HITCHCOCK’S WOMEN: Constructing and Resurrecting the Ideal Woman – A Portrait of Judy Barton in VERTIGO (1958) – PART II

Concluding her two-part analysis, Rebecca McCallum continues her investigation into the representation of gender in Hitchcock’s Vertigo.

Power and Possession

Scottie believes he is following Madeline without her knowledge, but in actual fact she is leading him, albeit under the direction of Elster. On one occasion he follows her to a graveyard, linking Judy to death not only literally but also figuratively in that she has lost herself to Madeline. In this scene, she becomes an emblem of the walking dead, connected to themes of time and the past.

Waking up in Scottie’s apartment, Judy is still playing at being Madeline, but finding herself unclothed in a stranger’s bed was not part of the plan. Once in a robe she is more at ease, although a loneliness flashes across her eyes as she warns “One shouldn’t live alone, it’s wrong”. Like many of her remarks, it is never explicit if this is coming from Madeline or Judy. Arguably, this scene could be read as an extension of Madeline’s play-acting and control, but her eyes follow Scottie when his attention is not focused on her, suggesting that she is beginning to experience feelings for him too. Despite them sharing a brief intimate moment when they lightly brush hands, Scottie does not reveal that he has been following her, and Judy does not disclose that she is hoodwinking him. In this sense, their relationship is built on a foundation of deception on multiple levels, meaning that they are both falling for an alternative version of one another, dooming their love from the start.

When they agree to go “wandering” together it is Madeline who is in the driving seat, indicative of her being in control. Once they arrive at Muir woods, she walks away from him slowly, mirroring her exit at Earnie’s as she floats away into the distance. When they look out over Cypress Point, Scottie tells Madeline that he is responsible for her now. However there is a fine line between care and assuming total ownership of a person. Here we get the first taste of Scottie’s possessiveness which will be echoed in his later request for Judy to quit her job so he can take care of her. When they return to the mission this time Scottie is driving, suggesting a relinquishment of Judy’s control. He remarks “No one possesses you, you’re safe with me” but this is a mistruth as we know already that he views her as an object to be kept. The possession of Judy has multiple dimensions: as Madeline she is possessed by Carlotta and as Judy she is possessed by Scottie and Elster.

“It wasn’t’ supposed to be like this”: A Doomed and Unrequited Love

While Scottie’s obsession for Madeline develops, her own feelings start to flourish unexpectedly. Under questioning, she begs him not to probe and talks of wanting to see the light, a telling statement in that light is often associated with truth and purity. Ironically, the more she refuses to answer the more she feeds the mystery, which in turn ignites Scottie’s desire. When he takes her to the mission for the last time as Madeline she tells him “It’s too late, it wasn’t supposed to be like this”, words that may have been written for her by Elster but now describe her current emotional state.

The reveal of Judy’s backstory through the writing of a letter to Scottie (which he never receives) is preceded by a prolonged shot of her fully absorbing his reappearance into her life. In pain, grief and regret she looks directly at us, breaking the fourth wall. In a flashback scene we see her climb the bell tower where Elster is waiting ready to throw his wife (the real Madeline) to her death. As Judy approaches she waves her arms for Elster to stop, but she is too late. Here we get the only insight into how she is treated by Elster who is aggressive and dismissive towards her, behaviours that will be reflected in the physically violent treatment she receives from Scottie in the film’s climax. Clearly in emotional turmoil and unable to face the pain of the situation Judy tears the letter up, a gesture which signals towards ripping up the truth and her own identity.

Perversion and Obsession: A Man-Made Make-Over

In her room at the Empire hotel, Judy is surrounded by a surreal green light whilst sat in the shadows, her silhouette representing her unknowability on Scottie’s behalf and the fading of her own identity which has been eclipsed by Madeline. Notably, she emerges from the shadow when he makes overtures of affection towards her, even naming her specifically: “I just want to be with you as much as I can Judy.” This promise coincides with Judy coming fully into the (aforementioned) light, feeling that she is accepted. However this is offset by the tragic knowledge that the only reason Scottie wants to spend time with her is in order to feel closer to Madeline.

Interestingly, Scottie’s transformation of Judy starts with an item of clothing that is not associated with Madeline. Stopping by a market-stall he insists on buying her a corsage which marks the beginning of a makeover led and designed by him. Scottie takes her shopping where he scrutinises the models, while Judy cannot bear to look. Specific about the intricate detail of each outfit, only perfection will satisfy him. In Carolyn Young’s Hitchcock’s Heroines Novak notes how closely her real-life experiences reflected Judy’s: “I could really identify with Judy being pushed and pulled this way and that, being told what dresses to wear, how to walk, how to behave”. Scottie continues to put his desires before Judy’s feelings: “It doesn’t matter to you” he remarks whilst tugging at her. When he requests an evening gown resembling the one Madeline wore at Earnie’s Judy becomes visibly upset, but this does not perturb Scottie who persists in his attempt to resurrect his ideal woman.

As his insistences reach the disturbing heights of a perverse obsession Scottie decides that a change in hair colour would make the transformation complete. Judy cries, asking if he will love her if she concedes to his requests, but there is an omnipresent sense that nothing will ever be enough. Her impending fate is sealed for good when she makes the heart-breaking statement “I don’t cate about me anymore”.  There is truly something tragic in Judy, as although she may seem a strong character above anything she just wants to be loved and is willing to do what is asked of her by men to obtain this affection, only to be continually rejected.

When Judy alters the colour of her hair and dons the grey suit Scottie is neither thankful nor satisfied, complaining that her hair ought to be pinned back. Following his instructions she makes this change in the privacy of the bathroom before she emerges, fully embodying Madeline. Surrounded by a fantastical green fog Judy smiles softly, hoping that now her moment to be loved by Scottie has arrived. Of filming this scene Novak remarked “It was so real to me, coming out and wanting approval. It was the ultimate defining moment of anybody when they’re going to someone they love and want to be perfect for them”.1

Multiple Identities: A Rejection of the Authentic Self

Now in full Madeline costume Judy gets dressed for dinner and she appears softer, gentler even – as though she is adopting more parts of Madeline in her voice and body language. She holds Scottie, seeking reassurance that she “has him now”, but he finds a necklace which reveals her true identity. From this moment on Scottie is hell-bent on punishing her, and once he realises that his ideal woman never existed he is not willing to love nor forgive the woman who brought her to life. In a perverse inversion he takes her back to the mission, telling her “I need you to be Madeline”. Dragging her into the church he is hot-tempered and brutal, even holding her by the throat at one point. Cowering in the corner Judy professes her love for him, but all Scottie can say is “I love you Madeline”, a confirmation that there was never any possibility of him loving her.

From within the shadows of the bell tower a nun unexpectedly emerges, causing Judy to shriek with fear before letting go of Scottie and falling to her death.  This reaction invites a question about the potential link between the haunted Madeline and Carlotta (who once attended the mission), suggesting that in playing Madeline, Judy may have been unwittingly taken over by her ghost.

Made over twice, once by Elster and then by Scottie, in the final moments of the film (and her life) Judy is not acknowledged as herself but as Madeline, the ideal woman who existed solely in Scottie’s mind. Judy’s inevitable and lamentable death confirms that the tragedy of her story rests in the unbearable truth: in life she was never allowed to be, or loved for being, her true and authentic self.

1 Young, C. Hitchcock’s Heroines. 2018

Rebecca McCallum

Rebecca will return in a few weeks with another deep-dive as part of our HITCHCOCK’S WOMEN series.

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