Alfred Hitchcock’s magnum opus Vertigo appears to tell the same story twice. However, there’s a very good and incredibly brilliant reason for this.
Before we get to the discussion, we should run through of the plot. After acrophobic cop John “Scottie” Ferguson (played by James Stewart) resigns because he inadvertently got another cop killed, he investigates his friend Gavin’s (played by Tom Helmore) wife Madeleine (played by Kim Novak). She appears to be possessed by one of her ancestors, a spurned woman named Carlotta Valdes who eventually killed herself at the same age that Madeleine currently is.
Watching the scenes where Madeleine is “possessed” are kind of creepy. She stares blankly at a painting of Carlotta. She buys flowers that look like the flowers shown in the painting. She checks into a hotel that has relevance to Valdes. Creepily, she signs herself in as “Carlotta Valdes.” Probably the creepiest moment of her “possession” is when she visits the actual Carlotta’s grave. It’s later revealed that Madeleine has never even heard of Carlotta despite all of the examples from this paragraph.
While walking around the area beneath the Golden Gate Bridge, Madeleine comes under the influence of Carlotta and jumps in the ocean. Scottie rescues her and a tawdry affair soon commences between them. Scottie takes Madeleine to a farm that Carlotta was involved with. While they’re there, they pass a church and Madeleine gets “possessed” again and runs up to the bell tower. Scottie gives chase, but his vertigo acts up and he’s too afraid to follow her up. He soon sees her body fall from the tower.
After seeing her fall, it appears that he’s being haunted by Carlotta too. In a scene reminiscent of those scenes in early Disney movies where something creepy happens for no reason, Scottie has a freakout. He imagines Carlotta behind Gavin at his trial and what appears to be a laser rock show shows up behind a still shot of his head. He ends up in a psychiatric hospital in a seemingly catatonic state. This would seem like a good ending point for the movie. Carlota’s vengeful ghost has cost Madeleine her life and Scottie his sanity. It would be an interesting, if bleak, way to end a movie. However, Hitchcock had a couple more tricks up his sleeve.
After being released from the hospital he sees a woman who looks an awful lot like Madeleine. He confronts her, learns her name is Judy, and then sets up a date with her because he’s played by James Stewart. After he leaves her apartment, we learn an incredibly shocking secret.
It turns out that Judy actually IS Madeleine. Or, more accurately, the Madeleine that Scottie knew. She was Gavin’s mistress and he had her pretend to Madeleine for Scottie. Knowing about his acrophobia, they decided to have the real Madeleine killed in a place with a great height, so Scottie could do nothing about it. The whole possession story they cooked up was just something to get Scottie convinced. The only hitch in their plan is that Judy actually fell in love with Scottie. After they begin dating, Scottie tries to make Judy look like Madeleine he knew. So, basically he’s trying to make her look like herself.
Madeleine is put off by this, but because she loves him so much, she puts up with it. However, she accidentally wears the same necklace that Carlota wears in the painting, which tips Scottie off that everything’s not what it seems. He then takes her up to where the real Madeleine died and reveals that he’s figured out the whole plot. While explaining what he now knows, he’s able to climb the tower without his vertigo acting up. When they get to the top of the bell tower, a nun hiding in the shadows scares Judy. Scared and disoriented, she accidentally falls out of the same window that Madeleine was thrown from.
The re-telling of the story is what makes the film, in my opinion, a masterpiece instead of the great film it was. The second telling of the story is mostly the same except with several differences that ratchet up the irony. There’s several simple differences like Midge (played by Barbara Bel Geddes) and Gavin not appearing in the second half, but there’s some good differences that really stand out.
The first and biggest difference is the whole thing about hauntings. In the first part of the film, Judy is pretending to be possessed by Carlotta. She’s doing this because she wants Scottie to think that she actually is possessed. In the second part, Scottie thinks that he actually is haunted by Carlotta. He was catatonic for a while because of his fear of her. When he sees Judy for the first time, he looks visibly disturbed because of the similarity between her appearance and Madeleine’s.
The second difference is with Madeleine/Judy’s relationship with Scottie. In the first telling, she pretends to be someone other than herself to seduce and fool Scottie. However, she shows her true feeling for him, and other than using a different name, is honest with him. In the second telling, she’s actually using her real name in their relationship. But, she can’t tell him the truth about her pretending to be Madeleine. Other than using her real name, she isn’t being very honest with him.
A third difference is the scenes with the bell tower. In the first telling, Judy runs up the bell tower while Scottie is too afraid to. When Judy gets to the top, Gavin throws Madeleine down, making it look like a suicide. Also, in this scene, Judy knows exactly what’s going on, while Scottie doesn’t. In the second telling, he’s the one who wants to go up the tower and she has to be dragged all the way up there. When they get up there, Judy herself falls out like Scottie expected her to when she was pretending to be Madeleine. During the hike up the tower, Scottie has a plan for when they get to the top while Judy is horrified and confused.
Despite those differences, there are some interesting similarities between the two tellings. There are some simple similarities between the two like Scottie falling in love with Judy/Madeleine and someone falling out of the bell tower, but there’s some brilliant ones that show Hitchcock’s genius.
Probably the most obvious and brilliant is Judy’s appearance in both tellings. In the first telling, she dresses up like Madeleine at the behest of her lover. Madeleine was someone that he used to love. In the second telling, she dresses up like Madeleine at the behest of her lover. Madeleine was some he used to love. In both tellings, the reason that the lovers want her to dress up is less than honorable reasons. In the first telling, it’s so he can fake Madeleine’s death. In the second telling, it’s so he can pretend that he’s still with Madeleine.
In both tellings, the person associated with the ghost of Carlotta is obsessed with a dead person that they never knew. In the first telling, Madeleine is (pretending to be) obsessed with Carlotta herself. She dresses up like her, visits her grave, and visits place associated with her. In the second telling, Scottie is (actually) obsessed with Madeleine. He makes Judy dress up like her and change her hair to look like her. Since Scottie didn’t actually know the real Madeleine, this comparison is intact.
A third similarity is that both tellings end on a downer note. The first telling ends with Madeleine dead and Scottie in a state of shock. The second telling ends with Judy (who Scottie thought was Madeleine for a while) dead and Scottie has a look on his face that appears to indicate that he going to enter another state of shock.
There are several good reasons for why the film appears to tell the same story twice. Some reasons are relatively easy to surmise like, for example, the film would only be about an hour long if they didn’t re-tell it. But there’s several more intellectual reasons.
One good reason why the film replays itself is to examine Scottie’s likability. In the first telling of the story, the audience’s sympathy is with Scottie. He inadvertently got one of his co-workers killed and the woman he loves is (seemingly) insane and suicidal. In contrast, the audience loses sympathy for him in the second telling. This is due to him bossing Judy around and making her change appearance to one that she’s obviously bothered about. Ironically, the reason for his bossing her around is the same reason why the audience felt sympathy in the first telling: his trauma and bad experiences. Hitchcock gets the audience to change their opinion of a character by using the same thing that made them feel the way they did the first time around.
Another reason for why the film is re-told twice is that the second telling enhances and compliments the first telling. We learn several things about the first telling in the second one. The obvious things we learn are that Scottie was investigating an imposter Madeleine, Gavin was a murderer, and that Carlotta was a red herring. Those things could have been told in the first telling, but its placement in the second one is a much more interesting story-telling device.
A third reason for the film’s interesting story structure is that it plays with the audience’s expectations. Most movies wouldn’t tell the same story twice within its running time. Most movies that deliberately make their main character unlikable for the service of the story. In addition to these interesting story elements, the film does several things that weren’t common during its time. The film was made when studios still obeyed the Hay’s Code. One of the provisions of the Hayes Code was that the villain couldn’t escape justice. This provision is best shown in the original Ocean’s Eleven, where the stolen money gets burned so Danny Ocean can’t get it and the audience doesn’t think that crime pays. Vertigo, which came out two years before Ocean’s Eleven, ends with no indication that Gavin will be arrested for his murder. Judy is dead and Scottie looks to be on the verge of a nervous breakdown.
Interestingly, the above reason may have been the reason for why the film flopped when it came out. It’s not hard to imagine 1958 audiences being confused about the plot re-telling. Films with unique story structures have a bad habit of flopping at the box-office (see the recent Killing Them Softly, which, despite being awesome, completely bombed). According to the IMDb trivia page for Vertigo, many blamed Jimmy Stewart age (he was way older than both Novak and Bel Geddes) for its flopping, but I still think it’s the unusual plot structure.