Falling into ‘Vertigo’ (again)

Rob Nelson, right, went on the San Francisco Film Society's " 'Vertigo' Tour" — a vertiginous trip by van to see where Hitch held his camera.
Rob Nelson, right, went on the San Francisco Film Society’s ” ‘Vertigo’ Tour” — a vertiginous trip by van to see where Hitch held his camera.

In case you live on Mars and haven’t seen the greatest movie ever made by Alfred Hitchcock (i.e., the greatest movie ever made in Hollywood): “Vertigo” (screening Monday night at the Riverview Theater, 7:30 p.m.) is about a San Francisco detective (James Stewart) with a fear of heights who falls in love with Madeleine, the (apparently) haunted woman he’d been hired by her husband to follow. She falls to her death (apparently); he falls into catatonia (definitely), then tries (pathetically) to remake Judy, a department store clerk, in the precise image of the deceased.

But that’s just the story of the film. Because as anyone who has seen the movie knows, “Vertigo” is really about the desperate human tendency to replace what’s lost: love, certainly, but also any desired experience  — which is where Hitch’s film has always been its own metaphor. Movies, as we know, aren’t real: They tease us with the promise of real life, but, being two-dimensional (or most of them, anyway), they can’t fully deliver. So “Vertigo” is a kind of consummate illusion — tantalizing for being so often out of reach (DVDs don’t match the reel deal), fulfilling only for bringing us as close as possible to Hitchcock’s head and heart in Frisco circa ’58.

Or is it possible to get even closer? As if chasing a ghost, I went last week on the San Francisco Film Society’s ” ‘Vertigo’ Tour,” whose voluminously knowledgeable guide, Miguel Pendas, leads participants on a vertiginous trip by van to see where Hitch held his camera. That some of these spots are, as Pendas says, “ghost locations” — places that no longer look the same as they did in ’58 — only deepens the mood of ineffable longing. Judy will never be Madeleine, Stewart’s detective Scottie will never be cured, “Vertigo” will never be real, your DVD of “Vertigo” will never be “Vertigo,” and the McKittrick Hotel, where Madeleine goes to mourn the late Carlotta Valdes, is now, as Pendas revealed, merely the corner of Gough and Eddy. They paved paradise and put up, of all things, a basketball court (or so it appeared from the window of the van).

Empire Hotel is now the Hotel Vertigo
This, dear reader, you can see for yourself, if the spirit of Madeleine moves you. You can also visit the former Empire Hotel — newly renamed the Hotel Vertigo — and even stay in “Judy’s room,” where, bathed in green neon, Scottie’s imitation of Madeleine momentarily becomes real, if only in his mind. Among Pendas’ countless bits of trivia — issued while the “Vertigo” soundtrack swirls out of the tour van’s stereo, of course — is the revelation that Hitch initially believed Kim Novak to be “too obvious” for the part of Madeleine/Judy. Apparently the director had found Novak to be an unsuitable replacement for his own lost ideal of femininity, Grace Kelly, who chose the Prince of Monaco over the Master of Suspense. (Ever shrewd with money, Hitch was finally moved to cast Novak upon reckoning that she was, indeed, the biggest box-office drawing actress in Hollywood.)

Like poor Scottie, Hitchcock was sentimental, sometimes to a fault — or at least at a cost. Loving San Francisco, not least the restaurant on Montgomery Street then called Ernie’s (now it’s, um, Carrots), the director not only shot “Vertigo” on location in the Bay Area, but had his production designers down in Hollywood re-create exactly the plush interior of Ernie’s and other spots for the requisite studio work. Once again: If you can’t have the real thing, get the most convincing imitation you can find. According to Pendas (who says he draws partly from Dan Auiler’s “Vertigo” book for his tidbits), Hitch adhered to this lesson with regard to remade interiors in all but one case: Madeleine’s favorite flower shop (now another “ghost location”), which he lit and filmed entirely in San Francisco. Why forgo the favorably controlled conditions of Hollywood studio work by shooting in the real flower shop? Simple: Hitch liked the tiles.

Legend has it that the director was also fond — to the point of being jealous — of French filmmaker Henri-Georges Clouzot’s thriller “Diabolique” (1955), even nudging the pulp fiction authors of its source to write another book just for Hitch, which, as “D’entre les Morts,” they did. (If you can’t have the real thing …)

No bell tower to visit …
Regarding another act of directorial substitution: Pendas explained that in addition to stopping at the fateful Fort Point (where Novak’s stunt double jumped into the bay), we on the tour would surely have visited the bell tower from which two “Vertigo” women fall — except that Hitchcock, wanting something more heightened than reality, had it painted for the screen.

We did see, at the corner of Sacramento and Mason, the mansion where Madeleine and her shipbuilding husband Gavin live (it looks much the same now as it does in the film); the cemetery garden at the ancient Mission Dolores, where the fictional Carlotta Valdes was buried (her fake gravestone has since disappeared!); Scottie’s apartment at Lombard and Jones (where I made like Hitch for a quickie cameo); and, on Mason Street, the former Stage Door theater (now a club called Ruby Skye), site of the world premiere of “Vertigo” in May, 1958. (Reel geeks will be amazed to know that, as far as Pendas can tell, this very first screening of the film was not in VistaVision!)

The 35mm print of “Vertigo” being screened at the Riverview will most likely derive from the film’s 1996 restoration — a work of Scottie-style scrupulousness that nevertheless remains controversial for minor additions such as rerecorded sound effects. (PDF) (Those gunshots in the first scene never sounded better, alas.) Venturing an educated guess, I’d suppose the Riverview print will be somewhat imperfect — and therefore perfect, if you get my drift. “Vertigo,” after all, isn’t about love and fulfillment. It’s about desire and loss.

“Vertigo,” 7:30 p.m. Monday, May 18. Riverview Theater, 3800 42nd Ave. S., Minneapolis. Tickets $8. Info line: 612-729-7369.

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Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Mordecai Specktor on 05/15/2009 - 12:57 pm.

    On a tangent, in “The Birds,” Hitch also has a cameo, as he walks two large shaggy dogs near a pet shop in San Francisco’s Union Square. Two years ago, visiting a friend in Sonoma County, we drove along the coast and stopped in Bodega, at the schoolhouse that was used as a location for a frightening scene in “The Birds.”

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