Get SF Weekly Newsletters
Pin It


How Alfred Hitchcock wove his disturbing thriller into the streets of San Francisco -- and how a pair of obsessive archivists brought it back to luminescent life

Wednesday, Oct 9 1996
San Francisco isn't just the setting of Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo: It's the movie's muse. Along with composer Bernard Herrmann, who transforms convoluted psychology into resounding lyricism, and costar Kim Novak, whose pheromones and otherworldliness give body and soul to tortured romance, S.F. enables Hitchcock to conjure a netherworld of amorous yearning. Of course, James Stewart is wonderful in the role of a retired police detective drawn into an apparent case of demonic possession; but he's not the movie's muse, he's its Orpheus. In this movie S.F. isn't the City That Knows How, or Baghdad by the Bay, or the Best Place on Earth (thank god). It's a fantasia made into flesh and blood and bricks and mortar. Cutthroat street history and cushy mid-'50s chic, theology, and murder rub up against each other -- and then, improbably, merge in a seductive trance.

The movie breaks into two big chunks, as Stewart pursues Novak first when she appears in the guise of a socialite named Madeleine, and then when she reappears as a shopgirl, Judy. San Francisco seals the cracks. The story of the movie's current re-release also breaks into two big chunks: It's a tale of one city and two obsessions -- that of a preternaturally gifted image-maker, and that of a couple of zealous film restorers, Robert A. Harris and James C. Katz, who want to bring his vision back in glory.

Let's take Hitchcock's obsession first. The script's key writer, Samuel Taylor (who shares screen credit with Alec Coppel), is a San Francisco native; that may explain why locations from the Palace of Fine Arts and the Golden Gate Bridge to Novak's Nob Hill apartment and Stewart's flat near the base of Lombard Street (in sight of phallic Coit Tower) both inform and heighten the action. It was Hitchcock, though, who took the suggestiveness of the locations and ran with them creatively.

Long before Taylor finished the script, the director deputized his production designer, Henry Bumstead, to scout Bay Area shooting sites. One scholar has taken that as proof of Hitchcock's need to fold a "travelogue" into his movies as a selling point -- after all, in 1957, wide-screen runaway productions in colorful, far-flung locations were winning audiences back from television, and directors were looking for ways to pop their audiences' eyes.

But the precipitous urban hills with their unexpected perspectives and blind spots, the wind-swept trees of the Northern California coastline and the misty pockets of the sequoias, inspired Hitchcock to do what only a great director can do. He melded hyper-controlled studio artifice, as specific as a building plan, to spontaneous physical beauty. In Vertigo, Hitchcock's combination of natural and unnatural flirts with the supernatural.

This directorial wizard's brew was crucial for the far-out plot to work: Stewart plays John "Scottie" Ferguson, who discovers that he has acrophobia while hanging from a rooftop. After he quits the San Francisco police department, a college pal, Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore), now a shipping magnate, hires him for an odd job: following his wife, Madeleine (Novak) -- who acts as if she's seized by the spirit of a suicidal ancestor. Scottie's best friend is Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes), his one-time fiancee, a commercial artist who's too much of a maternal force to be a lover. Madeleine has problems, but being maternal isn't one of them. The vertigo of the title refers to Scottie's acrophobia and to his vertiginous drop into amour.

When Novak and Stewart emote by a picturesque stretch of shore, Hitchcock goes from the pair's anguished parlay in front of a studio-built tree to a shot of them navigating an actual rocky hill, and then on to a process shot of the two stars avowing their love and tempestuously kissing just as a big wave tumbles and froths behind them. (A process shot is a visual sandwich whose ingredients usually include live actors and a canned background.) Hitchcock turns studio trickery into the highest of high styles -- the shifting grade of the shoreline actually tweaks the emotions. Even as a movie-mad Eastern kid watching Vertigo on Saturday Night at the Movies 35 years ago, I recognized that the crisp outlines around Hitchcock's human figures related to the whirling geometric forms in the opening credits -- and that the surface action had a subterranean pull that didn't connect with conventional thrillers. These images of a magic Golden State had more impact on me than the million pop-music knockoffs of "the California Sound."

When Blue Velvet opened, the people who loved it best didn't immediately take apart its narrative, but settled into the movie as into a Roman bath. I think that's probably the best way to enter Vertigo, too. As a thriller it abjures the momentum and cathartic release of Hitchcock's peak suspense film, Rear Window. But as an expression of racking emotion, and as a trip into an eroticized universe, Vertigo is nonpareil. The glory of the reconstruction Harris and Katz have done on Vertigo is that it allows you to be overwhelmed like a kid again while reckoning with Hitchcock's sophisticated artistry. In the 70mm prints, the sharpness of the imagery and the luxuriance of the sound help you realize afresh how much imaginative discipline went into this dreamscape, and help you to appreciate motifs, some of them major, that are diminished when the image loses clarity. Before I saw Vertigo projected, not just broadcast, I'd never fully registered the way the world outside Midge's window looks eerily black and white, or that whenever Scottie starts to trail Madeleine outside her Nob Hill apartment, he has to maneuver around a patch of torn street. Now these touches seem emblematic of the movie's booby-trapped romanticism and of the mixture of sentiment and decadence in San Francisco itself. Gavin Elster complains that what made S.F. a potent place is gone -- in 1957! Auras of tarnished and vanished glory are part of the allure of cities like Venice and San Francisco; their bustling past gives them a sensual humanity beyond the realm of airbrushed picture books.

About The Author

Michael Sragow


Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

Popular Stories

  1. Most Popular Stories
  2. Stories You Missed


  • clipping at Brava Theater Sept. 11
    Sub Pop recording artists 'clipping.' brought their brand of noise-driven experimental hip hop to the closing night of 2016's San Francisco Electronic Music Fest this past Sunday. The packed Brava Theater hosted an initially seated crowd that ended the night jumping and dancing against the front of the stage. The trio performed a set focused on their recently released Sci-Fi Horror concept album, 'Splendor & Misery', then delved into their dancier and more aggressive back catalogue, and recent single 'Wriggle'. Opening performances included local experimental electronic duo 'Tujurikkuja' and computer music artist 'Madalyn Merkey.'"