Auguste Rodin (1840-1917)
Orpheus & Eurydice (1887)
Metropolitan Museum of Art,
New York

Mythological Themes in
Hitchcock's Vertigo

Survey of Myth & Legends

by Peter Y. Chou

Étienne Maurice Falconet
(1716 - 1791)
Pygmalion & Galatea (1763)
Hermitage, St. Petersburg

Preface: Stanford University celebrated the 50th anniversary of Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo with a Symposium on October 17, 2008 at Stanford Humanities Center from 11 am to 5:30 pm. I enjoyed all the presentations, especially Jean-Pierre Dupuy's "Time and Vertigo" that I did a web page simulating his PowerPoint show. Professor Richard Allen described Vertigo as "a film of profound melancholy." Suddenly I realized that Albrecht Dürer's Melencolia I (1514) had many images that are in Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958). A comparison of the symbolism in these two great masterpieces 444 years apart resulted in the pictorial essay "Hitchcock's Vertigo & Dürer's Melencolia". The present pictorial essay explores five mythological themes in Hitchcock's Vertigo— Kali, the Great Mother; Orpheus & Eurydice; Pygmalion; Tristan & Isolde; Faust & Mephistopheles. Enlarged images from 1000 Frames of Vertigo (1958) were edited in Photoshop for brightness & contrast and resized. Frame #s are denoted for reference. Film quotes are from Hitchcock's Vertigo Script.

Richard B. Godfrey (1728-?) The Goddess Kali (1770)

Vertigo Frame #71
Scottie examines Midge's
brassiere— a symbol of
breast and mother's milk.

Vertigo Frame #103
Scottie falls into Midge's arms
after experience of vertigo. She
consoles him "Mother is here."

Vertigo Frame #737
Midge visits Scottie in
sanitarium: "Try, Johnny.
You're not lost. Mother is here."

Vertigo Frame #941
Carlotta Valdez (1831-1857)
Madeleine's great-grandmother
haunts her and later Scottie.

Vertigo Frame #936
Judy dressed in black
for dinner with Scottie—
Is she Kali "The Black One"?

Vertigo Frame #996
Dark figure of nun appears
as Kali "The Black One" to
devour life and Scottie's love.

Vertigo Frame #997
After Judy falls off the Tower,
Mother Superior tolls the Bell.
This is the Death Mother Kali
claiming back the love life that
Scottie recreated in Madeleine.
Kali— the Great Mother
Kali is the supreme mother goddess of India, known as The Black One, and consort of Siva. As Kali she is the mother goddess in destructive aspect, devouring the life she has produced. The power of Kali abides in every woman. She is usually depicted with four arms. As life-giving mother, she has a golden ladle in her right hand, the bowl of abundant food in her left. In her dual aspect she holds the symbols both of death and immortality; the noose to strangle her victims, the iron hook to drag them in, the rosary, and the prayer book. She is sometimes pictured as a horrible hungry hag who feeds upon the entrails of her victims. In some Tantra texts she stands in a boat floating on an ocean of blood, drinking from a skull the lifeblood of the children she brings forth and eats back. In another Tantric depiction, Kali is shown black as death with a necklace of heads; in her two right hands she holds the sword and the scissors of physical death; in her two left hands, the food-full bowl and the lotus of generation. She is strangely beloved in India as the beautiful, horrible, wonderful, life-giving, life-taking Mother. (For the first European translation of the Kalika Purana containing the life story of Kali, see Heinrich Zimmer, The King and the Corpse, New York, 1948, p. 240 ff.) [Maria Leach (Ed.), Dictionary of Folklore Mythology and Legend, Volume Two: J-Z, Funk & Wagnalls Co., NY, 1950, p. 568]     In the middle of his book of poetry Sleepers Joining Hands (1973), Robert Bly has a chapter "I Came Out of the Mother Naked" (pp. 29-50), where he covers the Mother image in many cultures— "The earliest sculptures unearthed in Ice Age caves (Venus of Willendorf) are statues of a Great Mother, breasts and hips immense to suggest her abundance. This mother, who brings to birth and nourishes what is born, we could call the Good Mother... She is called "good" because whe wants everything now alive to remain alive... When a culture begins to return to the Mother, each person in the culture begins to descend, layer after layer, into his own psyche. When he starts to go down, the dead are grateful, and the trees and plants stir as if waking. As he sinks away from the Father's house, he may see, even before he sees the Good Mother, the Death Mother... She never appears in Christian iconography: the Christians kept only a merciful Mother. Lilith appears seldom in the Old Testament. Hecuba was the last reminder of the Death Mother in Demeter civilization. The Indian subcontinent, never left the Mother, and their Death Mother, Kali, still has active temples in India... Kali is often sculpted dancing on a dead man, skulls like love beads around her neck. The Mexican Death Mother Coatlicue wears a skirt made of Mother Goddess snakes. The Death Mother's job is to end everything the Good Mother has brought to birth."
    Mother images from Vertigo are shown at left. Midge recommends Scottie to go away for a while after his retirement from the police force, and he tells her "Midge, don't be so motherly." Next Scottie examines Midge's brassiere model— symbol of breast and motherhood. When Scottie sees the steep descent from the high-rise buildings outside Midge's window, he falls off the stepladder from acrophobia. Midge embraces and consoles him "Mother is here." She would say this again at the sanitarium, playing Mozart to help Scottie recuperate from his psychotic trauma after Madeleine's death. Midge plays the role of the "Good Mother", trying to nourish Scottie back to health and normalcy. On the other side is the "Death Mother" represented by Carlotta Valdez, Madeleine's great-grandmother who haunts her to suicidal tendencies and later Scottie when he goes insane. Scottie's nightmare of Carlotta's open grave (Frame #723) with him falling into it is a prime example. In the first half of the film, Madeleine appears as a mysterious woman preoccupied with death, visiting the graveyard of Carlotta at Mission Dolores, jumping into San Francisco Bay at Fort Point in suicide attempt, and falling off the Bell Tower at Mission San Juan Bautista, These death scenes are characteristics of Kali with necklace of skulls around her neck and blood dripping around her. In the second half of the film, Judy Barton appears much more down to earth from Salina, Kansas. However when Scottie molds her into Madeleine, she takes on a ghostly air. In her last dinner date with Scottie, Judy puts on a black dress— is this a hint that "The Black One", Kali, the Death Mother is coming out. Putting on Carlotta's necklace is like Kali's necklace of skulls— a symbol of death. The final scene on top of the Bell Tower, Mother Superior makes a sudden appearance that precipitates Judy/Madeleine's fall to her death. This is the Death Mother that takes away the love life that Scottie has painstakingly created when he transformed Judy into Madeleine.

G. Kratzenstein (1793-1860)
Orpheus & Eurydice (1806)

Vertigo Frame #771
Bouquet of roses
at Podesta Baldocchi

Vertigo Frame #772
Scottie at Podesta Baldocchi
before spotting Judy Barton

Vertigo Frame #773
Scottie spots Judy soon
after his visit to florist

Vertigo Frame #42
Scottie's colleague dies
falling inducing his vertigo

Vertigo Frame #102
Scottie faints on seeing
steep descent from window

Vertigo Frame #188
Scottie tails Madeleine to
narrow back alley of florist

Vertigo Frame #636
Archway at Mission San Juan
Bautista leads to tower of death

Vertigo Frame #753
Midge leaving sanitarium
through dark corridor like
passage from the Underworld

Vertigo Frame #781
Is Scottie playing Orpheus
bringing Madeleine back to
life at the Empire Hotel?

Vertigo Frame #910
Judy transformed to Madeleine
in corridor at Empire Hotel—
her second chance at life?
Orpheus and Eurydice
Orpheus was the son of Apollo and the Muse Calliope. According to legend, Orpheus was so marvellous a musician that when he sang and played the lyre, the whole of nature would listen entranced, and all creatures would follow him. Even trees and stones were believed to come and hear his music... Orpheus married an oak nymph or dryad, Eurydice, whom he loved passionately. Soon after, Aristacus was pursuing her amorously through the meadows, when in her haste to escape him she trod on a snake, which bit her leg that she died. Overwhelmed with grief, Orpheus went to the Underworld where the watchdog Cerberus let him pass. The shades were entranced by his music, and even Hades and Persephone were softened. They granted him a favor, allowing him to recover Eurydice on one condition: he must lead the way and not look back at her until they reachd the upper air again. According to Virgil and Ovid, just as Orpheus had the end of the passage in sight and the light was visible ahead, he could not refrain from turning and gazing at his wife's face; and through this excess of love he lost her, for she turned into a wraith of mist and vanished back to the house of Hades. He tried to follow again, but this time the way was barred and all his music could not avail. And now Orpheus was like a lost soul, living the life of a recluse and avoiding all the company of women. However the Thracian Maenads, among whom he had often celebrated Dionysus' orgies, soon bore him a grudge for his neglect of their company; and one day they found him, and tore him to pieces... The Muses gathered the fragments of Orpheus' body and buried them in Pieria. His lyre was placed in heaven as a constellation. (Michael Grant & John Hazel, Who's Who in Classical Mythology, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London, 1973, pp. 308-309) According to southern Italian vase-paintings, the initiate wears a wreath of corn— the wreath of Demeter— and carries a bough in his hand when he appears before Hades and Persephone, who sit enthroned amidst the dead in a small, palace-like building, as if in an open shrine. If he follows the instructions of the disciples of Orpheus, he will have drunk of the spring that flows at his right hand, Mnemosyne, "Memory", and will have avoided the spring on his left with the white cypress beside— Lethe, the water of forgetfulness. (C. Kerenyi, The Gods of the Greeks, Thames & Hudson, London, 1951, pp. 246-247)
    In Vertigo, Scottie seems like a lost soul after Madeleine's death (Frame #732) just like Orpheus when Eurydice died. After his recovery from the sanitarium, Scottie frequented the haunts where Madeleine went— Brocklebank Apartments (Frame #761), Ernie's Restaurant (Frame #768), Legion of Honor Museum (Frame #770). Anyone who was blonde or wore a gray suit like Madeleine caught Scottie's attention, but alas they were not his lost love. The next three scenes from Vertigo (Frames #771-773) seem to parallel Kerenyi's description of the images on the Italian vase-painting. Scottie is an Orphean initiate appealing to Hades, Lord of the Underworld, to give him back his lost love Madeleine. The rose bouquet (Frame #771) represents the initiate's wreath of corn that he's wearing and the bough in his hand. Scottie looks to the right window (Frame #772) instead of the left at Podesta Baldochhi, thus avoiding Lethe, water of forgetfulness, and is cured by Mnemosyne "Memory". Only then does Scottie spots Judy walking by, who has a striking resemblance to Madeleine (Frame #773). This last frame is of particular interest as Judy Barton walks toward the "Podesta Baldocchi" car. It's as if she's about to walk into her past, to become Madeleine again. Somehow Scottie was successful in rescuing Madeleine back from the land of the dead like Orpheus in his descent to reclaim his Eurydice from the Underworld. The symbolism is amazing!
    Since Vertigo has a similar theme to Orpheus, we find images of steep descent when the policeman fell off the building trying to rescue Scottie (Frame #42). Scottie faints on Midge's stepladder after seeing the steep descent outside her window (Frame #102). The narrow back alley (Frame #188) to the florist is followed by a trip to the graveyard (Frame #229). The dark archway at Mission San Juan Bautista leads to the Bell Tower where Madeleine's falls to her death (Frame #671). When Midge leaves the sanitarium (Frame #753) down the long corridor, it looks like a passage from the Underworld. After this shot, Midge disappears from the movie entirely and is never mentioned again. When Scottie see Judy who resembles Madeleine, he follows her to the Empire Hotel. As Scottie walks down the hallway (Frame #781), is he playing Orpheus in bringing the dead Madeleine back to life? Finally when Judy is transformed to Madeleine, she walks down the hallway of the Empire Hotel (Frame #910) like Eurydice from the Underworld at a second chance for life. However the mythological tale of Orpheus and Eurydice ends sadly when he turns back and she is snatched away from him into the Underworld again. Likewise when Scottie turns back and drags Judy/Madeleine to Mission San Juan Bautista to relive the scene of her crime, she would fall off the tower again, and he would lose his love forever.

Jean Léon Gérôme (1824-1904)
Pygmalion & Galatea

Vertigo Frame #164
Gavin Elster as Pygmalion
fashioned Judy as Madeleine
in plot to murder his wife

Vertigo Frame #879
Scottie as Pygmalion molding
Judy Barton to Madeleine
at Ransohoff's clothing store
Vertigo Frame #720
Scottie's nightmare after
Madeleine's death as Carlotta
appears between him and Elster

My Fair Lady film (1964)
Professor Henry Higgins &
Colonel Pickering fashioned
Eliza Dolittle into a Lady
based on George Bernard
Shaw's play Pygmalion (1913)
Pygmalion and Galatea
Pygmalion was a sculptor in Cyprus who, according to Ovid (Metamorphoses, X.9), made a lifelike ivory statue of his ideal woman, since no real woman came up to his standards. He fell in love with the statue, and Aphrodite, taking pity on him, brought it to life (Galatea). Pygmalion married her and she bore him a daughter, Paphos, who was either the mother or wife of Cinyras. Paphos founded the city of that name in Cyprus. (Michael Grant & John Hazel, Who's Who in Classical Mythology, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London, 1973, p. 352; Lemprière's Classical Dictionary, 3rd Ed., Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1984, p. 534)
    Tom Helmore played Gavin Elster, the sinister husband of Madeleine in Vertigo. Hitchcock may have enlisted Helmore because of the actor's recent appearance, in Los Angeles, as Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady. Higgins is the Pygmalion of George Bernard Shaw's drama. (Donald Spoto, The Art of Alfred Hitchcock, Hopkins & Blake Publishers, NY, 1998, p. 296)     When Scottie found Judy Barton and followed her back to the Empire Hotel, she wondered why he wanted her— “Do I really look like her? She's dead, isn't she?... Dinner and what else?... 'Cause I remind you of her?” After their dinner date, Scottie wants to see her for breakfast and just be with her. He takes Judy to Ransohoff (Frame #879) so she could be dressed like Madeleine in her gray suit. He insists that she change her hair from brunette to blonde at the Beauty Parlor. When she returns to the Empire Hotel as a blonde, he's not satisfied until she wears her hair with that spiral bun like Madeleine/Carlotta. Only then Scottie's desire is fulfilled and he kisses her passionately. Like the Cyprian sculptor Pygmalion who fell love with his marble statue Galatée, that Aphrodite brought to life, so Scottie has made the dead Madeleine alive by his force of will. Later when Judy puts on Carlotta's necklace for their dinner outing, Scottie gets suspicious. He takes her back to Mission San Juan Bautista and the scene of the crime. Scottie drags Judy up the spiral staircase, mad as ever that he's been had by Gavin Elster. He shouts at Judy: “You played the wife very well, Judy. He made you over, didn't he? He made you over just like I made you over, only better. Not only the clothes and the hair, but the looks, the manner and the words... and those beautiful phony trances... Then what did he do? Did he train you? Did he rehearse you? Did he tell you exactly what to do, what to say? You were a very apt pupil, too, weren't you?” Scottie's obsession in transforming Judy into Madeleine to satisfy his desire seemed so devious. But Gavin Elster's murder plot in shaping Madeleine to trick Scottie is even more nefarious. The scene of Carlotta/Madeleine between the two men in Scottie's nightmare (Frame #720) is reminiscent of Eliza Dolittle (Audrey Hepburn) between Professor Higgins and Colonel Pickering who transformed a gutter-snipe into a lady in the film My Fair Lady (1968) based on Shaw's play Pygmalion (1913).

Louis Rhead (1858-1926)
Tristan and Isolde

Vertigo Frame #169
Madeleine at Ernie's
Scottie would fall in love
like Tristan with Isolde

Vertigo Frame #582
Scottie kisses Madeleine
as ocean waves roar upward
to Wagner's Tristan & Isolde

Vertigo Frame #650
Scottie kisses Madeleine
at Livery Stable carriage
Mission San Juan Bautista

Vertigo Frame #927
Scottie kisses Judy Barton
at her Empire Hotel after
she turns into Madeleine

Vertigo Frame #946
Scottie kisses Judy/Madeleine
at her Empire Hotel before
their last dinner date
Tristan and Isolde
Tristan is the nephew of King Mark of Cornwall and kills the giant Morholt of Ireland. In doing so he is wounded. King Mark orders Tristan placed in a boat and thrust out to sea. He is picked up by fishermen who take him to Isolt of Ireland, who is skilled in healing. She heals Tristan and he rids Ireland of a marauding dragon and then returns to Cornwall. In time he is sent back to Ireland to negotiate the marriage of Isolt and Mark. On the way back to Cornwall, Tristan and Isolt accidentally drink the love potion Isolt's mother had prepared for Isolt and Mark. And so they come to love one another blindly and completely. On her wedding night Isolt sends her maid to substitute for her and for awhile Mark does not know of the relation between his nephew and wife. Tristan and Isolt have many clandestine meetings and finally elopes into the forest. There Mark eventually finds them asleep with Tristan's sword between them. Mark replaces Tristan's sword with his own. By that they know that Mark thinks they are innocent and that they must return to the castle. Finally they can no longer endure the torture of being together and not being together; Tristan goes over the seas to Brittany. There he marries Isolt of the White Hands because she loves him, but remorseful, he cannot consummate the marriage. When he is mortally wounded in battle some time later, Tristan sends a message to Isolt of Ireland asking her to come to him. He directs the messenger to fly white sails if she is aboard, but black if she is not. In time the vessel is sighted and the sails are white. Tristan, being told that the vessel is in the harbor, asks his wife, "What is the manner of her sails?" She replies, "Black, my lord, black as night." Tristan dies and Isolt when she find him dead throws herself on his body and dies too, thus proving the words Isolt's mother uttered when she gave the love potion to the maid, "Guard this with your life for it contains love and death." [Maria Leach (Ed.), Dictionary of Folklore Mythology and Legend, Volume Two: J-Z, Funk & Wagnalls Co., NY, 1950, pp. 1125-1126]
    Bernard Herrmann's score in Vertigo is heavily reminiscent of Richard Wagner's "Liebestod" in Tristan und Isolde, most evident concerning the resurrection scene. When Madeleine first appears at Ernie's restaurant to Scottie's view, we hear the Tristan und Isolde theme played when her profile is seen on the screen (Wagner's "Liebestod" midi file). There are three passionate kissing scenes between Scottie and Madeleine— (1) by the 17-Mile Drive ocean after Scottie tells her “The Chinese say that once you've saved a person's life... you're responsible for it forever, so I'm committed.”; (2) by the Livery Stable carriage when Scottie cracks Madeleine's dreams of being in Spain to be none other than Mission San Juan Bautista, 90 miles south of San Francisco; (3) in Judy's apartment at Empire Hotel when Scottie transformed her into Madeleine, resurrected from death. The last kiss in Judy's apartment (Frame #946) was not so passionate because Scottie saw the necklace which Judy put on was Carlotta's. With his doubts, he now takes Judy back to the scene of her sinister crime with tragic consequences. The French word triste (sadness) is derived from the tragic story of Tristan and Isolde— Likewise with the ending in Hitchcock's Vertigo.

Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863)
Mephistopheles & Faust (1828)
Lithograph #6: Goethe's Faust

Vertigo Frame #135
Scottie meets Gavin Elster
at his shipyard office as he
recruits him to spy on his wife

Vertigo Frame #353
Scottie reports his findings
to Elster at his men's club

Vertigo Frame #922
Judy becomes Madeleine—
a ghost conjured up like
Helen of Troy for Faust
to love by Mephistopheles?

Vertigo Frame #925
Madeleine emerges to life—
like Helen of Troy
to tempt Faust/Scottie
Faust and Mephistopheles
The German legend of Faust who sells his soul to the Devil is the basis for many literary, artistic, cinematic, and musical works, such as those by Christopher Marlowe, Goethe, Thomas Mann, Hector Berlioz, Franz Liszt, Washington Irving, Charles Gounod, Gustav Mahler and Oscar Wilde. Goethe's tale of Faust (1832) is the most widely read version. In Part I, the elderly Faust is frustrated with learning and attracts the Devil (Mephistopheles) who promises him power, knowledge, everlasting youth, and love. In return Faust gives up his soul if he utters the words "Stay on this moment, thou art so fair." Mephistopheles makes Faust young again so he wins the love of the pure Gretchen/Marguerite. Gretchen and her family are destroyed by Mephistopheles' deceptions and Faust's desires and actions. In Part II, Mephistopheles whisks Faust back to the world of the classical gods. He deceives and persuades Helen of Troy to live with Faust at his castle in the North. Helen represents classical beauty and Faust marries her, and they bear a boy-child, Euphorion. When Euphorion tries to fly high in the sky, he dies like Icarus. The union of Faust and Helen is broken, and Helen returns to Persephone's underworld realm with the soul of their child. Disappointed at his broken love, Faust engaged in civil projects and built the town's sewage system. He realized that helping others is more satisfying than pleasing his ego appetites and says "Stay on this moment thou art so fair." Mephistopheles seizes on that statement and takes the soul of Faust, but God intercedes knowing Faust's true intention and raises him to heaven. Goethe's Faust ends with the words “Eternal feminine leads us above” reminiscent of Lao Tzu's Tao Te Ching and Dante's Paradiso that it is the feminine principle that leads us to heaven.
    The sinister figure of Gavin Elster in Vertigo luring Scottie to follow his wife Madeleine has a resemblance to the Faust legend. The suave and fiendish Gavin Elster plays Mephistopheles to Scottie's Faust. He quickly grasps Scottie's frustrations and discontent. Gavin tempts him with his wife Madeleine, the very symbol of worldly "colour, excitement, power, freedom." Yet she's also someone who is still mysterious and other-worldly, walking like Carlotta Valdez in a trance. Madeleine is also like Goethe's Helen of Troy who supplants the simple and abused Gretchen in Faust's fancy and points him toward "the world of eternity where all the opposites are transcended." The scene where Helen of Troy emerges from a cavern of mist resembles Judy coming out as Madeleine like a ghostly figure (Frame #922). Unfortunately in Hitchcock's Vertigo all does not end well with Scottie. His sole desire of lust for Madeleine has blinded him to all else. Hence the devouring Great Mother "The Black One" comes at the end (Frame #996) to reclaim his love. Scottie takes a fall like Judy/Madeleine (Euphorion/Icarus in Faust) whereas Dante and Beatrice "go-Verti"— go vertically, transcending time and ascend to Paradise.

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