Vertigo was adapted from a French novel to the screen in 1958. Hitchcock uses camera angles to play with the idea of heights, as well as hide a characters face when talking. Hitchcock carefully uses mirrors in shots to show you both the object that is being viewed and the voyeur (as Scottie follows Madeleine). Ang Lee borrowed that use of mirrors to watch the watcher in The Ice Storm. This is important because of the actual storyline: a man is hired by an old friend to watch his wife who is acting strange. Do you trust the watcher? Hitchcock uses San Francisco landmarks throughout the film, and does his little Hitchcock unexpected evil bit with the sleepy, Spanish Mission being the scene of a death. Hitchcock loved to do this: safe shower (Psycho), cornfields in middle of nowhere (NxNW), cute little birds (The Birds), your living room window (Rear Window). He was going to make you feel uncomfortable or scared by normal situations. The score is echoed in the score to Inception, which has plenty of similarities to Vertigo. I mentioned the music here:
In the "Snow Fortress" dream, when the dreamers first drop in and are on the mountaintop, the sweeping music sounds like the section of the Vertigo theme between 1:05-1:40 in the Vertigo link above. It also sounded a bit James Bondian. In relation to Vertigo, it is a small homage to another movie about a guy who does not trust his vision or grasp on reality, losing the woman he loved to suicide and then incorrectly seeing her elsewhere.
Hitchcock introduced the dolly zoom in this movie to play on the acrophobia and vertigo that lead Scottie suffers from in the film. It is a well crafted film and a well told story.
A running theme in the movie is men's view of their standing in the current world. Jimmy Stewart's Scottie is a former cop who retired due to his illness and an accident that caused a fellow cop to die. He complains about having to wear a girdle (a women's piece of clothing). He tries to push himself with his fear of heights, but collapses into the arms of his female friend, Midge. His good old college pal is Midge, who was also a former lover. Just didn't connect with her, but they are buddies. Gavin Elster hires Scottie to follow his wife, and laments how in old days men had the power. When Scottie and Midge ask Pop Argosy about the old timey history of Frisco, Pop mentions the troubled Carlotta having her child taken from her by the ex-husband and mentions men having power then. This is 1950s San Francisco. Were straight men, in this supposed 1950s patriarchy, feeling insecure about their standing in the world? That group had just defeated two challengers to Anglo world order, and was mapping out the American Empire. That they did not think they had power as before is truly an odd complaint.
Scottie tails Madeleine. She is supposedly crazy and enters trances where she thinks she is a great-grandmother that she actually does not know about, leading to her death by suicide at an old Spanish mission. At the Mission, Scottie can't follow her up the bell tower due to his fear. He is not blamed for the suicide, but Scottie sees what he thinks is Madeleine but it is not her around San Francisco. This happens multiple times at spots he used to go to see her. His view is uncertain and unreliable for us. He becomes catatonic and enters a sanitarium. He doesn't even speak to Midge when she visits him. Hitchcock inserts a weird dream sequence with odd lights, Scottie's head with wind blowing through his hair and imagery of falling. Here's an important thing Wikipedia doesn't properly note: Scottie never gets released. After the dream sequence and his sweaty wake up from it, we next just see him outside out for a walk. Wikipedia says he is released, but it never is shown. The question then becomes, is everything after the dream real or not? There is no definitive answer.
Once out of the sanitarium, in the first scene "out", he sees her. He eventually sees not a blond, but a brunette that resembles Madeleine. He talks to her (Judy) and she tries to shoo him away, but she relents. She is not the perfectly done up and dressed Madeleine. She's a '50s working girl, looking cute but on her own. Hitchcock stops all viewer suspicion and immediately has Judy reveal that she is Madeleine. This is important because it refocuses viewer minds on Scottie. He is the star, and this is his movie. What Hitchcock has done is change the viewer's anticipation from "Is Judy really Madeleine?", which was easy to spot, to "What the hell is Scottie going to do when he finds out Judy is Madeleine and they tricked him?". Now you the viewer know more than the lead.
Scottie then goes on a crusade to turn Judy into Madeleine. Specific locations, clothes and even hair color. Scottie eventually creates his Madeleine. They get along fine, but the whole time he looks a bit detached and will point out something that has to be fixed. He hooks her in deeper to him by actually rejecting her physical form. The tremendous turntable kiss shot seals the idea that his work is complete. Judy is now a Madeleine in his mind. This comes crashing down when they get ready for dinner and Judy puts on a necklace that Madeleine wore that matched a painting of ancestor Carlotta. Scottie drives her 90 miles from San Francisco to visit the Mission again. Judy knows it is coming. The drive is a great suspense builder. Scottie walks her through Madeleine's final moments, and drags her up the stairs. He has conquered his fear of heights and vertigo. As Scottie says:
You shouldn't keep souvenirs of a killing. You shouldn't have been, you shouldn't have been that sentimental. I loved you so, Madeleine!
It is a great line because he is chastising her for being sentimental when he has just gone on a reconstruction effort to turn one woman into another that he once loved. He states that he loved Madeleine, using both the phony name and the past tense. Is he really talking to Judy or is he talking to himself? She kisses him at the top of the bell tower, but it is no longer the same for him. Scottie knows he was duped. Judy can never be his idealized Madeleine because she was never Madeleine in the first place, only Judy playing a role. The woman he fell in love with was just some mistress Gavin turned into Madeleine. This even teases at the sexual Marco Polo attitude many men exhibit. "I made you Madeleine, but now that I know you're Madeleine, he made you Madeleine first." What he was in love with was always Judy playing a role. It was fake. Scottie mumbles that it is too late. For what? In a freak coincidence, Judy trips and falls to her death from the same tower. Scottie steps out with arms open, looking down on dead Judy. He has conquered his fear but lost his love again.
Seen as Scottie has been released, it is a cruel second loss for Scottie. He has overcome his fear but at what cost? The more normal, working girl Judy was always the object, while the urbane, sophisticated Madeleine was a lie, an illusion. If one looks at the post-dream part as nothing but Scottie's sanitarium fantasy, it is so soothing to a damaged mind. Scottie has solved a crime. Scottie has overcome his fear on his own. He also is absolved from any guilt in the suicide, because now it was a plot to kill the real wife. Scottie also has a simple excuse for why Madeleine loved him but died; it was a trick, a ruse. They took advantage of disabled old Scottie. At the end of the fantasy resolution, Madeleine confesses to the trick, said she did it unwillingly and is begging for him to love her. Walking through the bell tower window, he has overcome his fear and let go of Madeleine. He is free to live his life.
Thankfully talking the studio out of slapping on a forced ending that revealed Elster's capture, Hitchcock leaves it open to interpretation. It is up to you to decide, but Scottie has always been the focus of this movie. I started this by saying the film is mislabeled as a murder mystery. It is. There is no mystery about what happened. The only mystery is about why Scottie does what he does and how he is going to react when he figures it all out. This may not fit the horror film season, but if you have the time, pop in Vertigo and judge for yourself. Did Scottie figure everything out, neatly wrap up the mystery and conquer his fears or is he still stuck in the sanitarium obsessing over his lost Madeleine?