In both Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo and F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, you can find the strongly held American belief in reinvention.
Vertigo (1958) -- Hitchcock’s most highly regarded film, is at its heart, the story of a small-town, lower-class woman who dreams of glamour, romance, and wealth in the big city, then dies tragically after being betrayed by the rich elite she wanted to live amongst. Yet we never really know that much about Judy Barton (aka Madeleine Elster), because her story is told through the point-of-view of the man who thinks he loves her, John Scott “Scottie” Ferguson.
The Great Gatsby (1925) — America’s most beloved literary novel — is the story of James Gatz, a poor boy from rural North Dakota, who moves to the big city in search of glamour, romance, and wealth. Like Judy Barton, James Gatz also dies tragically after being betrayed by the wealthy elite he wanted to live amongst. Significantly, we never really know James Gatz/Jay Gatsby, because his story is told from the point-of-view of his friend and admirer, Nick Carraway.
At first glance, few people would consider comparing the similarities between these two famous and revered works of American fiction. Vertigo is a thriller/murder mystery, based on a French mystery novel. Gatsby is a literary novel. Yet both works trod surprisingly similar themes; themes that are quintessentially American, chief among them the possibility of “reinventing” one’s whole self with the "new" and the "better": new names, new clothes, new backgrounds, new families, new social statuses, and new personalities.
Side note: the comparisons below are between Vertigo, the Alfred Hitchcock film, and The Great Gatsby, the novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald (not any of the filmed versions of the novel). I’ve never read the French thriller novel, D’entre les morts ("From the Dead"), that Vertigo is based upon. I suspect that Hitchcock added/subtracted a lot from the novel to make the film version congruent with his own personal vision and artistic statement.
For those who’ve not seen/read the works in question, plot synopses can be found here and here. Without further adieu, here are the startling similarities between these two celebrated works of fiction:
-- Both stories feature a character from an impoverished, small town background who seeks to “remake” themselves into someone who can “fit in” with the glamorous, wealthy elite. In the case of James Gatz/Jay Gatsby, he plays the part of the handsome, wealthy war hero to first enrich himself in his bootlegging business, and then to appeal to his grasping romantic obsession, Daisy Buchanan. In the case of Judy Barton/Madeleine Elster, she allows herself to be remade from a low-class shopgirl to an elegant society woman, not once but twice — first to appeal to her rich, married lover, Gavin Elster, and secondly, for the man she truly loves, Scottie Ferguson.
-- Each story tells about a man’s obsessive love for a rich, beautiful woman. Gatz/Gatsby and Scottie go to great lengths to pursue their respective dream girls. And in each case, the objects of their respective obsessions only live in their imaginations. Gatz/Gatsby fell in love with the conquettish, eighteen-year-old Daisy and did not realize that five years later, she was no longer the same person he knew in Louisville. Scottie never really loved Judy Barton; he only loved the woman whom she impersonated.
-- Both Gatz/Gatsby and Judy/Madeleine end up dying violently and young — fates that would not have happened if they had not aspired to move up “above their station” and live among the rich and elite.
-- Gatz/Gatsby and Judy/Madeleine are both the victims of rich, powerful men who use their money and influence without conscience to get what they want. Tom Buchanan cheats on his wife, Daisy, with Myrtle Wilson and physically abuses both women. After Myrtle dies, he manipulates her grief-stricken husband, George Wilson, into killing Gatsby. Gavin Elster uses Judy Barton to carry out his scheme of murdering his rich wife, then tosses Judy out on the street when the deed is done. He also uses the disability of his “old friend”, Scottie, in a very cruel way, to ensure that his deception passes muster with the authorities.
-- Both Tom Buchanan and Gavin Elster get away with grave transgressions that kill/harm other people. Tom wins Daisy back and never suffers any consequences for his part in causing the deaths of Myrtle, George Wilson, and Gatz/Gatsby. Gavin Elster literally gets away scott free — or maybe we should say Scottie free — with the murder of his wife, and with also setting in motion the events that cost Judy Barton her life. (There was an alternative ending filmed that references the arrest of Elster, which was added for European versions of Vertigo, but in the most familiar cut of the film, Elster gets away with murder, with the only witness who can nail him — Judy Barton — conveniently dead.)
-- There are strongly evocative passages in both works that reference a longing for the raw, unsettled America that existed before the 20th Century. In Vertigo, Gavin Elster enthuses to Scottie about the “power and freedom” of anything-goes, Gold Rush-era California. At the end of Gatsby, Nick Carraway looks out to Long Island Sound, and imagines the wonderment that “those Old Dutch sailors” felt when they first sailed up it and encountered the beauty and vast abundance of the unspoiled Manhattan.
-- A small but interesting connection: Hitchcock set Vertigo in San Francisco, because he wanted to use the city’s steep, hilly streets to emphasize Scottie’s fear of heights. The Great Gatsby also has a San Francisco connection: although the novel is set in New York, when Gatsby is telling Nick his fabricated origin story, he says his family were wealthy people from San Francisco.