A setting as good-looking as San Francisco has understandably starred in its fair share of movies. But film aficionados agree there’s one true classic: Vertigo, Alfred Hitchcock’s 1958 tour de force.
The story follows John ‘Scottie’ Ferguson (James Stewart), a retired detective with a fear of heights, as he carries out a strange assignment to spy on a friend’s wife, Madeline (Kim Novak), who it is feared may be possessed. Scottie quickly becomes obsessed with her, and as the twisty-turny tale unfolds, San Francisco landmarks play integral parts in the plot.
Though filming wrapped 60 years ago, you can still revisit several key scenes from the movie – and pick up some titbits about the city along the way.
1. Nob Hill
Vertigo’s dramatic opening shows a police chase over Nob Hill rooftops. The swanky neighbourhood features heavily in the rest of the film, too, as it’s where Madeline lives. Nob Hill was where California’s 19th century railroad barons built their extravagant mansions; today, several posh hotels such as Stanford Court still bear their names. California Street, where you’ll find the grand gothic Grace Cathedral, is captured in a number of Vertigo shots. It’s a groovy institution, with rotating art installations, yoga sessions and some rather secular stained glass windows (spot Einstein on the right as you walk in).
2. Legion of Honor
One of Vertigo’s most beautiful frames occurs as Scottie pulls up outside the Legion of Honor – a glorious French neoclassical palace gifted to San Francisco by wealthy socialite Alma Spreckels in 1924. It’s here that Scottie watches Madeline become entranced by a mysterious painting. Today, the museum shows off Medieval and Renaissance art.
3. Mission Dolores
The oldest building in San Francisco, this small, whitewashed adobe mission marks the ‘founding’ of the city by Spanish missionaries – although it was Native Americans who were tasked with constructing it. Completed in the late 1700s, it has stood the test of time, surviving both the great 1906 earthquake and the Bay Bridge-collapsing tremors of 1989. Bright painted wooden rafters are true to the vegetable-dyed, native designs of the time. In Vertigo, we see Scottie walk under these rafters and out into the cemetery, where he observes Madeline visiting a gravestone.
4. Fort Point
Fort Point, directly under the Golden Gate Bridge, is the site of Vertigo’s most iconic moment, when Madeline leaps into the freezing bay. The coastal defence dates back to 1853, and protected the Golden Gate Strait until the end of the Second World War. Inside are exhibitions about the history of the fort and the bridge. But the real treat is the view, which can also be enjoyed from the pier outside Warming Hut cafe, a kilometre before the fort.
5. Palace of Fine Arts
Scottie’s a bit of a creepy hero: he spends the first half of Vertigo stalking Madeline, and the second dating Judy because she looks like Madeline (both played by Kim Novak). On an early outing, Scottie and Judy stroll by the Palace of Fine Arts. The domed building might look more at home in Rome, but it’s a genuine city landmark built for the 1915 World’s Fair, which was meant to put the city back in business after the devastating earthquake a decade before. Today, it’s the only remaining vestige of the fair – but it isn’t the one you see in the film. The deteriorating site was demolished in 1964, and a sturdier version was built from a cast of the original. It looks the same, anyway: recalling a majestic Roman ruin, with a strip of serene parkland curving around a lagoon.