Vertigo Ghosts Still Haunt

I’ve been haunted for the past fifty years.

Not by the ghouls and goblins, or by the monsters and miscreations of the Halloween season. No, I’ve been haunted by a motion picture that I first saw as a young teen back in the late 1950s, a film that was so devastating to me, so unforgettable, that it affected my readings, my art appreciation, and eventually my own writing. And I was not alone. Over the past five-and-a-half decades, millions of devoted fans have fallen under the spell of this somewhat flawed, often ignored film that has finally been recognized by the prestigious British Film Institute’s Sight and Sound magazine poll (2012), as the greatest film of all time: Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece Vertigo.

According to the respected director Martin Scorsese, “Any film as great as Vertigo demands more than just a sense of admiration – it demands a personal response.” For many devotees of the film, our personal response is a very ethereal one, and although haunting us for many years, it materializes more palpably when we visit the numerous San Francisco and Bay Area sites that are still present, even after more than a half century’s passage of time.

On September 13, 1957, Hitchcock began filming Vertigo in and around San Francisco’s oldest existing building, the Mission Dolores. His protagonist, Scottie Ferguson (James Stewart), has been hired by an old school chum to follow his lovely wife Madeleine Elster (Kim Novak), in an attempt to discover the cause of her fascination with death. The first day on the job leads Scottie to the Mission Delores cemetery. The church, itself, is one of the original 21 Spanish missions built along the historic El Camino Real and was actually dedicated in 1776, three months after the signing of the American Declaration of Independence. It still exists today, almost unchanged since Hitchcock first rolled his cameras, and can be visited at 324 Dolores Street at 16th Street.

Following her stop at the Mission, Madeleine is back in her car and leads Scottie to the Palace of the Legion of Honor, an art gallery where she sits mesmerized in front of the portrait of a young woman: the same woman who is buried in the cemetery at the Mission Delores. The scene was filmed in the Palace’s Gallery #6, a location that is still identifiable today, even though the portrait (which was specially painted for the movie) has long since disappeared. The building is located at the top of Lincoln Park hill, at 34th Avenue and Clement Street, and provides the visitor with a spectacular view of the city and San Francisco Bay, including the signature landmark Golden Gate Bridge.

Also surviving from the film, is the Brocklebank Apartments, the home of the Elsters and the location where Scottie first picks up the trail of Madeleine. The automobile courtyard, the building’s façade and the entrance gates are virtually the same. The Brocklebank may be found at 1000 Mason Street, in the Nob Hill district, and is across the road from the famed Fairmont Hotel, the San Francisco location where most of the cast and crew stayed while filming in the Bay City.

Another cinematic landmark is the exterior setting for Scottie’s apartment. Just below the most meandering block of Lombard Street, affectionately referred to as the “crookedest street in the world”, the building is situated at 900 Lombard Street at Jones. Fifty-some years haven’t changed the location much, either. Even though the small trees below the front stoop appear much higher, a pale gray front door has replaced the bright red one, and the porch railing is straight-railed and black, instead of the red Chinese design from the film, Vertigo aficionados will have an immediate frisson of recognition. They may even imagine catching a glimpse of Kim Novak’s Madeleine, as she walks up the steps, wearing Edith Head’s stunning design of white coat and flowing black scarf.

The scene that first brings the lovers together occurs beneath the famed Golden Gate Bridge. It is here, on Long Drive at Marine Avenue, near the Presidio, that Madeleine performs her apparent suicide attempt, and an all-too willing Scottie Ferguson dives into the Bay to save her. Although the water’s edge is not accessible, today, due to a fence at the edge of the fort, visitors can come within 15 or so feet of the water. Contrary to Hollywood myth, Ms. Novak was not tortured by her director by repeatedly being asked to jump into San Francisco Bay for numerous takes. In reality, there were only four takes, and a stunt double was used.

After saving Madeleine, Scottie falls in love with her and is emotionally crushed, when he witnesses her apparent suicide, on the grounds of the Mission San Juan Bautista. Too late, he discovers that he has been duped in a diabolical scheme to murder his friend’s real wife. But it’s not too late for the Vertigophile. Visitors may drive to the sleepy little town of San Juan Bautista, where time has virtually stood still. The silent loneliness of the Mission and its environs is palpable. The mission square, the cloisters, the livery stable, the two-story building where the inquest takes place, all are as they were five-and-a-half decades ago. Even the surrey and model horse still stand in the old livery stable, although they have been moved from the front right section to the rear left. Of course, those Vertigo fans expecting to find the fateful bell tower may be disappointed; it didn’t exist in 1957 and was matted into the film during post-production. San Juan Bautista is found on Highway 101, on Route 156, about 90 minutes south of San Francisco.

Although some locations have been lost over the years, such as Ernie’s Restaurant, the McKittrick Hotel, and the Grant Street location of the Podesta Baldocchi flower shop, most sites remain. The Park Hill Sanitarium, now an apartment building, is still at 351 Buena Vista Avenue East. The Empire Hotel is still found in the 900 block on Sutter Street, near Hyde, and although the hotel’s green neon sign is long gone, the building remains, now called Hotel Vertigo. Finally, for a truly haunting moment, one can visit the timeless redwood forests at Big Basin Redwoods State Park, 23 miles northwest of Santa Cruz, just north of Alfred Hitchcock’s old country house in Scott’s Valley.

In his book Vertigo: The Making of a Hitchcock Classic, author Dan Auiler said it for all of us: “That final, shocking image of Scottie alone in the tower is what seals the heart and our fate – (it) drags us to the locations to walk their pathways like hungry ghosts.” As such, it is not just Scottie and Madeleine who are the phantoms of Vertigo. All of us become obsessed spirits in Hitchcock’s haunted world. If you wish to join our spectral obsession, there are numerous Vertigo tours in and around San Francisco. A brief consultation of the yellow pages or an online search will quickly reveal a number of friendly and reliable ones.

Thom is a published playwright with Samuel French, Inc. and the Playwright’s Guild of Canada. An avid cinephile since his childhood, he has recently added to his body of work a new stage adaptation of the swashbuckler classic The Prisoner of Zenda, based on the writings of Anthony Hope.