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Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Vertigo in San Francisco

Tonight on tv I watched the Hitchcock movie Vertigo.

I especially like this one because it takes place in San Francisco and it's interesting to see how it looked back in the day. The basic storyline of the movie is thus ... Jimmy Stewart plays a former San Francisco police inspector (John "Scottie" Ferguson) who leaves the force after another officer dies trying to save him from falling during a rooftop chase of a suspect. He becomes a PI and an old college acquaintance asks him to follow his wife Madeleine (Kim Novak) who seems to be possessed and suicidal. Needless to say, he falls in love with her, and when she finally climbs the endless stairs of the bell tower of Mission San Juan Bautista, and his vertigo keeps him from catching up with her in time to stop her from casting herself off, he's devastated to the point of having to be committed.

He's just starting to get back on his feet when he comes across a woman who looks incredibly like his dead love. He gets to know her, gets her to fall for him, then gets her to change until she exactly resembles the woman he lost. There's a scene in the movie that always moves me - it's when he sees her for the first time after she's bee remade in his desired image - the camera pans around and around them as he hugs and kisses not her, but the person he really loves ... it's both powerful and heartbreaking. Here is how Roger Ebert describes that moment in his review of the movie ...

As Scottie embraces "Madeleine" even the background changes to reflect his subjective memories instead of the real room he's in. Bernard Herrmann's score creates a haunting, unsettled yearning. And the camera circles them hopelessly, like the pinwheel images in Scottie's nightmares, until the shot is about the dizzying futility of our human desires, the impossibility of forcing life to make us happy ...

There's much more to the story, but I don't want to spoil the surprise. For those interested in San Francisco, there's a website that has photos of the spots shown in the movie as they were then and as they are now. And here below is just the beginning of info from Wikipedia on the San Francisco locations shot for the film .....

* The Mission San Juan Bautista. The Mission San Juan Bautista, where Madeleine falls from the tower, is a real place, but the tower had to be matted in with a painting using studio effects; Hitchcock had first visited the mission before the tower was torn down due to dry rot, and was reportedly displeased to find it missing when he returned to film his scenes. The original tower was much smaller and less dramatic than the film's version.

* At Mission Dolores, for many years tourists could see the actual Carlotta Valdes headstone featured in the film (created by the props department). Eventually, the headstone was removed as the mission considered it disrespectful to the dead to house a tourist attraction grave for a fictional person .....


Blogger Paul said...

Hadn't thought of that aspect of movies before - some of them end up being a kind of visual documentary of their location at a certain time.

Btw, you mentioned Deists - I always forget about them. Without ever having read more than, I don't know, a couple paragraphs, I have the same impression you do on that one - of a coldly impersonal God.

I wonder if Deists are still around. I somehow associate them with maybe Isaac Newton's time and the discovery of laws of physics. The idea I guess was of a sort of architect-God who set up the building, so to speak, then left the premises?

I may have a lot of this wrong, but if that's the idea, that also strikes me as an unsatisfactory - I mean, why would such a God be called God instead of just, say, The First Law of Laws?

5:55 AM  
Blogger cowboyangel said...

Crystal, Great film. And I love all the location information - thanks!

The Classic Film Board on IMDB has a Top 200 Greatest Films list that people vote on every month. Vertigo is currently #2 behind Citizen Kane! Personally, I think that's too high, but it shows you how highly regarded the movie still is.

I still prefer North by Northwest, but Vertigo's a close second.

6:36 AM  
Blogger cowboyangel said...


My apologies - I couldn't get the Blackfriars article scanned before I left on my trip to Texas. Just got back yesterday. I'll try again this week.

6:37 AM  
Blogger crystal said...


Yes, I think that's a good definition of a Deist. There are still some around but it hails back to the time of the Enlightenment, I think. Maybe the difference between being a Diest and a person who believes in a First Law of Laws is that Deists did, I think, see God as a Person, just a sort of "detched" one :-)

10:23 AM  
Blogger crystal said...


You were on vacation? I was thinking you were dead, but vacationing is a better alternative :-)

No hurry with the article - it's very nice of you to look it up for me. I'm curious to see if James Alison liked liberation theology and Boff ... he used to live in Brazil and met him (did I already mention this?)

10:27 AM  
Blogger Cura Animarum said...

Loved Vertigo and most all of Hitchcock's others, esp those with Jimmy Stewart.

I had a great "God and Humanity on Film" class at Newman my last year. Every time I read one of your reviews I think how much you would have loved that class. Seeking Revelation from both a divine and an anthropological perspective within popular film. It was a blast. We looked at Psycho, Jesus of Montreal, Babette's Feast, Fight Club...hmm there were a couple more I'd have to check my notes on but it was a really great class.

4:58 PM  
Blogger crystal said...

Hi Cura,

that class does sound like it would be fun. There's a retreat I've read about that's kind of like that - Finding God in the Dark - it's about movies and the Spiritual Exercises.

12:00 AM  
Blogger Jeff said...

Vertigo is one of my favorite films. Really sensually charged. I wonder if San Francisco was as tidy a town back then as Hitchcock makes it look in the film. The use of the missions was really cool.

Both manifestations of Kim Novak in that film were... muy caliente!

1:48 PM  
Blogger crystal said...

Muy caliente! :-) I wish I could say the same of Jimmy Stewart but he reminds me of my grandfather.

Have you seen the movie Bell, Book and Candle - it also stars Kim and Jimmy.

I think San Francisco looks good in most of the parts that they showed. I don't think the more dismal parts, like the Tenderloin, were shown.

2:43 PM  
Blogger Jeff said...

I wish I could say the same of Jimmy Stewart

Hmm. Yeah, I guess. He was no Carey Grant, was he?

I hadn't heard of that other movie. Thanks for letting me know about it. :-)

4:08 PM  

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