This post includes a brief plot summary and an explanation about the ending of the film Vertigo (1958). What happened to Judy? Beware of spoilers.
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock, the psychological thriller is based on a 1954 novel named “D’entre les morts” written by Boileau-Narcejac. The film stars James Stewart as John “Scottie” Ferguson and Kim Novak as Judy Barton / Madeleine Elster.
Vertigo (1958) – Plot Summary
While chasing a suspect, detective John “Scottie” Ferguson sees a fellow police officer fall to his death. This traumatic incident triggered his fear of heights and caused him to develop vertigo. Unable to overcome his acrophobia, Scottie retires from the police force.
Scottie’s confidant and former girlfriend (Marjorie “Midge” Wood) believes that only another traumatic event will cure her friend from his acrophobia.
One day, an old acquaintance (Gavin Elster) reaches out to Scottie. The man believes that his wife (Madeleine Elster) is in great danger and wants the former detective to follow his wife. At first, Scottie was sort of hesitant about accepting the job, but then, he agrees to help Gavin.
While following Madeleine, Scottie discovers the portrait of Carlotta Valdés. Apparently, this woman used to be the former mistress of a very wealthy man. Their affair lasted until she birthed his son. After that, the rich man cast her aside and kept the child. Unable to deal with the rejection and heartbreak, Carlotta took her own life.
Despite of not knowing Carlotta’s story, Madeleine has developed a strange fixation for this woman. These findings prompt Scottie to meet up with Gavin again. During their conversation, Gavin reveals that Carlotta Valdés is Madeleine’s great-grandmother, but his wife has no idea that they are related. At his point, Gavin attributes his wife’s deteriorating mental health to Carlotta: he’s afraid that her spirit might be taking over Madeleine’s body.
After hearing Gavin’s fear of losing his wife, Scottie continues to follow Madeleine closely. While tailing Gavin’s wife, he finds the woman standing at the bay and staring into the void. Right when Scottie tries to reach out to Madeleine, she jumps into the water. In order to save her, Scottie dives into the water too and pulls her out. After rescuing Madeleine, Scottie takes her to his place.
When Madeleine wakes up, she sits down with Scottie and they talk about what happened. It seems that, Madeleine has no recollection of what happened. During a moment of distraction from Scottie, Madeleine leaves his place without notice.
The next day, Madeleine goes back to Scottie’s apartment to leave him a letter. Shortly after, Scottie arrives and invites Madeleine to spend some time together.
After driving for a while, the two stop by at a forest and Madeleine’s personality starts to change again. The thought of Carlotta possessing Madeleine’s body sends her to the edge. Therefore, the woman runs to the ocean to end her life again. Scottie stops Madeleine from throwing herself into the ocean and holds her tight. Then, the two embrace and share a deep kiss.
Scottie and Madeleine continue seeing each other. After recounting a nightmare, Scottie takes Madeleine to the place where he believes those same dreams happened: a church. Once they arrive to the place, Madeleine runs into the church and heads towards the bell tower. Although Scottie tries to stop her, his fears of heights keep him from running any further. Then, Scottie sees Madeleine falling from the top and dying.
Madeleine’s death is ruled as a suicide. Although Scottie walks free from any charges, he becomes clinically depressed. The former detective spends his days at a mental institution. Midge comes occasionally to visit Scottie, but despite of her efforts, he remains irresponsive.
After some time, Scottie is released. While wandering through the streets, he sees a woman. She looks a lot like Madeleine but has a different demeanour. Therefore, Scottie follows the woman to her apartment and introduces himself. The woman presents herself as Judy Barton from Kansas. Unable to move on from Madeleine, Scottie invites Judy for dinner.
Shortly after Scottie leaves, Judy starts to pack her things to flee away. In a flashback, Judy recalls the time when she was Madeleine Elster. Gavin and Judy participated in a murder scheme to kill the real Madeleine and deceive Scottie. While writing a letter to Scottie explaining the events, Judy realizes that she has developed feelings for him. As a result, she rips the letter apart, unpacks her belongings and goes to have dinner with Scottie.
As they continue seeing each other, Scotties tries to change Judy’s appearance so she can look more like Madeleine. Despite of not feeling comfortable with Scottie’s obsession for another woman, Judy complies with hopes of making Scottie fall in love with her.
One day, Scottie realizes what really happened during the day that Madeleine died. Judy wearing Carlotta’s necklace was the clue that gave it away. Enraged, Scottie takes Judy back to the church where the murder happened. The man confronts Judy and makes her re-enact the murder.
Judy tries to explain herself and her motivations. She used to be Gavin’s mistress but was cast aside after the real Madeleine died. Gavin killed his wife beforehand and threw her from the bell tower to stage a suicide scene. As they were both accomplices in the murder of Madeleine, neither Gavin nor Judy turn in each other.
At the top of the bell tower, Judy confesses her feelings for Scottie and begs him to forgive her. The former detective holds Judy and they embrace each other. Shortly after, a shadow appears and a terrified Judy falls from the bell tower. Turns out, the shadow belonged to a nun who was passing by to check the noise.
The film ends with Scottie staring at Judy’s lifeless body, hinting that he has defeated his fear of heights.
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Vertigo (1958) – Ending Explained
The big plot twist in Vertigo is that Madeleine did not die. Actually, the real Madeleine did die, but her impersonator (Judy) did not.
So, the first half of the story was just all part of Gavin Elster’s big plan to murder his wife. In order to do that, Gavin used his mistress (Judy) at the time to impersonate his wife Madeleine. Then, all he need was a witness to testify that Madeleine jumped to her death and Scottie was the perfect man for the job. Why? Because of his acrophobia.
Since the former detective is afraid of heights, he could’ve never been able to follow the fake Madeleine upstairs. That gave Gavin plenty of time to throw Madeleine from the bell tower. The fall didn’t kill Madeleine, she was most likely dead before that.
Gavin’s plan worked and he got away with murder because of Scottie’s testimony. The former detective assumed that the fake Madeleine died, when in reality, it was the real Madeleine’s body laying on the ground. His testimony helped to support the idea that Madeleine killed herself, hence, the police ruled out foul-play in the case of her death.
Now, if Gavin is such a monster, why didn’t Judy turn him in to the police? Because Judy is technically his accomplice, meaning that she would end up in prison too, if the word gets out. In addition, Gavin is wealthy man, he would eventually figure out a way to discredit Judy if things to go court.
After Gavin dumped Judy, she did not walk empty handed. The man paid his former mistress a generous amount of money to keep her quiet. By a twist of fate, Judy ends up running into Scottie again. In the end, Judy dies (for real) and Scottie finds himself cured from his acrophobia.
The film’s ending raises a lot questions. For instance, why happened to Judy? Was Scottie the one responsible for Judy’s death? And was Judy really in love with Scottie?
What happened to Judy?
Some people believe that Judy jumped to her death, but that’s not true. Judy saw something that scared her and as a result of that, she took a step back and fell from the bell tower. It was an accident.
Judy’s death was definitely ironic to say the least: she fell to her death, which is somehow similar to how the real Madeleine died. Actually, Gavin’s wife was already dead when he threw her from the bell tower, but the court ruled Madeleine’s death as a suicide.
The shadow of the nun was definitely a creepy sight, but why did Judy react the way she did? When Judy saw the shadow, she probably associated it with a ghost from the past (Madeleine), which triggered a very primal instinct: to run away from danger. However, this time there was no way to escape and she accidentally fell into her death.
Unlike Gavin, Madeleine’s murder still bears a certain weight in Judy’s conscience. Her moral compass is telling her that what she did was wrong. That is why Judy is on edge all the time. This becomes very evident when Judy runs into Scottie again: her initial reaction was to pack her things and leave.
At the very last minute, Judy changes her mind and agrees to meet up with Scottie. Unfortunately for Judy, this was the decision that determined her final fate.
Was Scottie the one responsible for Judy’s death?
If Scottie didn’t force Judy to re-enact Madeleine’s death, she would probably still be alive. So is it fair to say that Scottie is somehow responsible for Judy’s death?
Although, Scottie didn’t push Judy to her death, he was definitely the one who put her in a dangerous situation. At that point, both could have fallen had they taken a wrong step.
Even though, Scottie did not kill Judy physically, he did on an emotional level. The only reason why Judy accepted to have dinner with Scottie is because she had feelings for him. Judy forgo the opportunity to run away because she wanted to have another chance with Scottie.
Now, the former detective never had any intentions of knowing the real Judy. Scottie only asked Judy out because she reminded him of the fake Madeleine.
Scottie’s obsession for Madeleine worsens, as he tries to gradually turn Judy into Madeleine. By bleaching Judy’s hair and making her wear Madeleine’s clothes, Scottie was slowly erasing the identity of the woman in from of him. In other words, Scottie was “killing” Judy so he could bring Madeleine back to life.
Was Judy really in love with Scottie?
Judy professed her love for Scottie when they were at the bell tower. Did she mean it?
It’s quite possible that Judy had developed true feelings for Scottie. If the woman didn’t have feelings for the former detective, she wouldn’t have gone to that dinner with him. Why risk it all? Judy could’ve just ran away and preserve her anonymity. However, she decided to stay. That’s pretty indicative that Judy has feelings for the man, doesn’t it?
One could say that Judy’s decision to see Scottie once more cost her life: had she avoided to see him, Judy would probably still be alive. Was it worth it? Probably not. Here is Judy’s problem: she is in love with a man that doesn’t love her. Scottie has feelings for the fake Madeleine, not Judy.
With hopes of making Scottie love her, Judy was willing to erase herself and become Madeleine so he could look at her. Despite of Judy’s efforts to please Scottie, everything ends up turning against her when the former detective finds out the truth behind Madeleine’s death.
Out of rage, Scottie takes Judy back to the bell tower only to “torture” her. His actions have disastrous consequences and Judy ends up losing her life. The irony is that the truth cures Scottie and sets him free from his acrophobia but it came with a hefty cost: he had to watch his object of desire (Madeleine/Judy) die once again.
ADD TO YOUR COLLECTION
Many critics consider Vertigo as one of the greatest films of all time. Do I share the opinion? I enjoyed it, but I’m not sure whether I would label it as “the best film ever”. Nonetheless, there are a lot of interesting themes going on Vertigo and obsession is one of them.
Everyone in the film has some sort of obsession over someone or something. For instance, Carlotta Valdés was Madeleine’s obsession. Although it was all for show, Judy still had to play the role of a beautiful woman losing her mind because her ancestor’s spirit is trying to take over. Moving on to Scottie, his obsession was definitely Madeleine. Last but not least, one could say that Judy was too into Scottie.
What I liked about Vertigo is that none of its protagonists is perfect. Scottie is not your typical alpha male. As a matter of fact, some might even consider him a little bit whiny and creepy at times. Also, Judy is no naive damsel in distress either. Let’s see, she had an affair with a married man. Not only that, but she also participated in his plot to murder his wife. Although, Judy did not kill Madeleine, she impersonated her and lied to Scottie.
The character evolution of Scottie and Judy was also very interesting to watch. Scottie and Judy are two completely different people during the first half and second half of Vertigo. Let’s start with Scottie. The man starts as a victim but then evolves from creepy stalker to toxic boyfriend. That also goes for Judy but the opposite way. The woman starts as a seductress but then, she ends up as a victim.
Now, there is one thing that irks me about Vertigo: the ending. What kind of ridiculous reaction was that? Judy’s screaming and then falling just from seeing the shadow was a bit comical to say the least. I must confess, if that scene was out of context, I would have genuinely thought that I was watching a comedic sketch.
That ending and the reaction spoiled Vertigo a little for me. In my opinion, Vertigo deserved a better ending, because that one was a bit anticlimactic.
Despite of what I said about the ending, Vertigo is still a noteworthy watch because of its story and the visuals. According to my research, no one has ever used colours in the film the way that Alfred Hitchcock does. The same goes for the animation in the beginning. On a visually level, the whole film felt like a dream.