Vertigo | 1958
The vertiginous streets (‘falling‘ in love), coupled with the cool, misty light make San Francisco the perfect backdrop for Alfred Hitchcock‘s obsessive romance, and most of the film‘s locations can still be found in the city.
Starting out as as a conventional enough thriller, with ex-cop Scottie (James Stewart) hired by worried husband Gavin Elster to keep an eye on the bizarre behaviour of his wife, Madeleine (Kim Novak), acrophobia segues imperceptibly into the fear of sex and of death as Scottie becomes Hitchcock-by-proxy, recreating and controlling his unattainable object of desire.
Alfred Hitchcock signals the sudden flare-up of irrational passion by disrupting the pastel colour scheme and setting Scottie’s first glimpse of Madeleine against the rich red silk interior of Ernie’s Restaurant, Montgomery Street near Washington Street in the Jackson Square Historic District.
One of Hitchcock’s own favourite San Francisco hangouts, Ernie’s had been serving up haute cuisine to the well-heeled since 1934, but finally closed its doors only to reopen as the Essex Supper Club. Sadly, this too has since closed. The restaurant stood at 847 Montgomery Street.
A few blocks southwest, on the summit of the appropriately named Nob Hill is Elster’s imposing apartment block, from which the smitten Scottie tails Madeleine Elster. Its unmistakable entrance court guarded by elaborate lamps, the 277-room Brocklebank Apartments, 1000 Mason Street at Sacramento Street, is a major location for Gene Wilder’s 1984 The Woman In Red, and also features in the TV adaptation of Armistead Maupin’s Tales Of The City.
There’s nothing left to see on the northwest corner of Gough and Eddy Streets, where Scottie trails Mrs Elster to ‘McKittrick’s Hotel’, the old house of long-dead Carlotta Valdes (the area, north of the Civic Center district, has been redeveloped, and even the elaborate Gothic St Paulus Lutheran Church dating from 1872, which you can see behind James Stewart, has since been destroyed by fire).
You can, though, visit the gleaming white-pillared palace in which Madeleine sits spellbound by Carlotta’s portrait. Situated between China and Ocean Beaches on San Francisco’s northwesterly tip, it’s the Palace of the Legion of Honor, Legion of Honor Drive in Lincoln Park.
A twin of the Legion d’Honneur in Paris, the gallery houses a rather more impressive collection of paintings than Carlotta Valdes’ kitschy portrait, including works by Rembrandt, Titian, Monet, Renoir and Degas along with one of the world’s finest collections of Rodin sculptures. The palace is featured again in Brian De Palma‘s Raising Cain.
Madeleine continues to signpost her obsession by visiting the grave of Valdes. The tiny cemetery, in which the suicidal Carlotta supposedly rests – every bit as atmospheric as it appears in the movie – has its own share of buried secrets. You can find it behind the Mission Dolores, 320 Dolores Street at Sixteenth Street in the Mission District.
Once you’ve seen the ornate exterior, you can forget the pompous basilica which was grafted on next door in 1913, the real interest here is the Misión San Francisco De Asis, completed in 1791.
One of the 21 Californian missions established by the Spanish in the 18th century and the oldest intact survivor, its four-foot thick adobe walls having withstood the worst assaults of San Andreas, the mission of St Francis of Assisi is not only the oldest building in San Francisco but gives the city its name.
Visit the cool, dark chapel interior with its unique Spanish-Mexican decoration and ceiling painting based on the designs of the Ramaytush people – dubbed Costanoans (“coast dwellers”) by the ‘kindly’ Spanish Franciscans who occupied their land, resettled them and oversaw their complete extinction. By 1850 there was only one Ramaytush left alive.
A small museum records sanitised highlights of the mission’s history – for a while in the 1840s and 1850s under Mexican rule it became a hotel and a gambling den, and bullfights were held on the plaza where Dolores Street now stands.
The museum exits into the cemetery itself. Don’t be fooled by the size. Over 5,500 of the native people are buried here in a common grave, commemorated by a single stone shrine. The grander monuments record the founding Father Palou, the city’s bigwigs and the, mainly Irish, immigrants who poured into the area after the Gold Rush.
Back northwest of the city is the granite sea wall beneath the southern anchoring of the Golden Gate Bridge at Fort Point, Marine Drive off Long Avenue, the spot where Madeleine takes a reckless plunge into the notoriously treacherous waters of the Bay. The site is named for the brick fort, built in the 1850s to defend the city from sea attack long before the bridge was conceived. It now houses a museum of militaria.
The dramatic view is now horribly disfigured by an ugly mess of rusty chain-link fence and stained concrete. Really? This was the only way this famous spot could be made safe?
Falling for the possessed woman act, Scottie rescues Madeleine and takes her back to his apartment. Scottie’s home stands at 900 Lombard Street on the corner of Jones Street, just at the foot of the series of famous hairpin bends on the ‘Crookedest Street in the World’, which you'll recognise from films such as The Love Bug.
Sadly, after remaining unchanged for all these years, the owners of the Lombard Street house have seen fit to give it an extensive makeover. It no longer looks as it did in the film.
Looking east along Lombard Street you can’t miss Telegraph Hill, and crowning it, the Coit Memorial Tower, Telegraph Hill Boulevard, the landmark Madeleine later uses to find her way back to Scottie’s apartment.
The tower was built ‘to beautify San Francisco’ (like, this city is seriously in need of beautifying) with a bequest left to the city by Lillie Hitchcock Coit (no relation to Alfred), a Bay City pioneer woman apparently fascinated by firemen (as a girl she was made an honorary member of the Knickerbocker No.5 Fire Company). It’s claimed, presumably by people unfamiliar with the works of Freud, that the monument is intended to resemble a firehose nozzle.
If your ambition is to visit the top of a reinforced concrete tower perched on the summit of a steep hill in a notorious earthquake zone (so how could you resist?), you can take the elevator to a 210-foot observation deck, which does actually give wonderful views of the Bay. The Tower is also seen in the 1998 film of Doctor Dolittle, with Eddie Murphy and its art deco entrance is featured in the 1957 musical Pal Joey.
Over the Golden Gate Bridge, about 15 miles north on Shoreline Drive, Mill Valley, off Route 1, are Muir Woods (open 8am-sunset, tel: 415/388.2595), the Giant Redwood grove, home to some of the largest and oldest living creatures on the earth, Sequoia Sempervirens – “Always green, ever living” – supposedly where Madeleine gets the heebie-jeebies contemplating the past. It’s here, near the visitor centre, that you can find a section of tree trunk on which significant dates in history are recorded.
The seashore, where Scottie follows the apparently distraught Madeleine, is Cypress Point on Seventeen-Mile Drive, on the wild Monterey Peninsula. I can’t show a photograph. The tree is, believe it or not, copyrighted. Only, as they say, in America...
When Madeleine finally succumbs to her suicidal impulse, Scottie suffers a nervous breakdown, recuperating in a sanatorium, back in San Francisco at 351 Buena Vista Avenue East.
Overwhelmed by his own obsession, he refashions lookalike actress Judy Barton into Madeleine’s dead image. For the transformation of Judy back into Madeleine, Hitchcock pulls off one of his dazzling visual coups, filling the seedy hotel room with an unearthly green neon glow. Although the film’s Hotel Empire has undergone a name change and a major facelift, you’ll still recognise Judy’s lodging.
For many years it was the York Hotel but – three cheers! – it’s since been relaunched with a long-overdue recognition of its heritage as Hotel Vertigo, 940 Sutter Street, between Hyde and Leavenworth Streets just west of the downtown area. With a slick and stylish makeover, it’s a world away from its dowdy Fifties appearance – but it’s still the setting of one of the cinema’s great scenes.
The movie’s climax returns to the scene of Madeleine’s suicide/murder. About 90 miles south of San Francisco, just east from Route 101, is the quiet little town of San Juan Bautista, home to a clutch of beautifully restored period buildings preserved as the San Juan Bautista State Park.
The park and its Plaza, part of a historic landmark adjacent to the 15th Spanish era mission, represent what was once the town square of the largest town in central California – a vital crossroad for travel between the north and south of the state.
On the town’s central plaza you’ll find the Plaza Stables Madeleine claims to remember from a previous existence, and Plaza Hall, the courtroom where the inquest is held (though, once again, the interior was recreated in the studio).
The park is open Tuesday through Sunday for self-guided visits and you can also reserve guided walking tours. You’ll find it on Second Street, between Washington and Mariposa Streets
Alongside the park, the mission itself is the Old Mission of San Juan Bautista, the largest of the Spanish missions and houses a small museum, open daily from 10am to 4pm. Don’t expect to see the bell-tower, from which Judy finally plunges to her death. The church’s tower had collapsed many years before and the movie’s climax makes use of a superimposed painting.