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San Francisco's Twisted Romance With 'Vertigo'

If you ask people who know the city what movie comes to mind when they think of San Francisco, the most likely answer is Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo. More than almost any other movie, the plot of the 1958 film is woven into its location.

But it didn't begin that way. So as part of our series "On Location," which looks at movies in which place plays a crucial role, we decide to examine how Hitchcock took a story from a French novel and turned it into the quintessential San Francisco movie.

The city asserts its presence from the first frames that follow the Vertigo's opening credits. As the action begins, police detective John "Scotty" Ferguson and his partner chase a criminal across the roof tops of San Francisco's Russian Hill neighborhood, as the city's wide bay looms below. Scotty slips and is left hanging from a gutter; his partner comes to his aid, but tumbles over the edge and falls to his death.

After the experience, Scotty, played by Jimmy Stewart, quits the police force. As he tells his friend Midge, he's developed a debilitating fear of heights, leaving him dizzy and unable to sleep.

Of course, San Francisco, with its bridges, steep hills and twisting roads, may be the worst place for someone with a bad case of acrophobia. As if to drive home just how unstable Scotty's world is, Hitchcock located his home toward the bottom of a hill on Lombard Street with a daunting incline.

"There are places in San Francisco where ... it's hard to just stand up," says Migueel Pendas, the creative director of the San Francisco Film Society, standing in front of the apartment on Lombard that Hitchcock used as Scotty's home.

"Vertigo is the ultimate San Francisco movie because the city really has to do with the story," Pendas says.

After he leaves the police force, Scotty takes a job as a private detective, and soon, an old college chum, Gavin, asks him to follow his wife Madeline, played by Kim Novak. Gavin and Madeline live in one of the city's toniest, and highest, neighborhoods, Nob Hill.

"Where we're standing right now, you can't see the street, it's so steep how it goes down," Pendas says, standing at the top of a hill in the neighborhood. He says there's a reason Hitchcock put Madeline on top of the hill and Scotty near the bottom: "He's just a retired police detective. She and Gavin are members of the ruling class, the upper classes. So Scotty gets dizzy not just from climbing a tower; he gets dizzy because he's social climbing."

Over time, Scotty learns that Madeline is obsessed, and perhaps possessed, by a figure from San Francisco's history named Carlotta Valdes, a poor woman of mixed race who became the mistress of one of the city's rich men. In a haunting scene, one of the movie's most famous, Scotty follows Madeline as she visits a museum where a portrait of Valdes hangs; it looks strikingly like Madeline. Then he follows her to Fort Point, at the foot of the Golden Gate Bridge. We see the bright orange landmark from an uncharacteristic vantage point: from below.

"It's like this massive looming presence over the two characters that are down here," Pendas says. "You know, I think it suggests the fact that there is some kind of fate looming over both of their lives."

Scotty watches in the shadows as Madeline — perhaps possessed by Carlotta Valdes — tosses flowers one by one into the bay. Suddenly, she throws herself into the water, and Scotty is forced to reveal himself in order to save her. He dives in, fishes her out of the water and climbs a set of stairs, dripping wet. The image of Stewart carrying Novak in his arms beneath the bridge was used as a promotion for the film.

Fort Point also happens to be one of the most popular spots in the city to go for a walk, and as if to prove that it's impossible to think of the movie without thinking of its relationship to the city, Greg Marutani spontaneously jumps into the conversation. "They filmed it right over here," Marutani says. Of course, once Novak and Stewart were in the water, the sequence was filmed in controlled tank. "I mean, there's no steps. But if you watch the film," Marutani says, "he's picking her up out of the water from the bridge."

Fear of heights doesn't play much of a role in the novel D'entre les morts, by the French authors Pierre Boilieau and Thomas Narcejac. But as Dan Aulier, the author of Vertigo, The Making of a Hitchcock Classic tells it, Hitchcock wanted to set the film in San Francisco, and once that decision was made, certain plot elements followed.

"That's what the story then becomes shaped by," Aulier says. "If [I'm] going to make it San Francisco, how can I make it something other than a postcard of the city? How can I make the city part of this problem?"

Hitchcock tried two different screenwriters before he settled on San Francisco native Sam Taylor. "He just gave Sam Taylor the story and said, 'Make it so,'" Aulier says. "And in the process of making it so, Sam Taylor used what he knew from growing up in San Francisco and some of the characters and the elements."

Though Hitchcock saw San Francisco's geography as dizzying, he also saw it as a metaphor for what is at the core of the original novel. Author Doug Cunningham, the editor of The San Francisco of Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo, says Scotty's condition is brought on by more than heights.

"It's also kind of a vertigo of love that really disorients him throughout the course of the film and leads him down a spiral crooked path that perhaps is not one down which he would have ventured before," Cunningham says. In this way, Hitchcock makes San Francisco a charismatic and mysterious character in the film. The city's winding streets and mansions set above the deep blue bay are familiar, but over the course of the film they reveal themselves to be dangerous, and their history seems to rise up and tug at the characters in the present.

It still tugs. On a visit to the cemetery at Mission Dolores, where the fictional Carlotta Valdes was buried in the film, we meet Mike Keenlysyde, on a visit from Vancouver. Keenlysyde, who says he wanted to make sure he stopped here, says Vertigo made San Francisco more than beautiful.

"First of all, the romantic intrigue of Carlotta, the Gold Rush, the sort of legacy of the beautiful, old, stately homes. So it kind of gave the city more of a mystique for me," Keenlysyde says.

Cunningham agrees.

"Certainly, the Golden Gate Bridge stands on its own, but you know, the image of Madeline standing in the shadow of the bridge, these are iconic images as well," he says. "You know, they really helped to inform the way that we think about San Francisco."

Cunningham says we have trails that acknowledge significant places in Massachusetts connected to Moby Dick, or to the writings of Thoreau. So why not give that kind of nod to one of our greatest movies?

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit

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