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Vertigo - A San Francisco Film

Updated on December 3, 2012
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dimly, casting enough light to illuminate the Ferry Building as well as other Embarcadero structures which have now been replaced by the sky-scraping monuments of the Financial District .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.

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

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