights mere seconds too late. His love for Madeleine/Judy allow him to make it up the steps to the bell tower eventually, but that eventually proved to take far too much time if you are Judy.
Good Old Fashioned Dramatic Irony
Dramatic irony occurs when the audience is aware of something that a character in the movie is not. This occurs when the audience finds out well before Scottie that Judy and Madeleine are one and the same. This introduction of dramatic irony is not in the source material for the film and represents a creative decision by Hitchcock to introduce a level of suspense missing from the novel.
Scottie’s Inability to Save the Woman He Loves…Twice
Scottie’s crippling fear of heights results in his twice failing to protect the woman he loves from perishing. And yet, only one of those failures contains any irony at all as previous described. The first time is not ironic at all since it was carefully planned and executed by Elster. The second tie, when Judy actually does fall to her death is also free from any irony related to Scottie’s fear of heights since both he and Judy were well aware of the potential consequences before they even entered the mission grounds. Judy’s death only becomes ironic because it seems to have cured Scottie. So the real irony in Scottie’s failure to prevent two deaths is the only total absence of irony.
Scottie the Hero? Protagonist? Creep? Villain? What?
Which brings us to the single greatest irony of Vertigo. Scottie is the protagonist of the film if not necessarily the hero. Let’s face it: he fails miserably at being a hero. Keep in mind, however, that it is not really his fear of heights that costs Judy her life, but rather his psychologically demented sexual obsession with recreating her in the image of Madeleine. That mentality is today associated with stalkers and it is not going too far to suggest that Scottie—the romantic interest of the film if not the hero—is at least as creepy as Norman Bates and maybe more so.
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