Before What’s Up Doc? toured the loony, looping streets of San Francisco; before The Player reveled in Hollywood sleaze and Who Framed Roger Rabbit? Hollywood glam; before cars zipped across the Palm Springs desert in It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World , before The Social Network celebrated the excesses of Silicon Valley; before Clueless exceeded our credit limit in Beverly Hills, there was Vertigo, Alfred Hitchcock’s dizzying tribute to deception, obsession, and fear, set against the backdrop of California’s landscape and architecture.
James Stewart plays Scottie, a detective who retires due to an accident related to his acrophobia. An old buddy persuades him to take one last case, following his wife, the mysterious Madeleine, played by Kim Novak.
But another star threatens to steal the show—1950s San Francisco and its environs. There’s the opening icon of Kim Novak’s pupil turned to a swirling staircase of dizzying movement, a nod to the film’s suspenseful scene at Mission San Juan Bautista (no spoilers here!), but also reminiscent of the sign for the Hungry i, a stylish joint in the North Beach Italian neighborhood where beatniks bongoed, poets slammed, folk rockers harmonized, and audiences snapped their approval.
If you go to the notorious Spanish mission, situated 90 miles south of San Francisco, you will not find the labyrinthine stairs and bell tower that reinforced Scottie’s deep fears in the film. Hitchcock had his crew build scale models, paint backdrops, and employ camera tricks at Paramount Studios to emulate the feeling of height. Hitchcock explained that he conveyed Scottie’s dizziness by “dollying in and zooming out.”
“She even walked a different way. Got into her car and drove off to Golden Gate Park. Five miles. Sat by the lake, staring across the water at the pillars that stand on the far shore.”—Gavin, Scottie’s last client in Vertigo
If you were a dazed, perhaps crazed enchantress seeking a place to wander aimlessly, you could do worse than the 1,017-acre Golden Gate Park and its natural wonders and museums. There is Lloyd Lake and the aforementioned Portals of the Past, one of the few architectural features to survive the 1906 earthquake and fire that flattened the toney Nob Hill neighborhood. Moved to the park, the portico symbolizes San Franciscans’ perseverance through tragedy and optimism about the future. Urban legend has it that luminous ghosts hover over the water and flit through the portico.
It’s another green space, Lincoln Park, situated north by northwest in the city that serves as the site of another key film scene. Madeleine, seemingly in a trance, enters the neoclassical museum amid white pillars, the Palace of the Legion of Honor, to be spellbound by a portrait of Carlotta Valdes. While this painting was only a prop, the museum holds work by renowned artists such as Monet, Rembrandt, El Greco, Rodin, Degas, Picasso, and contemporary underground cartoonist Robert Crumb.
Not far from here you’ll find the Golden Gate Bridge and, beneath its southern anchorage, Fort Point. This site served as a location for the film’s original trailer, in which Madeleine plunges into the bay. Film lore has it that Hitchcock subjected Novak to at least a couple dozen takes to capture the scene, making her submerge herself in the bracing water each time.
From here, it’s a short trip or an Olympian’s swim to Alcatraz Island. At 1.5 miles offshore, “The Rock” has served as a lighthouse station, military base, political protest site for American Indians, federal prison, and, now, a stop for tourists who take a hybrid propulsion ferry from Pier 33. After touring the jail, getting closed into “the hole,” and hearing tales of daring and death-defying jailbreaks, head back to Fisherman’s Wharf for a classic seafood and sourdough bread lunch at Scoma’s Restaurant.
From the vantage point of Alcatraz Island, you get a panoramic view of Golden Gate Bridge, unless fog obscures its brilliant towers. To delve deeper into the wonders of this bridge, cross it, either by car, on foot, or by bicycle. You’re en route to Muir Woods National Monument, home to California’s native giants, the old growth coast Redwood trees referenced in Vertigo. For the actual location shots, Hitchcock went south, to sunnier climes. It was at Big Basin Redwoods State Park in Santa Cruz County that he filmed his gripping forest scene.
During an interview, Kim Novak described the impact of this setting. “When I read that part of the Hitchcock script where Madeleine and Scottie are among the redwoods, she touches the tree rings and says, ‘Here I was born and here I died. It was only a moment. You took no notice,’ I got goose-bumps...when you touch these trees, you have such a sense of the passage of time, of history.” Over 80 miles of trails traverse the Big Basin’s old-growth forest, offering close encounters with waterfalls, marshes, nature preserves, creeks, shoreline, and tide pools.
The forest and nearby Pacific Ocean stir up the passion between Scottie and Madeleine, and the two embrace and kiss as waves crash over the rocky shore. The tree standing nearby them was a prop, but the beach location was pure California, filmed at 17-Mile Drive, a scenic route extending from Pacific Grove to Pebble Beach. Highlights along the drive include the magnificent Lone Cypress, picnic-worthy Spanish Bay, the rocky outcroppings of Point Joe, and Fanshell Overlook, a white sand beach that, every spring, shelters harbor seals bearing their young.
“It's a brassiere...It's brand new. Revolutionary up-lift: No shoulder straps, no back straps, but it does everything a brassiere should do. Works on the principle of the cantilevered bridge…An aircraft engineer down the peninsula designed it.”—Midge, Scottie’s ex- fiancée and gal pal in Vertigo
Housing everyone from aircraft engineers to software engineers, the peninsula to which Midge refers is Silicon Valley, a hub of technological innovation. The region’s corporate walk of fame includes the headquarters for Apple, eBay, Cisco Systems, Google, Intel, Oracle, Yahoo!, Atari, Facebook, Sony, and YouTube, among many others. Get a glimpse of techies-to-be at downtown San Jose’s Tech Museum of Innovation. If you have ever wanted to get up close and personal with a Jenga tower or a Connect Four disc, enter one of the oversized board games for a surreal experience.
Silicon Valley offers more than a place for geeks to get a job. Gardens and arboreta abound, including Stanford University’s Arizona Cactus Garden and the Arboretum, San Jose’s Chinese Cultural Garden, San Jose’s Japanese Friendship Garden (with three ponds stocked with koi from Okayama), and Saratoga’s 137-acre Villa Montalvo Arboretum, which adjoins the Montalvo Art Center.
It’s a mere five-hour drive to Los Angeles, nothing for Californians who boast some of the highest commute times in the nation. Hitchcock used Paramount Studios to create scenes for Vertigo, including interior shots of Scottie’s apartment, Gavin’s office, and a bar where Scottie and Gavin meet. A studio soundstage held the shipyard entrance in which Hitchcock made his cameo appearance 11 minutes into the film. He carries a mysterious black case which some speculate held a musical instrument and others say contained a foghorn, a nod to San Francisco’s misty climate.
Trying to hit every hotspot in L.A. could make anyone psycho, so choose a theme. For a peek inside the industry for which the city is famous, visit Hollywood. Here you’ll find the Walk of Fame, a series of 2,300 stars embedded in the sidewalk, each bearing a celebrity’s name. Other top spots include the red pagoda and ornate interior of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, an evening concert at the Hollywood Bowl, four floors of movie memorabilia at the Hollywood History Museum, and a guided tour of the Kodak Theatre, site of the Academy Awards ceremony.
Downtown Los Angeles offers the Mexican historic, cultural, and shopping attractions of Olvera Street, as well as Chinatown, Little Tokyo, the Frank Gehry-designed Walt Disney Concert Hall, the contemporary art twins of MOCA Grand Avenue and Geffen Contemporary at MOCA (connected via shuttle), California Science Center, and LA Fashion District.
Designer boutiques and malls are main attractions in Beverly Hills, but squeeze in some history and culture at the Getty Center Museum, LACMA, La Brea Tar Pits, and the museums at UCLA.
And anyone could feel the sparks of possessive, obsessive love touring California’s buzzing, bongoing, and beautiful cities, enough to call them home or a home away from home.
-By Serena Makofsky
© 8-22-2011 Copy Right Protected, All Rights Reserved
GLBT History Museum: 4127 18th St., San Francisco, CA 94114: Wed-Sat 11-7: Sun 12-5