VERTIGO on the Wheel

The hero’s transformation in 12 steps – film study

#Vertigo #structure


OK, let’s now see how Vertigo (1958), directed by Alfred Hitchcock, without a doubt one of the best films of all time, fits into the Intuitive Screenwriting Wheel transformation template.




1. Warrior →Fool (The exposition of a wound — ego) BATTLEFIELD

Pain caused by the wrong identity vs. all possible identities.


Scottie (James Stewart) is a detective with a scar from the past.

Battlefield: because he experiences vertigo due to his fear of heights, one of his colleagues died and that was also the end of his career.




Scottie is full of pain and resentment: there is no way he will sit behind a desk! He was the bright young lawyer who decided that he was going to be the chief of police one day, but because that man died, he is now going to quit.

That is not all: Scottie never really let himself come close to love. Either he was afraid, or he never had a real opportunity. He remembers he and Midge were once engaged, but that was a long time ago and lasted only briefly. Now he sees her as a friend, even though she is still hopelessly in love with him.

So, who is Scottie? A man with a fear of heights or a man with a fear of life/love and particularly a fear of women who are not motherly and therefore safe, like Midge, or?



2. Creator →Orphan (A ray of hope) HEART’S DESIRE

The hero’s heart vs. non-authentic relationships.


Gavin Elster, Scottie’s acquaintance from college, gives him an assignment: to follow his wife who has been behaving strangely lately. Gavin claims that a dead spirit has possessed her, but Scottie doesn’t believe that is even possible. He is retired, this is just not something he should accept. Gavin is desperate, but Scottie says no. What could possibly make him change his mind?

Maybe seeing her at the opera bar would ignite Scottie’s heart, and that heart’s desire will maybe, just maybe convince him of the opposite. And this is exactly what happens: Scottie sees Madeleine (Kim Novak) and the calling of his heart is simply irresistible. The story can begin.



3. Explorer →Magician (The hero decides to go on a quest) A BETTER LIFE IS POSSIBLE

Wrong belief vs. the hero is hooked on a new vision.


The explorer in Scottie returns to the scene. He starts to follow Madeleine: first, she goes to a flower shop, then to a cemetery to visit Carlotta Valdes’ grave, then a museum where she sits in front of the Carlotta’s portrait, finally to a hotel where she checks in as Carlotta. Scottie goes into the hotel and speaks to the receptionist who says Madeleine had not been there that day, but Scottie saw her enter. And now she is not in her room and her car is gone.

He can’t decide what the truth is, can he believe his own eyes here (Explorer=belief): is she ill or possessed? But this new vision, this magic (Magician) he feels while being close to her, that is something that he must pursue, because, there is no turning back now, he is hooked.

Scottie visits Pop Liebel, the owner of the Argosy bookshop, who helps him find out who the beautiful yet sad Carlotta was. Pop plays the role of a mentor here, someone who already knows (‘explored’) stories similar to one Scottie is about to enter.



4. Lover →Caregiver (Wish storyline) LOVE INTRODUCED

Love triggers fear (overprotectiveness).


Scottie saves Madeleine (Carlotta) who tries to kill herself by jumping into the San Francisco Bay. He takes Madeleine home and while her clothes are drying, she is coming back to her sane self. Instead of making love to her, Scottie turns into the caregiver here. Either the situation is inappropriate or he is afraid of what her presence can do to him, but instead of doing what he would actually like to do, he takes care of her. The important part is she feels safe (Caregiver) with him. The love story can now begin.





5. Sage →Destroyer (Healing is possible) REASONS BEHIND SUFFERING

Healing provokes self-destructiveness (thoughts about death).


Sequoia park: Ever-living trees are all around them, but she regresses into the darkness: “I don’t like them, (trees) knowing I have to die.” Human insignificance is brought up. Life gets compared to death and transience.

She is here but he can’t have her – she can disappear into destructiveness.

He steps into the role of a psychoanalyst (I’ve written about this part of the film before, as a moment when either the hero analyzing him/herself or someone else is analyzing him/her). Scottie wants to know who Madeleine is; he becomes obsessed with what drives her.

And then the other side of the coin (B storyline): To draw attention to herself, Midge paints herself as Carlotta, but it was just wrong and desperate move: he can’t view someone he sees as his mother (Midge), as his lover.






6. Ruler →Innocent (On the top of the false mountain) WISH FULFILLED/THE WORST POSSIBLE MISTAKE

Controlling the outside world vs. the soul’s real purpose.


Old Spanish mission: Scottie’s wish is fulfilled and sealed with a kiss and he and Madeleine say they love each other. As much as Scottie wants to control their relationship and preserve the love that they now have, they are actually at the top of the wrong mountain, and Madeleine says it’s too late. She knows something he doesn’t. She goes up the church tower, he fights his vertigo and runs after her, but is not able to save her; she falls and dies. We are about to learn about the worst possible mistake.




7. Fool →Warrior DOUBLE IDENTITY — FOOL AND GAMES UPSIDE DOWN (INSIDE OUT)

Right (new) and wrong (old) identity meet, the hero is angry as he is being fooled by fools or by himself.


This is the court scene, where the prosecutor compares Scottie's disabilities from now and from before. He was not able to save Madeleine the same way he was not able to save that policeman. As I was writing before, usually rage comes up during this stage, as the hero feels something is off.

Later on, we will learn that Scottie is being fooled by fools, (but he also fooled himself, it is always like that, no one can fool you if you are not willing to be fooled) as everything was actually staged. From the ‘upside-down’ perspective, disturbing dreams come up and Scottie is falling into his own abyss - he ends up in the hospital: is he a fool or is he a fool (crazy)? Of course, Midge comes to take care of him.