Alfred Hitchcock – or “Hitch,” as his friends called him – had a thing for San Francisco.
During the latter half of his life, Hitch and his wife Alma owned a sprawling estate on the peninsula and traveled the area often to scout locations for his iconic thrillers. Hitch made Shadow of a Doubt in Santa Rosa, The Birds in Bodega Bay, and Rebecca at Point Lobos. He also found ways to work pieces of San Francisco into many of his later films; the front door to the Bates Mansion is a replica of the door to a mansion in Pacific Heights, for instance, and part of his last film, Family Plot, was shot in and around Grace Cathedral.
But of all of Hitch’s films , Vertigo is his real ode to the city. Watching the film is like taking a meandering tour of the city with a veteran San Franciscan. So it’s not entirely surprising that you can hire a guide to show you the exact places that appear in the film.
Jesse Warr of A Friend in Town offers a half-day “Vertigo” Tour that he plans on request (he’ll throw in a trip to San Juan Bautista, where the film’s climax takes place, if his clients want to spend the whole day). It’s a very specialized tour offered every month or so, and his main clientele are film buffs, scholars, and Hitchcock fans – mostly from out of town.
When I asked Jesse about the tour, he encouraged me to try it on my own – something he estimates around 10,000 people do every year. I decided to bring my friend Elena, a bonafide Hitchcock fan, along for the first leg. She was game to join me in retracing the steps of John “Scottie” Ferguson, the retired police officer suffering from a debilitating fear of heights. In fact, she had already done the tour one time herself.
You can get to Fort Point if you walk out along the Crissy Field boardwalk, pass the loons, joggers, labradoodles, and warming hut, and continue on to the base of the bridge. But this route is not recommended for the “Vertigo” Tour; to get the full effect, you must drive through the winding roads of the Presidio while keeping a regular, less-than-suspicious distance from the car in front of you, much in the way Scottie followed Madeleine when he was hired by her husband.
Just don’t be surprised when the road drops at a sudden angle and the Golden Gate Bridge suddenly looms over you like the backdrop to a movie.
Elena and I parked near the spot where Madeleine – possessed by the spirit of her suicidal great-grandmother – jumped into the Bay. Fifty years later, the view is nearly identical. For the rescue scene, Elena tells me, Hitch had stairs built along the dock to make it easy for Scottie to get into the water without confronting a vertigo-inducing drop-off.
Nearby, a lone surfer rode decent-sized waves, edging right up against an outcropping of rocks and swerving away from the pier just seconds before the waves crashed. We were riveted. And a little afraid for him at first, until the repetition lulled us into a hypnotic state and we got back in the car.
We drove to Scottie’s house at the base of Lombard Street in North Beach, and just like the characters in the film, we had the whole block to ourselves.
Coit Tower cut a sharp profile in the near distance, and as we took in the scenery, Elena pointed out a striking fact. The scenes shot inside Scottie’s apartment (featuring a naked, newly rescued Madeleine, whose water-soaked clothes had been removed off camera), were all framed by a remarkable view of the same glowing tower. But, in real life that would be impossible.
There’s another building in the way, meaning the interior scenes were shot somewhere else.
This is just one of the many examples of how Hitchcock, a master of the cut-and-paste maneuver, chose pieces of the city and reconstructed them as he saw fit. It’s also the kind of thing Vertigo fans geek out on. For a few minutes, I imagined what it would be like to reconstruct my own San Francisco, moving my favorite view to match my favorite building.
Elena also pointed out a security camera placed to record the image of anyone who gets too close to the front door. It’s a telling clue about what it must be like to live in this strange landmark. And, seeing the camera, I thought of the footage of people milling about Lombard Street ogling the simple two-story mid-century building, imagining themselves inside a very different film than the one they’re in.
One of only two graveyards in a town where real estate is much too valuable to waste on the deceased, the Mission Dolores Cemetery has a hushed atmosphere that belies it’s proximity to Mission Street.
I visit the walled-off cemetery on a rare spring day; pink magnolia blossoms fill the air and the iris population has recently exploded.
I pay my five dollars, follow the arrows through the whitewashed corridors, and end up surrounded by San Franciscans who were alive during the Gold Rush.
I’d read that the faux headstone Hitchcock created for Madeleine to stand beside (while Scottie hovered in the shadows) remained in the cemetery until recently because it was such a tourist magnet for the church.
I can still picture it there, aging among the real stones like ceiling beams in the Hearst Castle, a few of which were transplanted from a European relic, while the rest simply looked like they were. When I ask the gift shop attendant about the headstone, she says she’s never heard of it and goes back to rearranging a row of bedazzled Virgin Marys.
Seeing the city through the lens of a movie shot in 1957 is a little like laying two strips of film side by side. You can’t help but note changes in the city, corner by corner. Most of the beautiful old signs are gone and many buildings have been torn down and replaced. At the same time, the similarities between Hitch’s San Francisco and mine are striking. His favorite restaurant (Jeanty at Jack’s) may have closed its doors last year, but there’s a lot that hasn’t changed.
Nob Hill, especially, seems frozen in time. I realized this after a visit to the Brocklebank Apartments (the building Madeleine lived in and Scottie lingered in front of) at the hilly corner of Mason and Sacramento. After snooping around in the remodeled lobby, I decided to wrap up my Hitchcock tour with a trip to the Top of the Mark, right across the hill.
Nineteen stories up, the Top of the Mark was a favorite of Hitchcock’s. He didn’t film any of the scenes in Vertigo there, but he did refer to the bar in the film. Early on, when Scottie has been diagnosed with vertigo, he explains it to a friend: “I can’t go to the Top of the Mark anymore, but there are plenty of other bars in the city.” At first you almost believe he doesn’t mind, but there’s a subtle longing in Jimmy Stewart’s tone that hints at Hitchcock’s own fondness for the place.
Even today, with its old-fashioned carpeting, touristy crowd, and dress code (men are asked to wear a sports coat and women are reported to be treated the best if they wear dresses), the place is worth a visit. If you can get your bearing long enough to take in the whole, dizzying 360-degree view, I’m guessing old Hitch would be proud.
To see San Francisco through Hitchcock’s eyes, visit the spots that appear in Vertigo within a few days of seeing the film. If you want an expert’s take, contact Jesse at A Friend in Town
Just don’t tell him you think Judy was in on Madeleine’s murder; he is darn sure she’s innocent. If you make the trek up to the Top of the Mark, be sure to carry your dress-up shoes in a bag and change in the elevator.
They won’t approve if you show up in sneakers, and Nob Hill is far from heel-friendly.