Alfred Hitchcock’s VERTIGO (1958) holds a wide variety of psychoanalytical elements. The most prominent of these is the representation of the id, and how this piece of the psychic apparatus can spiral a man into a state of madness. Within the film, Hitchcock uses the character of Scottie Ferguson (James Stewart) to demonstrate the power of the id and the impulsive, obsessive drives of the human mind.
The film begins with rooftop a chase, in which Scottie Ferguson and another police officer are pursuing a fleeing criminal. Ferguson takes a faulty leap from a ledge and is left hanging above the sidewalk below, causing his partner to reach for him. However, Ferguson is unable to accept the assistance, as it is quickly revealed that he has acrophobia. The officer slips from the ledge, while attempting to save Ferguson, and falls to his death; this takes a toll on Ferguson throughout the entire motion picture. In regards to the case of acrophobia, this is an establishing psychological element. Phobias are said to be unresolved conflicts between the id and super-ego. While the id represents instinctual, dark drives of the human mind, the super-ego represents the human conscience. As the film progresses, the viewers are able to realize that Scottie Ferguson’s id constantly overpowers his superego.
Following the film’s opening sequence, Scottie Ferguson has retired from the police force, and is later hired by an acquaintance, Gavin Elster, to take on private detective work. His job is to trail Elster’s wife, Madeline, and find the cause of her peculiar behavior. After following Madeline excessively, it is soon apparent to the viewer that Scottie has grown fond of her. His detective work transforms into a literal “labor of love”, and, eventually, an obsession. This is another instance of the id effecting Ferguson’s behavior. He is unable to control his feelings toward this woman, even after considering the fact that she is married and (seemingly) mentally unstable. At this point in the film, the super-ego is still conflicting with the id; this is exemplified in the scene following Madeline’s suicide attempt, in which Scottie brings Madeline to his house, undresses her, and places her in his bed. Most likely because of his super-ego taking control (at one point or another), Scottie patiently waits for Madeline to return to consciousness. But, up until that point, symbolically, the id had overruled, as Scottie was simply one step away from having sex with her (or activating the libido/sex drive).
Within the narrative, Madeline’s fatal fall from the bell tower at Mission San Juan Bautista (which was not prevented due to Scottie’s acrophobia) causes Scottie to go mad. He obsesses over Madeline, although she is removed from his life. His id and libido lead him to find a woman, Judy, who looks strikingly similar to Madeline. The id/libido eventually causes Scottie to distort reality and he violently seeks to reshape Judy into an imitation of late Madeline Elster. On another level, this is also the act of mortifying Judy. At this point, Scottie has become so obsessed with the image of Madeline that he must transform Judy into that same dead woman before he can have sex with her, or can become capable of loving her. In the profound interview with Francois Truffaut, director Alfred Hitchcock further explained this by saying: “… to put it plainly, the man wants to go to bed with a woman who is dead; he is indulging in a form of necrophilia.”
Up until this point in the film, Ferguson’s id has shifted his entire mindset. Then, however, he realizes that he was just a pawn in a demented murder plot orchestrated by Gavin Elster. As this unfolds, we begin to see Scottie become slightly more rational. After returning to the place of Madeline’s staged death, Scottie forces Judy up the bell tower, reenacting the actions that triggered his crazed behavior. During this sequence, his super-ego takes control, which is symbolized by the overcoming of his fear of heights.
At the conclusion of the film, Judy professes her love to Scottie, and it appears as if he is now able to accept Judy for who she is, rather than a reincarnation of Madeline Elster. The two embrace in the bell tower, and now it seems as if Ferguson’s super-ego, id, and ego are in check. As with any Hitchcock film, there is a dark twist, however: a nun emerges from a trapdoor on the bell tower and startles Judy, causing her to fall to her death. In this final moment of the film, we see that although Scottie has progressed from a state of madness to a state of mental stability, it is too late for him. The main character of the film let perceptions, appearances, obsessions, and the need for control ruin him, with no hope of redemption or solace.
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