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Columbia Daily Tribune (20/Nov/2008) - Vertigo 50 years later and what Hitchcock saw

(c) The Columbia Daily Tribune (20/Nov/2008)

Vertigo 50 years later and what Hitchcock saw

SAN FRANCISCO — “OK, so Jimmy Stewart is sitting in his DeSoto right where that white minivan is parked — right there!” said author Aaron Leventhal, as knowledgeable an Alfred Hitchcock fanatic as you are bound to find. “And he’s looking between those two pillars — right over here — at Kim Novak, who’s coming out of her apartment building to get into her green Jaguar and go wandering through the city.”

We’re standing at the corner of Mason and Sacramento streets atop Nob Hill in San Francisco, and we’re about to follow, 50 years later, in the footsteps of Stewart, Novak — and Alfred Hitchcock himself. He filmed “Vertigo,” his 1958 classic, on these very streets, as well as amid the redwoods of Big Basin and at Mission San Juan Bautista, where Novak falls to her death. Twice. Sort of.

“Vertigo” is both murder mystery and love story. It pivots on double identity and mines themes of obsession and guilt, romantic longing and pain, using the writhing, up-and-down San Francisco cityscape as a representation of the story’s dizzying plot twists and emotional states. After half a century, millions revere it and academics study it.

Leventhal and Jeff Kraft wrote “Footsteps in the Fog: Alfred Hitchcock’s San Francisco,” the product of obsessive detective work. It essentially shows the location or inspiration for every shot in the film, which first screened May 9, 1958, at the Stage Door Theater on Mason Street near Union Square.

A door. An alley. A grave marker. All are identified in the book, along with the precise routes Stewart (playing detective John “Scottie” Ferguson) drives as he follows Novak (as Madeleine Elster, a married socialite, deeply troubled; he loves her) and her Jaguar on the first of three drives through the city.

“It’s like Hitchcock’s almost renting you your 15 minutes of fame; you feel almost a part of that film, even though it was made 50 years ago,” Leventhal said.

“OK, so Madeleine’s first drive starts there,” he said, pointing to the castle-like Brocklebank apartments at Mason and Sacramento, once home to newspaper columnist Herb Caen and Mayor Joseph Alioto, not to mention the fictitious Madeleine. Her second drive starts here, too, the one that ends at Fort Point, beneath the Golden Gate Bridge, where she plunges into the bay and is saved by Scottie. And so does her third, the one that ...

You’ll see.

Hitchcock, who spent weekends with his family on a nearby estate for 30 years and who viewed the Bay Area as “a great escape from the film industry in Los Angeles,” Leventhal said, filled “Vertigo” with authentic San Francisco detail. He included Ernie’s Restaurant — long gone, at 847 Montgomery St.; Hitchcock was a regular — and, across the street from the Brocklebank, the Fairmont Hotel, whose “cascading shadows,” Leventhal said, form a backdrop to Scottie’s mid-film madness.

We walked past the Fairmont and down two steep blocks of Mason Street to enter the Argonaut Book Shop, at 786 Sutter St. Based on their study of production notes from the film, Leventhal and Kraft are certain this shop was the inspiration for the Argosy Book Shop in “Vertigo,” where Scottie meets old Pop Leibel, proprietor, California history buff and explainer of Madeleine’s family secrets.

“My dad knew Hitchcock,” explained Argonaut owner Robert Haines Jr., who, like Pop, specializes in rare books on the Gold Rush and old California. He said his father, Robert Haines Sr., who founded the store on Kearny Street, was the director’s model for Pop Leibel.

“There’s a scene where Pop pulls out a Zippo and taps a cigarette — and that’s just what my father did,” he said. “For the last 40 years, I’ve had people coming in here, asking, ‘Is this the shop where Alfred Hitchcock’ did so and so?’ ”

“And it is,” Leventhal said. “Hitchcock once said, ‘This is what a bookshop should look like,’” referring to the original shop on Kearny.


Psycho” (1960): This was my first exposure to Hitchcock, viewed strictly on late-night TV, in the days before home video. I was already hooked on Hitch, thanks to his popular TV thriller anthology, “Alfred Hitchcock Presents,” but this film took my fascination to terrifying new heights. Brilliantly constructed from first frame to last, driven by Bernard Herrmann’s infamous score, it remains one of the best horror films of all time.

The Birds” (1963): The door opened by “Psycho” lead directly to this classic, another staple of mid-’60s late-night creature features. Although its fright factor seems a bit dated — often downright silly — it still boasts some of the director’s most memorable scenes of ominous terror, notably the crows gathering in the schoolyard.

North By Northwest” (1959): Like cinematic comfort food, I have to watch this Hitchcock masterpiece at least once a year. The film showcases the many reasons Cary Grant ranked among the director’s favorite leading men. It’s fast-paced, funny and full of classic Hitchcock moments, topped by another great Herrmann score.

Rear Window” (1954): For reasons far too many to mention, this could be my favorite Hitchcock film. The staging and execution is beyond brilliant, the pairing of James Stewart and Grace Kelly is phenomenal, and the music — an essential aspect to all Hitchcock films — by Franz Waxman sets a perfect mood. For my money, this is the quintessential Hitchcock thriller.

Frenzy” (1972): Hitchcock’s second-to-last outing was his only R-rated film. After a pair of tepid Cold War dramas in the late ’60s, the director returns to form — and his native London — with this bloody tale of serial killings and mistaken identity. Though far from his best effort, the film proved Hitchcock was still a relevant cinematic force.