Vertigo Ending Explained: Dizzying Doubles And Deadly Obsession

"Vertigo" was released more than 60 years ago, receiving mixed criticism and lukewarm responses, as viewers at the time felt that it lacked Alfred Hitchcock's signature mastery

However, over time, "Vertigo" underwent massive critical re-evaluation, having been hailed for its taut narrative threads, complex characters, and stunning cinematography. The ending of the film still baffles some, as it is an eerie thematic mirroring from a symbolic perspective, emulating the visceral sensation of vertigo.

Like any valuable work of art, the innate and inherent themes within "Vertigo" seem to shift with every viewing, as the film blooms when its many layers are peeled away, and the saga of John "Scottie" Ferguson (James Stewart) unfolds. Interestingly, the decision to cast Stewart in a rather unconventional character mold (given that his established roles were in fantasy and romantic dramas, such as "It's a Wonderful Life" and "The Philadelphia Story") adds a layer of compelling effectiveness to an already-dizzying tale. After all, it's Scottie's spiral towards the edge of sanity, his deep-seated issues with acrophobia and vertigo, and the psychosexual undercurrents that define him, that make "Vertigo" such an electrifying watch.

When Anxiety Meets Obsession

In order to better understand why "Vertigo" ends the way it does, it is crucial to delve deeper into Scottie's psyche, and the various psychological triggers that progress his arc throughout the film. Moreover, to view Judy/Madeleine's actions through the sole lens of morality would mean adopting a rather narrow tunnel vision, as the mere presence of an overt crime does not warrant immediate condemnation (or pangs of guilt). Nor does the absence of crime, as in Scottie's case, guarantee a guilt-free conscience. 

Just like guilt stains the soul of Joseph K., an innocent man accused of a crime he is unaware of, in Franz Kafka's "The Trial," Scottie's guilt of having witnessed the death of the police officer manifests in physical ways — acrophobia and vertigo.

This overarching anxiety, accompanied by the sheer inability to face his own fears, is what allows his old friend Elster to carry out his elaborate murder scheme. However, this very anxiety is exacerbated by Scottie's sexual desire for Judy/Madeleine, which is an integral aspect of Elster's intricate plan. Even after the ploy is unveiled, Scottie's desires are pinned on "Madeleine," the psychosexual mental imprint of his friend's actual wife, despite the fact that he is acutely aware of Judy's reality.

One also has to consider that another reason why Scottie is so taken with Madeleine is the larger-than-life family backstory of Carlotta Valdes, which further fuels his obsession to the point of clinical breakdown and disorientation.

The Illusion Shatters

Applying the advice of ex-fiancée Margorie, who believed that only a greater emotional trauma could undo Scottie's newfound fears/medical condition, Scottie decides to relive the trauma of Madeleine's death in order to overcome his guilt/grief. Naturally, this idea hinges upon the trope of conscious performance, an attempt to maintain an illusion that has already shattered, given way to a reality one is incapable of accepting. 

This sense of dissonance sets in via subtle moments, such as when Judy wears a necklace from Madeleine's jewelry collection, which also belonged to Carlotta Valdes. Despite his knowledge of the bitter truth, Scottie pushes Judy up the bell tower — an instance wherein his obsession overshadows his innate fears.

There are multifarious ways to analyze the ending of "Vertigo," key being the questions of what the presence of the nun meant, whether the events were a self-exonerated retelling of planned murder or just pure, absurd coincidence. No matter how one chooses to arrive at a conclusion, it's crucial to acknowledge the unsettling, bizarre mix of fear and desire that dominates the final scene, one that ultimately ends in death. 

One could venture into a Freudian route of desire (Eros) and death (Thanatos), or alternatively, look at the events as a manifestation of Scottie's innermost desire — the death of "Madeleine" (or who he believes to be Madeleine) for him to be able to get over her. Either way, it's too late.