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Vertigo Explained- Did Scottie Kill Judy And Was Madeleine Ever Possessed?

It’s hard to believe Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo barely broke even when it was first released in 1958. What is now widely considered a masterpiece of cinema, back then was maligned. Audiences and critics alike believed the film fell short of the legendary director’s standards. Yet, almost 65 years later, it is the type of movie that defies time. The acting, intricate storytelling, and precise pacing make it one of the must-see movies of any era.

Jimmy Stewart does what he does best as Scottie Fergusen, a retired policeman who was forced to retire because of his intense acrophobia and vertigo. Stewart starred in four of Hitchcock’s movies using his quintessential vulnerability and humour to draw the viewer in and heighten the pervading confusion of the entire film. In the opening scene, we watch as he and his partner chase a suspect on the rooftops of a grimy San Francisco. Scottie tries to jump from one roof to another and isn’t able to make the leap. He is left dangling high above, and when his partner tries to help him, he plummets to his death.

That event has left Scottie permanently afraid of heights and out of a job. With nothing but time on his hands, Scottie shuffles aimlessly until his old friend Gavin(Tom Elmore) offers him a job acting as a private detective. Scottie is to follow Galvin’s wife Madeleine(Kim Novak), who has been acting strangely. Little by little, Scotty begins to believe that Madeleine is possessed by her Great Grandmother Carlotta, pushing her towards suicide. Carlotta was the mistress of a wealthy business that impregnated her, took her baby, and rejected Carlotta. She never got over the loss of her child or the rejection and killed herself. Galvin insists his wife acts like a different person sometimes. She even looks different but has no recollection of the periods when she is “someone else”.

Official trailer screengrab Kim Novak and Jimmy Stewart

Madeleine is beautiful, and her behavior is so strange that Scottie becomes obsessed with her and falls in love. Unfortunately, before the two can figure out what is happening, she jumps from a bell tower at Mission San Juan Bautista. That event which occurs halfway through the film at the eighty-minute mark shifts everything we thought we knew.

After the authorities rule her death a suicide, Scottie is heartbroken and is forced into a sanitorium to recuperate. His guilt nearly destroys him, but he is eventually released. Now the poor man feels guilty for not one but two deaths and is still plagued by vertigo, acrophobia, and depression. Retracing the steps of his former love Madeleine day after day, he sees a woman who looks a lot like her. This woman has dark hair, isn’t dead, and is named Judy Barton. After following her to her apartment, he confronts her and realizes this is not his lost love. At that point, things take an even darker turn as all Galvin’s machinations become clear. Here’s everything you need to know about the ending of Vertigo.

Vertigo ending explained

After confronting Judy, he questions her relentlessly on her life and is shocked to find she may look like Madeleine, but that is as far as it goes. Julie is much more aggressive and has secrets of her own. After he finally gets her to agree to dinner with him, we find out the entire story. Through a flashback, we learn Galvin and Judy have been having an affair and concocted the entire Carlotta story. With blonde hair and dressed like Madeleine, Judy raced up the bell tower stairs and found Galvin holding the real Madeleine, who is already dead. Judy had been the woman Scottie was following all that time. She is the one who pretended to be possessed by Carlotta. No one was ever possessed by Carlotta.

Galvin and Judy aren’t the only ones with dark urges, however. Instead of skipping town, Judy tries to keep the ruse going. In an entirely icky turn, Scottie convinces her to color her hair and style it like Madeleine. He even buys her the same clothes. The dark obsession he has for her grows as she becomes more and more like Madeleine until she takes it too far. She wears a necklace of Madeleine’s that was a supposed family heirloom. The necklace was Carlotta’s, and that slip allowed Scottie to put the pieces together. Next, he convinces Judy to come with him to the bell tower as a form of immersion therapy. Once there, he forces her to admit what she and Galvin did.

She finally acknowledges her role but says she truly did fall in love with Scottie when she was playing the part of Madeleine earlier in the movie. Theirs is a sick kind of love, and the two kiss even though they are fearful, angry, and overwhelmed. Judy does love Scottie, but he only loves the ghost she pretended to be. He can never love Judy. Even after finding out Judy was the person he had fallen in love with, he is conflicted. The spinning camera during their kiss is meant to convey the confusion he feels and the warped nature of their relationship as well as the possible questionability of the next scene.

Although the two seem to reconcile, a nun steps out of the shadows and startles Judy, who falls out of the same opening as Madeleine was thrown earlier. The film ends with Scottie stepping out onto the ledge to look down where she lay. Can that scene be trusted? We saw his perspective only and his shaky mental state wouldn’t allow him to be responsible for yet another death, so he created the scene we saw versus the straightforward one. Scottie is angry at her deception and tells her he has “just one more thing he needs to do to be free of the past. Scottie knew he was in love with a ghost, not Judy, and he may have pushed her from the tower. In doing so he completed the transformation and Judy became Madeleine..”


In Vertigo, everyone is suffering from the disorienting condition. Scottie can’t orient himself away from his guilt and has developed a nasty obsession with death, while Judy has become desperate to protect her secrets and make Scottie love her. Did she become startled by the nun and fall? Did she make a conscious decision to commit suicide rather than atone for her crimes.

She appears to look at the nun for a beat before we hear her scream, and she falls outside of the camera frame. We know she was desperately in love with Scottie, so the plausibility of her jumping on purpose is less likely than her being pushed or falling accidentally. However, the question of Scottie’s acrophobia and vertigo linger. He can finally conquer his fear and look down at Judy, but can he do so because he is cured or because he has finally snapped?

Machiavellian twists and icy blondes are mainstays of Hitchcocks. Vertigo is a perfect example of his narrative structures. Beware of friends asking for favors and beautiful brunettes. Find our complete classics series here. You can stream Vertigo on Showtime right now or any place VOD.