On Location: San Francisco's Twisted Romance With Hitchcock's 'Vertigo' As part of our series, "On Location," we look at how Alfred Hitchcock turned a French novel into the signature film of the city by the bay, by matching the twists, turns and steep drops of the film's plot to the topography of the streets and bridges that make up its backdrop.
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San Francisco's Twisted Romance With 'Vertigo'

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San Francisco's Twisted Romance With 'Vertigo'

San Francisco's Twisted Romance With 'Vertigo'

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Say the words San Francisco, and then ask people what movie comes to mind. One likely answer is Alfred Hitchcock's "Vertigo." More than most films, the location of "Vertigo" affects the plot and the characters. So it's a little surprising to realize that this San Francisco story was based on a French novel.

As part of our summer series On Location, NPR's Laura Sydell reports on the way that Alfred Hitchcock transformed that story.

LAURA SYDELL: "Vertigo's" dramatic opening is a nighttime chase scene across the roof tops of San Francisco's Russian Hill neighborhood. As police Detective John "Scotty" Ferguson chases a criminal, the shadow of the city's wide bay looms below. Suddenly, Scotty slips. He catches a roof edge.

(Soundbite of movie, "Vertigo")

Mr. FRED GRAHAM (Actor): (as Policeman on Rooftop) Give me your hand.

SYDELL: His partner comes to help him. The partner slips and falls to his death.

(Soundbite of crashing and a scream)

SYDELL: The experience scars Scotty, played by Jimmy Stewart. After he leaves the hospital, he tells his friend Midge he's quit the police force.

(Soundbite of movie, "Vertigo")

Mr. JIMMY STEWART (Actor): (as John "Scotty" Ferguson) It's because of this fear of heights I have, this acrophobia. I wake up at night seeing that man fall from the roof, and I try to reach out to him, and I just...

Ms. BARBARA BEL GEDDES (Actor): (as Midge Wood) It wasn't your fault.

Mr. STEWART: (as John "Scotty" Ferguson) I know. That's what everybody tells me.

Ms. GEDDES: (as Midge Wood) Johnny, the doctor's explained to you...

Mr. STEWART: (as John "Scotty" Ferguson) I know. I know. I have acrophobia, which gives me vertigo, and I get dizzy.

SYDELL: Of course, San Francisco, with its steep hills, may be the worst place to live for anyone with a fear of heights. As if to drive home just how unstable Scotty's world is, Hitchcock locates his home right at the bottom of a hill on Lombard Street, with a daunting incline.

Mr. MIGUEL PENDAS (Creative Director, San Francisco Film Society): There are places in San Francisco where you can't - it's hard to just stand up. And then this is one of them, as you can tell right now.

SYDELL: This is Miguel Pendas, the creative director of the San Francisco Film Society. We're standing in front of the apartment Hitchcock used for Scotty's home.

Mr. PENDAS: "Vertigo" is the ultimate San Francisco movie, because the city really has to do with the story.

SYDELL: Scotty takes a job as a private detective after he leaves the police force. An old college chum, Gavin, asks Scotty to follow his wife. Madeline, played by Kim Novak, lives in one of the city's toniest and highest neighborhoods. Pendas takes me to Nob Hill.

Mr. PENDAS: Where we're standing right now, you can't see the street, it's so steep how it goes down.

SYDELL: Pendas says there's a reason Hitchcock put Madeline on the top of the hill and Scotty is near the bottom.

Mr. PENDAS: 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.

SYDELL: 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.

(Soundbite of ocean waves)

SYDELL: There's a haunting scene, where Scotty follows Madeline to Fort Point, at the foot of the Golden Gate Bridge. It's an uncharacteristic view of one of San Francisco's most famous landmarks. We see the bright orange bridge from below.

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

SYDELL: Scotty watches in the shadows as Madeline, possibly possessed by Carlota Valdes, tosses flower petals one by one into the bay. Suddenly, she jumps, and he's forced to reveal himself to save her.

(Soundbite of music)

SYDELL: The picture of Jimmy Stewart carrying a wet Kim Novak in his arms was used as a promotion for the film.

Fort Point is one of the most popular spots in the city to go for a walk. As Pendas and I stand there, Greg Marutani spontaneously jumps into the conversation.

Mr. GREG MARUTANI: They filmed it over here - I mean, there's no steps. But if you watch the film, he's picking her up out of the water from the bridge. It's the opening shot.

SYDELL: Yet, this most quintessential of San Francisco films, the one most people think of when they think of the city, was actually inspired by a French novel set in Paris and Marseilles.

Fear of heights doesn't play much of a role. But Dan Aulier, author of "Vertigo: The Making of a Hitchcock Classic," says Alfred Hitchcock wanted to set the film in San Francisco.

Mr. DAN AULIER (Author): And that's what the story then becomes shaped by. If you're 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 his problem?

SYDELL: Hitchcock tried two different scriptwriters before he settled on Sam Taylor, a San Francisco native.

Mr. AULIER: He just gave Sam Taylor the story and said: Make it so. 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.

SYDELL: 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 says Scotty's Vertigo is brought on by more than heights.

Mr. DOUG CUNNINGHAM (Author): 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.

SYDELL: Cunningham says 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. Their history seems to rise up and tug at the characters in the present.

Mission Dolores is the place in the film where the fictional Carlotta Valdes is buried. When Mike Keenlysyde was planning a visit from Vancouver, he wanted to make sure he stopped here. Keenlysyde says Vertigo made San Francisco more than just beautiful.

Mr. MIKE KEENLYSYDE: 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.

SYDELL: Doug Cunningham, editor of the upcoming anthology, "The San Francisco of Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo," agrees.

Mr. CUNNINGHAM: 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. You know, they really helped to inform the way that we understand San Francisco and the way that we think about San Francisco.

SYDELL: Cunningham says we have trails acknowledging significant places in Massachusetts connected to "Moby Dick" and the writings of Thoreau. Why not give that kind of nod to one of our greatest movies?

Laura Sydell, NPR news, San Francisco.

INSKEEP: And you can see that image of Jimmy Stewart and Kim Novak in the shadow of the Golden Gate Bridge. There's a clip from "Vertigo" at npr.org.

It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

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