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Reincarnation and Hitchcock: An Exploration of the Metaphysical Found Within Vertigo

(This is a preview of a long article that will be published in the 'MacGuffin' Journal)

by Robert Schoen


Vertigo has always been considered a seminal Hitchcock film, and its metaphysical implications are very powerful indeed. But often, these metaphysical aspects are purposely mis-labeled within the story, so as to be more palatable to the general public. In many films, Hitchcock addresses esoteric links to the past as "possession." The dead Rebecca de Winter continues to haunt Manderley and its current occupants. Norman Bates is possessed by his dead mother. In Vertigo, Madeleine Elster is supposed to be possessed by her ancestor Carlotta Valdez.

But Hitchcock, without saying a word, presents a very compelling case that Judy, through her actions and ultimate fate, might be living out her own authentic past life experiences. Could it really be that this woman from Salina, Kansas, whom Elster persuades to imitate the real Madeleine in his diabolical scheme to murder his wife, could herself actually be the authentic reincarnation of Carlotta Valdez?

A rarely mentioned, but highly disturbing, issue this film raises is the moral duplicity of all the key players. Scottie, the honest cop entrusted by old friend Elster to look after his endangered wife Madeleine, betrays the friend by falling in love with the woman he's supposed to be protecting. He then ruthlessly disregards his new love Judy Barton as a person, and in his obsession to remake her into Madeleine, denigrates her at every turn until he's accomplished the metamorphosis.

Midge enviously spies on Scottie's secret obsession with Madeleine, and practically mocks him with her satirical self-portrait fashioned after Carlotta. Madeleine is, of course, really Judy, who can't tell Scottie the truth about herself in either of her manifestations, and Elster is the diabolical ringmaster of all these tragic events.

Yet Elster is portrayed as a completely sympathetic and admirable person, caring about Madeleine when we first meet him, then supportive to Scottie after he endures the brutal inquest. Nor does Hitchcock impose a moral judgement on Scottie for his betrayal of Elster, or his callous disregard for Midge's obvious attempt to win him back. Scottie, Madeleine, and Midge are cast as very decent people caught up in tragic circumstances.

The narrative's lack of moral judgment against these otherwise reprehensible activities could hardly be ascribed to a "Catholic" viewpoint. Particularly for a Hollywood movie, the film's nonjudgmental tone implies that the sequence of events that brought these people together were not merely willful moral decisions on their part, but the result of the inevitable attraction of four persons linked by their karmic ties, or fate. This non-occidental philosophical viewpoint - as Ken Mogg recently pointed out - is reinforced with Scottie's observation after rescuing Madeleine from the Bay, "There's an old Chinese saying that once you rescue a person's life, you're responsible for it forever."

One key sequence that enigmatically hints that Madeleine/Judy's trance is an authentic occurs at the McKendrick Hotel, where Madeleine rents a room under the name of Carlotta Valdez. Scottie sees Madeleine in the window of the hotel room, then enters the lobby to inquire the woman at the desk about her. He's told by this befuddled woman (who absurdly swears she's been busy "applying olive oil to the leaves of the rubber plants") that Carlotta couldn't have left the hotel unobserved, even though she is not in her room when Scottie goes to inspect it, and her green Jaguar that was parked out front is no longer there. This scene is deliberately ambiguous, as if to add to the growing mystery of Scotty's pursuit.


Whether the viewer thinks the hotel manager is acting in cahoots with Elster's scheme, or that Scotty has just imagined seeing Madeleine in the upper window (mirroring the ghostly apparition of Norman's mother at her window in Psycho), it is clear by the insertion of this scene that Hitchcock is warning the audience there is more to this story than meets the eye.

Judy's abandonment by Elster after the murder mirrors exactly Carlotta's abandonment by her wealthy lover a half a century before. Her death by falling echoes Carlotta's tragic suicide. While Hitchcock superficially accommodates society's skepticism of the esoteric by explaining away Madeleine's possession as merely part of Elster's scam, he slyly constructs the entire story as a lesson into the nature of reincarnation, and opens the door to many other enigmatic issues that leave us pondering.

The floating world of Vertigo in which Scottie, Madeleine and Judy all move about (Hitchcock filmed these sequences by having the actors move to the rhythm of a metronome) ultimately challenges our conventional understanding of the physics of time. Taoism tells us that our perception of time is only an illusion, suggesting that past, present and future events all emanate out from the same core at the same time, like spokes on a wheel in relation to its hub. This interlocking relation of past, present and future is suggested in the film's visit to the redwood forest.

Madeleine/Judy points to the concentric age rings on the cross section of the Sequoia and says: "Here is where I was born, and there I died. It was just a moment for you. You took no notice." Is Madeleine/Judy speaking to the two thousand-year-old tree, or to the future Scottie, who will be distracted by the nun's arrival when Judy suddenly plunges to her death off the belltower? Judy's subtle comment strongly suggests the latter. She not only foretells her future death on the belltower, she also is recounting her past death as Carlotta, implying Scottie himself was there with her in the past as well.

Both Vertigo's structure and story strongly suggest that time is only an illusion, created by our limited perception; and that our true existence mirrors the infinite spiraling patterns of Vertigo's title imagery, the concentric rings of sequoia trunk, and Bernard Herrmann's remarkable score. It also suggests that on some deeper level we already know the destiny and outcome of our lives. This secret theme of Vertigo is demonstrated with the false death of "Madeleine"/Judy occurring mid-film, so devastating to Scotty because subconsciously, he already recognizes it as the ultimate truth to Madeleine/Judy/ Carlotta's final fate.

Scottie's "Mad Dream," as depicted in the animated sequence created by artist John Ferren, shows Stewart's silhouette falling onto the red tile rooftop of the Mission, in exactly the same peculiar stance with half outstretched arms, in which he will later stand on the belltower looking down on the fallen Judy at the end of the picture. This is not only cinematic foreshadowing; it clearly represents pre-knowledge on Scottie's part on some subconscious level of what is to come.

The inevitability of Judy's death is made clear in the belltower finale. Judy confesses that she stayed and let Scottie remake her into Madeleine because she loved him. "I loved you so, Madeleine." Judy goes to him desperately, "Help keep me safe." Scottie embraces her longingly, then pushes her back. "It's too late. There's no bringing her back."

This exchange, right before Judy's plunge, suggests that Scottie has completely detached his vision of Madeleine from the woman in front of him. He speaks twice of Madeleine in the third person, as Judy quotes back to him the Chinese proverb that only Madeleine would know about. But is this really indifference for Judy, or his acceptance that Madeleine/Judy is already lost to him, that it was always his fate to lose her, and that nothing he could ever do will change it?

It is fitting that this hard-nosed detective, Scottie Ferguson, is both witness and principal player in this metaphysical drama. He expresses our skepticism, and experiences our subconscious acknowledgment of its validity.


An interview with author of Hitch&Alma, Robert Schoen

Did Hitch have a secret collection of Outtakes? Some Photos and Posters:

Alma, the woman behind a very large man:

Hitchcock's Other Leading Ladies:

The Mother in Hitchcock's films:

Hitch & Herrmann, artists with the same obsessive vision:

Hitch at Work:

The Perfect English Couple:

Fine Art and Hitchcock:

Readerís and Web Site Visitorís Comments:

Book description and how to order a copy of Hitch&Alma:

1999, Events Celebrating the Hitchcock centennial:

Links to other Great Hitchcock Web Sites: