Vertigo - A San Francisco Film

Psychedelic dream-nightmare sequence.
Psychedelic dream-nightmare sequence.
Grace Cathedral.
Grace Cathedral.
Beneath the Golden Gate Bridge.
Beneath the Golden Gate Bridge.
Among the redwood trees of Marin.
Among the redwood trees of Marin.


Alfred Hitchcock’s 1958 film, Vertigo, is a psychological thriller and ghost-story. The director captured the true essence of San Francisco, in large part, by transforming the whole city into an outdoor symphony hall: the resonant horns and bass strings mimicking the ships’ horns and fog horns that bellow across the bay and echo throughout every district of the city. Sir Alfred must have spent enough time in San Francisco to become familiar with such detail. He found high places to showcase the magnificent views and added more sparkle, again, with music: strings that sound like chimes, for example, and vivd horn sections that display startling scenes as from a high precipice.


Yet, the unpredictable director begins the film scaling dark, irregular rooftops in the shadows of night. The Bay Bridge can be seen spanning above the black, night-time bay. And neon signs flash dimly, casting enough light to illuminate the Ferry Building as well as other Embarcadero structures which have now been replaced by the sky-scraping monuments of the Financial District .

A single, steel bar crosses the screen and a hand grasps the bar with immediate strength. Hitchcock had a long-standing preoccupation with steel bars which expresses itself in the earliest of his films, most notably, The 39 Steps. This fixation recollects back to a childhood trauma involving police, jails, and the bars of a jail-cell. In the chase scene in Vertigo, the man grabbing the bar is persued by the police – a Hitchcock theme recalling To Catch A Thief, starring Cary Grant. But, instead of scaling the rooftops in dark, Medetarrainian evenings, Jimmy Stewart slips and tumbles along rooftops in the darkest of San Francisco nights.

San Francisco seems the obvious choice, of all the cities on the globe, to thoroughly torment a man with vertigo. With its escalating hills and the tall buildings that climb as if marching up to the sky, the sensation of dizziness can be conjured quite suddenly. Scottie’s vertigo is so debilitating that he must retire from the force. This much is revealed between, Scottie and his friend, Midge, whom we surmise was once a romantic interest. In Midge’s living room, with its classic view of Russian Hill and the spires of Saint Peter and Paul’s church as the backdrop to their conversation, Rear Window, another Hitchcock/Stewart collaboration, will come to mind for any dedicated Hitchcock fan. But Midge is a bit more cagey than Grace Kelly: we are not yet certain of Midge’s feelings for Scottie; although, by the disarming proximity of the camera to Midge’s darting eyes, we are meant to infer that something is up. And in a paralyzing scene, the director renders the simple act of climbing a small step-ladder frightening. With tricky camera work and Jimmy Stewart’s superior brand of genius, the sensations of vertigo are delivered straight through the screen.


In his old chum’s office which is down in the shipyards where our some-time thespian director, HItchcock, makes one of his cameo appearances, Scottie tells of how he came upon his condition of vertigo - how he cannot, for example, have a drink at the Top Of The Mark anymore, "but that there are plenty of street-level bars in town." Since San Francisco was founded on brothels, in this close study of what becomes a psychological knot of psychoses, these denizens of the city orchestrate quite well into Hitchcock’s themes of deception and lurking subterfuge that plague the hero of the story. Ernies, a once treasured restaurant in Jackson Square, long patronized by the local elites, is where Scottie first sets his eyes on the lovely Madeleine, played by Kim Novak. The special understanding between director, Alfred Hitchcock and actor, Jimmy Stewart becomes evident in the way that the camera revolves around Stewart and how he so artfully conveys the response to Cupid’s dart through his self-conscious gaze across the room at the silvery-blond beauty, while he remains – transmuted yet seated so inconspicuously at the bar.


This is the woman he is to investigate - covertly. Scottie follows her from The Brocklebank, the regal, old apartment building where many famous and infamous San Franciscans have lived and where Madeleine allegedly resides. They leave Nob Hill, Scottie secretly trailing her green, Rolls Royce passed the Fairmont Hotel and the Mark Hopkins, under the towering, Godly presence of beautiful, gothic Grace Cathedral. Scottie follows the mysterious beauty through the chic shopping district of Union Square, wherein, by-the-way, many ghost-sightings are reported to this day, and then drives all the way out, through the Avenues, to Mission Dolores in the Mission district. Here the mysterious Madeleine walks the pristine paths of the Mission’s graveyard, Scottie watching at a safe distance from behind an arched, Spanish wall, and the Mission bells toll ominously as symphony music simultaneously replicates the sound of doom. Partifcular Noir/Hitchcock effects are given to the shaded jaw-line of Jimmy Stewart and its alignment wth the towers of the Mission bells and the dark heavens above.

Now the atmosphere of mystery and danger has been set, and Scottie is naturally drawn into solving the case of Madeleine. In his fondness for the grand-scale, Hitchcock utilizes all things monumental in a great city of beauty. Scottie follows the green Rolls Royce on a tortuous trail out to The Palace of the Legion of Honor, a grand museum which displays a bronze of Balzac’s Thinker gracing the palatine entrance. Within, Scottie watches the rather dazed but impeccably coifed blond as she studies a gilded painting in the hushed, portrait gallery. From here, it is a journey down from the heights of Seacliff, through the Presidio and out to Fort Point, where the lady stands under the Golden Gate Bridge throwing flower petals into the bay.


Not wanting to give the entire plot and controversial ending away, I will conclude by promising that the movie continues on a path showcasing magnificent landmarks which also includes a ride into the ancient beauty of the Marin Redwoods, where history and lore reveal very little but introduce romance - albeit, laced with the milieu of delusion and artifice. By the end of the movie, you will love not only Hitchcock, Stewart and Novak, but also San Francisco.


Source
The Brocklebank apartment building in Nob Hill, today.
The Brocklebank apartment building in Nob Hill, today.

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Comments 25 comments

drbj profile image

drbj 6 years ago from south Florida

This movie and "Rear Window" were two of Hitchcock's best. Thanks for the dramatic review and for not revealing more of the plot.


tracykarl99 profile image

tracykarl99 6 years ago from San Francisco Author

Thank you, drbj. Glad you enjoyed this. "Rear Window" is one of my favorites too - I love Grace Kelly! And I agree; it would be cruel to reveal any more of "Vertigo's" plot. Thanks for stopping by ~


FCEtier profile image

FCEtier 6 years ago from Cold Mountain

I'll have to watch it again and watch for the architecture this time! Thanks for an interesting and thought provoking article.

FCEtier

P.S. I "dugg" it and re-tweeted, too.


tracykarl99 profile image

tracykarl99 6 years ago from San Francisco Author

Thank you for the compliment! I'm glad if I helped to inspire any new thoughts about the film. It can be watched again, for sure!

Re-tweeting is cool! I think I might be missing something there.


James A Watkins profile image

James A Watkins 6 years ago from Chicago

You certainly are a film expert. I am amazed at the depth of your perceptions. Thank you for opening my eyes to all of these nuances in Vertigo. Beautifully done!


tracykarl99 profile image

tracykarl99 6 years ago from San Francisco Author

Thank you so much, James. Yes, Vertigo is one of those films ~ the more I watch it, the wider my eyes open to all of its subtleties. I'm glad you enjoyed the hub. Thanks!


epigramman profile image

epigramman 6 years ago

what a lovely appreciation of this great great Hitchcock film ..... I would imagine the man himself - if he were still alive - could stop by here at this landmark hub that he might overlook Tippi Hedren, Kim Novack or Vera Miles and cast you in his next film!


epigramman profile image

epigramman 6 years ago

...oh yeah ... and Grace Kelly and Janet Leigh too!


tracykarl99 profile image

tracykarl99 6 years ago from San Francisco Author

Oh sure! Except that I'm not a blond ~ have you ever noticed that Hitchcock always chose blonds for his leading ladies? - (scratch that - a redhead for The Trouble With Harry) But thank you so much for the compliments!! and for stopping by ~ glad you appreciate the hub.


billyaustindillon profile image

billyaustindillon 6 years ago

A great hub Tracy - I am going to have to watch Vertigo again and look for all the highlights you pointed out. The first time was a long time ago and I remember being scared s$%%7 :)


tracykarl99 profile image

tracykarl99 6 years ago from San Francisco Author

Thanks Billy - You should see it again. It probably will not scare you as much; but, you will notice all of the fantastic details!


epigramman profile image

epigramman 6 years ago

after reading some of your hubs I feel sorry for all of the blondes.....


tracykarl99 profile image

tracykarl99 6 years ago from San Francisco Author

Thank you epigramman. But being a blond probably helps, in some ways. And to answer your serendipitous fan mail, I personally would not rate Psycho Hitchcock's best ~ but I can say that Antionio Carlos Jobim was the greatest Brazilian musician ~ it is so pleasing to have his music today!


Dolores Monet profile image

Dolores Monet 6 years ago from East Coast, United States

Tracy - you make me want to see this wonderful movie again. It has the best possible combination - Alfred Hitchcock and Jimmy Stewart, as well as the beautiful views of San Francisco. Hitchcock made excellent films.


tracykarl99 profile image

tracykarl99 6 years ago from San Francisco Author

I'm glad you enjoyed the hub. They did make a great combination of talents. The beauty of the city helped to make it a stunning film, too! Thanks for stopping by.


eilander1542011 profile image

eilander1542011 6 years ago from Everywhere

Once again, a great review of a great movie in a great city makes me even more excited and less patient to visit San Francisco. I am curious, tracykarl99, as to whether you are an avid Hitchcock fan or San Francisco fan and that is why you review such films. Although I suppose it could certainly be a percentage piece of both as well.


tracykarl99 profile image

tracykarl99 6 years ago from San Francisco Author

eilander, You are correct. It is both. I have always loved San Francisco. My parents and grandparents brought me to the city as a child, and I have been deeply in love with it ever since. As a fanatic of Hitchcock, I recognize the depth of his appreciation for San Francisco: his use of the dizzying hills, the bridge, sweeping fog and blaring fog horns, the blinding sunshine, as well as the city's rather merciless history.

I think that this classic film has been recognized as a brilliant combination: Hitchcock and and San Francisco.


The Jet profile image

The Jet 5 years ago from The Bay

I love this film. From start to kinda end. Why "kinda" end? Well, I thought the nun was somewhat random and stopped the momentum of very excellent build up. That's my two cents.


tracykarl99 profile image

tracykarl99 5 years ago from San Francisco Author

Jet, That's funny - I have always felt the same way about the ending. The nun seems slightly over-done; but then, I like nuns! Thanks for the two cents!!:)


The Jet profile image

The Jet 5 years ago from The Bay

No problemo. Haha. Nuns are cool, but for that moment it does seem over-done. In any case, thank you for the great hub. :)


Cogerson profile image

Cogerson 5 years ago from Virginia

You really know your Hitchcock movies...very impressive....you have produced an article that is interesting and informative. Vertigo is not one of my favorite Hitch movies but I know it is well made....great hub...I enjoyed reading it very much, voted up.


tracykarl99 profile image

tracykarl99 5 years ago from San Francisco Author

Cogerson, I'm glad that you liked my hub even though Vertigo is not one of your favorites. I love San Francisco and Kim Novak and Stewart and of course Hitchcock ~ so, the feel of this movie really dazzles me. Thank you for the generous comments ~ it means a lot, especially from such a Hitchcock aficionado!:)


Steve Lensman profile image

Steve Lensman 5 years ago from London, England

According to the Critics Top 10 on the Sight and Sound Poll, only Citizen Kane beats Vertigo as the greatest film ever made. In my opinion Psycho is Hitchcock's greatest film, though my favourite is North by Northwest. Along with those mentioned I'd add Rear Window, Notorious and Rebecca as the cream of the crop.

https://www.bfi.org.uk/sightandsound/topten/poll/c...


tracykarl99 profile image

tracykarl99 5 years ago from San Francisco Author

Steve, Amazing, I did not know that! The camera work in Vertigo is stunning! And the music contributes so greatly to the grandness of the film. I agree that North by Northwest, Notorious and Rear Window remain 3 of the best. Psycho and Rebecca I can do without - once is enough for me. But lots of people love them!

You are a Hitchcock expert, and I thank you for your insights, generous comments and the link - will look into it! :-)


Vedat 24 months ago

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