First of all, the title is a misnomer. The protagonist, a detective named Scottie Ferguson (James Stewart), suffers from a debilitating fear of heights, which is in no way the same thing as vertigo. (Fans of Arrested Development will remember that Lucille Two, played by Liza Minelli, suffers from actual vertigo, a condition which results in a loss of equilibrium.)
Nonetheless, Vertigo is a far better title than Acrophobia, and also better than From Among the Dead, the literal translation of the French novel upon which the film is based. So maybe Hitchcock and company's bit of cinematic license doesn't have to be such a grudging thing.
According to the recently-released edition of Sight and Sound's once-a-decade poll of film critics, Vertigo is now the greatest film of all time. It stole the top spot from Citizen Kane, which has held it for 50 years. The freshly-anointed Vertigo has had its profile raised, and although such polls are tiresome things, they do provide a good excuse to revisit certain classics that are sometime simply taken for granted. Even those who haven't seen Vertigo know it's a "masterpiece." Local excuses for not having seen the film, shot in San Francisco and Monterey, will seem even more flimsy after this weekend's screenings at the Castro -- in 70mm, no less.
For many decades, this wouldn't have been possible. Vertigo was not particularly well-received by American critics or audiences upon its original release. Because it was, for many years, not nearly as popular as Hitchcock's North by Northwest or Psycho, the condition of the original film had deteriorated significantly. In 1996, a major restoration was completed -- and premiered at the Castro. This restoration -- which transferred the high-resolution VistaVision negative to the larger 70mm film format -- was controversial for changes that were made to the soundtrack (re-recorded foley effects, transforming mono to six-channel DTS) but was universally lauded for its visual achievement.
Hitchcock shot parts of Vertigo at the Legion of Honor, Union Square, the Palace of Fine Arts, Mission Dolores, Fort Point, the big stand of eucalyptus along 101 halfway between Gilroy and Salinas, Cypress Point, and San Juan Bautista. Many of these locations look just the way they did 54 years ago. Hitchcock was famously enamored of Northern California's landscape and coastal features (they also appear in Shadow of a Doubt, The Birds, and Family Plot). The Bay Area wasn't just a backdrop for Hitchcock. He lived here for some time and participated as a member of the community. A rumor has circulated for years -- one that has never been definitively confirmed nor denied -- that Hitchcock was interested in endowing what is now Porter College at UC-Santa Cruz. (For more on Hitchcock's Bay Area life and films, see Jeff Kraft and Aaron Leventhal's book, Footsteps in the Fog.)
Vertigo, however, is Hitchcock's best showcase of Bay Area locations; it's also his purest expression of the ideas that preoccupied much of his creative output: mistaken identity, obsession, voyeurism, immobilizing fear, and blonde women. This isn't the venue to explore these things in any kind of depth -- besides, that's been done. The thing to do is to get to the Castro, where you'll be able to see Vertigo the way you were meant to see it.
Vertigo screens August 3 -September 3 at the Castro Theatre.