Herbert Coleman, Vertigo‘s assistant producer, said that director Alfred Hitchcock would pick a place and then develop a story for that location. If that’s true, then what did Hitchcock say about San Francisco in Vertigo? Surely the hills are steep enough to give someone vertigo, but there must be more to it than that.

In
the beginning of the movie, old friend Gavin (Tom Helmore) tells
John “Scottie” Ferguson (James Stewart) that San Francisco has changed:
“Things that spell ‘San Francisco’ to me are disappearing fast.”

Scottie points to a picturesque landscape of green hills. “Like all these?” he asks.

“Yes,” Gavin says. “I should have liked to live here then. Color, excitement, car, freedom.”

It’s 1958, and San
Francisco is changing. Even the people are changing. The city is
haunted by the past, Madeleine (Kim Novak) is haunted by Carlotta’s ghost, Scottie
is haunted by memories of Madeleine, and Judy is haunted by Scottie’s
obsession. The past lingers even as time goes on and new identities and
paths take root.

Vertigo
haunts and even teases local
Hitchcock aficionados with its cinematographic past. Hitchcock shot on
location for 16 days in 1957, featuring such landmarks as Coit Tower,
the Palace of Fine Arts, the Legion of Honor, Fort Point, Mission
Dolores and the Golden Gate Bridge. The film serves as an homage to the
physical space and public symbols of the city. Consequently, it
preserves a view into the San Francisco of the 1950s.

Some even capitalize on the Hitchcock connection. A Vertigo tour of the city
will cost you $230 for four to five hours of visiting points of
interest. Add a visit to Mission San Juan Bautista, and it’s $480 for a
full day’s schlep (10 to 11 hours).  Now Scottie’s apartment has become
a photo-op itself.

Others obsess over the minutiae: the trees that have grown over a view of the bridge, the dingy alleyway that’s become boutique-central.
We’re not actually looking for how things have changed though. We’re
looking for what has remained the same from Hitchcock’s touch, what has
withstood the test of time and what can still haunt us from our city’s
past. It’s a sense of comfort and mark of pride to know that some
things never change (like Madeleine’s grandiose apartment building or the flower stand around Union Square), especially when those some things were captured by a renowned auteur.

These
comparative screenshots and extended tours attempt to capture exactly
what Gavin saw in his painting. Even the painting of Carlotta Valdez,
the woman supposedly haunting Madeleine, serves the same purpose. All
are romantic, mysterious, and predicated on a nobler past. A simpler
time, a flush time. While the past may seduce us, Hitchcock shows that
its romance will only elude us in the end.

The present moment
and its garish reality interrupt and overpower our desperate reach to
experience the past. Judy (Kim Novak) represents this bluntness. She is
neither mysterious nor noble. She’s not charming or aloof or
refined–nothing that would invite us to want to know more. She wears
too much makeup, and worst of all, she’s from Kansas. She lacks the
rich connection to San Francisco’s Spanish ancestry, the feel of old
sophistication passed down from generation to generation.

Scottie’s
attraction to the polished Madeleine and obsession with digging her out
of Judy reflects the desire to possess a mystery of the past. The
mystery of the past is not specific to our city, but it has obviously
taken hold. We are enamored with history’s nostalgic factor and the
idea of “before things changed.” Hitchcock proves that San Francisco is
a haunted city, even 50 years after he left his mark.

Vertigo is available on Netflix and iTunes. The Universal Legacy Series edition is available on Amazon.

Starring San Francisco is Appeal culture reporter, Christine
Borden’s, take on the city’s cinematic past to illuminate today. Have a
locally-set film you’d like to see featured? Tell her at christine@sfappeal.com

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  • Natalie

    Christine,

    Great posts! I really enjoy reading your writing every week or so. Keep up the fabulous work.