Haunted by “Vertigo”

Hecksher Gallery, Legion of Honor, 2010 photo by Drew Bourn

In Alfred Hitchcock’s 1958 San Francisco noir thriller, Vertigo, retired police detective Scottie Ferguson (Jimmy Stewart) investigates Madeleine Elster (Kim Novak) – a woman with a mysterious connection to San Francisco’s past. A twist of the plot results in Scottie himself becoming obsessed with the past, and the story moves forward by exploring the risks involved in investigating  – and re-creating – history.

During the course of Scottie’s investigations, he trails Madeleine to locations around the city, including the Mission Dolores cemetery, the George and Marie Hecksher Gallery in the Palace of the Legion of Honor, and the Henry J. Fortmann Mansion that used to stand on the northwest corner of Eddy and Gough Streets. By following Madeleine, Alfred Hitchcock and his Director of Photography, Robert Burks, were able to include a considerable number of on-location shoots. That was still somewhat novel for the Hollywood studios; shooting almost entirely on set had been the norm for 1940s San Francisco film noir such as John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon.

According to Ruthe Stein’s August 29, 2010 article for The San Francisco Chronicle, actress Kim Novak  appears to be as haunted by the past as the character she played in Vertigo. Novak retired from the film industry in the 1960s, and now lives in Oregon. Yet Stein reports that Novak has returned to San Francisco for decades, assuming a disguise to visit the places that her character Madeleine visited in Vertigo.  Furthermore, Stein quotes Novak as saying that she notices others making similar visits, observing that “they do little things that Madeleine does, like they are reliving the scenes.”

I regularly visit and take pictures of locations that had been shot for Vertigo. I’m not surprised by Novak’s claim that others visit these locations, as well. Some, such as Hank Donat, CitySleuth of ReelSF, and the web team at Worldwide Guide to Movie Locations, have posted their photographs on their websites. Perhaps among the most ambitious of those visiting and photographing sites from Vertigo have been Jeff Kraft and Aaron Leventhal, who have featured their work in their 2002 publication, Footsteps in the Fog: Alfred Hitchock’s San Francisco. The website of their publisher, Santa Monica Press, includes some images and content from their work.

One recent example of Vertigo’s continued reach into the present came when the Lembi Group hired Los Angeles-based Thomas Schoos Design, Inc. to renovate 940 Sutter Street (which appeared as the Empire Hotel in Vertigo), re-opening the property in 2009 as the Hotel Vertigo. The new hotel even featured suites named The Gavin, The Scottie, The Carlotta, The Midge and The Madeleine, after characters in the film. As Sarah Duxbury reported in a May 21, 2010 article in The San Francisco Business Times, however, the Hotel Vertigo has since been foreclosed, and was purchased in an auction by the Centerline Capital Group.

The Hotel Vertigo may become a part of San Francisco’s past. Even if that were to happen, however, it may live on as one of many sites to which Vertigo enthusiasts return again and again – including, perhaps, an incognito Kim Novak.

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