“Vertigo” is my second-favorite Hitchcock movie, after “Shadow of a Doubt.” Despite years of watching it multiple times, examining every nuance and fighting back tears on heartbreaking scenes, I’d never seen the alternate ending.
The movie’s synopsis is simple: It’s “Pygmalion,” with murder. Jimmy Stewart plays Scottie Ferguson, a San Francisco police detective who has to leave the force because he discovers, during a rooftop chase, that he’s afraid of heights. His fear leads to the death of another officer.
He’s approached by a former college classmate, Gavin Elster, to follow his wife, Madeleine, who Elster says has been acting oddly and may be considering suicide. Scottie follows Madeleine (Kim Novak) around, and in the course of his private investigation uncovers an elaborate tale of adultery, insanity and suicide. One day, Madeleine jumps into San Francisco Bay. Scottie rescues her and takes her to his home. He falls in love with her.
They meet again in coming days, and Scottie tries to get Madeleine to tell him everything so he can unravel the puzzle. Eventually they end up at a California mission that seems to be the key to Madeleine’s obsession, but, though they’re both in love by now, she runs into a bell tower, and Scottie, unable to follow her to the top because of his fear of heights, watches as Madeleine’s body falls off the roof.
He has a mental breakdown. After months in an asylum, he returns home and wanders through San Francisco, seeing what appears to be Madeleine at every turn.
One day, he spots a woman who reminds him of Madeleine walking down the street. He follows her to her apartment and knocks on her door. Her name is Judy. She physically resembles Madeleine, but where Madeleine was icy-blonde and elegant, Judy is dark-haired and common. She is taken aback, but he gets her to talk about who she is and where she comes from. She realizes he was deeply in love with Madeleine. Scottie asks Judy to dinner. She accepts.
Then something strange happens. It turns out Judy was Madeleine. She was Elster’s mistress, and he made her up to pretend to be his wife. Judy’s Madeleine didn’t fall from the tower. The real Madeleine, who Scottie never met, did.
Scottie’s Madeleine never existed.
Judy considers going on the run, but is in love, so she stays put and dates Scottie. Then Scottie, totally obsessed, starts making Judy over to look like his Madeleine. Judy tries to resist, but acquiesces to his demands. He buys her clothes. He pays to have her hair redone, all leading to this powerful scene of anguish and desire, one of Jimmy Stewart’s greatest acting moments, as Madeleine rises from the dead:
Then Judy/Madeleine slips up. She puts on a piece of jewelry worn by the real Madeleine. Scottie realizes the truth but doesn’t let Judy know. Using the premise of going to dinner, he takes her back to the mission to get the full story. He drags her to the top of the tower, overcoming his fear of heights. She confesses. But a nun comes up to see what’s going on, and Judy, startled, moves backward and falls from the tower to her death.
The last scene … rather the ending I’ve known all these years … is Scottie standing at the edge of the tower, arms outstretched, looking down.
The studio wanted another ending. They didn’t want one where Elster got away, so Hitchcock filmed the one at the top. Scottie is in the apartment of Midge, a former girlfriend, who is played, in a great acting job, by Barbara Bel Geddes. A radio newsman reports that Elster will be extradicted for murder. Midge makes Scottie a drink, and he stares out the window of her apartment overlooking the city. He no longer has vertigo.
I’m glad they didn’t use the alternate ending. In my viewings of the movie, I’ve always imagined the end was showing Scottie preparing to kill himself by jumping off the tower. Everything in the movie built up to that conclusion. He was driven mad by the death of his first Madeline, mainly because he was unable to save her. He scoured the streets to find a replacement. When he found Judy, he molded and shaped her to his vision of perfection. If he had never found out about her deception, I believe he would have next had her take diction lessons, so she would sound like the original Madeline. And, like Orpheus. after he brought her back from the dead, he really sees her. Then she falls from the same tower just after they profess their love. There’s no way he could have lived after that.
Instead, the alternate ending gives us the typical Hollywood resolution. The hero survives, the bad guy is captured. All is right with the world. That would have wrecked everything.
I’ve known about the alternate ending for years. As a Hitchcock buff, I’ve read books and articles about his directing style and his obsessions. Judy/Madeleine is a representation of Alfred Hitchcock’s obsession with his leading ladies, especially Ingrid Bergman, Grace Kelly and Tippi Hedren. All elegant, icy blondes full of passion. Bergman ran off with an Italian director. Kelly became the Princess of Monacco. Stories are that Hedren spurned his advances, and the relationship there became ugly (look at the attack scene toward the end of ”The Birds.” That devastated Hedren).
Other stories indicate Vera Miles was in line to be one of the Hitchcock beauties. He was grooming her for bigger things after her appearance as Lila Crane in “Psycho,” but she got married and wasn’t available for the movies he had planned for her: “The Birds” and “Marnie.”
It seems in his later movies, he became especially vindictive toward the concept of the icy blonde. Consider the brutal rape/strangulation scene in “Frenzy.” There are some extremely bad vibes in that film.
But “Vertigo” is a love poem: the idea of unattainable beauty and perfection. It is one of the great works in modern cinema.